Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Second Step: CONFLICT

Hi Everyone!

So today you're in for a treat, Gillian Adams is doing a blog post. She was kind enough to cover the major topic of conflict, so this post is going to be a bit longer than usual. That's enough from me, I'm going to turn it over to Gillian!

Conflict in the Story World
By Gillian Adams
When you hear the word conflict, what do you think of?  An argument?  Smoldering glares and hazy silence?  A high action chase involving villains, crocodiles, and cliffs?
In the story world, conflict means far more than that.  Simply put, conflict is anything that interferes with your character achieving his/her goal.
Now, wait a minute, you say.  What’s this about goals?  Isn’t that an entirely different subject?  I thought we were talking about conflict.
In order to fully understand conflict, you have to understand goals.  We’re going back to the basics here, but in order to have a novel that works, your main character needs a goal.  This goal should drive your character’s every deed and decision.  Having a goal enables your character to progress from a passive victim of circumstance to an active participant in the plot.
There are two main types of goals and they often work hand in hand – external goals and internal goals.  (This subject deserves its own blog post, so I’ll try to keep it brief.)  An external goal is something physical, easily measurable.  Your hero/heroine accomplishes it and everyone sees that it’s done.  Examples – Mary wants to win the marathon, John wants to slay his enemy, Sally wants to open a coffee shop.
The internal goal is invisible to others but it is often tied with the external goal.  Example – Mary is tired of being “no one,” she wants to be accepted, John wants to be free of the guilt of his parents’ deaths, Sally wants to prove her independence.
You get the picture?  Enough about goals, back to conflict.
Conflict is Two Pronged
As I said before, the simple definition of conflict is anything that interferes with the character achieving his/her goals.  If there is no conflict, then there is no story, because the main character can achieve his/her goals instantly.
Like goals, conflict is two pronged and can be both external and internal.
External conflict arises when any exterior force interferes with the character’s goals.  This can be any animate or inanimate object, an intentional or unintentional interference, the product of nature or connivance. 
It can be anything from a forbidding mountain pass that your character has to cross, to a hurricane that threatens to wreck the ship, to that deadly arch villain.
Pretty simply, right?  You probably naturally include this in your story, because without it, you wouldn’t have a story!  J
Internal conflict arises when the character is confronted with two competing and equally powerful choices. For example, in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, when Inspector Javert is faced with the mercy and nobility of Jean Valjean (an ex-convict), he is forced to decide between rigid adherence to duty (his own internal goal) and showing mercy in return.  Javert chooses mercy and, in so doing, destroys everything he has ever lived for.  He winds up shooting himself.  The internal conflict proved too much for a man who would have withstood any external conflict you threw his way.
Both external and internal conflict are necessary in a good story.  But internal conflict is far more powerful that external conflict.  While external conflict allows the readers to sympathize with the main character’s difficulties and feel his/her pain, internal conflict lays bare the character’s very soul.  It brings the story to a whole new level, thereby allowing readers to connect with the characters in a deeper way.
Internal conflict can be purely internal.  Consider the example of Javert that I mentioned above. Conflict caused wholly by self, where the only obstacles to the character’s internal goal are the ones he/she raises.  For example, this is useful if you have a character who is trying to make a new start after a bad past.  He’s stuck in a rut of his own making, trying to reach that internal goal, but every time, his own habits/desires/memories arise to prevent him.
  Or, internal conflict can be tied with external conflict.
Internal conflict can be the work of an enemy.  In Spider Man 1, the Green Goblin offers Spider Man a “sadistic choice” between saving the girl he loves and abandoning a bus load of children to die, OR, rescuing the children and watching MJ fall to her death.  “Now choose.”
Internal conflict can also be caused by a friend.  In my current WIP Song of Leira, Birdie meets external conflict in the form of her enemy Carhartan, but the internal conflict is provided by her best friend and protector/guardian Amos.  Amos wants Birdie to forget about the mysterious Song she hears and refuses to allow her to speak to the one person who could explain it.  Birdie is caught between wanting to honor her old friend for everything he has done for her and her desire to follow the call of the Song.  Internal conflict.
Conflict caused by a close friend is much more personal and devastating for the character, and thereby evokes a more emotional response in the readers.
How to add conflict to the story:
Alright, you say.  We’ve got all that.  Now what?  I’m glad you asked.  Here are some steps for you. 
1)      The first thing to do is figure out what your character’s goals are – both external and internal.  The concept of internal goals really confused me when I first sat down and thought about it.  I brainstormed for hours and tried to introduce more concrete goals into my book but they really just didn’t fit into the story.  Then I realized that my main character already had an internal goal, I just hadn’t developed it enough.  Sometimes, your character’s goals can be right beneath your nose!  It just takes a little “thinking outside the box.”

2)      After you’ve pinpointed those goals, a great question to ask yourself is “but what?”  Example: Mary wants to win that marathon, but… what?  Mary wants to feel accepted, but… what?  

This is where you get to brainstorm for the unique conflict you want to include in the book!  You ready?  Go, have fun.  Dream up every little obstacle you can to keep your characters from achieving their goals…

3)      But, wait, there’s one last thing.  You also have to figure out a logical way to resolve the conflict.  Conflict doesn’t just disappear on its own.  In a cause and effect world, there will always be effects.  Be sure to consider that in your planning.
Do you have any thoughts about conflict in the story world?  What are some ways you have used internal and external conflict in your own writing?  Feel free to share in the comments.

 Gillian is the author of Out of Darkness Rising, a fantasy novella that will be released by Flaming Pen Press this summer.  For more information, be sure to visit Gillian’s blog or her website


  1. Oh cool! A guest post. Great job.
    Gillian, I really love reading your blog!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

  2. Hi! I awarded you over at my blog, Candy Apple Books.