When you're talking about plot, the core conflict is at the center of everything. It's what the book is about, and the whole reason our characters are putting up with all the terrible things we do to them. It's the conflict in our one-line pitch, and what the focus of our query hook will be.
The core conflict is the story.
In my novel The Shifter, it's all about saving the sister. Other things happen, but that core problem is what's driving Nya to act on every page.
But there's also another core conflict—Nya's struggle with her powers.
Wait! you say? How can you have two core conflicts?
Because one is the external core conflict (the plot), and one is the internal core conflict (the character arc). These two work in tandem to create the story.
The External Core Conflict
The external core conflict is the problem the protagonist is facing on the outside—the meat of the story. Resolving this issue is the end of the novel, and the protagonist discovering she has this issue is pretty close to the beginning of the novel. The opening pages and the inciting event all lead to this issue. Resolving this conflict determines the plot.
Look at your conflict and think about how your protagonist might try to resolve it. What has to be done to solve it? To avoid it? To fix it? You can work backward from the end, or look at the smaller steps that would lead up to this issue.
For individual scenes, look at the protagonist's goal and ask if it connects to, or gets the protagonist to, this core conflict. If yes, you know you're on the right track plot-wise. If no, there's a good chance the scene is heading off on a tangent and doesn’t serve the story.
(Here's more on creating strong character goals and motivations)
The Internal Core Conflict
The internal core conflict is the problem the protagonist is facing on the inside. It typically follows the character arc and allows the protagonist to grow however she needs to in the story. It's most often a personal struggle that deals with the protagonist's belief system in some way, or whatever is keeping her from being happy and fulfilling her goal.
(Here’s more on creating inner conflicts)
Crashing Them Together
The internal core conflict is often at odds with the external core conflict, otherwise everything would be too easy for the protagonist. The conflict between the conflicts is what makes the tough choices we throw at the protagonist harder to make.
The real fun comes when we turn the internal and external conflicts against each other. Because when both are fighting to get the protagonist to do it their way, it helps keep the story unpredictable. There are always at least two different paths the protagonist can take. Since the protagonist needs to solve both conflicts, we have a constant tug of war. Even better, each conflict has consequences (both externally and internally), so we keep the stakes escalating and the tensions high.
(Here's more on goals and tough choices)
Using Core Conflicts to Plot
Conflict makes plotting easier because it gives us (and our characters) things to struggle with, and thus things to do. If nothing ever gets in the way of what the protagonist wants, the book will be over in a few scenes.
Try pinpointing these two conflicts and brainstorm some ideas on how to resolve them. Think about what the protagonist might do and why.
- List the main problem the protagonist needs to resolve (the core external conflict)
- List five things the protagonist might do to resolve this issue (These are possible major plot points of the story)
- List five things the protagonist might do to achieve each of those five things (possible scene goals to drive the plot to those major events)
- List the internal problem the protagonist is facing (What’s the personal self doubt, uncertainty, or flaw they have to overcome?)
- List five ways this inner problem can put the protagonist in a situation where she must make an impossible choice (These are potential major character arc growth points)
- List five ways this inner problem can directly oppose one of the external problems (These are potential moments to raise the stakes or add more conflict)
The goal is to brainstorm how the conflicts can work “together” (even if that’s against each other) to deepen the story, because you never know what thought might trigger the perfect plot twist.
Don't be afraid to dig several layers deep into any problem for more interesting solutions or complications. Keep looking for ways to bring that external and internal conflicts together and make the protagonist face tough choices. Growth comes from sacrifice and struggle, and having the protagonist sacrifice one goal for another will have long-lasting repercussions—and great plot ideas.
Do you know what your core conflicts are?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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