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Mechanics of Desire, Part Three of Three: Obstacles and Stakes

Since this is Part Three, it will reference concepts from Part One and Part Two. I’ve provided the links if you need a refresher.

Conflict: It’s at the heart of story. It should not be based on a misunderstanding, a fake problem, or other silliness that we read about in books and watch in movies and roll our eyes and say . . . yeah, right!

 Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Once I heard Janette Rallison say that if the source of conflict in your story could be fixed with a fifteen minute frank conversation between two characters, it is not conflict, and I couldn’t agree more.

So back to Martine Leavitt, and the final segment–Part Three of her Mechanics of Desire. (My term for it, not hers)

Obstacles and Stakes.

Let me be clear. If your main character doesn’t have a clear, powerful emotional and concrete goal, any obstacles you put in their way will seem artificial, and the stakes will be low. The main source of conflict in your novel should be a large or a few large, powerful, believable obstacles that stand in the way of your character getting what he / she wants.

Sometimes I start my stories by giving my MC obstacles that they can’t overcome. That even I can’t see the solution to. These are the hardest stories for me to write, because there is no good answer.

Personally, I prefer stories where there is no easy answer, and where there is no complete answer. Stories that reflect my own mortal experience, and that remind me that life is complicated. That one thing must be sacrificed for something greater, more holy, more pure. Bittersweet at the end.

But I digress.

Let’s start with . . .


The stakes of the story, according to Martine Leavitt, answer this question:

What does your character stand to lose if he does not obtain his emotional or concrete desire?

Figure that out, and then amp it up. Make the stakes HUGE. Often throughout the story, finding ways to increase the stakes, and put a deadline on when the character can meet their needs will increase tension in amazing ways.

In TESSA PLUS ONE, Tessa needs family, and love. She convinces herself that in order to meet this need, she has to keep her baby, and build the family she has always lacked. Also, she believes that this is her last chance. That if she loses this baby, she will remain unloved and alone forever. In this way, the stakes are tied up in the main character’s controlling belief.

Once you know what the stakes are, you can decide which obstacles to put in between your MC and his / her greatest emotional and concrete desires.


These obstacles can be divided into three categories. You don’t have to have all three categories represented in your book, but it will certainly be richer if contains more than one.

Man vs. Man.

Man vs. Self.

Man. vs. Nature

I’ll analyze these three from the perspective of my last novel, TESSA PLUS ONE.

Man vs. Man:

In my book, TESSA PLUS ONE, I have Tessa facing off against several people

The Department of Children, Youth, and Families stands as an antagonist to her main goal of staying independent, in control, and deciding what will happen to herself and her baby.

Johnny, the baby’s father, is in opposition to Tessa, in that he lies to the school about her pregnancy, and turns friends against her, making her more alone as she tries to get love and support through her pregnancy. He also rejects her himself, refusing to form the family with her that she needs.

Julie, Tessa’s foster mother is occasionally an antagonist, because Tessa knows that Julie wants to adopt her baby, and would be a better mother than Tessa would.

Brielle, Tessa’s best friend, doesn’t help Tessa in the way she needs, and eventually

abandons Tessa to meet her own needs.

Man vs. Nature:

Although Tessa isn’t really facing off against the elements in this book, there are two examples of Man vs. Nature.

1. The growing baby inside of Tessa. This is a natural part of pregnancy, and it is an inexorable force in the story, forcing Tessa to make decisions, and to move around in the story. Tessa loves the idea of the baby, and forming a family with the baby, but the baby growing inside, and the difficulties of pregnancy are the source of most of the central story tension.

2. Tessa’s homelessness forces her to make drastic decisions to find shelter and safety against the coming winter.

Man vs. Self:

In this character-driven story, Tessa is against herself more than anything else. The ultimate conflict must be resolved through Tessa changing in a fundamental, internal way. Tessa struggles with the need for love throughout the story, and ultimately realizes that to sacrifice and give love is more important than to get love, and that giving pure, unselfish love is the only thing she can do in the end. In putting others’ needs before her own, Tessa finally receives the love and family she has always needed.

I hope this was helpful. It has helped me a lot to get into the why of a story, and to remember that without these elements, a story is weak or directionless. The other thing I love about this, is the Mechanics of Desire work whether you are a plotter or a discovery writer. Knowing these elements will still provide strength and purpose to your story, no matter which way you like to write.


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