Conflict. We've all heard of it, and we all know what it means. But what does it mean for story? Getting conflict into your story is one of the key factors in making your story work. Get it right, and not only will you set up a situation from which plot will organically flow, you will have a story which keeps readers reading.
In it's simplest terms, conflict means that there is going to be a fight. It doesn't have to be an actual fight, although it can be. More often than not, conflict consists of all the things that stand in the way of your main character getting what they want, and achieving their story goal. Overcoming these things is what we call character development, or character arc. The work involved in overcoming the obstacles causes character change, and because the character has changed, they are able to get what they want at the end of the book.
One genre which does conflict spectacularly well is the romance genre, because characters have both internal and external conflict. This means that the characters have fears and doubts (internal conflict) that they have to overcome, as well as external, environmental problems, and the two are usually tightly linked.
As an example of this, I'm going to talk about the Sea King by C.L. Wilson, a fantasy romance that I read recently. The set of up conflict in this book is a masterclass in how to design characters who are the exact opposite of what the other needs.
Let's start with the hero, Dilys. (Yes, this is all a bit ridiculous, but it's fantasy rom. It's meant to be). Dilys is basically Aquaman. He is 7 feet tall, grows gills underwater, has magic powers, and loves his mother.
At the start of the book, Dilys is looking for a bride. But not just any bride. He has very specific requirements. He needs a wife with a certain level of magic, one who will give him lots of children. It's been narrowed down to a choice of 3 sisters, 2 of whom have been judged suitable. All Dilys has to do is choose which of the 2 he wants, and it's a done deal. The magic and children bit are non-negotiable, as magic is fading in Dily's land, his mother is dying, and he needs a magic wife to keep her alive.
So off Dilys goes to visit the three sisters.
If you know anything about story, you've probably already guessed which of the three sisters Dilys falls for. Correct! Sister number three. The sister without magic. The one who doesn't tick any of the boxes and can't help Dilys save his mother. Immediately, right there, we have conflict. The path to true love will not run smooth. This is going to be fun.
So at first, we see Dilys wandering around, tall and muscular and confused because he's in love with the wrong sister and this is terrible (external + internal conflict). What is he going to do? But that's not the end of it. You see, Dilys' chosen sister, Summer, does have magic, only she's hiding it, because she has so much magic that she struggles to control it and it can become very dangerous. She can't tell Dilys that she's got more magic than she knows what to do with because she wants to keep him at arm's length, frightened that love + her magic is a really, really bad combination (internal conflict). And then when Dilys discovers the truth, her magic then causes further trouble, because there are people who don't want Dilys to have such a powerful wife (external conflict).
There are plenty of other examples of great conflict set ups, but this book nails it so well, so early on. A wants v. B wants. Add in the layers, and suddenly you've got a great story on your hands.