Or, more importantly, conflict that matters.
One of the most common critiques you hear about a work of literature is a variation of, “I liked parts, but the story didn’t grab me.” You might at first puzzle over what that could mean—were the characters not compelling enough? Was the setting drab? Was it too thematic or too shallow?
The key here is story. The story didn’t grab me. The key to a story that grabs readers in its claws and doesn’t let go, even past the final page, is a compelling conflict. This does not just mean an antagonist is preventing a protagonist from their goal. This means that the price of failure—the stakes of the story—has to be high enough that the protagonist not meeting their goal would result in disaster.
Here’s a very, very basic example: Let’s say John wants pie, but the local bakery is closed. The bakery’s closing is an impediment to John’s goal, but depending on your emotional connection to pie, this conflict hardly registers as a blip. So we raise the stakes.
Let’s say the local bakery is closing its doors for good because the owner has passed away. John might never eat his favorite pie again. Now let’s say the secret recipe for John’s favorite blueberry pie is hidden somewhere, and if John and the owner’s son find it, they can keep the bakery from closing.
Now we have the basics of a mystery plot. You can throw in subplots, character development, and a great setting in the mix, but if the stakes aren’t high enough, it’ll be harder to keep the reader invested.
Here are some more famous examples:
- The Percy Jackson series (and its multiple spin-offs) is action-packed and engaging, but what really drives the plot home is that the stakes are apocalyptic, meaning if Percy and his friends don’t succeed, the world will end as we know it. Twelve-to-sixteen-year olds face off against powerful, immortal gods and terrifying monsters at every turn.
- If Harry Potter is unable to defeat You-Know-Who, a Hitler-like figure, the wizarding world will be overcome by darkness and evil, and Muggle-born wizards and witches like Hermione Granger would be sought out and murdered.
- In the Lunar Chronicles series, if Linh Cinder doesn’t accept her identity and defeat the evil Queen Levana, Levana will take over Earth, murder Cinder’s love Emperor Kai, and enslave or kill everyone Cinder cares about.
In general, conflict that matters follows an if/then formula:
If [the protagonist] is unable to [overcome the obstacle], then [something important is destroyed].
If [Percy Jackson] is unable to [locate and return Zeus’s lightning bolt], then [the gods will break out into war and destroy the world].
If [Harry Potter] is unable to [defeat the Dark Lord], then [the wizarding world will fall to evil].
In any case, the then portion must contain something the hero stands to lose. The world. A loved one. The protagonist’s own freedom. Find something that the protagonist—and, by extension, the readers—cannot live without and have your conflict threaten that. Only then will readers understand how grave the obstacle is and that risk of loss will motivate your character to act and your readers to see the story to the end.