All About Conflict, Part 2

Last time on the Castelane Author Resources blog, I talked about the different levels of conflict. If you missed that article, you might want to START HERE

In Part 2 of the discussion on conflict, I want to look at External vs Internal conflict and how these relate to the different levels of conflict (macro, mini and micro).

"Among the many ways to distinguish between fiction styles, one useful division is between plot-driven stories and character-driven stories…In some respects, all stories are character-driven. After all, without character there would be no story. We can only experience the phenomenon of story through a character’s eyes. No plot can survive without character, just as no character lives in a void." (from Revise to Write)

External Conflict

External conflict comes from the antagonist. This might be the villain, a force of nature, or an illness. It is pressure put on the hero from an outside source, something they have no influence over. This kind of conflict is generally easy to plot out because it requires action. 

On a macro level, this will be the main story arc, or the main obstacle the hero has to overcome. 

On a mini level, external conflict can come from arguments with allies or setbacks in obtaining a goal. Think of the fellowship of the ring in Tolkien’s stories trekking up the snowy mountain. The storm is an external conflict that they have to deal with. You can almost hear Tolkien’s thoughts…and then they are attacked by black riders, and then they have to climb a mountain, and then a storm nearly knocks them off the mountain… All these obstacles are external forces brought on them by the villains or the setting. 

Inner Conflict

Inner conflict is more nuanced. What does the character want and how is that desire in opposition to what is happening to them? How does their moral compass stand in the way of accomplishing their goals? What lies does the hero tell others or even themselves? These instances of inner conflict that cause the hero to grow or change from the beginning to the end of the story are called the “character arc.”

In a literary novel, this change may be the entire plot. In commercial fiction, the character arc usually takes a back seat to the external conflict that is the main story arc. That doesn’t mean it is any less important. Internal conflict is the language of emotion. It is how the reader connects to the story, how the reader comes to care about the character and their outcome. Internal conflict is vitally important. Without it, your reader will see the story happening, but not feel it.

On a macro level, inner conflict is how the characters motivations, outlook and desires change from the beginning of the story to the end (character arc). This kind of conflict can be more difficult to plot out. It tends to happen naturally during the draft writing process. Be sure to have a clear idea of what your character’s motivations/outlook/desires are at the beginning and the end of the story, then let those emotions out as you write. During revision, you can go back and strengthen those emotional changes. 

On a mini level, every scene needs some kind of conflict. Here are a few examples of inner conflict that happen at the scene level. Each of these will cause conflict, but the conflict arises from the hero’s internal purpose.

  • The hero is forced to lie (i.e., the hero lies to her best friend in order to keep her away from trouble.)
  • The hero’s inner thoughts disagree with their actions or words (i.e., the hero is forced into battle even if they abhor violence.)
  • An emotion colors how they react to a situation (i.e., a private detective has just found out that his wife wants a divorce. Now he is on a stakeout to get proof of a cheating husband.)

These little conflicts can snowball into larger conflicts that eventually lead to the climax of the story. Every scene should have some kind of conflict. Look for these mini tensions to create resonate scenes.

On a micro level, inner conflict can be beats of emotion (desire, fear, shame) that work against the hero (desire, fear, shame). See All About Conflict, Part 1 for an example of an emotional beat.

Goal vs Motivation

Another useful way of looking at external and internal conflict is to compare goal and motivation. Goal is what the character thinks they want. Main characters should not have the same goals. That’s how tension is created. So, your villain wants something (to get away with murder) and your hero wants something in opposition (to bring the murderer to justice). 

But what if there are no villains? In romance, two main characters are often set up in opposition. In this case, their goals must be in opposition too. For example, a wealthy businesswoman might want to develop land in a small town. A local man refuses to sell his family farm that is part of the development site. These are external goals that each character works toward—goals that they actively seek.

Motivation is the driving force behind their goal and often comes from character flaws or backstory. Motivation is working against inner influences. It is something they instinctively seek. Continuing with the above example, ask the question, why? Why does the local man adamantly refuse to sell? Is the farm his last link to his dead wife? Or is it his refuge so he doesn’t have to face the world outside? Why does the businesswoman need to close the deal? Does it mean a huge bonus that will give her freedom to leave a bad marriage? Is it simply because she has an overdeveloped sense of competition? 

The answers to these questions provide motivation behind the actions. Both goals and motivations may shift during a story to create truly compelling characters. 

Don’t Forget to Water Your Conflict!

Conflict must grow and change just as characters do. Tension is created when a reader asks a question that isn’t immediately answered in the story. Waiting for this answer creates tension and makes the reader turn pages. Little conflicts also turn pages, but their questions will be answered more quickly. It’s important that when such a smaller question is answered, another arises. Close the door on one conflict and open another. In this way the character (and reader) keeps moving forward. 

The character’s core values must change over the course of the story. Here’s an example from a book I recently read where the conflict stagnated:

The hero’s (let’s call him “Bob”) younger brother dies and Bob blames himself. Then more of his friends die, again not due to his actions. Bob now feels like everyone around him dies and that it’s his fault for not protecting them. This inner turmoil works well at the beginning of the story. It’s easy to believe that Bob could blame himself for his brother’s death. But over the course of many years and about a thousand pages, Bob continues to gnash his teeth over the fact that he can’t save everyone. 

It may be a harsh thing to say, but Bob’s angst began to wear on me. About halfway through the books, his conflict seemed more like a whine. I wanted him to be better than that. I didn’t expect him to save everyone. I expected him to put on his big-boy pants and lay the blame where it belonged. I expected his inner conflicts to shift and grow, not stagnate. So be wary of having your hero always lamenting the same old woe without any self-examination.

There’s still so much conflict to talk about. In the next installment in this series, we’ll look at the last two kinds of conflict: the Sticking Point and the Line in the Sand. Read All About Conflict, Part 3 HERE.

Are you uncertain if your novel has all the necessary layers of conflict? Check out my EDITING services for a full review of your plot and character arc. January started with a bang and I am already booking into March for editing, so CONTACT me today and I can provide you with a 5-page sample line edit.

if Kim McDougall could have one magical superpower, it would be to talk to animals. Or maybe to shift into animal form. Definitely, fantastical creatures and magic often feature in her urban fantasy stories. So until she can change into a griffin and fly away, she writes dark paranormal suspense and romance tales full of witches, demons, werewolves, vampires, yetis and maybe even a gargoyle or two.

Kim McDougall is the author of the Hidden Coven series and Revise to Write, Edit Your Novel, Get Published and Become a Better Writer She is also a publishing coach and book designer at Castelane, For the Prose.

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