1. Be sadistic, and make your characters suffer
It’s understandable that, as a writer, you probably quite like your characters. Especially the protagonists, who you have created to be likeable. It’s understandable that you’d like these good people to have a good time, and get by through life easily enough.
You have to quash this impulse, and encourage your sadistic side.
The essence of drama is conflict. Without conflict and struggle, there is no story: or, at least, not an interesting one. Your protagonists must be thrown out of whack, their plans defeated, their personal relationships strained, their hopes all but extinguished. They must be either beaten or all-but-beaten before finally triumphing (if they triumph. You may wish to have an unhappy ending, after all).
2. Conflict does not necessarily mean violence, argument or even confrontation
When talking about conflict from a writing perspective, this conflict is not necessarily two people getting angry and fighting with each other. A person can conflict with the weaknesses inherent in their psyche, can conflict with a law they perceive to be unfair, can even conflict with a mountain that proves very difficult to climb. ‘Conflict’ basically means anything, any obstacle, that prevents the protagonist from obtaining what they desire, whatever that desire is. A conflict in a romance novel can be the distance between two people, or the conflict between staying in a relationship where the flame has seemingly died or moving on to something more exciting.
If violence or frequent confrontations are against the tone of your novel, don’t fret: there’s still plenty of conflict to be had.
3. An antagonist is conflict personified, and ‘Makes it personal’
An antagonist is a source of conflict: a character created, in story terms, explicitly so that the protagonist cannot achieve their aims. They are not necessarily ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ any more than the protagonist is not necessarily ‘good’, but are instead characters whose goals directly conflict with those of the protagonist. As so many stories have a good/evil conflict, the antagonist inevitably comes to represent the evil, but his/her real purpose is just to represent what the hero is struggling against. If you’re lacking for conflict in a story, make a good antagonist to get in the way of things.
4. Conflict should hit the characters’ weakness, and be beaten by their strength
All characters should have strengths and weaknesses, just as real people do. Engaging conflicts are those that are targeted towards the weaknesses of a character: if they are all brawn and no brains, make it an intellectual challenge. If they’re usually meek, force them into a fight. Then, instead of taking the obvious route to the solution, have the protagonist’s strengths overcome their weaknesses and their conflict, forcing them to come up with inventive solutions (the brawler ends up breaking down a door instead of answering the password-riddle, the meek-but-clever protagonist improvises a trap with nearby props and tricks his foes into it.)
5. Do not design a conflict that is too grand for your characters to solve
It’s a fine balancing act: the conflict has to be serious enough to force the protagonist to struggle hard in order to overcome it, and to make the readers, if not doubt his victory, at least wonder how he’ll achieve it. But make the conflict too grand, and you’ll create a situation that the protagonist cannot solve without a last minute cheat or help from an outside agency, and this is a cop-out. Make sure you never write your characters into a situation where they need your help as author to lift them out again.
6. Ensure that you target what the protagonist holds dear
A conflict should have consequences: if the hero fails, something that they hold dear will suffer as a result. What this is depends on the scope of the story: a character-driven, light-hearted romance might threaten a character with the loss of their friend’s job, for instance, or with a loved one moving away. A thriller built around an ancient alien conspiracy may threaten the existence of the entire world. Whatever is at stake, it should mean something to the protagonist personally: this will keep them motivated, and your audience (who should have a stake in the protagonist) interested.
7. Don’t be afraid to have the characters lose now and again
A protagonist need not always win: in fact, a protagonist need not win at all. A story where the protagonist fails to achieve their ends is typically seen as having an “unhappy” ending, and does not suit all genres, but in the case of the more cynical mysteries or thrillers or horrors this kind of ending is not unknown.
But even if your story will ultimately end with the hero riding off into the sunset, that doesn’t mean they have to win every fight leading up to that point. A conflict that the protagonist fails to overcome is a great way to increase stakes for later in the game, provide motivation, and point out that maybe the protagonist’s ultimate victory is not so assured.
These points of defeat are best in the opening act, just as the conflict is beginning (the failure sets the story in motion, as the protagonist tries to right what was wronged) or just before the final act, forcing the protagonist to make one last-ditch attempt, despite beaten and wounded, to overcome their weariness and take victory back from the antagonist (or just the story itself)
8. There will be one major and several minor conflicts over a story
The main conflict will comprise the gist of the plot, but will spawn smaller conflicts over its course. For instance, the love of the protagonist’s life is slipping through her fingers, and she must pursue him: but in the pursuit, she seems to be neglecting her best friend, who begins to threaten to cut off their relationship. Out of this new conflict with her friend, other arguments may split off.
Most of these conflicts will resolve themselves over the course of the “middle” of the narrative, but the main plot thread will not be closed until the climax. Any remaining loose ends will be few, and tied off immediately afterwards, in the resolution.
9. All conflicts must resolve
A worrying trend in some modern stories is to leave plot-threads dangling, providing the opening half of an interesting conflict without providing closure. This is a bad practice to pick up: it feels like a cop-out to readers, as it is.
A conflict without a resolution is essentially only two-thirds of a story. It needn’t be resolved the way people expect, perhaps, but it must be resolved (a love story could end with one of the pair dying. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a resolution.)