Friday, December 18, 2009

External Conflict vs Internal Conflict

For romance writers, this is a biggie.

You need to know the line you want to write for and whether the emphasis is on internal or external conflict. So if you're writing single title, external might predominate, but if you're writing category romance aimed at Mills & Boon your focus should be on internal conflict, and if you're targeting a romantic suspense line, you'll need to find a fine balance between the two.

But do you understand the difference?

Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" provides the perfect example.
* Spoiler alert below *

Pretty Belle is a dreamer, a hopeless romantic. Gaston, the town's most eligible - and most self-centred - bachelor, decides that he wants Belle as his wife. Meanwhile, living alone in a nearby castle, is the Beast, a prince transfigured by an enchantress because of his selfishness and his inability to love. The spell will only be broken when he learns to love and is loved in return. But as the years pass and no-one can see past his hideousness, the Beast grows more angry and more reclusive.

Belle and the Beast are thrown together (watch the movie for the details I'm skipping over). Slowly, despite the obvious obstacles, they become friends and attraction grows between them. She learns to see past his hideous face to the man within and he learns to control his anger and find hope and joy once again.

Just as it seems they are going to come together, Belle looks in a magic mirror and sees that her father is ill and needs help. The Beast lets her go, even though he knows it means giving up his only chance to break the spell and transform back into a prince.

In trying to help her father, Belle tells the townsfolk about the Beast. Led by the jealous Gaston, the townsfolk storm the Beast's castle. The Beast is injured in the fight and Belle finds him. She reveals her love for him in his dying moments and so he is saved and transformed back into a handsome prince. Happy Ever After.

Now the external conflict is clear: the enchantress' spell, her father's illness, Gaston's jealousy, the excited mob. A certain amount of external conflict is always necessary, but it is the less obvious internal conflicts that add depth to any story and which keep the reader hooked.

Internal conflict stems from who they are as people, their beliefs, their experiences. In Belle's case, this is her romantic idealism. She dreams of living the fantasy she reads about, and yearns for a hero like those in her books. She knows she doesn't want Gaston, but she still has to learn to look beneath the Beast's hideous features to love the man within.

In the Beast's case, he needs to learn to love and to put someone else's needs above his own.

Even when all the external conflicts have been resolved, and the battle with the townsfolk has been won, Belle and her Beast cannot find their Happy Ever After without overcoming their own prejudices and issues. And it is important that they are the only ones who can help each other overcome these issues. No-one else but Belle can draw the Beast out of the anger he has withdrawn into and bring him to the point where he is able to put her needs before his own. No-one but the Beast is able to show Belle that true beauty is within.

Having a clear idea of what your characters' conflicts are and how they're going to overcome them is the basis of your character arcs. In resolving their internal conflicts, your characters learn and grow. This gives them depth, makes them real people as opposed to two-dimensional characters, and makes your reader care about them.

Can you see how you can apply this in your own writing? Do you have any questions regarding internal and eternal conflict? Please feel free to leave a comment ...


  1. Its a complicated subject but you did a great job in this blog!


  2. Some stories call for more external conflict as opposed to internal. I know some of my books only have internal conflict that keeps the H/H apart. It depends on the story.

    For me, I don't usually write specifically for a pub. I write the book then I decide where it'll go.

    Write your story from your heart and you'll be fine :-)

  3. Romy, you made it sound so easy! But that's because you did a great job at explaining both, and you picked the perfect example of a story to do it with.

  4. great explanation Romy!...and using beauty and the beast? brilliant...I'm printing this one out!


  5. Well done Romy! Now lets see if I can impliment it.

  6. Thanks to everyone for the great comments.

    Sandra - you're right about writing the story from your heart. As in all things, you've got to be true to who you are.

  7. That's one of my all time fave Disney movies and I know it almost word for word but I'd never thought about it from a writer's POV before. Great job Romy!


  8. Romy,
    Great subject matter, wonderful explanation

  9. This is very educational content and written well for a change. It's nice to see that some people still understand how to write a quality post! beast beauty