The emotion characters from Inside Out

Inside Out is an external conflict inside an internal conflict, which is just weird.

In most speculative fiction stories, the heroes face down some kind of external conflict. These conflicts take many forms. In some stories, an advanced battle station is blowing up planets. In others, a bigoted politician plans to pass new laws targeting people who are already vulnerable. But external conflicts aren’t the only option. You can also focus primarily on what’s going on inside a character. Romancing a cutie, recovering from trauma, growing as a person – all of these are primarily internal conflicts.

In most cases, I recommend using a combined approach, but focusing heavily or even exclusively on internal conflicts is also a legitimate storytelling choice. Sometimes you want to get really deep into the characters, or you’re just not interested in an external conflict. That said, largely internal stories do come with certain problems that authors struggle with. Fortunately, there are also ways around these problems, and today we’re going to talk about five of them.

1. It’s Harder to Add Tension

Strange and Norrell standing side by side from the TV show Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
Strange & Norrell have godlike power and near-infinite time to deal with their personal problems. Yawn.

Tension is the worry that something will go wrong. It keeps audiences engaged because they want to know what happens next. In external conflicts, adding tension is a relatively straightforward process. If it looks like the villain might accomplish their goal or like the hero might come to harm, the story will be tense. It’s more complicated in practice, but the concept is simple.

For internal stories, tension is trickier. The stakes are much lower, as no one is threatening a city or demolishing the hero’s house. Failing at an internal conflict might be emotionally harmful, but it doesn’t usually affect the hero’s physical health. In some internal conflicts, the hero can theoretically keep trying until they eventually succeed. This makes it harder to hook the audience and entice them to keep watching or come back for another chapter after they’ve stopped reading for the night.

How to Overcome It

Since you can’t depend on tension to keep the audience engaged, you’ll need to fall back on another critical element of storytelling: novelty. That’s a story’s “wow, cool!” factor. It’s usually generated by the speculative elements of a story’s setting, like dragons and spaceships, but it can also come from characters. If the hero is particularly out there, something the audience hasn’t seen before, they’ll stick around out of curiosity, even if the plot hasn’t hooked them. Humor is also a good source of novelty, so if you have a funny bone, this is a good time to use it.

For example: your love story might not create much tension, but if you make the protagonist a librarian whose job it is to sort and process the log entries from the USS Enterprise’s crew, that’s something your audience likely hasn’t seen before. Then, you can add some humorous moments from the log entries, and that will keep your audience entertained despite the lack of tension. Of course, even the best novelty eventually fades, and then you’ll need to rely on attachment, but we talk about that next.

2. Audiences Don’t Inherently Care

A ringed station from the cover of Ballistic
In Aftershocks, there’s a question of whether two siblings will reconcile. But there’s a better question: Who cares?

We’ve covered how external conflicts create more tension than internal ones, but there’s another wrinkle here: it’s easier to show why an external conflict matters. If there’s a vampire running around and sucking victims dry, it’s pretty obvious why readers should want the monster stopped. It’s the same for less violent conflicts. If the evil mayor cuts housing assistance to build a new mayoral mansion, it’s clear why that matters.

Most internal conflicts don’t have inherent stakes like those external examples. It’s not automatically better for a couple to be in love, nor do we want estranged relatives to reconcile by default. Growth arcs are even harder. If a character has a negative trait strong enough to build a conflict on, they’ll annoy the audience away before the arc can even start. Finally, internal arcs simply have more abstract stakes than external ones. It’s hard to pin down what “coming of age” means exactly, and it requires a lot of investment that the audience has no reason to give.

How to Overcome It

This is when it’s time to bust out the big attachment guns. Normally, attachment builds up over time, but you can’t afford to wait around, since there’s no external conflict to hold the audience over. To speed things up, you need to make your hero as likable as possible. That means making them selfless, creating sympathetic problems for them, and giving them novel traits.* Once you’ve done that, the audience will care about your hero’s internal problems because the hero is just so endearing.

For example: you’re writing a story about an elf connecting with their new dwarven in-laws. Those aren’t compelling stakes on their own, but if your elf bakes lembas bread for hobbits in need, is an exile from Elf Land, and tells funny stories about overexcited humans they knew a century ago, the audience will fall immediately in love. Then, they’ll have a reason to care when your elven hero has trouble navigating the mine etiquette of their new home.

3. Intense Drama Is Forced

Two astronauts approaching a space coffin in Planetets
Planetets is about an everyday job in space, so when one character steals a coffin and gives an impassioned plea about funeral customs, it sounds like she’s on drugs.

Spec fic stories are often the home of spectacular events. Characters aim guns at their best friends, give long speeches on what it means to be human, and fly their ships too close to the sun. You know, standard protagonist stuff. The problem is that these dramatic moments are almost always motivated by the external conflict. So when authors want them for a mostly internal story, it causes problems.

