This Business of Writing

How & Why to Use Conflict Types

In The Craft of Writing on January 12, 2010 at 7:43 am

In yesterday’s post, (click here), I discussed how the secret to a successful novel can be found within the conflict you create for your protagonist. Without conflict, you have no novel. It creates the backbone for your story.

Many novice writers are surprised to learn you don’t find conflict in the explosions, the typhoons, the meteors crashing into the earth. You find conflict in your characters’ emotional reaction to these stimuli.

There are two types of conflict, internal and external, and each brings different amounts of action and tension to your story. Internal conflict, a character at odds with himself, consists of the emotional or psychological predicaments a character faces and the impact it has upon him. In “The Da Vinci Code,” we saw Tom Hank’s fear of enclosed spaces, his claustrophobia. As a writer, you should employ internal conflicts that reflect those universal emotions in people; safety, fear, love, sadness and the like. This is one way to reinforce your readers’ emotional attachment to your story. External conflict, a character at odds with the world around him, is found in the emotional responses your characters experience relative to outside influences. These can be anything from a wound to a troll to a husband-beating wife. This reaction, I think, is the reason the Bruce Willis movies are so well-received. His responses to the many threats he faces are always entertaining, though realistic.

I once read a way to exemplify conflict when writing a novel and I apologize but I do not remember who said it. Regardless, he said to find your hero’s Achilles’ heel and crush it. The tendon is the internal conflict and the crushing is the external. Find your hero’s root emotional vulnerability and use it against him.
I watched the movie, “12 Rounds” the other night and the director handled conflict reasonably well. In one scene, the hero has a difficult decision to make. Should he allow the cops to kill the villain, who has kidnapped the woman in the hero’s life, or should he save the evildoer so his love will live longer. Of course, he saves the bad guy. It isn’t all the screaming, breaking glass and shooting that created the conflict, it’s found in the emotional decision the hero had to make – who lives and who dies – that created the tension. The external conflict came to life in how the hero responded to all the shooting to save two people. The internal conflict grew from his decision to save the bad guy. This combination of internal and external conflict is what you strive for in your novels.

Weakness is the origin of your novel’s conflict and also the source of your hero’s growth.

We’ve all heard our hero needs to grow during the course of the story and become a better person. By overcoming his flaw(s), his growth materializes. As the hero pin-balls from one issue to the next, he must face his fears and, with each new confrontation, he learns how to overcome that which frightens him. Without this growth, rooted in conflict, your reader is robbed of his expected satisfaction. And if your readers won’t be satisfied, why even bother to write the story?

If you have any questions, drop a comment and I’ll see if I can’t assist you on an individual basis.
Until we meet again, I wish you best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

  1. […] Speaking of action and conflict, this scene should be resolved with action and conflict. Let them duke it out, metaphorically, emotionally or physically, but get the tussle going. Make this thing as exciting as you can. (For more information on the difference between action and conflict, read this ARTICLE.) […]

  2. Good points, I think I will definitely subscribe! I’ll go and read some more! What do you see the future of this being?

  3. I am working on a novel (my first). My main character is still developing and so far he carries very little “baggage” from his past, but he is struggling with several inner conflicts.

    Until I read your post, I was unsure if anybody would read it when it is finished. You have given me insight and hope. Keep posting, I’ll be here.

  4. Am I right in assuming that in a two-part novel, each part needs to have it’s own arc? Can you point me toward any good resources that address this type of structure? BTW-I just found this blog a couple of days ago, and WOW- I feel like I just hit the jackpot! Thanks so much for posting.

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