How to use power-driven conflict in a flat story that will make your reader sit up and take notice
While many articles talk about different types of conflict, they focus on the four overall story conflict ideas: man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. nature, and man vs. self.
Instead, I’m going to delve into character conflict through internal conflict and external conflict as the basis.
Conflict is the guts of the story, the heart and soul, and quite frankly the reason your character thinks and acts the way do. It’s the driving force that keeps your reader turning the pages.
By showing you examples of different types of conflict, you’ll be able to see your story in more depth and understand why conflict is so important.
One of the biggest issues with new fiction writers is not fully understanding conflict in their story.
Maybe you’re stuck on a scene, so you toss your characters into a heated argument with no basis. This isn’t conflict. This is simply a blip on the radar. If this is the type of conflict you’re relying on, the story will be flat…and most likely boring.
Something needs to happen—for a reason!
Making two characters brawl because you needed oomph isn’t going to cut it. Your readers are invested in your characters, and you made a promise to them that you know what you’re doing when you published your book.
You sold them on a certain kind of story. They read the blurb hoping to get pulled into the plot and hero’s journey. They’re ready to get lost, to escape reality and sink into your tale.
Let’s make this crystal clear…
One of the first things about conflict, internal or external, is that it’s a barrier. Think of a hurdle that stands in your main character’s way. There’s a metaphorical big brick wall that has stopped them on their path to happiness.
The first type of conflict we’ll be exploring in more depth is internal conflict. Let’s look at a couple of examples, pull them apart, and help you understand why internal conflict matters.
Different types of internal conflict with examples
Internal conflicts are tied to emotions and long-held beliefs the character has, based on past events. They are barriers that stop them in their tracks because of how they make them feel or act in certain scenarios.
Whether these long-held beliefs are something that are self-inflicted based on past actions or come from emotional trauma such as growing up in an abusive household or witnessing something tragic, they’ll touch everything in your character’s life.
Most of these inner thoughts cause havoc on our hero, whether socially, professionally, or on their well-being. Home life, life at work, or out with friends, these tiny, ingrained bits of data feed your character’s subconscious.
If a character has issues with trust, it can play out in multiple ways. Let’s brainstorm a few thoughts about trust. Was your character betrayed by a friend? Did their husband or wife cheat on them? Did their parent speak poorly about them to a colleague?
In this instance, trust is the internal conflict. Let’s use the example of a friend’s betrayal. Somebody they let in, close to them, turned around and stabbed them in the back. Maybe they took credit for a project at work that ended up stealing away a promotion. Either way, the dynamic of that relationship changed, and what once felt safe, now doesn’t.
What they knew as comfortable has been challenged, and what always worked for them, no longer does.
After their betrayal, the put up a wall. Now they’re guarded in interactions and have a hard time letting somebody in. Their trust has been shattered.
How can this impact your character?
Do they suddenly question what other friends might step on them to get ahead? What about their partner? Who else has lied to them? They start to look at all the safe relationships around them differently, maybe almost skeptically. The way they react to things has forever changed.
You can play this type of internal conflict out with different emotions. Here are a few: guilt, grief, control, jealousy, self-worth, or fear of rejection.
Take any emotion. What started with a seed, rooted inside, and became a new thought process. They compare what just happened to what happened in the past and are left unbalanced.
What if it happens again? They can’t risk it. The emotion was too painful. They’ll do just about anything to avoid repeating the pattern.
This is what internal conflict is about. They have a belief that is holding them back from achieving their goal or happiness and fulfillment.
What is external conflict?
While internal conflict is about emotion, external conflicts are physical barriers that can be caused by people, objects, or situations.
These obstacles stop your hero from proceeding. This time, it’s not the hero stopping due to an emotional fear. Instead, it’s an outside force creating a challenge.
Think of somebody who is faced with a mountain and must get to the other side without means of transportation. The challenge before them slows their journey until they conquer the issue at hand.
Examples of external conflict
While internal conflict was simplified by the character stopping themselves, external conflict is a different animal. There are multiple layers of external conflict, and how your character reacts to each hurdle is important to understand.
Let’s say that your antagonist is trying to impede your protagonist’s journey. They’ll do things that cause your hero to faulter, whether it’s via a war, a car chase, or even by destroying their credibility or reputation.
Outside forces challenge your hero. Your character must find new ways to move forward. They’ve been stopped and need to learn how to overcome this struggle.
Most people are familiar with Star Wars. Think about how Darth Vader is determined to stop Luke Skywalker. He stands in Luke’s path and challenges him, forcing Luke to dig deep and find ways to defeat this enemy.
While Luke’s strength comes from inside, Darth Vader is a very real nemesis who creates a physical barrier by throwing hurdles in our hero’s way. Stormtroopers, anyone?
The battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is an example of a man vs. man conflict. The mountain example above shows a man vs. nature conflict. Below, I’ll discuss religious and cultural hurdles which addresses address man vs. society, so you can see how that overlays. Man vs. self is like the internal conflict situations listed above. Something stops our hero, and they must overcome a self-limiting belief if they want to move forward. Once they do, this causes a change, so they can become a better version of themselves.
Story conflict can have both an internal and external impact on your character
Forbidden relationships, such as religious or cultural issues, can have both emotional consequences and external issues. Think of different classes in some cultures. While internally, it may go against what a character was taught, they can get past that difference emotionally. On the other hand, externally, it may be unlawful or there could be dangerous implications for other family members.
Let’s take another example: Arranged marriages in fiction can impact both characters internally and externally. This type of conflict may bring out strong views in your hero or heroine, but they may also have to fight against a system that’s been in place for centuries and rules they are expected to follow. How will those around them react? What might happen if they go against these traditions?
How you choose to tell the story determines the overall story arc (negative, positive, or neutral). Your theme may guide which side of the story you’re telling. What about showing both sides? This gives you another layer of depth and intrigue.
No matter how you choose to play out the conflict in your story, by raising the stakes and making your readers care about the outcome of your characters, you’ll write a more satisfying story.
Lastly, your story should have both an internal conflict that the hero is forced to deal with. Choosing only one or the other leaves an element out that points to your early writing skills. Experienced writers know how important each is to the overall satisfaction of the tale you weave.
By layering both types of conflict, you create a well-rounded story that encompasses a three-dimensional character. This in turn gives you ample opportunity to show how your hero changes and grows.
A stagnant story will put your readers to sleep. Grab their attention and show them you can be trusted with their time. You won’t let them down. By adding both an inner journey and an outer journey, you’re certain to have a stronger story.