It has taken me a long time as a writer to have the most basic understanding of “conflict” as a story element. When I first started writing I viewed conflict as an outgrowth of the plot. Now I see it as something that drives the plot. This may not seem to be a major difference, but it has dramatically changed the way I write, and I think, for the better.
Conflict isn’t just the protagonist vs the antagonist, although that should be one of the most important conflicts in your story. But conflict should be everywhere in your story. If you’re writing a story about a group of companions who are banded together in a quest, there should still be conflict between the characters in the group. Conflict is what drives dramatic tension. Even simple scenes benefit from specific conflicts that the reader will encounter over and over again. This sort of conflict also drives character development.
And then there’s internal conflict, where the protagonist or other major characters demonstrate conflicting motivations and desires as well. This sort of conflict is very important for demonstrating character growth. Overcoming fears or breaking through cultural barriers can provide dramatic scenes that resonate with readers who struggle with internal conflicts as well.
In my character profile for each character in my stories I have a field called “conflicts”. In that field I will list as many story impacting conflicts as I can. Some of them will be obvious, such as “antagonist wants to kill protagonist,” but others are more mundane and relatable. Two brothers might be jealous of one another. One character might be struggling with addiction. I try to come up with something for each character so that as I’m writing dialogue or laying out scenes, those conflicts can be explored, reiterated or overcome. That can make even minor characters memorable.
When I’m editing my work, I look at each scene and try to identify the conflict in that scene. If I can’t see conflict, I’ll try to go back and work some in that fits with the overall scene and reinforces the plot. Usually all it takes is a few words here and there with a quick reference to an already established and recognizable conflict, and the reader’s own imagination will take over from there.
The takeaway is that conflict should be something that you consciously manage as a writer, and threads of conflict woven together throughout multiple scenes over the course of the story create powerful opportunities to pull the reader into the story.