Conflict is the promise we make to our readers. Once we set the stage, bring the reader into our characters ordinary world, it is conflict that keeps him reading our story.
But first, you need to get your readers attention. Building a character that is sympathetic, someone we and the readers can identify with, someone they want to read about. If your hero isn’t likeable, why would anyone want to read your story?
So you open with a likeable character, an ordinary guy, who’s having an ordinary day, when all of a sudden…BAM! things change, and that’s the important part, the conflict. Internal or External conflict you ask? Doesn’t matter. Internal conflict will grab your reader by the guts, and is therefore extremely effective. But if it’s done right, external conflict is just as compelling.
Prologues, often used in suspense or thriller fiction, in which someone usually dies, are effective. It doesn’t have to introduce your main character, but it must be action and connect to the main story. Even when the time-lapse between prologue and first chapter is years, they two still must connect. The prologue should provide conflict (sometimes a death, or another tragedy) that connecst to the main story.
Plot may be the framework, the bones if you will, your story hangs, but conflict is the power that drives story. Think of your heart, pumping life sustaining blood throughout your body, nourish organs, muscles, tendons, etc.
That bears repeating: conflict is the power which drives your story forward to its ultimate conclusion, the resolution of the conflict. In the end, your hero will win, or lose, or walk away. The only choices, but the story that takes him to the ultimate conclusion is driven solely by conflict.
Conflict is the reason your hero leaves his ordinary world. Without a disruption of the characters “normal” there is no story. Conflict is the opportunity for your hero to choose his path in life (story). The choices he makes and the expected results–especially when they are not met–are a powerful drive that keep your reader reading. The main conflict named in the beginning of your story must escalate, in order to keep your reader engaged. Each chapter, each scene, and sometimes every paragraph must demonstrate an escalation of the conflict. Rising tension is the pattern which allows you to engage your readers and bring them back for the next story.
The essence of good conflict is setting your hero up to want something…and then denying him his desire. Beyond that, not only can he not have his desire, but his choice to pursue it should cost him. His situation gets worse, and your reader will vow, “one more chapter” before they consent to leave your story world.