Writing Question: Conflict

explosionCiao, SEers. Seems my time for a Friday post has rolled around again. This is the week of the month where we pose a question for discussion.

I’m going to discuss first, then pose my question.

Ask one hundred authors how to craft a story, and you’ll get one hundred pieces of advice. Some might be helpful to you, some not so much. But one thing authors, editors, publishers, and readers agree on is this: good stories have conflict.

There are two types of conflict: internal and external.

  • External conflict is an outside force acting on the hero.
    • Suspense: Being stalked by a serial killer.
    • Romance: Domineering father forcing his choice of suitors on his daughter (a man she despises) to improve the family’s socioeconomic status.
  • Internal conflict is the turmoil self-imposed on the hero.
    • Suspense: She’s a cop and wants to succeed at her job, but she’s afraid and wants to go into hiding.
    • Romance: She’s a devoted daughter and wants to make her father happy and proud, but she’s in love with their stable boy.

If you can come up with internal and external conflicts that oppose each other, all the better.

So here are my questions:

  • Which type of conflict makes for a more compelling plot?
  • Do you have to have both types for a good story?
  • If internal and external conflicts aren’t directly opposed to each other,  do you need to add another conflict so they tie together?
  • Is the type of conflict dependent on the genre of the work?

Basically, I’d love to know your thoughts on conflict in novels. Feel free to use examples from your own works to prove your points. Sound off below.

Staci Troilo

31 thoughts on “Writing Question: Conflict

  1. Very good and insightful questions…

    I believe the kind of conflict ofis strictly tied to the genre, and I’m thinking about movies too.
    In a pure action story, for instance, there may not be internal conflict. Just think of James Bond, he is usually the same at the beginning and end of the story, the point is just is he going to outsmart the villain and save the world?

    Or classical detective stories. Miss Murple doesn’t really has an internal arch, the conflict is all external, and the point is will the murdere be caught in the end?

    I find internal conflict very important when supports the main theme by adding layers abd depth to the story. Usually I enjoy a story more if there are both an internal and an external growth or change.

    I’m having a hard time finding a story where internal conflict is not sparked or supported by an external one… Even if there are cases when the internal conflict is more important. I’m thinking about Pride and Prejudice or any other JA novel.

    Great post! Always providing food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your answer is exactly the situation I was pondering when I asked whether genre determines conflict. I think thrillers or mysteries can be externally-driven, particularly when you have a character like Bond or Holmes or Marple who don’t really have a growth arc. Look for some women’s fiction, where there’s a lot of introspection and character growth (but not a lot of action) to find internally-driven conflicts. Anne Rivers Siddons comes to mind. Not all of her works, but some, have little to do with a mystery or action and rely almost entirely on relationships and introspection. (That may not sound exciting to some, but her novels are beautifully written and she has a gift for developing characters who draw the reader in.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmm, interesting question, Staci. I think that an external conflict will often result in an internal conflict. Father wants his daughter to marry a rich prince but she is in love with the stable boy. I think they often go hand in hand.

    Liked by 2 people

    • When the internal and external are linked, that’s when things get really juicy. The way I set that particular conflict up is a great example of one leading the other.

      But sometimes they aren’t related. They both still drive action, but I don’t think the conflict is as amped that way. For example:
      • Internal: she struggles with her weight and therefore her self-esteem, making her shy.
      • External: An asteroid is plummeting to earth, and her husband has been asked to try to stop it; he agreed, but it might kill him.

      Her self-esteem has nothing to do with the impending danger. It wouldn’t take much to find a way to link the two—maybe she thinks he took the assignment not to save the earth but to get away from her. But as it stands, they’re unrelated. And, in my mind, not as interesting as when the two are intertwined and working against each other. I think it’s most interesting when the internal and external pull the character in different directions. (Don’t you love torturing your characters?)

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a great question, Staci. For myself, I like reading books with a blend of internal and external conflict. External for action to keep me turning the pages and internal so I connect with the characters and become invested in the outcome.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Staci! Such a heavy question so early in the morning (sigh). I usually try to decide early if I’ll use man against man, nature, or himself. However after I choose, the characters, without any help from me, go off seeking other conflicts to get embroiled in. LOL! Some of their external conflicts I keep, but others take me too far from the original story (if this makes any sense).

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I’ve never really thought about one type over the other, as when I write both seem to work together. I also usually have both in my books. I’m a big fan of conflict and flawed characters both as writer and reader. I probably prefer when characters grapple with inner turmoil more than external conflict, but I think both are able to drive a work on their own merits. Great questions, Staci. They really make you stop and think!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I dunno??? I’m parked at the desk in my hotel room, fiddling with the Keurig, before heading downstairs to work. I believe there is a better chance at a good story with internal and external conflict in the story. I don’t know that one or the other exclusively cannot make for a good story. I also think there is some benefit to Murphy’s Law as it applies to character plans. This doesn’t create novel length conflict, but it causes flashpoint tension at the worst time.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Not sure I can wrap my brain around the answers this early in the morning. However, I tend to agree with Harmony. Not sure the genre should dictate the type of conflict as long as it fits the story.

    I tend to have both internal and external in my books. In my first Driscoll Lake book, Unseen Motives, my MC Stephanie wants to know the truth about her father. There is talk that her father may have been having an affair and she thinks her love interest may have also had an affair. Therefore, her trust in men is somewhat tarnished. Of course, while searching the external conflict is that the killer doesn’t want her to learn the truth and that puts her in danger.

    In the second book, Unknown Reasons, MC Brian is being targeted by a serial arsonist who is trying to make him look like the guilty party. During this time, things come to light about his past. He has to overcome both the internal conflict that stemmed from years of emotional abuse (therefore causing him to doubt some people whom he cares for) as well as the external conflict (proving his innocence).

    Great post. You certainly made me think!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Loved that response, Joan.

      I didn’t want to ask a leading question in the post, but there are some people who think plot-driven fiction (for example, thrillers) should rely on external conflict (potential bomb in the train station) and character-driven fiction (for example, women’s lit) should play up the internal conflict (is my fiance’s mother going to think I’m good enough).

      Personally, I like both, regardless of genre. But then again, even when I write thrillers, I have a lot going on internally.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post and thought-provoking questions, Staci! The way I see it, our inner and outer lives mirror one another, so where we have conflict in one, we are likely to experience conflict in the other too. To that end, I don’t think that the type of story has to dictate internal or external at all. If we have an external conflict, then a mirrored internal one brings it to life and enhances the reality. However, I don’t think that we necessarily need to have an external conflict to mirror an internal one … how many times have we suffered inwardly when around us all seems well? Thanks for sharing! I’m definitely going to give this more thought 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • “I don’t think that we necessarily need to have an external conflict to mirror an internal one … how many times have we suffered inwardly when around us all seems well?”

      Very astute observation, Harmony.

      Liked by 1 person

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