Conflict and Consequences

When I’m helping people write loglines, I often run into a little problem. Someone will hand me a logline for an epic story that just doesn’t quite feel compelling, usually for a very simple reason: they haven’t told us about the consequences.

Loglines and stories need conflict, as I’ve said in the past (and explained in my book), but sometimes it’s not enough to just include a situation with conflict. You need to make sure that we know what’s going to happen if the hero doesn’t succeed.

This is often more of a big epic story thing. When the story is huge and involves the fate of the city, the world, the galaxy, or the universe, it can often fall flat on its face without a little tiny bit more.

And yet for some reason, this is a sticking point for so many people. They figure they have a bad guy and he’s in the logline, so that ought to be plenty, right? Nope. And worse still, when pressed for more details, many writers panic and say, “I don’t really know what should go in there!”

Luckily, there’s a simple, powerful question you can ask yourself to figure out what consequences belong both in your story, and also help your logline: What really bad thing will happen if the bad guy wins?

Your characters need to have that question in the forefront of their minds the entire time. Here’s a rephrased version for a character to think: “What really bad thing will happen if I don’t succeed?”

Answer that question and you suddenly have motivation. Yes, this sounds too simple, and maybe even a little silly, but it’s true: When it’s only the galaxy in danger, the stakes aren’t high enough. But put the hero’s life, home, family, girlfriend, heirloom stamp collection, or pet chinchilla at risk, and suddenly the stakes shoot through the roof. Why do you think so many movies add a love interest halfway through? It’s because the hero needs something personal to lose.

For an excellent example, check out Independence Day. Space aliens come and threaten to destroy the earth. That’s a big, epic problem. But look at each major character in the film. Every one of them has something personal at stake: David won’t be able to get back together with his wife if the aliens win, Captain Hiller has his family to protect, and the President has both his reputation and his family on the line.

Here’s another one: The Avengers. Remember the scene at the end when Tony Stark carries the nuke into the portal? What becomes the focus as he loses radio contact? Miss Pepper Potts, who he’ll never see again if he gets blown up while saving the world.

So dig deep into your characters and find the consequences of failure within your conflict. If you can do that, you’ll be well on your way to telling a much, much more compelling story.

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