Updated: Dec 25, 2022
No story can be successful without conflict. There are no caveats, conditions, or cautions to this rule. The rule is universal, which means it applies to every successful story ever written anywhere on Earth at any time in Human history.
For years, my critics told me my stories didn’t have enough conflict. Reviewers would write, “Your characters have it too easy.” This exasperated me because my stories had as much distress and opposition as any story I'd ever heard or read. My characters didn't have it easy!
But the criticisms kept coming, even after I imposed greater turmoil onto my poor literary souls.
After a great amount of my own suffering, I came to realize my critics weren't referring to insufficient conflict, but rather to insufficient internal conflict.
Ohhhhhh. Thank you for being clear.
It turns out that it isn't conflict that makes every story, but internal conflict.
What is internal conflict?
Internal conflict occurs when a character suffers internally because of conflicting needs or requirements. For internal conflict to exist, there must be two or more "reasonable and necessary" objectives that are in opposition to each other. The character can't complete both of them. She can't have it both ways.
Classical motives for motivating characters include fear, duty, need, desire, revenge, and expectation. But motives do not create internal conflict until more than one of them occurs at once that require characters to act in opposite directions.
Children escaping from prison doesn't create internal conflict. Children escaping from prison who would prefer to remain in prison creates internal conflict.
A story about two rocks wouldn't be very interesting. But a story about two rocks that began as one rock and then broke apart a thousand years ago, and against the wishes of the other rocks have been trying to find each other again ever since, is a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.
Speaking of rocks, we recently upgraded our kitchen countertops to beautifully colored granite. That granite waited millions of years to be installed in our kitchen. Yes, we are that special.
Opposition alone doesn't create internal conflict. This is one reason why action movies often have weak stories.
Little Red Riding Hood
Recall the 10th-century tale called Little Red Riding Hood. While being one of the most recognizable--and oldest--stories in western literature, it's entirely lacking in internal conflict. The story doesn't answer reasonable questions, such as:
Why does she go into the forest by herself?
Why doesn't anyone else take care of grandmother?
Why does grandmother live alone in a dangerous forest?
You may think this line of questioning is silly. But it demonstrates the vagueness—and I dare say hollowness—of a purely event-driven story. Perhaps a better story is the more recently published The Three Little Pigs (James Halliwell-Phillips, 1890), which describes how the first two pigs were lazy and built houses of weaker materials.
Internal conflict in fiction provides applications of the following struggles:
Laziness and insecurity vs. hard work and security
With choice comes responsibility.
Freedom to choose (liberty) vs. (promised) peace and security at the cost of freedom
"Law of the Harvest" (reap what you sow)
Long-term needs vs. immediate satisfaction
Two stories in one
A successful tale is actually two stories, one being the external (the plot) and the other being the internal (the real story). The external story is what happens. The internal story is what is going on inside the main character’s head. This is almost always an entirely different story. Thus, a novel is really two novels.
This principle is well illustrated by Netflix TV series’ such as “Broadchurch,” “Happy Valley,” “The Fall,” “The Haunting of Hill House,” “The Killing,” and “Maniac.” In each case, there are external and internal stories. With every event or scene, there is another inside the mind of the characters. The inner story brings richness and meaning to the outer story.
What happens when there is no inner conflict? The story becomes a grocery list of events:
Such would be catastrophic for any author. If you find yourself writing a story that feels shallow, it may be because it has insufficient internal conflict.
If a novel is really two novels, then you must consider the endings of two stories. I'm in the process of writing the end of a novel where both stories collide. Such is tricky to write because both stories must be believed and accepted by the readers. However, the two stories are in conflict with each other. I'm having to get blank sheets of paper and write each step bit-by-bit because there are many pieces that must fit tightly together.
No one is safe
The acclaimed movie director Alfred Hitchcock was famous for showing something troublesome toward the beginning of the movie and then backing off and letting the viewers worry about it for the rest of the film.
In the spirit of Hitchcock, do something emotionally terrible to one of your main characters early on. The readers will fret about him or her for the remainder of your story.
"Only trouble is interesting." -- John Dufresne
More than two
Think of all the streaming TV series on Netflix and Amazon. In how many of those shows are there only two characters wanting their way? No, there are usually many more. Recall the Star Wars series. What if there were only Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar? How incredibly boring would that would have been! Imagine nine movies with only Luke and Darth duking it out?
This presents a big problem for new authors. What is more difficult than developing a unique, fully-realized, richly textured 3D character with deep internal conflict? How about four or five of them--all different from each other and all interesting? Yet, apparently, such is an important ingredient in full-length modern-day fiction writing.
No clichéd conflict
“Who will you save," the villain wheezes,
"your friend, or a dozen people
I’m holding captive who will die under my hand?”
This overused plot crutch is boring because it is “external conflict” posing as “inner conflict.”
And it’s cheap writing.
Trouble, disease, mistakes, upheaval, character flaws, hopelessness, and confrontation are not internal conflict until the solution to any of these creates new problems.
But the loss must occur naturally. The reader must never feel it's done on purpose, else your story will be interpreted as a cheap manipulation.