High-Stakes Character-Driven Story

TSS #053: 5 Steps to Plot a High-Stakes, Character-Driven Story

by | Jun 17, 2023

Read Time: 5 minutes

The lifeblood of your story pumps through your characters’ actions and decisions.

The steady rhythm of your plot, its heartbeat, is driven by two vital elements:

1/ Your protagonist’s unmistakable story goal

2/ Your antagonist’s clear-cut story goal

When these two characters with their unmistakable missions collide, high-stakes conflict comes to life, keeping readers glued to your pages.

This approach is your secret weapon, a simple strategy that works whether you’re developing a brand new story, or refining a first draft.

Now let’s explore these elements and how you can apply them to your work in progress.

Plotting with Purpose by Defining Clear Objectives

Your protagonist and antagonist need overarching objectives.

These are the “whys” behind their every action, steering the course of your entire plot – and they need to be crystal clear so your readers can measure their outcomes at the story’s climax.

Let’s look at simplified examples from bestselling novels and blockbuster movies:

The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

Protagonist: Frodo Baggins
• Story Goal: Destroy the One Ring to save Middle-earth


Antagonist: Sauron
• Story Goal: Obtain the One Ring to enslave Middle-earth

Gone Girl

Protagonist: Nick Dunne
• Story Goal: Prove innocence in his wife’s disappearance


Antagonist: Amy Dunne
• Story Goal: Frame husband for her disappearance

The Hunger Games

Protagonist: Katniss Everdeen (the Mockingjay)
• Story Goal: Survive the games & rebel against President Snow’s dictatorship


Antagonist: President Snow
• Story Goal: End the legacy of the Mockingjay and Keep control of Panem

Ender’s Game

Protagonist: Ender Wiggins
• Story Goal: Destroy the alien species called “buggers” (Formics)


Antagonist: Buggers (Formics)
• Story Goal: Terminate the human race

The Matrix

Protagonist: Neo
Story Goal: Destroy the Matrix and free humanity from enslavement


Antagonist: Agent Smith
Story Goal: Maintain the Matrix and continue human imprisonment

Star Wars: A New Hope

Protagonist: Luke Skywalker
Story Goal: Destroy the Death Star and end the Empire’s tyranny


Antagonist: Darth Vader
Story Goal: Crush the Rebellion and maintain the Empire’s rule

The Shining

Protagonist: Jack Torrance
Story Goal: Overcome his personal demons and provide for his family


Antagonist: The Overlook Hotel
Story Goal: Drive Jack into madness and cause him to harm his family

— Of course, The Overlook Hotel is an abstract entity instead of an actual person or character. Keep in mind Stephen King is a master storyteller so I recommend casting your antagonist as an actual character if this is your debut novel.

Okay, you’re armed with the importance of defined goals, so we’re ready to look at how high-stakes conflict plays its crucial role in your story.

The Power of High-Stakes Conflict

Remember that book or movie you just couldn’t stop consuming?

The one that had you neglecting sleep, house chores, or even social media?

That’s the potency of high-stakes conflict. Without it, your story risks becoming a bore, losing readers to their Twitter feeds.

High stakes aren’t just suspense creators; they’re character builders and plot movers.

That means your protagonist’s and antagonist’s objectives are the foundation for what I call the…

High Stakes Formula:

• If (Protagonist) does not (Protagonist’s story goal), then (Antagonist) will (Antagonist’s story goal)

Simply put, if the protagonist fails to reach their goal, the antagonist wins.

This formula infuses your story with high stakes through opposing story goals, compelling your readers to stay curious about what happens until The End.

Here are the same bestselling novels and blockbuster movies using the format of the High Stakes Formula:

The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

• If (Frodo Baggins) does not (Destroy the Ring to save Middle-earth), (Sauron) will (Obtain the ring to enslave Middle-earth)

Gone Girl

• If (Nick Dunne) does not (Prove his innocence in wife’s disappearance), then (Amy Dunn) will (frame her husband for her disappearance)

The Hunger Games

• If (Katniss) does not (survive the games & rebel against President Snow’s dictatorship), then (President Snow) will (keep control of Panem & end the legacy of the mockingjay)

Ender’s Game

• If (Ender Wiggins) does not (Destroy the alien species called “buggers”), then (the buggers) will (terminate the human race)

The Matrix

• If (Neo) does not (destroy the Matrix and free humanity), then (Agent Smith) will (maintain the Matrix and ensure human imprisonment).

Star Wars: A New Hope

• If (Luke Skywalker) does not (destroy the Death Star and end the Empire’s tyranny), then (Darth Vader) will (crush the Rebellion and maintain the Empire’s rule).

