External and Internal Conflict

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One of the most common causes of weak or sludgy plots is the confusion of internal conflict with external conflict.

Writers who focus on character love sittin’ and thinkin’ scenes where protagonists look out windows and contemplate their pasts or ponder the meaning of reality, the battle raging within them over conflicting needs and values. That’s internal conflict.

Writers who focus on plot love action scenes, scenes where two people duke it out over conflicting needs and values, the battle raging in the external world as physical action. That’s external conflict.

But just as a story needs both character and plot, it needs both internal and external conflict.  A story that has only one is weakened by its lack of conflict depth.

Internal External

Example:
External: Raiders of the Lost Ark has a very simple external conflict: both Indiana Jones and the Nazi Belloq are after the Ark of the Covenant, a religious artifact with great power that could decide who wins WWII.
Internal: Raiders has a much more complex internal conflict: Indiana Jones is passionate about religious artifacts that he steals but is himself empty spiritually.  He’s essentially trying to pay off his spiritual bankruptcy with stolen goods.
External and Internal: The external conflict forces Jones to accept that there are things he cannot understand and must just believe; because he resolves his internal struggle in favor of belief, he can say at the end, “Don’t look,” because he knows there are things that are not meant for men to see. Because he knows that, he survives and takes the Ark.

Without the external conflict, Raiders of the Ark would be three hours of Harrison Ford thinking a lot.  Without the internal conflict, Raiders would be just another action movie. With the two combined so that the events of the external plot provide the resolution for the internal conflict, Raiders is one of the best movies of all time.

You need both external and internal conflict to fuel a story with depth that resonates with the reader.

TroubleshootingIf your story feels sludgey and slow, chances are it’s told mostly in internal conflict without much action happening to show readers what all that angst means.

For other posts in this unit see The Conflict Unit main post.

13 thoughts on “External and Internal Conflict

  1. Leigh says:

    Bam!
    Great section. The Raiders example was brilliant. I thought I knew the movie well, and had always enjoyed it. But now when I watch it, I am always going to see Indiana Jones’ twin conflicts and his subsequent character arc.
    That’s something I didn’t see before.

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    • Kelly S. says:

      I also hadn’t noticed Indy’s internal struggle enough to remember it. So, that has me wondering if the internal conflict moved the plot along, truly, or was it just another action film? I mean I’ve generally have always thought of it as a delightful action film but didn’t pick up on internal conflict. So, I get the example but I hadn’t seen it or picked up on it in the film.

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      • It was layered under the plot, but it interacts with the plot several times, like the medallion on the staff and his telling Marion not to look at the end. The plot clips along because they never address it directly, but it’s all the way through there.

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    • They do a beautiful job of layering it in. The medallion that tells them the way to find the ark only works if they look at the underside, which tells them to take back a certain measure for the Lord. And the rebirth imagery of him emerging from the snake pit is pretty blatant, too. It’s layered all the way through the story.

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    • No, plot is the events of the story; conflict is the battle waged by a protagonist and antagonist. Conflict drives the plot.

      I’m not clear on which paragraph you’re talking about, so just to make sure before I go on, is
      the second paragraph” this one:

      “Writers who focus on plot love action scenes, scenes where two people duke it out over conflicting needs and values, the battle raging in the external world as physical action. That’s external conflict.”

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    • Okay, thanks for the clarification.

      That’s still talking about conflict not plot, but I can see why it’s confusing, since without conflict, you don’t have plot; that is, without conflict, the story doesn’t go anywhere.

      How about if I change “make” to “fuel”? Will that make it clearer?

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  2. If plot is, at its essence, the events of the story, then it’s clear something has to drive it along and forward. From your explanation, I see it’s a combination of the internal and external conflicts that creates that. So, yeah, it’s clearer if you say “fuels.”

    I think I got confused because you began by talking about internal and external conflict, and then in that one paragraph towards the end, you switched to the terms internal plot and external plot.

    Thanks!

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  3. In the troubleshooting section you tell me what it looks like if the author is too focused on internal plot, but what if anything does it look like if the story is too focused on external conflict? No depth to the character? Readers don’t care for the character? It’s a fast paced, super fun read?

    Guess I’m looking for symmetry in the troubleshooting section.

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    • Good point. I think most of the authors I work with are romance writers and they tend to do sittin’ and thinkin’ and need to be reminded of bodies-in-motion. But you’re right, it works both ways.
      Let me cogitate.

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      • Yeah, I suspect navel gazing (at one’s own navel & not of the hot love interest’s) does happen more often to hamper a story. Because I really was struggling to figure out the opposite. Best I could come up with was under-developed or cookie cutter characters.

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