by Isabo Kelly
Conflict is the heart of fiction. Without conflict there is no story. In times past, most genre fiction was considered to be dominated by external conflict, while literary fiction was the playground of internal conflict. Times have changed. Most modern commercial fiction utilizes both internal and external conflict to deepen a story, add tension, give depth to characters, and add layers that make a story hard to put down.
So what’s the difference between the two?
Simply put, internal conflict is the main character in conflict with some inner demon. This conflict is emotional and psychological, an inner struggle between the protagonist and herself. External conflict revolves around the story goal. It’s essentially the plot. Your protagonist wants something and is prevented from getting it by external forces. This external force doesn’t have to be a conscious opponent (for example, if that force is nature). It just has to prevent the protagonist from achieving their goal.
The most engaging stories ensure these two types of conflict revolve around and interact with each other. If the internal conflict doesn't affect the character’s pursuit of their goal and knock up against their external conflict, readers will feel like they’re getting two, disconnected stories. Weaving the two types of conflict together gives layers and punch to your fiction.
The external conflict will push the protagonist into action, requiring her to make decisions and difficult choices.
The internal conflict will affect which choices she makes and the way she feels about her decisions.
A good way to understand this interweaving is through a simple example:
Jane is left her beloved aunt’s ranch when her aunt dies. Jane wants to sell her aunt’s ranch because the life Jane has always dreamed of having is in NYC, but the only person willing to buy the ranch is her aunt’s worst enemy (EXTERNAL CONFLICT). Jane wants to honor her aunt’s wishes and memory because she was the only person in Jane’s life who didn’t make her feel like a selfish petty person, but to do that will require Jane giving up her dreams and risks her growing bitter and resentful (INTERNAL CONFLICT).
Dean wants to buy his neighbor’s land because he needs to expand his ranch (a ranch his family has owned for generations) or risk the business failing, but the person who could sell him the ranch refuses to (EXTERNAL CONFLICT). Dean has failed in other businesses—something that resulted in ridicule from his father. He needs to make this family business a success because he’s desperate for his father’s approval, but to succeed he’ll have to take actions he considers unethical and immoral (INTERNAL CONFLICT).
This example demonstrates several things. First, the external goals of the two main characters are in conflict, which creates the plot. They both want something but the other person is preventing them from getting it. Jane wants to sell her land to someone her aunt would approve of (not Dean). Dean wants the land desperately enough to run off any other buyers (leaving Jane with few options). Their internal conflicts complicate how they deal with this external conflict. In fact, if these were two different types of people, there would be no external conflict. If Jane didn’t care about her aunt’s memory and wasn’t worried about living up to the “selfish” title bestowed on her by others, she’d just sell the land to Dean and be done with it. If Dean didn’t care about his father’s approval and wasn’t terrified of failing at yet another business—this one his family’s business—he wouldn’t bother running off other potential buyers of his neighbor’s land.
But because of who these people are, and because of the inner conflicts they struggle with, their decisions and choices affect how the story progresses, essentially creating the plot out of their character.
Now, if we’re talking about a romance novel, even more conflict will arise when these two people fall in love. Most of this conflict will be internal because this is their emotional journey. But the way they deal with the external conflict will affect how their internal relationship conflict unfolds: Dean is a country boy whose dreams require him to live on his family’s ranch. Jane’s dreams revolve around living in a big city, and she hates country life. Dean’s actions in preventing Jane from selling her land introduces distrust on Jane’s part and guilt and regret on Dean’s part—internal conflict affected by their external goals and conflict.
In the end, one will “win” while the other “loses”, or they’ll find some alternate compromise that allows them both to leave the situation satisfied—and if this is a romance, you’ll want to work toward that compromise ending because readers expect the characters to end up happily together!
Either way, you’ve given your readers enough conflict to create doubt that you can pull off a happy ending and that’s what will keep them reading.
One final note: In her superlative craft book GMC: GOAL, MOTIVATION AND CONFLICT (a book I highly recommend!), Debra Dixon provides a very useful sentence to define GMC: The protagonist wants a (GOAL) because of a (MOTIVATION) but is prevented from getting this goal by (CONFLICT). This same sentence applies to both internal and external GMC and is very handy in helping to define your internal and external conflicts.
You’ll notice I used this sentence structure above in my example. I did this for the very specific reason that it makes both internal and external conflicts crystal clear when set against a character’s goal and their motivation to achieve that goal. Creating an external conflict which is complicated by a strong internal conflict will add layers and depths to your fiction. Knowing how to weave these two types of conflict together makes your story impossible to put down and will ensure readers stay on the edge of their seats until they reach the end.♥
Isabo Kelly is the multi-award winning author of numerous fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal romances. Her latest release, WARRIOR’S DAWN (Fire and Tears #3), utilizes both external and internal conflict to create an intense and compelling fantasy romance. For more on Isabo and her books, visit her at www.isabokelly.com, follow her on Twitter @IsaboKelly or friend her on Facebook www.facebook.com/IsaboKelly.