The greatest stories—the ones that haunt—present the hero/protagonist with an impossible choice: love versus freedom, honor versus death, duty to country versus protection of loved ones. How is the protagonist supposed to choose between such agonizing options? The point is that one can’t, and the impossible struggle to do so drives the story to its climax with such intensity that readers can barely breathe wondering what happens next.
But whether you call it cynical, realistic, savvy or any combination of those, honor and duty don’t quite compel the way they did in Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. So for the contemporary writer, the problem is escalating plot and characterization to that level of intensity. And no matter what genre you write in, this is a problem. Why? Because you want to keep your readers breathless. You want your characters to seem not ordinary but memorably larger than life. Finally, you want a story that lasts because it touches on the human instincts that remain unchanged across the centuries.
The trick is to uncover the elements of your plot that are universal:
More of these exist, of course, but this gives you the idea.
Then you want to take what might seem like a pedestrian conflict (Will she accept his proposal?) and make it more substantial (Will she accept his proposal even though she loves him but her religion forbids her to marry him?) Raise the stakes not just by cornering your characters, which is a terrific starting point, but cornering them with absolutely impossible choices. That’s the kind of thing that keeps pages turning and therefore attracts agents.
Tip: Don’t settle for conflict. Make your protagonist transcend dilemma.