Conflict is what compels the reader to keep reading to find out what happens next and to read more to see what happens at the end. Whether everything comes out right in the end or not, it is the chance things can go wrong that spurs readers to keep reading.
Conflict in fiction is easy. Conflict is opposing desires, mismatches, uncertainty, deadlines, pressures, incompatible goals, uneasiness, tension. Your character wants something and other events, circumstances or people intervene to make achieving that goal difficult. The conflict could be obvious such as a dragon attacking a village or subtle such a boy struggling to grow up in an abusive home.
Just remember that without conflict, noting happens in your story. Your characters should not lead carefree, happy lives. They should face problems. They should search for something they cannot reach; they should strive for a goal but be prevented from reaching it.
There are two types of conflict – internal or external.
An internal struggle is the part of the protagonist’s personality that prevents him from achieving whatever goal he is after. If he wishes to reconcile with his estranged father but feel his father should make the first move, his pride is the internal conflict. An internal conflict can reveal a lot about a character. Do they give up easily? Strive for what they want? How do they react when met with opposition?
An external conflict is something physical that gets in your protagonist’s way of reaching their goal. It could be the antagonist or an avalanche. When creating your antagonist, develop someone with just enough strength to present a solid challenge for your protagonist. Your hero might eventually figure out the bad guy’s flaws, but he is going to have to work to put all the pieces together. It is these plan disruptions that create the conflict in your story.
A good story will have both big (an innocent man facing prison) and little (an argument between a couple on where to have breakfast) conflicts as well as external and internal conflicts.
As your hero strives for their goal, many obstacles may get in their way but not all of these are conflicts. You don’t want to confuse dramatic action with conflict. If your main character walks down the street and is confronted by a rabid dog, that is not conflict. Unless the dog prevented that character from achieving a specific goal, then the situation is merely dramatic.
And while you want to instill emotion, tension and conflict throughout your novel, every scene in your novel doesn’t need to be dramatic. Someone who faces major life decisions in every chapter becomes unrealistic and tiresome. Each conflict should drive the story forward and not be included because it is thrilling or suspenseful. Too many plot complications can ruin a story.
So as you write, concentrate on the struggle in your story. Your character needs choices to make and the chance to evolve. Without these, your story isn’t going anywhere.