Internal vs. External Conflict in Writing

Concept of conflict between husband and wife

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Conflict is a fundamental ingredient that drives narratives forward and keeps readers engaged. Without it, your story has no bite. No drama. No stakes. But did you know there are two different kinds of conflict present in every great story?

What is internal conflict?

Internal conflict refers to the emotional turmoil and struggles that occur within. It is the battle between conflicting desires, beliefs, fears, or motivations within the character’s psyche. This type of story conflict often drives the character’s decision-making and shapes their actions. By delving into a character’s internal and emotional conflict, authors can provide insight into their complexities and offer readers a deeper understanding of their thoughts and motivations.

For example, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the Elizabeth Bennet experiences internal conflict as she grapples with her own biases and judgments about Mr. Darcy. Her initial disdain for him clashes with her growing attraction, creating tension and inner turmoil.

When people talk about character arcs, they are referring to resolving the protagonist’s inner conflict.

What is external conflict?

External conflict focuses on the challenges and obstacles a character faces from external sources. These conflicts arise from interactions with other characters, society, nature, or the physical world. The plot of your story revolves around external conflict. External conflicts propel the plot forward and provide opportunities for character development and growth.

An excellent example of external conflict can be found in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, faces external conflicts in the form of the oppressive Capitol, the life-or-death challenges of the Hunger Games, and the manipulation and power struggles within the arena.

Key differences between internal and external conflict

The primary distinction between internal and external conflict lies in their nature and source. Internal conflict stems from a character’s internal struggles, such as their fears, desires, doubts, or moral dilemmas. External conflict, on the other hand, arises from external forces and factors that the character must confront, such as antagonistic characters, societal pressures, or environmental obstacles.

Effect on character growth and story progression

Internal conflict often drives character growth and transformation throughout a story. It allows readers to witness the character’s evolution as they confront their inner demons, make difficult choices, and overcome personal obstacles. External conflict, on the other hand, provides the catalyst for plot progression and events that shape the character’s journey.

Interplay between internal and external conflict

Internal and external conflict are not mutually exclusive, and they often intertwine and influence each other. Internal conflicts can intensify external conflicts by influencing how characters respond to external challenges. Think of stories where the protagonist might be trying to do the right thing, but winds up making things worse as a result of their unresolved personal issues.

External conflicts, in turn, can (and should) trigger or magnify internal conflicts, pushing characters to confront their fears, values, or weaknesses. This interplay between internal and external conflict adds depth and complexity to characters and their journeys.

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Balancing internal and external conflict in your writing

When you’re building a world that captivates readers, you want to craft your story in a way that strikes the right balance between internal and external conflict. Here are some strategies to consider.

  1. Create a dynamic conflict mix. You want to ensure that both internal and external conflicts are present throughout your story. Explore the motivations, desires, and fears of your characters while providing external challenges and obstacles that they must overcome.
  2. Use internal conflict to fuel and complicate external conflicts. For example, a character’s internal struggle with trust issues might influence how they navigate betrayal from an external source.
  3. Use internal conflict as resolution. Allow your characters to confront and (possibly) resolve their inner struggles to shape their transformation and arc within the story. Of course, you can have a great story where your protagonist fails to resolve their inner goal.

Crafting internal and external conflict

When developing internal conflicts, explore the depths of your characters’ psychology, delve into their past experiences, and uncover their desires and fears. For external conflicts, create challenges that push characters outside their comfort zones, force them to confront their weaknesses, and raise the stakes for their journey.

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You want to make sure the inner conflict complements the external conflict. There’s no use having a protagonist with a fear of commitment, for example, if commitment isn’t going to be central to the plot.

In the novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, the main character’s internal conflict arises from his dissatisfaction with consumer culture and his desire for rebellion. The external conflict manifests through his involvement in an underground fight club, which serves as a physical outlet for his inner turmoil.

Resolving internal and external conflict

Resolving internal and external conflicts is essential for achieving character growth, providing satisfying resolutions, and maintaining a balance between resolution and lingering conflict. But when we say “resolve” we don’t necessarily mean “resolve in their favor.” There are four ways to end your story.

  • The protagonist successfully resolves both the external and inner conflicts.
  • The protagonist successfully resolves the external conflict but not the inner one.
  • The protagonist successfully resolves the inner conflict but not the external one.
  • Neither conflict is resolved in the protagonist’s favor.

When resolving your conflicts, here are some strategies to consider.

  1. Achieve character growth and transformation. Allow your characters to confront their internal conflicts head-on, make choices aligned with their growth, and experience the consequences of their decisions. This process often leads to personal development and transformation, but it can lead to a powerfully tragic ending if the hero forsakes their own personal growth to achieve their external goals.
  2. Create satisfying resolutions. Provide resolutions to external conflicts that align with the story’s overarching themes and the characters’ journeys. Strive for resolutions that feel earned and resonate with readers.
  3. Balance resolution with lingering conflict. While it’s crucial to resolve conflicts, leaving some lingering conflicts can add depth and realism to your story. Not all conflicts need to be neatly tied up; instead, consider how some conflicts may persist or evolve to keep readers engaged.

Bring your conflicts to your readers

When your conflicts and manuscript are ready for resolution, be sure to contact the folks at BookBaby. Our professional editors will make sure your writing is sharp and our Complete Self-Publishing Packages will make your good story available for all the world to read.

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