Conflict, according to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (tenth edition) is the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction. In other words, conflict is what makes things happen.
Conflict comes in all different shapes and sizes. It can be as minor as two people arguing over which movie to watch, or as major as saving/destroying the world. It can be between two individuals or factions, a person and the forces of nature, or a person and her emotions. The types of conflict you use will depend on the story you’re writing.
The main conflict is the catalyst for your story. It is what your hero is fighting against throughout the book. Voldemort wants Harry Potter dead. Harry Potter doesn’t want to die. Frodo wants to destroy the ring. Sauron wants it for himself and will do all in his power to get it. In a quieter, simpler story like The Higher Power of Lucky, the conflict is emotional. Lucky battles her fear of losing her guardian.
Minor conflicts are all the little troubles that take you from the beginning of your story to the end. They get in the way of the main character and prevent her from resolving the main conflict. In Harry Potter it’s Fluffy the three-headed dog, Filch, and the Death Eaters. In Lord of the Rings it’s Golem, the armies of Sauron, and the ring itself. In Lucky, it’s a dust storm.
The more complex the story, the more conflicts there will be, and while all stories can have physical, as well as emotional conflicts, a plot-driven story will lean toward the physical, and a character-driven story toward the emotional. Whichever are used, the minor ones are generally resolved within a chapter or two and usually lead to further complications, so that the first minor conflict (getting past Fluffy) leads to the second (landing in the clutches of a killer plant) which leads to the third (becoming trapped in a locked room full of flying keys) and on and on until the climax is reached and the main conflict is resolved.
To determine if conflict is working for you, list all the conflicts going on in your chapter one, then chapter two, and so one. (There may be one, none or several per chapter.) Beside each conflict, note if it was started, continued, or resolved. If started, which previous conflict did it derive from? If resolved, what new conflict does it lead to? When you’ve finished, you should have a trail of resolved conflicts that are all somehow connected.
If the trail is broken and/or you have unresolved conflicts, that’s a sign that you probably should go back and revise. Look for conflicts that go on too long. Can they be resolved sooner? Are unresolved conflicts really needed? Do they advance the plot or can your story do just as well without them? Find a way to connect the dots and, in the end, you’ll have a manuscript filled with conflict that will draw your reader in and keep them reading.