Stories have more resonance when the primary conflict is framed against an internal struggle that the main character is working through. The TV series, Lost, does this beautifully. Every episode focuses on one of the cast members and something from their past life. Some event from their back-story is playing a role in the way they act and the way they make their decisions.
Personal conflict is the real driver in any story's tension. It doesn't have to be related to the overall plot, but it does have to be relevant to the character's role in the story. It is the reason why the character lends a hand to resolving the plot (as in the role of a hero), and it is also the reason the character opposes the resolution (as a villain would do).
- It is the reason why the character behaves as the protagonist
- It is the reason why the character chooses to become the villain
The real meat of the story isn't in what people do, but why they do it.
As a writer using this technique, you can build up to three levels of conflict:
- Emotional struggle with some past issue
- Character's actions, either as a direct result of the internal emotional struggle, or in finding resolution to these emotions.
- The main conflict, which is the story's overall plot.
The emotional conflict can be any intense feeling. It doesn't have to be negative. The list can go on, and on, and on:
- Sexual tension
- Unrequited love
- Secret crush
- Sudden breakthroughs
In my recent short story, Counting Crows, each scene is laced with some kind of emotional tension. Here are some examples:
- Opening: Megan challenges Devan to show her something that will make her believe he can do real magic. Ethne comes in, reprimands Devan for neglecting his chores, creating an uncomfortable moment for Megan.
- The kitchen fire: Oma nearly burned down the house. Megan is in big trouble. Megan's life taking care of Oma is a huge burden.
- Devan comes around: Megan is too busy to pay him notice.
- Devan brings Megan a gift: Argument between Megan and her brother. She makes fun of Devan, who overhears.
- The priest: Lynet resents him, and she resents Beoden's refusal to let Ethne come and treat her mother.
- Megan goes to see Ethne: Ethne's noththere, and she has to mend things with Devan, instead.
- Ethne and Devan come to look at Oma: Megan can't watch. She goes outside to be with Devan, and they talk about their belief in the afterlife.
I'll close with a little exercise. I'll use the TV show, Lost, because it illustrates my point so well. Here is a link to ABC's website. Click on "Watch Free Episodes," in the upper left. Pick a season, and then pick an episode. If you haven't seen the series, then start out at season 1. As you watch, take note from scene to scene, and pay particular attention to the type of emotional tension and how it drives what each character does.