Creative Writing: Internal Vs External Conflict

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Conflict is what keeps your readers and your characters on their toes. Conflict keeps your plot moving forward and pushes your characters into exploring new depths of their personalities. Will your protagonist overcome all obstacles and solve the mystery and still get the girl, or will your protagonist cave under the pressure and take his own life?

Conflict can be as simple as a young teenager struggling with her inner emotions while coping with her quest to find love as in Twilight or it can be vicious and sinister as turning everyone against each other in a castle in order to take over the throne like in Ghormenghast.

Internal Conflicts

What are some conflicts that you and your friends and colleagues face regularly? Loneliness? Love? Fear? Anger? Hate? Emotions can blind people and cause them to fall short of their goals.

An internal conflict is an emotional conflict that your character(s) experience within their own mind. In the movie Se7en starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow, Brad Pitt’s character is experiencing an internal conflict of anger and arrogance while Gwyneth Paltrow is suffering from loneliness.

Internal conflict may prevent your detective from rescuing the kidnapped girl in the cellar because he is mortally afraid of the dark. Fear is a very powerful internal conflict. In Kevin Williamson’s movie Don’t Look Down, a killer is murdering the protagonist’s friends and her fear of heights is preventing her from moving past her sister’s death. Fear of heartbreak or rejection can keep someone from asking out his or her secret crush. Joyce and Jim Lavene give an excellent example of how strong fear can be: The fear of rejection can keep a woman from asking a man at her office out for coffee. She thinks about it for so long it achieves epic proportions in her mind. Finally, that fear causes her to stalk him. Another plot hatches!

External Conflicts

External conflicts can be big and small. In action movies, the external conflict can be as devastating as a super volcanoes and super-storms that threaten to destroy the planet. But conflict can also be small and add detail and tension to every scene. Even in the opening sequence of Se7en, the rainstorm is inconvenient for the characters. For the audience though, the rain provides an uncomfortable and gritty visual display.

It’s important to add conflict in every scene when writing your novel or movie script. Conflict must always be present whether it’s external or internal. Many times, writers will add internal conflict in one scene, followed by a scene focused around the external conflict and then continue to write in this pattern until the middle of the story where both the internal and external collide.

Mixing the Conflicts

Books and movies require both internal and external conflicts. One will challenge the hero’s emotions where the other challenges the protagonist’s “physical” side of the plot. For example, in the Hunger Games, Katniss is coping with many internal conflicts: coping with the loss of her father and sorting her feelings toward Gale and Peter, while her external conflict is the events leading up to (and including) the district’s uprising.

The goals, the wants and the needs of your characters are not random. They have to be carefully plotted for your novel or movie script to make any sense. There are, however, certain examples where a writer may get away with not investing as much time and effort into developing certain types of conflicts.

In men’s action and adventure, the external conflict is dominant which overshadows the internal conflict. These men’s heroic characters don’t need to go through much soul searching because of the demands of the specific target audience as well as the genre. Simply put, action movies are full of action.

As a writer, how you decide to reveal your character’s internal and external conflicts will reflect their strengths, weaknesses, skills and abilities. Whatever conflicts you put your characters through, make sure it challenges them enough that it will eventually lead him or her to a breaking point.

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