Conflict is an essential element of narrative. Just about anyone will recognize larger conflicts, even the seven basic conflicts, as plot, but some of the best conflict occurs in small scale. Keeping interest can equate to maintaining some kind of conflict tension from scene to scene and chapter to chapter.
If the story keeps all the satisfaction and resolution until the end, most readers will lose interest or start to chaff against constantly being strung along. Of course, this is more directed to longer narratives like novels or series. To use a rough analogy, if the main plot is a staircase with chapters as the individual flights, micro conflicts can be called the steps.
Frustration, its sources, and result, are everything in micro conflicts. These issues are where conflict gains traction and where tension takes shape. We’ll demonstrate with a simple situation which we’ll multiply with a few micro conflicts.
Drawing on the world’s preoccupation with Star Wars, take a look at the asteroid belt scene from The Empire Strikes Back. The larger conflict of the movie can be simplified to “stop the Empire”. The Millennium Falcon, with its current cast of characters, is driven to hide within an asteroid crater. Here are the conflicts leading up to this scene:
Large Conflict: Stop the Empire
“Chapter” conflict: Escape Hoth Attack
Minor conflicts: Escape Tie Fighters, Fix Hyper Drive, Clear Cave Parasites, Escape Space Worm
If the scenes followed just these conflicts, the thing would be dry as dust. Instead, there are a number of micro conflicts that occur during these scenes. They’re the little things that provide ups and downs of emotion and little bits of satisfaction for the audience. Within these scenes driven by minor conflicts, the following micro conflicts are going on:
Nobody wants to put up with C3PO whining; Han kisses Leia; Han’s ship is basically an unorganized trash heap (can’t find the problem/don’t have necessary parts); C3PO can’t walk fast enough to escape; etc.
This is the color. This is the fun. This is the function. These micro conflicts produce quotes, laughter, frustration, fear, disappointment, and most other feels. Those who outline their work, the “plotters”, often hit their writing blocks when it comes to these. “Pantsers” thrive on micro conflicts, following the whims that appear and using them to create larger conflicts.
While conflict appears for many reasons, drawing on story tradition, various emotions, and the function of the particular story’s mechanics, one fairly reliable tool is frustration. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “frustrate” in this way: “(1) to cause (someone) to feel angry, discouraged, or upset because of not being able to do something; (2) to prevent (efforts, plans, etc.) from succeeding : to keep (someone) from doing something.”
Now, the trick is to apply frustration to a block you may have with writing a particular scene, like an instance where you’re not sure how to get the characters from point A to point B. List the characters involved and their ongoing conflicts. This could include physical shortcomings, prejudices regarding other characters, bad habits, grudges, etc.
Also, look at the two big questions for each character: What do they want, and what are they most afraid of (within the scene)? See if you can get some of the characters’ needs/fears to conflict. Or, look for situations that will throw characters together who dislike one another. Toss one between them who might make things more interesting. Most of all, delay giving them what they want until the last possible moment.