If you create trouble for a character early on in your story, you arouse a reader’s concern. But trouble alone won’t cut it to keep readers in a story to the end. A character in trouble may arouse fear in readers, but only when they care for your character will it matter. We worry for friends or family in trouble, and if we lose them we feel sadness. Fear is a state of mind, a response to a threat. Sadness is an emotion.
You want to create fear, worry and dread for readers who are emotionally invested in your characters. But how best to do this? Using all the tools to develop character discussed previously, ratchet up conflict. Conflict heightens worry and fear, and in some cases causes a thrill, and with resolution a reader experiences happiness or sadness. You’re happy or sad for your character because you care for him and vicariously experience his emotions. Here we are again on the question why readers read – to experience a world without having to live in it.
Conflict is the basis of drama. Conflict can be internal, a character’s war within herself, it can be conflict with another character or characters, or it can be physical, but physical conflict matters most when readers become emotionally invested in a character and cares what happens to him. Conflict creates tension that drives the story and your readers will fear for your character, experience relief if he prevails in his troubles, or weep for him if he loses. John Banville’s The Sea is a quiet story that begins with the main character’s argument with his daughter, which induces a reader’s curiosity about the why of this conflict. As a reader begins to identify with the character she worries for him, so that by the end of this very internal story she feels deeply the loss of children he knew as a child and the loss of his wife.
To sharpen conflict in the story you’re writing, raise the importance and significance of the outcome. The deeper the stakes, the deeper the tension will be for the reader. Readers, demanding relief, will follow your character to resolution because they care. What’s going to happen to him? Inquiring minds want to know.