A lot of times, I’ll be asked while editing: “It just feels like it’s missing something. What does it need?” or “How can I make this story/chapter/character feel less flat?” Nine times out of ten, these types of problems are caused by an imbalance between two key factors in the story: the internal conflict and the external conflict.
The external conflict is what a lot of people think of as the “conflict” of the story. It’s your knight-fights-evil-dragons, or your cowboy-chases-away-the-outlaws. It’s your drama, thriller, or fantasy.
The internal conflict is what the characters are dealing with while they’re fighting the external conflict. Internal conflicts can be things like the MC learning to let go of the past, or the heroine getting over her distrust of outsiders.
Striking a balance between internal and external conflicts can make or break your story. Readers expect your story to have some of both, as each contributes different values to the story. Some types of stories naturally lend themselves to an emphasis on one over the other: comic books, for example, will be more focused on external conflict than, say, romance novels. However, any story can benefit from solid development in both areas.
Stories without enough internal conflict can feel flat, simple, or meaningless. Readers might say that your characters are one-dimensional, or that the story didn’t engage them. You might hear lots of praise about your action or world-building, but not much about your characters. It may seem like your characters don’t actually exist in their world. Without the emotional weight that internal conflict brings, it’s usually difficult to get invested a story.
Adding internal conflict can either be really easy, or (more often than not) really difficult. It requires a deep dive into your characters and their personalities. You must examine what makes them who they are at the start of the story, and how their experiences will change them by the end. What is important to them? What irritates the living jelly beans out of them? What do they really want from life?1
Stories without enough external conflict can feel angsty or contrived. Readers might say that the protagonist is too moody, or that nothing ever happens. You might be told that your world isn’t interesting, or that you didn’t deliver on your premise. This is because external conflict satisfies the most basic desire to see something “happen” in a story. It gives the protagonist forward momentum, which they can use to help sort out their internal demons. (It also propels them towards their stated external goals.)
Very rarely does a story lack external conflict altogether. Most authors intuitively feel that a story without external forces at play won’t work. Usually, the author needs only spend more words dealing with the external conflict and less words dealing with the internal conflict. Better yet: have the external struggles lead to progress in resolving internal issues, whether directly or metaphorically.
Finally, you need to tie them both together. In a well-written story, the internal and external conflicts are not just balanced – they’re inseparable. If the protagonist runs into an external obstacle, it will halt their internal development; similarly, if they run into an internal obstacle, it will impede their external progress.
Often, the link is simpler than you might think – pessimism can lead to apathy at work, inability to let go of the past can harm relationships, and so on. What makes it tricky is that these little links are often hiding in plain sight. Try to think about your protagonist’s internal conflict in its simplest form, and apply it to the external problems they face. What parallels can you draw?
Ultimately, the balance between internal and external conflict is extremely subjective, and can be tweaked infinitely without making any real progress. The important thing is to make sure that one isn’t completely underrepresented, and to think critically about how the internals and externals tie together and interact.
If you’re still struggling to intertwine your conflicts, the best thing you can do is to talk about your plot. Find an editor, an idea bouncer, a classmate, a hot dog salesman off the street, anyone who will listen – and just talk about your story. You will come up with so many ideas simply by having a conversation about the topic.
Hopefully this article has helped to resolve some of the inner conflict you may have been feeling regarding your story. (Sorry, I had to.)
Crossposted on my personal website.
1 It is important to note that the answer to these questions might be “the character doesn’t know”. An internal conflict about identifying these things can be just as interesting as one about achieving them, if written well.