External and Internal Conflict: The Secret to Gripping Prose

I tend to steer away from hard craft advice these days because there is just so much content out there around how to develop characters, plot, setting, theme etc. 

We learn a lot of these concepts in high school and we’re exposed to their workings in every film, tv show, or book we’re exposed to. Don’t get me wrong, if you are new to writing, you need to learn these basics anew because thinking you know how literary devices and features work and actually being able to execute them on the page are two different things. 

Lately, I’ve been more interested in the psychological, philosophical, and emotional factors that drive writing. Questions like, what does it mean to be a writer and how do you do it?

That being said, this post is not about any of those things. Instead, we’re going to talk about internal and external conflict. 

Last year, I read a book that I could not put down. The type of book where I spent my days wishing the hours away until I could go home and read my book. This has not happened to me for a very long time.

When I finished, I did what any self-respected writer in my situation would do. I sat at the kitchen table with a notepad, pen, and highlighter, flipped the book back to page one and pulled it apart–figuratively speaking. 

What was so good about this book? Was it the language, characters, genre, plot? 

At first, I thought it was simply appealing to all the things I love in other people’s books, but what I realised was that almost every page operated on two levels through the use of internal and external conflict.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of complexity. How do you write complex scenes that work on multiple levels? Scenes that are in the present but that allude to the future and the past? Scenes that are metaphorical and literal? Scenes that allude to more than what appears literally on the page.

Creating internal and external conflict is, perhaps, one of the quickest ways to add complexity to a scene while making your narrative a page-turner. 

Internal conflict, as the name suggests, means that the character is struggling with some quality within themselves, whether that be physical, emotional, or mental. External conflict can be thought of as the protagonist in opposition with another character, society, culture, or nature. 

Okay, so some examples…

Paul suffers from social anxiety and he stutters when he’s nervous (internal conflict), but if he wants to keep his job (and his home and marriage and his cute poodle, Molly), then he’ll need to present the findings from his latest project to the board of directors (external conflict)…two weeks from today (double external conflict). 

Brooke was born into a noble family who groomed her from birth to be the next keeper of the kingdom; a kingdom that has been at war for the past two hundred years (external conflict), but Brooke doesn’t want to be a politician, she wants to be a soldier or a healer/mother/witch/blacksmith/butcher/whatever (internal conflict). 

You get the idea. 

Conflict is the heart of any story and while the examples I just shared are a way to see these two tensions play out on a larger scope, you can also play with internal and external conflict in small ways within each scene. 

For example, let’s say your protagonist is locked in a room. Great, you have external conflict, but what if they were also claustrophobic? 

Here’s another: let’s say your characters are sitting around the dinner table talking. Internal conflict could come from your character not wanting to be there because they feel uncomfortable (internal) or they promised their best mate that they’d see their band (external). Maybe their family are discussing politics and an argument starts up (external), but your protagonist can’t leave because they don’t want to miss out on dessert (internal). 

Considering internal and external conflict can happen at any stage of the writing practice as it can inform your outlining or your revision process. It’s never too early and never too late to consider the internal and external conflicts of your narrative, but when you do, the writing will likely become easier. 

Why? Because stories are about conflict (and transformation, but that’s another post), and when you are working on these two levels, you’ll have so much more material to play with. 


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

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