Conflict. It's what drives on plots in stories for readers and creates things to bitch about for suicide kings and drama queens in real life. For writers it is a tool. In editing it's a tool for managing length (gods it's hard not to laugh using these words) and before you write it's a tool for pacing and plot. Let's sink our teeth into it now.

Yeah...kinda like that


Most writing teachers will preach conflict as some kind of holy grail. Nope, it's more like a handy all-in-one drill, hammer, and measuring tape. They'll tell you it's Jesus and I say it's Jesus' toolbox, you know, for that day job in carpentry. As a side note I rather like the gods and god-like figure with day jobs like Jesus and Buddha, they're so much more easier to relate to. Yet even they didn't whine about their philosophies as much as most teachers praise conflict. So let's toss out the god-worship and get to the meat of it.

Types of Conflict You will Actually Use:

Internal Conflict: the character deals with issues inside themselves, such as a moral quandary. This is used to further character development arcs and very rarely to further minor plot points.

External Conflict: the character seeks to find harmony or balance between themselves and other character(s) or situations. This is used to further major and minor plot points and very rarely to further character development arcs 

External has 3 subgroups:

External Conflict - Social: The character struggles to find balance or accord between their values and societal mores, often shown by a misconception of them in others' eyes

External Conflict - Situational: Same as social, but contained to 1 specific situation, often shown through a group or individual pressuring or confronting the protagonist 

External Conflict - Survival: The character must reconcile a belief, attitude, value, moral stance, or ethical stance in the face of external threats or fatality. This double-whammy is most often shown with the protagonist's moral values being brought into question by an outside character as dangerous to their survival. 

Let's get into some examples:

Internal Conflict: John's family is very religious as are his friends and school. John is gay and struggling to decide if he should come out or remain in the closet
External Conflict: John's rival discovers he is gay and in the closet and blackmails him 

External Conflict - Social: John is perceived as a very hetero-sexual manly-man and is nominated for prom king, still in the closet. He must learn to act the part.

External Conflict - Situational: John is fixed up on a date with head cheerleader Suzie who does not know he is gay. Suzie demands he put out and have sex with her but he is unable to get aroused.

External Conflict - Survival: John and his best friend are stranded in a small town of good ol' boys who invite them to go "queer-bashing" with them. John is horrified but his friend insists if he doesn't they will be killed.

The best refresher course on conflict is an 80's movie fest


I hope it's getting clearer. Oh, most textbooks will tell you there are dozens more types of conflict but trust me, these are all you need. I sure as hell don't use calculus in my daily life but I do use Algebra. The point of learning is to retain what you need, and the conflicts above are what you need to write.

Now, when can an internal conflict further a plot point? Only when an internal debate reaches a conclusive answer and spurs the character to action. Think back to every 80's teen movie and right before the montage the protagonist or antagonist debated. Once they reached a conclusion, it spurred them to action. Action is what drives the plot. If an internal conflict causes direct action it affects a plot point. These will typically be minor plot points, internal conflict used to unveil the big secret is frankly lame. Internal conflict which spurs an action that will unveil the big secret...that works.

When can external conflict further a character development arc? It's the inverse; when it helps another character to resolve an internal conflict, it develops a new character arc step. For example, let's say our protagonist is a silly boy called to adventure with his new mentor. He's in the middle of step 6 (allies, enemies, tests). Here's where you'd use those 3 sub-categories of external conflict. It could get boring just writing about how the young hero begins to win contests as it gets repetitive. So how about you show his advancement by his mentor beginning to approve of him? We start with the mentor's internal conflict: 'this kid is untrainable/I have to train him." Give the protagonist boy an external survival conflict where he has to overcome his namby-pamby pacifism and kick someone's ass. Make it a minor fight which does not further the plot all, but helps the mentor to see the kid will succeed after all...with more work.

