Friday, February 26, 2016

Building Your Core: Internal and External Core Conflicts

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A strong core leads to a strong novel.

When you're talking about plot, the core conflict is at the center of everything. It's what the novel 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, the protagonist, to act on every page.

But there's also another core conflictNya'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 conflict determines the plot. When someone asks what your novel is about, this is probably the problem you tell them about.

The opening pages and the inciting event all lead to this conflict. The protagonist discovering she has this conflict is pretty close to the beginning of the novel (typically made clear by the end of the first act). Resolving this conflict is the end of the novel.

Look at your core conflict and examine how your protagonist resolves it. What has to be done to solve this external problem? To avoid it? To fix it? 

Not sure? Try working backward from the end of the novel. What happens in the climax? What problem needs to be solved for the novel to end? Odds are that's your core conflict. If not, that's a red flag for issues with the plot or story concept. 

How this helps with plotting: Knowing the core conflict helps you determine what scenes and goals are needed to get the protagonist from the opening page to the end of the novel.  

In each individual scene, 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 chance the scene is heading off on a tangent and doesn’t serve the story. If you're unsure, then it's possible the scene covers an important character moment, or has value in another non-plot way.

(Here's more on Two Questions to Ask for Stronger 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 The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Inner Conflict That Make Sense)

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 Oh, Woe Is Me: Strengthening Character Goals)

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 how to resolve them. Think about what the protagonist might do and why. 

External Conflict:
  • 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)

Internal Conflict:
  • 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?

Find out more about conflict in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Replies
    1. Agreed. Most helpful pist and books as well!

  2. I'm currently in a serious brainstorming phase, so this post is definitely going to get bookmarked! I never thought about the five things approach to the external/internal conflicts, but it makes sense now that I see it.


  3. This is a great post. I'm trying to develop a plot for a new series and all that you've raised today is really going to help. Thanks.

  4. Very very good and smart post about storybuilding. I like coming here, your articles don't rehash other people's concepts.

  5. This post is really, really helpful. It helped me realize a choice that my protagonist has to make between something related to her internal conflict and something related to her external conflict. Thanks, Janice! :)

  6. Wow, great post. This is so clear and actionable.
    I have a request. Isn't this the special requests blog line? Well, anyway, you are such a gifted action writer and so many people confuse action and conflict. Someday I'd love to hear your approach to action and how you break that down.

    Really great hints here.

    Thanks Janice.

  7. Thank you so much for this --it clarifies a lot with my current WIP.

  8. Great post Janice. You've helped me figure out what my protag's internal conflict is. Some tweaking will be required, but I'm very excited about it. Your tips will help me intertwine it with the external conflict that's well established. Thanks for all the info you share with us.

  9. Frankie: Thanks!

    Amparo: There are certainly more questions you can ask yourself, but those are some of the ones I use. I've found that when I try to play off the internal and external conflicts, the story just holds together better.

    Natalie: Glad I could help!

    Deb: Thanks!

    Ben: Thanks so much. I really try to come up with things that folks can use right away to improve their writing.

    Brittany: Awesome! Good luck with that.

    Dustin: Thanks! I actually have a post in the works on action vs conflict. There was a great post on action a while back from Les Edgerton who inspired it. Here's the link to that:

    Now that the tour is over I can get back to those "defining what we do" posts.

    The Sweater Curse: Most welcome. Glad it helped.

    Cheryl: That's great! Tweaking is fun when you can see how much better the book is going to be when you're done, isn't it?

  10. LOVE this post!!!! I'm totally digging the part where the internal conflict meets the external conflict--I'm gonna review my outline and make sure there some collisions of conflicts in there.


  11. Great post. I think, too, that the internal conflict and external conflicts should climax at the same point. Do you think it's helpful to have the internal conflict threaten to make the character lose at the point of the climax in the external conflict--what sometimes is called a dark night of the soul? (or, as you call it, having the two crash together. Should they do this in the biggest way at the climax of the story.)

    And...on the internal conflict...would you say it's acceptable for the character to not be aware of the internal conflict early on? if she's flawed, say, can she be unaware? And if she is unaware, is it important the reader be able to see what the character is blind to?

    Maybe you will delve into these a bit in future blog posts? :) I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  12. Lbdiamond: Most welcome!

    Sally: I do think at some point, the internal conflict wins/affects and causes a bigger problem. When is really up to you and what best suits your story. (Nya has one of those moments in the middle of the book) Since that moment tends to be pretty dramatic, and probably puts the protag in a really nasty situation, often it'll be toward the climax or end of the third act (that dark night of the soul moment) but it can just as easily be in the middle like mine and send the story in a new direction.

    If clashing them works best at your climax, sure, do it then. But if it doesn't, don't. Only you know how that internal conflict is going to affect your protag's external choices. So if they need to go through something heavy emotionally to be ready to do what needs to be done for the climax, it may happen sooner. Or that moment might be what makes them put their foot down and say "no more" and act.

    I think they can have a conflict with something and not be aware of it if they haven't yet been put into a situation where they're forced to make a choice concerning it. (did that make sense?) It isn't until they need to do X to win, but their inner need/desire/morality says "hang on, wait a minute" and puts them into conflict.

    They don't need to know about that conflict from page one. Nya's inner conflict is having to decide how far she's willing to go to save her sister, so I show he doing things to help people right off the bat. I establish her as a good person with a good heart, so when she's later asked to hurt people, readers know she's going to say no, and feel all the more for her when she's forced to say yes.

    The first time she encounters this conflict is chapter four or five I think. and that's when she starts down the slippery slope between her external and internal goals.

  13. Thanks Janice, for taking the time to answer. I can't even remember when Nya went through these things. I always intend to study books I like to see how the authors do certain things, but I always forget because I get caught up in the story.

  14. Anytime! If I do my job right, a lot of these things are invisible and all you remember is the story. I have a old copy of Dave Duncan's "The Gilded Chain" that I have highlighted with notes and whatnot. I love his prose, and he was my study book years ago.

  15. I happened upon this article. Great stuff for building plot that works, my weak area. I have a few internal conflicts, mostly personality-related, that will face off with the external later in my middle grade chapter book I'm working on. Some of the internal is inevitable... (character is autistic), but will work through some understanding and growth in awareness and choice regarding his personality struggles and how he allows these to affect his life. You see... complicated! Thanks for guiding me in the right direction!

  16. Welcome to the blog! Glad you found me, and glad I was able to help.

  17. great post! another one to be saved and rehashed!

  18. Ack, this brought a lot of things to mind about my Artifacts series. For months now I've tweaked the plot and this post brought some clarity as to why what I've been doing isn't working, haha ... got more to think on now, thanks!

  19. Great stuff, Janice. Thanks for this post.

  20. this is really informative THANK YOU!!