There is no novel without conflict. Conflict is the main ingredient that makes the story interesting. A story needs a problem to solve, a fight to win, a difficulty to overcome.
The first novels ever written were driven entirely by external conflict. Think the Odyssey by Homer or Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu or One Thousand and One Nights. Nowadays, it is rare to find a novel that does not have an internal conflict besides the traditional external conflict. They complement each other nicely and add death and realism to the story. But what are the types of external and internal conflicts? What purpose do they serve? Finally, how do you create them?
The external conflict is a problem that needs solving. The hero needs to overcome an external enemy or a calamity. The fantasy hero does not choose to go on a quest or fight his enemies; an event changes his life forever and he needs to face it. The external conflict is an obstacle or a mean to what the hero wants. It is what the hero chooses to face. Most of the time an antagonist prevents the hero to get what he wants, which results in an armed conflict. Sometimes the hero puts himself in a dangerous situation in order to obtain what it wants, whether the hand of the beautiful princess or saving the kingdom or even gaining his freedom.
- The external conflict can be a struggle between two persons (sword and sorcery fantasy: The Odyssey by Homer)
- A person fighting nature (horror: Jaws by Peter Benchley, or mythological: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway)
- A person against society (utopian/ dystopian: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell)
- A person confronting machines/new technologies (steampunk: 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne).
- A person facing supernatural beings (paranormal: Dracula by Bram Stoker)
- A person or a kingdom facing destiny (epic: Lancelot and the Holy Grail)
The external conflict leads the action towards its climax. Without action, a novel is boring. The external conflict serves the purpose of making your reader turn the page. External conflicts intrigue the reader. They make the reader want to know more. They raise his curiosity. They make the hero looks like bigger than life.
While writing think: What is the worst thing that can happen to your hero? When you find out, make it happen. The external conflict is clearly told, not suggested.
Give your hero:
-a situation your hero can’t resolve or at least cannot resolve easily
-a goal that cannot be abandoned even when facing disasters. Your hero really wants this.
-a goal which conflicts with other heroes’ goals (or/and the antagonist) in order to create tension
The internal conflict is a question that needs answering. It raises the heroine against himself and disturbs his inner peace. She needs to make a choice between right and wrong, overcome mixed feelings or overpowering emotions. It is what the heroine needs even if or especially if it goes against her wants. It is her dilemma and self-doubt. In internal conflicts, she is not sure anymore that her ways are the right ones anymore.
- Having two opposing desires at once like loving two people at the same time (Shadowland by Alyson Noel)
- Having two opposing undesirable options (Rocky by Sylvester Stallone)
- Fear, baggage or fatal flaw (Coraline by Neil Gaiman)
- Conscience struggle (The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen)
- Questioning one’s sanity or reality (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by Josephine Leslie)
- Self-esteem, weakness, internal sickness (Psycho by Robert Bloch on which Hitchcock movie was based)
Internal conflict creates suspense because the reader wonders how the heroine will solve her dilemma.
The internal conflict draws the reader’s sympathy. The reader can emphasize with someone hurting from inside out.
The heroine is not someone in another universe, but someone the reader already knows, someone the reader understands or can relate to. Internal conflict helps the reader to feel for the hero and get closer to her, to root for her and even identify with her.
While writing, think: What is the last thing your heroine will do? When you find out, put her in this situation where she will do something you would never imagine her to do. Why? Because her internal conflict leads her to take this route.
The internal conflict is not told, it is shown because the heroine cannot express it clearly. Most of the time, the heroine does not want to admit she is conflicted inside or is afraid to face her own fears. The climax will force her to fear her worst fears and face herself.
The internal conflict often paralyzes your heroine. She will prevent herself from speaking out or go somewhere because she fears the consequences. She becomes unhappy and upset because she feels helpless to solve her inner conflict, but if she does not find a way to solve her inner conflict, she will feel miserable or someone will get hurt. She must measure the pros and cons. She may be in conflict with her goals, her beliefs or her moral values. She must make a series of decision that will liberate her from her internal ordeal.
Put your hero in:
-an unpleasant situation. Make her step out of her comfort zone.
-choose the hard way instead of the easy way
-a situation she wants to avoid above all
In a well crafted novel, both external and internal conflicts struggle against each other until one is solved and helps solve the other. Before the novel can be concluded, make sure you put your hero in the worst possible situation. Her worst nightmare will materialize. He does the very last thing he thought he would be doing. By reaching the climax, the ultimate conflict between external conflict and internal conflict, the hero suddenly sees an opportunity, a path he never saw before. When the heroine is tested to the limit, that’s when something must happen that will solve the conflicts.
Example: What Trave wants in The Medallion by Dawn L. Watkins is to become king, but he is too proud to learn the lessons he needs to learn to become one. He wants the medallion because who gets it will reign. However, he needs to learn valuable lessons before he can obtain the medallion. Through a series of events, he learns that his pride only cripples him and becoming more humble serves him better. It is only when he puts aside his pride that King Gris gives him the medallion. His external conflict-want (the medallion) clashes with his internal conflict- need (the need to put away his pride and finally learn what it takes to be a good king).
In a well-crafted novel, the conflicts bind the heroes together because they can see each other through new eyes, for what they are. They explore each other weaknesses, opening up their hearts to each other, and strengthening their friendship or love. By showing their true colors, they bond. Conflict creates a gap in the hero that needs to be filled by love, attention, care. The vulnerability of the hero must be filled with compassion, love or pride and honor.
Example: In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss and Peeta are forced to fight against each other. That’s the external conflict. In order to gain the sympathy of the audience and receive gifts that will ensure her survival, Katniss plays the part of a girl who falls in love with Peeta. That’s her strategy to face the external conflict. However, Katniss is unsure of her feelings. She struggles between the desire to save both of them and her own desires, which are not clear to her.