Inside Out: Using internal and external conflict to create a compelling story
As writers, we often hear that conflict is what makes a story. A character wants something and they face obstacles to getting it, which creates tension. Without conflict, you just have a series of events without any stakes for the character. Ho hum. For a compelling story, you have to give your characters something to fight for or against.
Conflict in a story comes in two main types, internal conflict and external conflict. As its name implies, internal conflict is conflict within your character. It is a psychological struggle that relates to a character’s emotions, desires, doubts, fears, and expectations. It tends to be related to character arc, how your character grows and changes throughout the book. External conflict is conflict between your character and the outside world. This could be a conflict with another character or with society in general. It could be a fight against nature or against an illness. External conflicts tend to drive the plot forward.
Some stories will lean more heavily toward one type of conflict than the other. For example, a fast-paced thriller that is very plot driven might focus more on external conflict (a bomb will explode in thirty minutes; do something!), while a literary novel about a mother-son relationship might rely more on internal conflict (how do I support my son without enabling him?). But most stories will benefit from both types of conflict. External conflicts add excitement, and they are the major plot drivers of your story. This is the hurricane bearing down on your protagonist’s home or the coworker trying to sabotage their success. But internal conflicts add nuance and make your story more relatable. We might not all be trying to find a cure for a deadly disease like your scientist protagonist, but many of us can relate to his struggle to decide whether to stay in the hot zone to keep working or to leave and get his family to safety. While the details might differ from our lives, we understand the battle within between work and family, between duty and desire. Internal conflicts make your story more universal.
Though the two types of conflict are different, they don’t work in isolation. External conflicts force characters to face their internal struggles. Internal conflicts affect how they respond to external forces. For example, perhaps your character has trust issues from childhood trauma. They like to do things for themselves rather than relying on others. So what happens if this person is thrown into a situation where their only true chance of survival is to count on others? Now the external conflict (I have to get out of this city before the zombies get me!) runs headlong into the internal conflict (I can’t trust others to help me). The character will need to face their internal conflict in order to succeed against the external conflict. The two play off of each other, creating more conflicts as they go. For example, in our zombie apocalypse, pe
rhaps our main character freaks out about relying on the group and sneaks off in the night with some of their supplies. Now the group has to go off course to find her, leading them into a zombie hot spot they had been trying to avoid. And voila! One character’s internal conflict has led to a new external conflict for everybody. This might be bad news for the characters, but it’s good news for readers, who now have one more worry to keep them flipping the pages.
This brings up another important point. Your characters aren’t living in isolation. They are in a world populated with other characters, all of whom are facing their own conflicts. Bouncing these conflicts off each other adds depth and interest to your story. For example, perhaps you have one character who is a bit rigid (internal conflict = I need to follow this rule, even though I know it is wrong) and another character who is a rebel (internal conflict = I need to break the rules, even if others will pay the price), and they are paired together as partners on the police force. These opposing internal conflicts might lead one or both characters to reassess their own way of thinking and could also lead to some interesting plot points as they both try to assert their way of looking at the world. Readers are left wondering and worrying about which way of thinking will win out. Will they follow police procedure even if it means the kidnapped woman might not be saved in time? Will they break protocol, knowing the evidence might be thrown out in court, letting the defendant avoid punishment and perhaps hurt others? This can even create internal conflict in your readers as they try to figure out which side they come down on!
Conflict is what makes a story more than just a series of events and what keeps your readers reading. Make sure your characters are facing both internal and external conflicts to create a story that is interesting, exciting, and relatable.