Regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, one of the most important things to understand is how to create compelling conflict. Conflict is the glue that holds together all the other elements in your novel.
The first thing to understand is the difference between internal and external conflict.
Internal conflict is the personal dilemma that the character faces. Think of it as the psychic wound that must be healed by the end of the journey in your story. The action in your novel should be such that it makes your character confront that wound in order that it might begin to heal and so that we can see the growth of the character by the conclusion of the story.
As a writer, I strive to pick conflicts for my characters which are universal and which will elicit strong gut reactions in my readers. For example, a heroine I have used before is the survivor of both domestic abuse and a violent kidnapping. Because of that she has an aversion to violent men with which readers can sympathize and which will pull emotions from the reader.
Getting the heroine to deal with those wounds from the past and grow will involve forcing the issue of that conflict, generally by putting her together with someone who is (or appears to be) directly antagonistic to that growth.
External conflict consists of the outside forces, which make your characters behave in a certain way. For example, the tornado in THE WIZARD OF OZ whisks Dorothy away from the real world and drops her on the Wicked Witch forcing her on a journey she might not have otherwise taken.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that you cannot use external forces to make your character grow or change their mind. For example, the old-hero-gets shot-heroine-realizes-she-loves-him scene.
When external conflict pushes your character’s growth, it weakens them because it takes the decision-making out of their hands.
Consider this other example. Hero has been pushed to the edge of the cliff during a chase scene. She has one choice. Jump off the cliff or get captured by the baddies.
Using external conflict, the hero slips on the rocks and falls of the cliff, making her escape.
Using internal conflict, the hero realizes she may die either way, but opts to be master of her own fate and jumps off the cliff.
In the second the actions of the hero are resolute and of her own making, making her a much more powerful figure in your story.
Want to make it even more compelling? What if your hero was afraid of heights?
Think of the above when creating your hero’s conflict. Ask yourself what is their biggest dilemma? Then push it a little more.
How could you possibly make that dilemma even harder for them? Think Indiana Jones and the snakes or the afraid of heights hero on the cliff.
Then think some more to see if there is even some other challenge that will make your hero face that dilemma and find a way to heal that wound that is preventing them from moving forward.
If you take the time to create a strong foundation around that conflict, you will find that as you build your story it will remain strong and stable. You will also find that the reader will become engaged in the conflict and be rooting for hero to end their journey happily.