Main conflict [meyn kon-flikt]: The central thing that prevents the character from getting what they want.
If you didn't setup what the character wants in the setup, you can do it during the conflict. For example, here are my examples from the past couple of days.
Hook: Sixteen-year-old Annie Jenkins must control the magic to balance the realm—it's too bad her unknown abilities are hidden beneath her inhalant addiction.
Setup: Whenever she's high, Annie has vivid visions of a death she can't remember and a boy she's never met. When she meets Jonathan Clarke, the ghostly boy from her hallucinations, she realizes her drug use has masked the abilities she's inherited from her magic-keeping mother. Wielding magic isn't everything it's cracked up to be; Annie discovers her newfound powers can't cure her terminally ill mother.
So the next paragraph is the conflict.
Annie learns she has the rare power to bring immortal beings (Shadows) living in another realm back into the human world. Jon has been searching for someone with Annie’s Mirror power for a century. (Both of these sentences are still setting up the conflict.) He's desperate for her to restart his heart so he can become human again, but his Reflection can't be completed until she balances the magic. (Jon wants to be human, but…) Their problems double when she learns there are evil Shadows who plan to kill her and take control of the realm. (Oh, crap.) One of Jon's old friends is leading the resistance and attempts to recruit him, while Annie discovers one of her friends is really working against her. (What? A friend that's really an enemy? That can't be good…)
I've actually included a sentence for Jon, one for Annie, and one for both of them. Jon's main conflict is that he wants a beating heart, and he can't get it until Annie balances the magic in his realm. Annie's main conflict is that she could die at the hands of any Shadow (including Jon's) at any time—oh, and don't forget about balancing the magic. Their main conflict together is they both have friends who aren't really their friends—and who would do anything to destroy them. No biggie, right? It took me 106 words to explain the conflict. Five sentences (and two of those were still setup). Find the main conflict and highlight that. Trust me, your query will thank you. Agents will thank you. Readers who read the blurb on the back of your book will thank you.
Now it's your turn. Here's the hook, setup, and conflict from the second novel I've been highlighting this week. Can you identify the main conflict for Vi?
Hook: In a world where Thinkers control the population and the Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Vivian Schoenfeld does a spectacular job of shattering them to pieces.
Setup: Refusing to listen to the Tapes, stealing an old ID card, and walking in the park after dark with a boy land Vi in prison. The Good are usually separated from the Bad, but Vi finds herself sharing a cell with beautiful Bad boy, Jag Barque.
Because Jag and Vi are Free-Thinkers, they're banished to the Badlands, a place Vi fears but has always wanted to go. Secrets about her missing father and dead sister, combined with who—or what—she really is, lead her down a road full of difficult decisions. Falling for Jag further complicates Vi's life as she faces her new role, one she's always despised—being in Control.
I admit, this one is much harder—even for me, and I wrote the darned thing. What do you think? What's the main conflict?
Your job: No novel is complete without conflict. What's yours? Can you clearly identify it for your main character in one sentence? Pull your conflict section out of your query letter and make sure it clearly explains the main conflict for your novel.
Get ready for the final element of The Query Letter – The Consequence – tomorrow. Did you miss the first two installments? Click here for The Hook, and here for The Setup.