A Lesson from Fiction: Character, Conflict, Stakes.

On Twitter, you’ll find a lot of pitch fests where authors pitch their completed manuscripts to agents and editors. You get only 280 characters to introduce your 300+ page novel or nonfiction project. That’s a lot of storytelling to compress into a tiny tweet! You can’t afford to waste prime Twitter real estate on a meandering plotline. This means, your tweet must have a clear perspective.

Seems nearly impossible, right? But there’s a way to do it. 

Focus on three things: character, conflict, and stakes. 

Introduce the character. Why should we care about your character? You can do this with a cleverly and strategically chosen adjective or adverb (or two; much to my detriment, I have no rules against adverb use). (e.g., “Monica is a high-strung chef obsessed with cleaning.”)

Introduce what the character is after. What does the character want? What do they desire, crave? This is the central conflict. (e.g. “She’s in love with her neighbor Chandler.”)

Talk about what stands between the character and their goals. What are the stakes? What’s to lose if the character doesn’t meet their goal? What’s to gain if they do? (e.g. “But they’ve been best friends forever. Chandler’s also best friends with her brother Ross. With a lot of relationships at stake, can she go after this connection?”)

This lesson comes in handy whether you have to condense a 3-hour movie or a trilogy of books into a quick summary. It helped me teach my students how to keep their focus razor-sharp, especially when wading through writing a novel — a truly daunting prospect. 

But recently, working as a writer at emdash, I realised something: With a few tweaks, this lesson can help with literally any form of writing — case studies, whitepapers, blogs, you name it.

For example, in a blog surrounding the effectiveness of a product/service, this would translate into a structure like this:

Here’s what we’re going to talk about. (Character: This could be “you”/ the reader, or even the solution we want to “sell.”)

Here are the problems in the current scenario. (Conflict: The reader’s left wanting for a solution.)

How can our product/service solve these problems? (Stakes: If the reader doesn’t get the product/service, they’ll be left with these problems. They need the product/service for these compelling reasons.)

No matter what you’re writing, the main objective is to keep your reader reading. And if your writing is concise, focused, and urgent, your reader will want to know what’s next. 

Try it on any topic and any form, and let me know if it works for you! 

Written by: Neeru Nagarajan, a Pushcart-nominated writer, is a writer at emdash. She’s a recent MFA graduate and taught academic and creative writing at Bowling Green State University (Ohio). She’s @poonaikaari on Twitter.