Young writers are often told that to make the most captivating story they can, they need to make it have high stakes and great conflict. This, however, usually ends up translating into something along the lines of, “The conflict of this story has to have great affect not only on the characters, but the entire world, which makes the weight of the situation weigh heavily on the characters’ shoulders because if they don’t succeed, the world is screwed.”
Those kind of stories are fine, and they can be really good. Several of my favorite stories have those sorts of high stakes. But honestly, anymore I’ve become very disenchanted with conflict that encapsulates the entire story world and I’m finding it much harder to care about it. Anymore I prefer small-scale conflict stories where all of the conflict is much more personal, only affecting the immediate characters. The world will continue to go on around them without a care.
Essentially, this is just another case of “character driven” vs “plot driven” stories, to some extent. I find most stories that have smaller scale conflict that is only directly affecting the characters is ultimately a character driven story, though that should be a given. Whereas the large scale conflict that affects the entire world is ultimately plot-driven, as the plot is all about stopping this huge conflict. And as I have said in the past, I much prefer character-driven stories over plot-driven.
Of course, you can have a very character-driven story with large-scale conflicts, and I’m sure you can also have more plot-driven stories with small-scale conflicts, but in general it seems to fall the other way the majority of the time. I’m not saying that plot-driven stories are bad, or even that large-scale conflicts are bad, just that to me they are usually less engaging than the small-scale conflicts of a character-driven piece.
The thing I don’t like about people essentially saying that your story needs to have as much conflict as possible (thus leading to the large-scale conflicts) is that often younger writers will do literally anything to raise the stakes and just make things worse and worse, until finally they can’t exactly figure out how to resolve all of the conflict and it will usually end up as an unsatisfying ending, sometimes with a deus ex machina. Not only that, but we’re so focused on “what could go wrong next in this world” and we don’t even necessarily get a chance to know the characters or see true reactions or feelings from them. It won’t feel quite as real or relateable.
But if you have a small-scale conflict story that is only directly affecting the characters, we should be getting more a sense of the characters from the start. We’ll generally feel more attached to them, and those sorts of conflicts are often far more relateable than “end of the world” scenarios are. Small-scale conflicts are usually more about internal rather than external, though there is still external to be dealt with. There’s a lot more emotional stakes than physical most of the time. These sorts of stories speak to me more because they all-in-all feel far more real.
Usually I find that the stories I actually like that have large-scale conflict work their way up to it, starting out with a small-scale conflict that seems to be confined just to the characters, so we get to feel for them more, and then slowly it pans out to show that there is more going on than we might have imagined before. It’s a slow buildup, and we still get that emotional connection to the characters, and rather than just trying to pile more and more bad things to happen on top of each other, we get one or two smaller bad things only to later realize there’s one big bad thing that needs fixing.
So at the heart of it all lies the characters that we’re following, how we as the audience will be able to relate to them or feel for them, and just what sort of emotional conflict we’ll be getting out of it. If we care not for the characters, why then should we care for the world at large and the bad things that will happen to it? This is why I will always argue that characters are the most important ingredient in making a good story, even before plot. When the stakes are high, we need to see what our characters are going to do, not what the plot says needs to happen. Keep it real.