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"The Ins and Outs of Conflict"

by Richelle Putnam

Most people go to incredible lengths to avoid conflict. But not writers. Like crazed addicts, they seek out criminals and earth destroying comets. They place innocent children in the hands of kidnappers, forcing them to stay until the last unnerving moment. They might even attempt to destroy the world. Why? Conflict is the key to a successful story.

Five Basic Conflict Categories

Character against god-made crises (nature, disease, and sickness)

Character against unknown (space, spirit world, fantasy)

Character against character (protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain)

Character against Society (law, government, religion, rules, authority)

Character against Self (insecurities, disabilities, physiological, emotional)

These can be further summarized into two categories--outer and inner.

Outer Conflict

These are situations that occur OUTSIDE the character's mind, elements beyond his control. Examples are god-made crises, the unknown, society, murder, espionage, robbery, stalkers, rivalry, competitions, other characters, and so on. OUTER CONFLICT can cause INNER CONFLICT.

Inner Conflict

These are situations that occur INSIDE a character's mind, such as jealousy, envy, love, anger, hurt, fear, insecurity, phobias, rejection, and so on. Characters can control their reactions to inner conflict. INNER CONFLICT can cause OUTER CONFLICT.


In THE WATCHER by James Howe, we have character against character, and in OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse, we find character against nature. Here's an example from THE WATCHER by James Howe, Aladdin Paperbacks, publisher, ISBN 0-689-80186-6


[Margaret] was glad for [the empty beach]. It made it easier to believe she was invisible when there were fewer eyes to see her. What would they have seen anyway? A bony girl with loose brown hair falling across her face and shoulders. A baggy t-shirt and pink and powder-blue flip-flops, one of which was held together with packing tape. That's all. Just her body, just her clothes. They would not have seen her. No.

For Margaret, the outer conflict that caused her inner conflict was an abusive father (beyond her control). But whether or not she told authorities about the abuse (inner conflict) was within Margaret's control.

Here's an example of an outer conflict in OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse, Scholastic, Inc., publisher, ISBN 0-590-37125-8


Mama has rules for setting the table. I place plates upside down, glasses bottom side up, napkins folded over forks, knives, and spoons. When dinner is ready, we sit down together and Ma says, "Now." We shake out our napkins, spread them on our laps and flip over our glasses and plates, exposing neat circles, round comments on what life would be without dust.

For Billie Jo, the outer conflict is the Oklahoma dust bowl (beyond her control), but she can control her reactions (inner conflict) to the difficulties of living with the dust bowl.

In THE WATCHER, Margaret fantasizes about other families that appear so perfect. However, page after page, reality seeps in and reveals the truth. In OUT OF THE DUST, Billie Joe is determined to leave the grim life of dust she copes with every day until she discovers a strength within herself she has never perceived.

Cause and Effect

So, what is happening here? First, conflict is introduced, then it heightens, progressively worsens, and as characters face it, they are strengthened and change takes place.

This is called "cause and effect." After overcoming one obstacle, another pops up even more complicated and challenging. This continues until the final conflict/climax, which seems insurmountable.

How does a writer not only create inner and outer conflict, but also heighten and maintain the pace until the final climax and story resolution? First, establish the ultimate goal and, once characters begin their quest, start hurling obstacles in front of them to maintain the pace. Below is a very simple outline of progressive conflicts:

Goal: Teenager wants to go to a party

Obstacle: Parents won't let her

Solution: She plans to sneak out the car

Obstacle: Her best friend who is spending the night doesn't want to get into trouble

Solution: Main Character talks friend into going, saying they won't get caught and it'll be fun

Mounting Obstacle: Policeman stops car because girls are out after the twelve o'clock curfew

Mounting Solution: Main Character tells officer that her best friend is sick and wants to go home.

Intensifying Obstacle: After girls get to party, best friend feels uncomfortable because of drinking and drugs and wants to leave.

Intensifying Solution: Main Character decides to take her friend home and go back to the party.

Heightened Obstacle: On the way, Main Character, who has had too much to drink, runs off road. Car flips several times. Best friend is knocked out. Main Character smells gasoline and sees the small fire. Door is stuck. Main character panics. She kicks at crushed door. It won't open. She kicks at front window. It won't break. She screams and cries. Then she calms down and remembers that an automobile's side windows aren't as thick as the front window. She kicks and kicks her window. She feels the heat intensify. She kicks harder, harder. The glass cracks. She kicks. It cracks some more, until finally her foot crashes through. She grabs her best friend. The fire is crackling. Her arms ache trying to pull her injured friend out. Her head is whoozy from drink and fear. She cuts her arm on broken glass, but ignores it. She pulls and pulls until finally, she yanks her friend through the small window, dragging her away from the car, which is now engulfed in flames.

Heightened Solution: Friend in hospital, a small chance she might make it, but most probably she won't. Main Character stays at hospital day after day dealing with guilt and regret. She speaks out against drinking and driving, losing many friends in the process.

Climaxing Obstacle: All the friends she wanted to impress at the party mean nothing anymore. Even though they have showed up at her side now, she doesn't care. Only one person matters to her now: Her best friend. The one who had accepted her when others hadn't, and stood by her at any cost. She'll never forgive herself if her best friend dies.

Final Resolution: Best friend finally responds. Soon she is sitting up, getting better day after day. The two are reconciled. Main Character learns from her destructive behavior and grows from the experience.

Pacing, Pacing, Pacing!

A novel should consist of mini conflicts and climaxes, inner and outer, all possessing beginnings, middles, and ends, and all leading to the ultimate conflict, climax, and resolution. Nevertheless, don't rush from conflict to conflict. Your readers will become nervous wrecks. Use thoughts, narratives, descriptions, and flashbacks as calming affects before going to the next conflict.

In closing, no story can succeed without inner and outer conflict. Characters have to strive for something, and, as we all know, even in real life nothing comes easy. Readers long to struggle with characters, celebrating their successes, and crying over their losses. Struggles don't have to be riddled with blood and violence, but must be dramatic and moving. Endings need not be happy, but something that readers are not likely to ever forget.

Don't fear conflict. Confront it, tackle it, and then go on to the next one.


Richelle Putnam is a former writer for All Headline News.  She has been published in Common Ties, E2K Literary Journal, World Wide Writers, Orchard Press Mysteries, Southern Hum, The Copperfield Review, Cayuse Press, Writer’s Journal, Obadiah Press’s Living By Faith Anthology, A tribute to Mothers Anthology, A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Daughters, and more.  Her children’s literature has been published on the Institute of Children’s Literature’s website, Writing Korner, and Wee Ones, Boy’s Quest, Appleseeds, and Hopscotch Magazine for Girls; Her work is soon to be released in Flashquake, Fireflies in Fruit Jars Anthology, and GCWA “Mississippi” Anthology. Her novel, Fallout, was released in 2000; She is the Founder and President of Mississippi Writers Guild.