Sunday, November 7, 2010

External and internal conflict

Ever since reading Janice Hardy's thoughts about the topic on Friday, I've been thinking about external and internal conflict. That very day I realized that the reason a story I've been writing wasn't working was that I didn't have both external and internal conflicts - only external. I found myself asking a question:

Why is it so important to have both external and internal conflicts in a story?

One reason is complexity. A story with only external conflicts feels somewhat shallow to me, no matter how thorny the external conflict becomes. I always like to have the sense that the protagonist is somehow at odds with the external realities of his or her situation.

Another is unpredictability. I always like a story that is hard to predict, and as Janice notes, when you have external conflict driving the story in one direction, and internal conflict driving it in yet another, "crashing them together," the story's direction becomes more difficult to guess.

Both of these are reasons I've thought through before, but this week the problem hit me from another direction, and I came up with a third.

It feels more real.

Now, why would that be? Maybe because it's plausible to think that most people have internal issues they're working through. On the other hand, why would it be so appropriate to have the protagonist dealing with internal conflicts that directly contrast with the external ones? Wouldn't that feel more coincidental? To me it doesn't. After much thought, what I decided was this:

An internal conflict that contrasts with an external one lets the protagonist fight directly against the author.

As a reader, I know that the external conflict is controlled by the author - an outside force that throws things at our beloved protagonist. I don't feel the same way about conflict inside the character, for some reason, even though I know the author is just as much in control of the conflict inside the character as they are of the conflict outside. I think it's because a well-crafted character will feel like her motivations grow naturally from personality, experience and other factors. Thus, so long as the protagonist feels like a real person, then her struggle with internal conflict, while dealing with the events of the plot, will take on additional dimension. Not only will the protagonist's choices be unexpected, but she will take on that quality that I love to feel when writing a character - the feeling that she is acting on her own against me and against what I might (as the writer) want to make her do.

I urge you to think through internal conflict as well as external. It will really make a difference to your story.


  1. In a recent writers' workshop, I learned that a story needs a minimum of two plot layers, the external and the internal. Ideally they're related, but sometimes it can be more interesting if they're not, if it's done well.

    For example, a police officer solving a murder must deal psychologically with the recent death of her own mother.

    What is important is that the internal and external plots resolve themselves nearly simultaneously in the climax of the story.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Corey. Yes, indeed, it adds an extra layer to a story if you have both internal and external conflicts. And it's ideal to have both of them come to a head (if not resolve themselves, precisely) in the climax of the story. Janice talks quite extensively about the details of this, and I'm adding my own thoughts on another reason (besides the main-plot related ones) to look for both internal and external conflicts.