According to literary agent and author, Donald Maass, the majority of rejected manuscripts (80%) have one thing in common: lack of conflict. There should be conflict everywhere – in exposition, in dialogue – every sentence in your story should be building to that climax. Everything you do needs to complicate your main character’s journey.
You can still write a nice, quiet love story. Tension doesn’t just come from the invasion of aliens or an unsolved murder, it can be simple like will she get the lead in the school play? It’s not life or death, most likely there aren’t any battle scenes or car chases (how we usually think of tension), but that question has to be woven into every aspect of your story.
One of the places you can begin building this is by adding inner conflict – your character wants two things that are mutually exclusive.
I’ll say that again because it’s really important: your character wants two things that are mutually exclusive.
Let’s say our girl wants that lead in the play – what would complicate things for her? Maybe a severe case of stage fright. Maybe a hovering parent. Pulling a character in two different directions is what makes them memorable to your reader. My favorite chant while I am working on a story is how can I make this worse? Our girl may spend two hours in a salon before her stage debut – and I’m gonna make it rain. And maybe, she’ll have a convertible with a broken top. That’ll give her lots of inner monologue. Having her want to be both on stage and struggle with anxiety causes inner conflict.
How do you add inner conflict? Start here: decide what your main character wants. This one desire drives your story forward, no question. And remember, they have to want this one thing more than anything else in the world.
Once you have established that, decide what the opposite of that desire is. This may take some brainstorming. I like to do this work on paper, stream-of-consciousness. You could even hand-write this out, the results always surprise me. My fiercely-independent girl from last week? She wants to maintain her freedom but she also wants a relationship.
And right there is the conflict – she wants two things that are mutually exclusive. Now comes the job of revision: how can a character want two completely different things simultaneously? Why does she want them both? How does she pursue them both? How do I, as the writer, show this in sharp contrast? If I pull my character in two opposite directions, which one will she choose?
And that’s what keeps your reader reading!