Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Internal vs external conflict

Here’s a brief but good post at Pub Rants: Internal vs External Conflict

No matter what stage your manuscript is in, there are three questions you need to be able to answer:

  1. What is your protagonist’s internal conflict?
  2. What is the manuscript’s major external conflict?
  3. How do those two conflicts work in harmony?

All too often, I see internal and external conflicts that don’t work together the way they need to. Here’s the secret: Your external conflict and internal conflict should be tightly woven together because the external conflict exists as a mechanism to force internal change and growth in your character.

The example given is one of the Harry Potter books. It’s a pretty good extended example.

Since it’s a brief post, here’s another, this one by an SF author, Gary Gibson, rather than an agent: USING INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL CONFLICT IN GENRE WRITING

This post offers a rather different take on the topic:

Broadly speaking, the distinction between literary and commercial fiction is this: literary fiction deals in internalised conflict. That could be fear, jealousy, greed, desire for power or revenge, thwarted love and so on. …

Commercial fiction, on the other hand – and remember, we’re speaking broadly here – deals in externalised conflicts. It creates dramatic stories out of direct conflict with something ‘other’, other races, other religions, other cultures, classes or political orders, and so on.

Interesting take! I’m immediately leaning toward the Pub Rants interpretation — I think commercial fiction should, and does, have both, and it’s nice when the internal and external conflicts support each other.

Actually, something to note is that interfering with each other counts as support, in this sense, as nothing creates more tension than pitting two characters against each other via the external plot, while having them strongly drawn toward each other by internal desires but pushed apart by opposing loyalties. Here I am thinking of Joanna Bourn’s Spymaster romances, which are admittedly a little over the top in many ways, but she does a great job of setting up opposing internal and external conflicts and letting them rip through the story.

The linked post above actually does agree with me here, and with Pub Rants, because the author goes on to add:

Once I realised this distinction between internalised and externalised conflict, the defining quality of the very best sci-fi and fantasy became clear to me. It synthesises both approaches – and most often it does so by externalising what is otherwise an internal conflict.

There we go, we are definitely back to using the two basic types of conflict to support each other. Gibson uses The Lord of the Rings for his example. Again, it’s a good example. Gibson sums it up this way:

If your book isn’t coming together – if your characters feel lifeless, or lack motivation, or feel wooden and two-dimensional – provide them with an internal conflict to balance the external. It’s that conflict that, when handled properly, keeps readers glued to the pages. … conflict must be mirrored through your protagonists’ own thoughts and actions, and their own internalised moral dialogue.\

Both posts are worth a look if you have a minute.

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