Every good story needs a central conflict. While every writer from novice to master could tell you as much, not all of them are applying the concept. To demonstrate what I mean, here are some examples and non-examples:
Examples of a central conflict:
Fantasy: If the protagonist is not successful, a corrupt leader will come to power and bring misery.
Science Fiction: An emerging technology threatens the delicate balance of power and the protagonist must make sure the right people come out on top.
Romance: The protagonist is interested in a long-term relationship with a girl who isn’t ready to settle down.
Thriller: The protagonist discovers a plot to release a chemical weapon in the Boston subway system and he must find a way to stop it.
Non-Examples of a central conflict:
Fantasy: The protagonist wants to learn magic but it’s difficult.
Science Fiction: The protagonist keeps getting attacked by space pirates and has to battle his way to safety.
Romance: The protagonist realizes his ex-girlfriend is in the same restaurant while he’s on a date with his new girlfriend.
Thriller: The hero is tied up and must solve a riddle to free himself before a bomb goes off.
Notice the difference? The non-examples do show conflict, but it’s not central. And there’s not really anything wrong with the non-examples; in fact, you should aim to include as much conflict as you can in your story. But the real key is this: every story needs a backbone of dramatic conflict.
If you’re working on something right now and the central conflict isn’t becoming clear to you, be afraid. The gradual unfolding of your central conflict is the stage that your story plays out in front of. It provides context and relevance to the episodic moments of tension, and those moments of tension should ultimately build toward the central conflict, even if it’s only a step at a time. It’s all tied up together like a big, tense hairball. Maybe not the best simile, but you get the point.
Every scene in your story needs to have goals, and one of the most important goals is building toward your central conflict.
So take a look at what you’re working on now. Leave a comment describing your central conflict. If you can’t figure out what that conflict is, go back to the drawing board and figure out what it should be.