Starting a Story: What’s Your Conflict?
No, we aren't talking about the conflict you have when you're supposed to be writing and Microsoft Word battles it out with Facebook. We are referring to the conflict inside your story.
When you begin writing a story you should, at a minimum, have the conflict clearly delineated in your mind. Conflict is the main driver of any great story and laying it out effectively is the best way to hook a reader right from page one.
So what do we mean by conflict? It may be easier to think of it as opposition. The main character or characters of your story want to have/do/be something and someone or something is opposed to that outcome.
While it may never be known for brilliant prose, The Hunger Games trilogy has captured the minds of millions of readers with believable characters and very clearly delineated conflicts. The main character, Katniss, wants freedom. She also wants to keep her family safe. To create the conflict there are several forces that oppose her. The two most prominent are an oppressive government with a taste for blood sport and resistance fighters who may or may not share all of her desires.
Regardless of any other aspects of the writing or story, there are clear and identifiable threats that the heroine overcomes that make readers invested in what happens to Katniss. That is conflict.
For a more classic example, we can look at To Kill a Mockingbird. Here we find conflict between characters, but we also find conflict between greater philosophical elements. Tolerance opposes racism and duty to one’s family fights for a place in a greater system of justice.
The opposing force that creates conflict can be another person or group, the environment (storms, deserts, etc.) or even time in some cases. You don't necessarily need to personify them in your story, but it may be helpful to think of random events, acts of god or animal instincts as having intention. For example, the storm was trying to sink the ship. A storm is a storm and it will blow whether or not there is a ship around, but for the purpose of the plot it is the thing that is keeping the sailors from achieving their goal.
Often the largest conflict in a story is fully contained within the mind of the main character. He is both the person who wants to have/be/do something and the force keeping himself from it.
It will help to, as an exercise, pull out stories that you've written and identify the specific conflict or conflicts that drive each one. Who is trying to achieve what goal? Who or what is trying to keep that from happening? If you have any difficulty spotting it you may have a weak conflict, making your story less engaging to readers.
When you sit down to write you will find that identifying the conflict early allows the rest of the story to come more easily, as every action is either working toward or against that resolution.