Now that you can see the relationship between external and internal, they often do pair, but remember one takes the lead. If the external conflict leads to a major plot point, any internal conflict should be minimal. If an internal conflict leads to major character development, and external conflict should be minimal. You can pair them together, but let's step back from writing for a moment to real life. Think back to any event in your life that involved major internal conflict and major external conflict. You can do it...these are the things that shaped you to be who you are, they are the things that stay with you years later. These are the humiliating things that haunt you when you close your eyes, the missed opportunities you labor over, the things that changed the very course of your life. it will do the same for your protagonist and antagonist, so use it sparingly. Remember too that these things are usually negative, less often are they positive.

The perfect metaphor. Internal and external should look like they fit together, come close, but almost never fully pair.    Credit


Now how do you decide which type of conflict to use? You don't. Seriously. Write your outline without thinking about this. If you get stuck at any point THEN come back and look over your options, selecting one. Conflict is a helper, the hammer/drill/tape measure, it's not the goddamn foundation. Conflict is primarily something to note on your outline after you've written it. 

Pick a font color for internal and a separate one for external and highlight all the sentences in your outline that qualify as either. Here is where you make sure you'e not pairing internal and external together to affect major development arcs and plot points too often. Here is also where you check pacing. In your outline you should see one external conflict for every paragraph, even those two-sentence wonders. You should see internal conflict no more than once every three paragraphs, unless you're writing a soft whiny story the Oprah Book Club crowd will gobble up. If that's your goal, more power to you, and enjoy being a douchebag who writes the same shit over and over again like Nicholas Sparks.

If you stick to those averages your pacing will be smooth. If you see huge clumps of four or five external conflicts in a paragraph and none the next three...your pacing sucks. Fix it. fix that shit, right now, don't you dare start writing until you fix it. No, don't argue. FIX IT. Okay, maybe you're writing a fast-paced story Arnie Schwarzenegger would be perfect in when they make the movie. So go ahead and put in two external conflicts per paragraph and lessen the internal to once every five paragraphs. Will it be slower? You still need one external conflict per paragraph of your outline but increase the internal to once a paragraph as well. See how adjusting the conflict determines your pacing? THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT OF CONFLICT.

It's easy to say that now, big shot, after you read the above paragraphs


This is why you note conflict in your outline. Get the pacing right, keep it even over the whole story or you will piss off your reader. Remember pairing internal and external conflict to simultaneously further a character development arc AND the plot should be used no more than once per main main protagonist and antagonist. Here's a fun trick: if you have a standard hero it can only come at the end (step 11: resurrection & final battle + the climax of the story) and usually the internal conflict is realizing their true purpose, or the moral lesson "fear is the enemy," or they fall in love with the dame. If you have an anti-hero it subverts step 1 (ordinary world) a la Batman: his parents' murder turned his ordinary world into a dark one so that his 12 step journey would be one of darkness outside society. The unsympathetic antagonists' should come at his step 3 (mental breakdown). In this case an external conflict (step 2's impending disaster) creates such a massive internal conflict the mind shatters, this means step 2 should be short and step 3 should be long. The sympathetic antagonist should have it at step 12/the climax of the story. The climax should create an internal conflict so strong they relent from their evil plans. And if you ever do this in-story for a secondary character I will find you and murder you. No, it's not for even a secondary protagonist or antagonist. No. NO. NEVER!

Hopefully it makes sense now how conflict is a measuring tape, hammer, and drill. You use it to fine-tune and shape your outline. Later you can use it for word count. Just write and count the words between two external conflicts. Need to add words? Take the number you need, divide by that word count, and you now know the number of external conflicts to add. Keep their occurrence per paragraph the same as the rest and don't forget to add in internal conflicts to keep their occurrence the same. Need to shorten? Reverse the process.

Are we done yet? Yes, yes, just one last word of caution


If you follow this process you'll edit your outline to be sharp, and your story will be the same. I just redid this process for the outline for the second Marly Jackson last night because I needed to up the word count. It works. If you don't need to worry about research you're pretty much ready to write, but in our next lesson we examine what calls for research and you'd be surprised what does. Once more we'll need your outline for that stepand it may alter the outline. Do not start writing until your outline is fully edited and ready to go.