Monday, November 12, 2012

Creating Both Internal and External Conflict

by Beth Groundwater

Early in my writing career, I learned that in commercial fiction, there must always be conflict. Dwight Swain succinctly defines conflict as “two dogs, one bone.” The protagonist wants or needs something and has to fight to get it. And in most novels, we authors need to create both external conflict and internal conflict to engage and captivate readers.



External conflict happens in the physical world: space colonists fight alien invaders in a science fiction novel, the heroine struggles to escape after being kidnapped by the villain in a romance novel, the sleuth must find a killer covering his tracks in a murder mystery. Internal conflict happens in the emotional landscape of the novel and usually involves the protagonist needing to learn a life lesson, conquer an inner fear, solve a relationship problem, or surmount some emotional barrier.




The most interesting plots intertwine multiple external and internal conflicts of multiple characters. They feed on one another, successively raising the stakes until the final crisis or “black moment.” In a mystery, the primary external conflict is the need to solve the crime and find the murderer, while the internal conflict can be any emotional issue that must be faced by the sleuth while investigating the murder. This close relationship between the primary external and internal conflicts is one that I strove for in both of my published Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery books, A Real Basket Case and To Hell in a Handbasket, the second of which was just re-released in trade paperback and ebook by Midnight Ink on November 8th.

In A Real Basket Case, the main external conflict is that a massage therapist is shot dead while giving Claire a massage and her husband is wrongly accused of the crime. Claire must convince the local police to reopen the case and look for the real killer. The internal conflict is that this event shatters Claire’s marriage, making her husband Roger believe she was having an affair and putting Claire on the defensive to prove her love to him and rescue their marriage.

Similarly, Claire’s initial external conflict in To Hell in a Handbasket is to convince local authorities that a young woman’s death on the ski slope of Breckenridge, Colorado was a murder, not an accident, as seen in this snippet of a scene:

Realizing the senior ski patroller didn’t believe her, Claire kept pushing. “The ski tracks came straight out of the woods above the collision point. No turns. If the skier was the one who hit her, either he never saw Stephanie or he deliberately hit her.”

Judy stared at her mother. “You think someone killed her on purpose?”


“Whoa.” Matthews put out his hands. “You’re getting carried away here.”


The internal conflict in To Hell in a Handbasket is Claire’s reluctance to let go of her college-aged daughter, Judy, who is eager to leave the nest. Claire worries about Judy’s safety as a result of Stephanie’s death on a ski slope, but Judy refuses her mother’s smothering protective measures. An early hint of this conflict is given in these lines:

A surge of jealousy engulfed Claire. Judy had shrugged off her mother’s attempts at comfort, and now she clung to her boyfriend like ivy sucking life from a tree.

By setting roadblocks in Claire’s way, increasing the danger to her daughter and Claire’s confusion about what’s happening, and precipitating arguments between the two, my job as an author was to continually “make things worse” in Claire’s life. That way, readers can worry about her and root for her to succeed. For those who read the book, I hope you enjoy the wild ride that Claire takes in To Hell in a Handbasket!

Do you have any favorite examples of external or internal conflicts in books you’ve read--or written?

7 comments:

Mario Acevedo said...

Harlan Coben's Gone For Good is one of my favorite books with its layered and twisted external/internal conflicts.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I also think about internal and external plotlines braiding together, but I love the succinct summary: "Two dogs, one bone." Great post, Beth.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for your comments, Kathleen and Mario! Mario, Harlan Coben definitely knows conflict. ;-)

B.K. Stevens said...

Great post, Beth. I've always thought Dorothy Sayers' GAUDY NIGHT intertwines internal and external conflicts beautifully: The emotions Harriet Vane struggles with in her relationship with Lord Peter parallel the motives she seeks to understand as she tries to solve the mysteries at Shrewsbury College.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for your comment, B.K., and you are so right about Dorothy Sayers' books!

G.M. Malliet said...

Has everyone seen Argo? There is no way to watch that movie and not be pulling for all the main characters to pull off that wonderful stunt. Internal and external conflict galore. Very nice post, Beth.

Liz Lipperman said...

I also like the dogs and bone analogy. As for internal conflict, I think the best ones are the ones you don't realize until the END of the book. And then it's, "Oh yeah."

Nice blog, Beth.