Even if you have developed strong conflict for the main plot, you may still end up with slow sections or lackluster moments of character growth. Layering conflict in small ways adds depth and can make a big different in the overall appeal of a story.
Progress and Failure
The main conflict should be complex enough to last the entire length of the story. Ending it too early creates endings that drag on for too long. Conflicts related to subplots or specific instances of learning or growth can be resolved within a few chapters.
It is important to remember, though, that conflict progression should not be a straight line. It should reflect a roller coaster motion, making improvement or completing steps toward a goal, then failing or hitting a new stumbling block. This back and forth motion prolongs and heightens the story’s conflict, adding depth and realism.
Anticipation and Expectation
Once readers know what a character’s main goal is, most will be able to intuit the necessary steps the character will need to take to achieve that goal. If you as the writer follow those steps in a straight forward manner, the reader will become bored.
Determine what steps need to be taken, then create situations or outcomes that will derail or delay those steps being completed, causing the character to have to take unexpected routes to continue on their journey.
Make sure the character is fully invested in the expected outcome and make it clear to the reader through internal dialogue and conversation how much he or she anticipates reaching that goal. This raises the personal stakes of failure for the character and helps forge a bond with the reader. When failure and setbacks happen, as they should, the reader will share the character’s pain and frustration.
Other character’s expectations can be a powerful way to add depth to conflict as well. If a character’s friend or partner either doesn’t believe she can reach a goal, or puts an excessive amount of pressure on her to meet a goal, this also raises the stakes of failure and heightens the reader’s anticipation of character development. The character not only needs to reach his goal, he must also battle with consequences of the outcome on others.
Conflict and suspense are not the same thing, but they are often closely related. Suspense surrounding whether or not the character will push through conflict to reach a goal keeps the reader wondering whether the character will be successful. If the reader is too sure of success, the reader may lose interest.
Adding stumbling blocks, internal uncertainty or fear, and situational problems into a story keeps the reader from developing too much certainty about how the story will end. The suspense of not knowing keeps the interest level higher and can help develop a connection with the reader.
Fears and Faults
The reasons that a character struggles to achieve a goal aren’t always external. In fact, they shouldn’t be only external because that risks progress toward a goal becoming repetitive and predictable.
If a character can always talk herself out of a problem and never faces any repercussions, the reader will not be concerned about failure. If, however, a character self-sabotages even the most promising situation out of fear of an employer developing too high of expectations, the reader will constantly worry about how the character might bomb a situation.
Internal obstacles provide a deeper source of conflict because internal conflict is often much more difficult to overcome than external conflict. Internal conflict comes from trauma and old wounds. Neither of which are easily repaired.
A story’s inciting incident is often seen as the start of the main conflict in a story. It is not the beginning of all conflict involved in a character’s journey. The reasons that a character struggles to achieve a goal are often rooted in their past experiences and situations.
Consider what disadvantages your character is starting with and how those will play into the storyline. Whether physical, financial, emotional, educational, or mental, everyone has sources of conflict they battle daily. Draw on these to develop meaningful stumbling blocks. The more personal the hindrance, the more believable it will be.
If a character is too close to achieving a goal when the story starts and there is not enough conflict in reaching a goal, the journey won’t be very interesting. Make a character have to work to achieve their goal.
The main question that keeps reader engaged in a story is: what will happen next? When readers connect with characters and situations, they become invested in the outcome. If the answers are given too early or too openly without any work on the part of the reader, he or she may loose interest quickly.
Only give the bare minimum that the reader needs to understand what is happening in the scene. Do not reveal full backstories or motivations without good reason. Make both the character and the reader work to learn what he will face and whether she will succeed.
Be patient and detailed when fleshing out conflict in a story. Success should never come easily or in the most commonly expected way.