A collection of musings, articles and news about romance fiction.

Writing 101: Internal vs External Conflict

What is internal conflict? And what is external conflict? Why is conflict in storytelling so important? How do you create good conflict?

As covered in my previous post, Conflict Basics, there are two basic forms of conflict: INTERNAL and EXTERNAL.

Internal Conflict
Internal conflict is the struggle that occurs within your character, and is driven by your character.
They have a want, need or desire that arises from their experience (motivation), but in order to fulfil that want, need or desire they must face and conquer this inner demon. This is where they confront their self-concept and either grow or fall. Internal conflict is emotional, and it’s psychological.

This conflict is subjective; it belongs in the mind and heart of your subject (character).

External Conflict
External conflict is the struggle that occurs outside of your character – the external happenings that drive your character to act and react. In other words, external conflict is the plot. It’s the stuff that HAPPENS that makes your character DO.

This conflict is objective; it deals with things external to the mind and heart of your subject (character), for all to view.

Simply put:

Internal conflict stems from your character’s goal.

External conflict stems from your story goal.

Your character may have an external goal that can be on display for all to see, and then will have an inner, emotional goal that s/he may or may not be aware of. To really test your character, and to provide growth for your character as well as a compelling read for your reader, these goals provide the conflict.

For example:
External Goal: Heroine wants to find her father’s killer.
External Conflict: Killer doesn’t want to be found.

Internal Goal: Even if it’s just proving to herself, she wants to achieve something important.
Internal Conflict: She’s doesn’t feel good enough, smart enough, committed enough, to succeed.

Another way of phrasing it is subjective vs objective. Subjective is belonging to your subject, their inner emotional needs and fears. Objective is the object s/he is working toward, externally.

Why is conflict so important in a story? As mentioned before, without conflict, there is no story.
Conflict creates story, drama, tension, suspense.
Conflict makes things HAPPEN.
Conflict challenges your character and gives him/her the opportunity to grow and/or change.

GMC Chart
Goal, Motivation & ConflictDebra Dixon created a GMC chart in her must-have craft book; GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict. I’m merely paraphrasing here, but I thoroughly recommend you add it to your reference shelf. You can find this magnificent resource here.

Basic GMC Chart

In a previous post, the Four W’s of Character Development, we touched on the Who, What, Why and Why not. We’ve also looked at your character’s self-concept, as well as motivation. By combining all of these elements, we can start creating a solid Character Plan that can build a solid foundation for plotting your novel.

Looking at what we’ve learned so far, here is a basic Character Plan I use when I’m creating my character and starting the plotting process (we’ll add to this plan over the next few weeks, come back and visit for the full version).

Basic Character Plan
By defining your goals and motivation, uncovering your character and story conflict is organic and therefore believable – and sustainable. When you start plotting and planning your story (regardless of whether you’re a pantser, plotter, or plotster), if you have no idea what your character wants, neither will the reader.

By creating good conflict, a solid obstacle that prevents your character from getting what s/he wants, you create a story where the outcome is in doubt. Readers want to see your character work hard for his/her goal, and the stronger the conflict, the harder your character must fight. The harder your character fights, the more we, as readers, cheer them on. By giving your character good, solid conflict, you can create a character that develops a believable journey to their own pure essence (character arc) – but that’s another post!

Good luck and get writing!

3 responses

  1. Thanks for this post. I found it when googling “external vs. internal goals.” It’s something I struggle with understanding and you spelled it out well.

    October 5, 2017 at 12:02 am

  2. Do different characters have all these goals or just the main character?

    November 13, 2017 at 4:17 pm

  3. This was excellent, thank you!

    June 9, 2019 at 7:33 am

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