The essential three types of conflict in a story

napping cat - types of conflict in a storyIn a story we often can find three types of conflict the protagonist has to delve with. These types of conflicts can be external, internal, and interpersonal.

If your protagonist is riding a motorbike on a highway to chase a rapist on the run, that’s a pretty straightforward example of external conflict, or struggle. In fact, in this case the traffic, the high speed itself, the maneuvers the rapist may try to ram our protagonist’s bike off the road, are all external problems.

Instead if your protagonist must come to terms with a traumatic episode of her life she’s been struggling with for the past twenty years–maybe as a child she was in a devastating plane crash, and now she has discovered the man she has just met and feel incredibly attracted to is an airline pilot–then you have a classic example of internal conflict.

The above example also offers a great opportunity for interpersonal conflict. In fact your protagonist may try to persuade the pilot to change his career with a long and varied series of means. And the pilot may work just as hard to show her how mistaken she is, and that a single episode, even if incredibly traumatic, should never stump her ability to embrace and enjoy life.

From what I’ve just said it’s apparent that while in theory a book can be solely based on one type of conflict, a story really takes off when all these types of conflict intermingle.

The reason is simple. Verisimilitude is easier to attain if these types of conflict are all present. In fact, in real life we are often delving with situations that are a mix of external, internal, and relationship-related conflicts. As a result, as readers we expect a book to mimic life, at least to a certain extent.

A couple of examples of damn fine novels I read lately where all these types of struggle are present and nicely exploited to push the story onward are Silo by Hugh Howey, and The Last Coyote by Michael Connelly.

Self-awareness and self-improvement

In general male authors seem to delve more effectively with external conflicts, while women seem to have a natural propensity for internal and relationship conflicts.

However, this doesn’t mean in the least that men should focus solely on writing books packed with external conflicts, and women direct all their efforts to interpersonal and internal conflicts.

This is so for two reasons.

First of all, all serious writers work hard to improve their style in every aspect. They don’t hone exclusively the skills they are already quite good at. In fact, if you worked hard only on the aspects of your writing you’re already quite good at you would end making the difference between the different parts of your writing more and more jarring.

Secondly, while innate talent can sometimes help people get started in a career, there’s no field in which you can’t make notable progress if you practice and study it conscientiously.

The Limit of empathy

It’s quite apparent that even if we work hard to think out of the box and enter somebody else’s mind, so to speak, it’s next to impossible to completely alter the intrinsic way we tend to see the world.

Sure, we can imagine different people reacting in many different ways to a particular event. But it can be extremely difficult to imagine someone not reacting at all to that event.

For example, if someone cuts in front of Marianne in line at the grocery store, she might not even react to it. Maybe because she thinks she is too superior. Or maybe for the opposite reason, namely that she thinks everybody else is more important than she is. Or maybe she’s thinking about her marriage and deciding whether or not to leave her husband. And the longer she waits in line, the longer she can calmly think things out. Or whatever else.

Here the point is that given the fact we have chosen a particular event, chances are we feel that event has to elicit an apparent reaction.

Seen from this point of view our efforts to become proficient at depicting all types of conflicts can look doomed to failure.

However this is not the case. In fact, just like in dialogue even the greatest writers make their protagonists speak in ways that are completely at odd with their gender, and nonetheless manage to come up with masterpieces, and this is possible also with the different types of conflicts.

In fact, just like in dialogue it’s much more important what the different characters say than how they say it, by the same token, more than being perfectly tailored to the setting and the characters involved, conflicts need to be intriguing.

Not necessarily exotic. But intriguing.

For example, a rich girl bored to death in New York is going to be a bit different from one living in Tokyo. But a rich girl bored to death that discovers she will be dead in six months is an entirely different matter. Suddenly, New York or Tokyo are only details of a way bigger and more intriguing story.

As I said above, life is messy. Way too much messy to be transplanted as it is in a book. But it gives us an important lesson: external, internal, and interpersonal conflicts are always intermingled.

So when we copy from real life we must bear in mind an important caveat. Namely that we have to organize all the different events and the types of conflicts in such a way they work in synergy to give the story the greatest depth and thematic coherence.

That is verisimilitude. Because a story is a sort of map, and like a map the more it is  thematically oriented the more useful it can be.


Pictures: Kasya Shahovskaya – ThePixelman

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