The Shining 

• If (Jack Torrance) does not (overcome his personal demons and provide for his family), then (The Overlook Hotel) will (drive him into madness and cause him to harm his family).

— Again, The Overlook Hotel works as an abstract antagonist due to King’s mastery of fiction. I’d recommend casting your antagonist as an actual character if this is your debut novel.

Now that you’ve digested more examples, let’s dive into how you can apply these principles to your own work.

Crafting Your Character-Driven Plot

So how can you apply these principles to your storytelling?

Here’s a simple, step-by-step process:

Step 1: Define Your Protagonist’s Clear Goal

What’s the concrete thing your Protagonist needs to accomplish in your story?

Identify something as clear as “destroy the ring,” and not as vague as “find oneself” because the climax must be measurable and tangible. It’s okay to leave a couple open threads for sequels but the protagonist’s primary problem must be resolved.

Okay, now if you want to use ChatGPT for story development, enter the prompt below and realize Step 2 and Step 3 will be completed in the same ChatGPT conversation (or brainstorm your elements using traditional methods inside your favorite word-processing software or hard-copy notebook.)



//Copy the text from the prompt below (edit the bold text in brackets)//

Act like a bestselling novelist and blockbuster screenwriter with 20 years experience transforming ideas into breakout stories that audiences love.

Based on the genre of [insert genre], a universal theme of [insert theme], and the story idea of [insert any story elements or premise ideas], help me create a multi-dimensional protagonist for my chosen story idea, including their background, personality, strengths, and weaknesses. Also provide one clear, unmistakeable objective with high-stakes that the multi-dimensional protagonist must achieve in the overarching storyline.

//Copy the text from the prompt above (edit the bold text in brackets)//

Step 2: Identify Your Antagonist’s Counter Objective

What’s your Antagonist’s focused mission that directly challenges your Protagonist’s goal?

Using the same ChatGPT conversation that you just developed your protagonist above, use this prompt below.



//Copy the text from the prompt below (edit the bold text in brackets)//

Okay I am looking to move forward with [Insert Protagonist and their Story Goal]. Now help me create a multi-dimensional antagonist that will challenge this protagonist in accomplishing their core, unmistakeable objective, including the antagonist’s overarching story goal, core motivations, background, and personality. This antagonist cannot be cliche, generic, or overproduced. This antagonist must be a formidable force for the overarching narrative to ensure high-stakes conflict, thought-provoking tension, and dramatic suspense.

//Copy the text from the prompt above (edit the bold text in brackets)//

Step 3: Implement the High Stakes Formula

Use this ChatGPT prompt to sharpen the stakes in your plot and align your protagonist’s and antagonist’s objectives.



//Copy the text from the prompt below (edit the bold text in brackets)//

Considering the story in which my protagonist, [insert protagonist’s name], has the goal to [insert protagonist’s objective] and my antagonist, [insert antagonist’s name], seeks to [insert antagonist’s objective], let’s create a high-stakes conflict scenario.

Using the High Stakes Formula (“If (Protagonist) does not (Protagonist’s story goal), then (Antagonist) will (Antagonist’s story goal)”), please help me frame a compelling high-stakes situation for a three-act structure that would arise if my protagonist fails to achieve their goal, and my antagonist succeeds in theirs.

Then give me 5 thought-provoking ideas for how to increase my story’s conflict to ensure high-stakes remain throughout the overarching narrative so I can build tension that makes readers stay engaged from start to finish.

Do not overproduce the drama or tension and remember what it takes to create a bestselling novel and blockbuster movie. Also remember the importance of very slow character building and not rushing the plot.

//Copy the text from the prompt above (edit the bold text in brackets)//

Step 4: Evaluate Your Plot for Cohesion and Conflict

Ensure your plot aligns with the goals you’ve set and that the resulting conflict drives your story.

You may need to play with ChatGPT to develop story ideas you deem worth writing. But the core intention is to find clear, tangible objectives for your main characters that directly oppose each other.

That’s the key to taking readers captive on the page.

Step 5: Refine and Revise Based on Feedback

Don’t forget, your first draft is just a starting point.

Ask ChatGPT or fellow humans for feedback to polish your plot, characters, and stakes, enhancing your story’s heartbeat with each revision.

Bringing It All Together

A character-driven, high-stakes plot isn’t just about providing an entertaining read.

It’s a contract between you and your audience, a promise that their time will be rewarded with an emotional payoff they won’t forget. And without clear objectives, they can’t measure the final outcome.

When your protagonist’s clear goal collides with your antagonist’s mission, it breathes life into your story, creating the heartbeat that moves your characters, and readers, from start to finish.

So whether you’re outlining a new narrative or fine-tuning a draft, keep these principles in mind.

That’s it for this Saturday.

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See ya next week!

— Dave