If the hero’s best friend is being held for ransom, then robbing a bank will seem reasonable. But if that same hero robs a bank to pay for their date, it’ll seem wildly out of place in anything except an absurdist comedy. Similarly, in a story about androids fighting for freedom, it makes sense for characters to muse on exactly what sapience means, as it’s very relevant to the story. That same musing just won’t fit from someone who’s dealing with annoying coworkers at the office.

How to Overcome It

In most cases, the best option is to scale down the drama to fit your conflict. If you’ve done the work to get the audience invested in your characters, that’s all you need. If you haven’t, then adding inappropriately intense drama won’t help; it’ll just make the story disjointed. For a story about reuniting with a lost parent, it’s reasonable for the hero to stay up all night worrying about what they’ll say. It’ll be less reasonable for them to steal a private jet so they can make the coffee appointment.

It’s also possible to build a really deep internal conflict that can then justify some more extreme drama. If your hero is struggling with whether or not to embrace the horrific powers of their elder-god ancestors, then a lively debate on the inherent value of human life might be called for. But such high-stakes internal conflicts are rare, and more often than not, they’ll come across as silly or over the top.

4. Conflicts Get Tiresome

Crusher, Picard, and Vaush from The Next Generation
In The Next Generation, Picard and Crusher draw out their romance so long that it’s hard to even care anymore.

Conflicts are usually more satisfying if they take some time to solve, and this is rarely a problem for external conflicts. The evil empire won’t be defeated in one battle, and an elder god will have any number of cultists out doing its bidding. So long as the villains aren’t constantly failing to kill the hero, it’s easy to create a series of confrontations that eventually build up to taking on the big bad.

With internal conflicts, this can get old fast. If there’s no external force keeping the lovebirds apart, the audience will soon wonder why they haven’t gotten together yet. If you try to keep them apart with personality clashes, it’ll seem like they just aren’t right for each other. Growth arcs have a similar problem. There are only so many times audiences can watch a character fail to be less selfish before the whole arc feels pointless. Social conflict works the same way. The first time characters clash over who ruined whose prom date, it’s dramatic. The fourth time, it’s a bore.*

How to Overcome It

The simplest option is to keep internal conflicts short so they don’t overstay their welcome. If there’s conflict in your romance because one lovebird broke a treasured heirloom, resolve it quickly and move on. Either there’s an apology and the incident is forgotten, or the couple splits and goes on with their lives. Likewise, if two people are right for each other and there’s nothing keeping them apart, they can just start dating! No need to draw it out.

Alternatively, you can break internal conflicts down into steps. This is similar to how an external war is usually broken down into individual battles, but internal arcs don’t have obvious divisions, so you have to create them. For example, in a romance, just striking up a conversation could be the first step if your protagonist is shy, from a rival family, or what have you. Then you can create conflict over working together on a school project before unleashing the final and most deadly obstacle: a first date.

5. Important Plotlines Are Drowned Out

Torhu holding an orange cat in Fruits Basket
Fruits Basket has excellent internal conflicts, but when it introduces an ancient curse, they don’t seem to matter as much.

A story’s most urgent problem almost always takes precedence in the audience’s mind, which isn’t usually an issue. It’s intuitive that Luke Skywalker has to deal with the stormtrooper in front of him before he can think about destroying the Death Star. Even though the Death Star is the bigger danger in the grand scheme of things, if the stormtrooper shoots him now, nothing else will matter.

This gets a lot messier when you mix internal and external conflicts. By their nature, external conflicts are almost always more urgent than internal ones. No matter how compelling an emotional recovery arc might be, it’ll always take a back seat to the hero being hunted by an evil wizard, as it’s hard to recover from anything when you’re a toad.

If your hero does the rational thing and focuses on the external problem, then any internal conflicts will be put on hold at best. At worst, they might not seem important anymore after whatever else the hero goes through. If the story keeps following internal conflicts instead, it’ll frustrate the audience. There’s obviously something more important to do, so why isn’t the hero working on that?

How to Overcome It

If you want to mix internal and external conflict, your best option is to make them work together. I have a whole post on this, but the short version is that if you want a story where the hero becomes a better person, you must craft a plot that depends on them becoming a better person. Perhaps they could, as a random example, be charged with fixing the Ankh-Morpork post office and only be able to succeed once they start putting other people first.

This pattern works for just about any internal arc you can think of. Romance? Try your hand at a political drama where the hero falls for their smartly dressed rival. Reconciling with an estranged family? It’s time for an urban fantasy thriller where the hero’s sibling is being targeted by the magic mafia, and only the hero can do anything about it. The other option is to only work on internal conflicts when nothing external is happening. That might work for highly episodic stories like a TV show or novella series, but it’ll be a real struggle in anything more continuous.

Despite what action lovers might tell you, internal conflicts are just as viable in stories as external ones. The more people who know this the better, as we may one day get away from the false idea that a lack of violence means a lack of conflict. However, internal conflicts are often more challenging than external ones, so storytellers need to be prepared. Getting your audience to care about the hero’s trauma is harder than having two guys with guns burst in, but it’s incredibly rewarding when done correctly.

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