I teach interpersonal communication, and love the chapter on conflict because of the way it applies to plot lines. One of my favorite assignments is to have students keep a "conflict log" for a week, and then select one example and analyze it.
Most of my students have jobs in the restaurant or retail industry, and/or siblings, which account for many of the conflicts. One of my favorite stories was about the creative way in which a student resolved the scarcity of resources dilemma (same goal) with her brother regarding a bag of peas that included him driving her to the store late at night to replace it. The dialog alone made me laugh out loud. Conflict drove that story, turning it into a funny essay that should be published.
There are three common causes of interpersonal conflict: misunderstandings, different goals, and same goals. Each can propel a story.
Misunderstanding: Caused by a simple miscommunication, lack of communication, or poor listening.
After my daughter's recent wedding, I volunteered to take her friend to the airport. She was staying at my daughter's condo, and I drove there to pick her up. But, she had driven to my workplace, and called me just as I was pulling into my daughter's driveway. I barely had enough time to drive back, take her to the airport, and return to work. This misunderstanding caused tension, and the question, "Would I make it back to work on time?" is a plot device we've seen in every movie that has a bomb with a timer, and some involving a pregnant woman. (Will she make it to the hospital on time?) That tension makes us turn pages, or stay engaged.
Different goals: Many romantic comedies feature couples with different goals, and the conflict drives the story as we wonder whether or not they can work it out.
For instance, The Devil Wears Prada plot focuses on a "glamourous" job in the fashion industry, but conflict arises from the goals not shared by Anne Hathaway and her boyfriend. He is unhappy about the time she spends on the job, with little time left for their relationship. He wants her, she wants the job. Different goals.
Same goals: Two people want the same thing. Scarcity of resources.
Same movie, Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt had the same goal, to be the essential assistant to Meryl Streep. In the beginning, we watch Blunt navigate the job smoothly as Anne flounders, but then the tables turn. Each resents the other while competing to get in the good graces of their boss. One job, two people. We've also seen this plot when two women compete for the same man, or vice versa.
So, the next time your plot is stagnant, consider conflict. Or, try keeping your own conflict log to see if you can spot any plot lines that might turn into a great story. And, if you take my class, you'll get credit for it!