Conflict. Tension. Stakes.
If you've been around the writing boards, or conferences, for very long, you'll hear a lot about these. You'll be told that your story has to have conflict. There should be tension on every page (that's a quote from Donald Maass). The stakes should get higher and higher as you go.
I've heard folks say that these views are culturally based - which in fact they are. Some will argue that these are not "rules," or even if they are, they should be broken more often. You might want to consider those viewpoints, indeed, and look for alternatives. But say you want to work within those "rules," and write a story about conflict and tension, with escalating stakes.
Does it have to have a war?
This weekend I was reading a book, and when I came to the big revelation that there was a war brewing, I hardly blinked. Okay, I thought, is that all? It's not the author's fault, really. It's the fault of the majority of books and films I've encountered in the last several years. So much war. So much, in fact, that it ceases to surprise me as a narrative element. I think the last time I got excited about giant battles was for The Lord of the Rings. The most interesting part of Avatar: The Last Airbender (the series) for me was not the big battles, but the struggles of the individual characters.
When you think about it, war is one of those giant-stakes macroscopic conflicts that can easily lose its significance - in much the same way that ongoing conflict in the world gets forgotten in the distractions of life for someone who isn't directly experiencing it. The most successful stories of war that I've seen always establish what the direct personal consequences are for the persons involved. After all, real wars have very direct personal consequences. The experience of reading The Diary of Anne Frank is very different from that of reading a history book summarizing World War II.
You have a lot of options. After all, The Hunger Games has extreme conflicts and brewing revolution that struck me deeply without having to occur on a massive scale. By the time I got to Mockingjay the conflict had escalated enough - and more importantly, the involvement of Katniss had diminished enough - that I cared a lot less.
Okay, yes, there are ways to do war that are still fresh. I haven't lost hope for my current book, because I trust this author deeply. I found the war in Janice Hardy's books to be different from any other I'd ever read about, in part because it wasn't looming (war always seems to be looming), and in part because of the pain-centered healing economy that made ongoing war necessary (still something I've never seen matched). Myke Cole's books I find fascinating because they put a very personal face on the modern military, and I haven't seen that done previously. Other models, other viewpoints, all of these things are worth considering in the name of making fictional wars seem more fresh. Fine.
But I also know there must be other "ultimate stakes" out there that we haven't seen much of yet.
It's something to think about.