Conflict drives characters to the precipice of decision. It changes behavior, incites action, and sharpens convictions. Virtues are drilled into the protagonist’s consciousness, and slowly he grows. As he's pushed to the apex of catastrophe, transformation is forged. Deep within himself he reaches, grasping hold of everything he is and desires to become. Choices are made and bad habits are abolished. He’ll never be the same again.
We live in a fallen world tainted by sin. We’ve experienced hardships. We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve mistreated others, and others have mistreated us. We’ve surrendered when we should have stood firm. We’ve said dumb things, botched opportunities, and slopped ourselves together. Daily, we’re thrust into situations we’d rather avoid. Hourly, we’re bombarded with fears, insecurities, and falsehoods. And minute by minute, we face temptation. But we’re not alone. Human beings are naturally inclined to connect with others who are also struggling. Readers will learn lessons alongside a novel’s cast and carry them into real life. This singular truth bridges the chasm between fiction and reality. Unless the protagonist wants or needs something and can’t attain it, readers will feel alienated. They simply won’t care.
Identify your characters’ goals and incentives. Define what they want, why they want it, and how they intend to obtain it. Discontentment with their current state propels the story forward. They’re going to change the world and unknowingly change themselves too. So teach them their first lesson at the outset: the value of hard work. Force them to jump through hoops as they race for the finish line.
These life-defining obstacles are available in various shapes and sizes, and they represent three basic categories for generating plot friction:
Hoop #1: The fiery ring (the adversary)
A full-length novel is comprised of numerous interlocking wires and gizmos. Eventually one segment will defy the electricity surging through its circuit and snap. These are the bullies, untrustworthy friends, and outright villains. An antagonist is any prominent character openly or secretly hostile toward the lead character's cause. They either covet or loathe the protagonist’s possessions and objectives. But don’t reduce their rationale to a mere, “They’re bad because, well, they’re bad.” Give an antagonist goals, motives, and history, just as you would a hero. As the story progresses, their animosity festers, and tension heightens. Then comes the showdown.
Hoop #2: The multifaceted ring (the roadblock)
Goals are like dollar bills. Consolidated, both seem simple and manageable, but split into pennies and technicalities, neither is easily preserved. The smallest inconveniences can interfere with the protagonist’s plans, just as a dollar minus one penny is incomplete. Common, everyday problems, such as missing car keys, illness, disagreements, unfavorable weather, and accidents, serve two purposes: to effectuate scenes and humanize the characters. Complications range from the mundane (tangled shoelaces) to the earth-shattering (a family member’s death), and the entire plotline hinges on how they’re dealt with.
Hoop #3: The invisible ring (the undercurrent)
A divided house cannot stand. Your protagonist is that house. Externally, the siding is white-washed, the lawn mowed, and the front porch swept clean. We’re led to believe all is well. Yet, a quick peek through the shutters reveals the house’s actual condition. The protagonist isn’t okay. She's scared. She's confused. She's angry. And she hasn’t a clue how to curtail her emotions. Termites gnaw on her foundations, and walls begin to collapse inward. She is painfully aware of her faults. The past threatens pursuit, and the future discourages hope. Each morning she rises to fight the same battle for the umpteenth time. Here, poignancy transcends the printed page, seizing readers by the throat. Internal conflict is the most heart-wrenching kind, because the protagonist is in opposition to herself.
Why should people read your book? Millions of others are competing for attention.
Kidnap readers from “Once upon a time” through “The End,” never providing them a chance to ask that question. Don’t over-elaborate at the close of a chapter. Cut smack in the middle of the action. Plant suspicion, drop bombs, and form resolutions. Then, demand a response from your audience. They’ve two choices: turn the page or toss the book aside. You’ve got to send them, sweating and heart pounding, towards the homestretch … and on to the next chapter.