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All About Conflict, Part 3

The Sticking Point & Line in the Sand

So far in this series, I’ve talked about the different levels of conflict (macro, mini, micro) and external vs internal conflict. If you missed those articles, you might want to START HERE.

Now, I’d like to address the last two layers of conflict, what I call the Sticking Point and Line in the Sand. These last layers are often ignore when brainstorming plots and characters, but they can add a rich dimension of emotion. Both are types of internal conflict that directly affect plot. 

Sticking Point

In every story, there is a point where the character has to choose to go on or go home. Why does Frodo choose to take the ring to Mordor? Why doesn’t he simply say, “No, thanks. Someone else can do it.” Why does Katniss volunteer to take part in the Hunger Games? Or why does Luke Skywalker decide to go with Obiwan and learn to become a Jedi? 


The sticking point is the reason the hero can’t or won’t walk away from the story. It’s a type of inner conflict but really potent to creating a high stakes plot. The sticking point is what the character has to lose if they don’t continue. Frodo knows his beloved Shire would be overrun by orcs. Katniss won’t let her little sister die in the games. Luke’s story is sort of an anti-sticking point. He refused to leave his family. But once they were dead, he had nothing to lose. Notice that in all these examples, the sticking point is also related to the inciting event (or the moment that propels the hero into the story). 

A hero’s actions are much more believable when we understand why they are doing it. It’s not enough for a superhero to want to punish all the criminals in the city. I want to know why. The Sticking Point can be something as simple as honor or duty (a police detective putting himself if danger to find a killer) or love (a mother risking her life to find her missing child).

The Sticking Point also helps to avoid the too-stupid-to-live syndrome. This happens to be one of my pet-peeves and one of the few reasons I won’t finish a book. The too-stupid-to-live syndrome is when a character makes a choice that puts them in direct danger without any reason for doing so. Why does the hero go into the dark basement where we all know the monster is? In a bad horror movie, there may be no reason to go in the basement. And in those cases, the characters really are too stupid to live. But what if the mother’s missing child is in that basement? Now I’m rooting for her and on the edge of my seat.

Line in the Sand 

The line in the Sand is the invisible barrier that separates the good guys from the bad guys. It will be different for every character, but it represents the one thing that character would not do, even if the alternative was death. 

Going back to the example of a mother desperately seeking her lost child. How far will she go to get her child back? Would she steal a car, if she had to? Probably. Steal money to keep going? Yes. Interestingly, these actions may open the door for bigger crimes that she would never imagine herself doing. Would she kill someone to save her child? Maybe. She’d probably kill the kidnapper. Would she kill another innocent child if that was the only way to save her own? Now, she’s pressed up right against that line in the sand.
If you want to create really intense fiction, you want to push your hero right up against those moral dilemmas. Make them confront a scenario where they have to choose to step over the line in the sand or face dire consequences. Then find a way for them to get out of it (hey, no one ever said writing was easy) or live with those consequences. 
Another example of crossing the line might be a vigilante hero who fights crime but ends up getting hurt, a lot. His true love wants to support him, but she can’t live through another night, wondering if he will live or die. She tells him that if he puts himself in danger again unnecessarily, she leave him. So, does he run into the burning building to save the children? Of course, he does because he’s the hero. But the reader knows what crossing that line will truly cost, and we love him a little more for it.

Think about the things that are important to your hero to discover where their lines would be drawn. Think about the consequences of breaking promises, the ultimatums that lovers have between them, or the societal laws that must be broken in order for your hero. 

Since I’m a hermit by nature, the coronavirus hasn’t had much effect on me. But it means more authors are staying home and writing! This means my editing and design schedule is now booked to the end of April. If you have a book design, editing project or video that needs doing, be sure to contact me asap, to book your spot!


If Kim McDougall could have one magical superpower, it would be to talk to animals. Or maybe to shift into animal form. Definitely, fantastical creatures and magic often feature in her urban fantasy stories. So until she can change into a griffin and fly away, she writes dark paranormal suspense and romance tales full of witches, demons, werewolves, vampires, yetis and maybe even a gargoyle or two.

Kim McDougall is the author of the Hidden Coven series and Revise to Write, Edit Your Novel, Get Published and Become a Better Writer She is also a publishing coach and book designer at Castelane, For the Prose.

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