Inside-Outside More Tips on Writing Conflict

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Inside/Outside: More Tips on Writing Conflict

Some of the strongest conflict in any book comes from within the main character. Inner conflict comes from character traits that can be both strengths and weaknesses. I say this because these traits often create the problems in books for young readers, and help give the character the skills to overcome them.

Inside-Outside: More Tips on Writing Conflict QuoteFor instance, a character who is constantly scolded for being too impulsive and wild may be constantly trying to suppress these things about themselves to better fit in and gain approval, but the same traits may eventually produce the idea and the energy to solve the story problem in the plot. When talking about types of conflict, inner conflict is often called “character vs. self.” Conflicts that come from sources outside of the main character’s personality and strengths are called outer or outside conflict. Outer conflict may be with other characters or with circumstances and conditions the main character encounters.

Working Together

Inner and Outer conflict shouldn’t be thought of as two totally separate things. The outer conflicts in a story often offer an opportunity to explore and understand inner conflicts better.

For instance, let’s imagine a story about a camping trip. We could begin by showing some conflicts between the main character and his parents as they arrive at the parking lot of the national forest and the dad begins passing out backpacks. Maybe the main character never wanted to go and every moment with his parents is rife with conflict as a result.

Inside-Outside: More Tips on Writing Conflict CANVA Family CampingThe inner conflict of hating being in the forest when he had something else he wanted to do would heighten or even provoke outer, person-vs-person conflicts with the other people camping. Maybe the main character has a sibling who loves camping as does the dad. And maybe the mom is fairly neutral about the whole thing. She loves seeing the park but might be less excited about sleeping in tents and keeping her kids from killing each other. Do you see how the personality and preferences of each character would shape and drive the conflict interactions?

Maybe Dad never got to camp with his family growing up and always dreamed of taking his family on trips like this. In his head, he has unrealistic expectations of how wonderful it will be. This makes his son’s behavior a huge disappointment. And that pushes him into a person vs. person conflict with his son. Maybe the mom simply hates all the sniping. She wants to enjoy the quiet of the forest. She knows the trip will be a lot of work, but not with all this conflict stealing the one thing she was actually looking forward to. So that could fuel a person vs. person conflict as well.

Up the Conflict Ante

The person vs. person conflicts, all triggered by inner conflicts, would keep the story interesting for a while, but eventually, the reader will want to see more. You might include some funny moments. Maybe the dad takes them fishing, telling the mom he and the kids will bring dinner back to the site and cook it for them all. However, the fishing results in someone falling in and possibly a panicky moment of seeing signs of a bear at the edge of the river. The problems and humor in the fishing event would allow the reader a peek at several sorts of character vs. nature conflicts and could distract the reader from the foreshadowing of a bear. A bear that is going to up the conflict ante soon.

Inside-Outside: More Tips on Writing Conflict CANVA Boys lost in forestNow suppose the bear comes into the campsite during the night, drawn by the smell of the cooking they did for supper (maybe fish or maybe some packaged emergency food, depending on how bad the fishing trip went). The bear’s attack on the website as it looks for food sends the family fleeing the scene, and they could become separated. Maybe our main character and his younger sibling get lost together.

The main character finds himself the sole protector of his younger sibling, who had loved the idea of camping. They’d been on the outs in the car, but now the main character needs to step up as the older brother. He needs to rise above his earlier conflicts because he has a whole new set of problems. He may inwardly gloat a little—he said camping was a terrible idea—but he also needs to step up and handle the new external conflicts of being lost in the woods in the dark with a sibling who needs his help.

Morph, Change, Grow

That’s the thing about conflict, it doesn’t stay constant. Imagine a story where the story conflict is that the main character thinks his sibling is spoiled and annoying. If nothing changes during the story and the conflict remains constant from beginning to end, that’s a dull story. It might start well. We might become engaged right away. We may be on the main character’s side. Maybe we think the younger sibling is spoiled and annoying as well. But we’re also going to want more. Usually before the end of the story, we are going to want to see realistic change in this conflict.

Inside-Outside: More Tips on Writing Conflict CANVA Family with guitarKeep in mind that conflict resolution needs to be realistic. Suppose the main character is grumpy and sarcastic with his younger sibling, and the mom sits him down and says, “I wish you two would get along better. You’re brothers. That’s supposed to mean more than this constant squabbling.”  Now that scene would be realistic. Moms often “have talks” with kids. And the main character might feel guilty for upsetting the mom and promise to try to do better. But if that single lecture and bout of remorse works, if he is suddenly pals with the younger brother, the story isn’t going to feel real.

Relationships in the real world simply take more work than that. So the reader is going to find that all to be a bit simple and unlikely. Kids know that solving conflicts, especially family conflicts, is simply not that easy. So you’ll need more.

Perhaps the main character does try. He is convinced he’s going to do what he promised his mom. He’s going to stop being sarcastic. He’s going to stop yelling at the younger sibling at the top of his lungs. Sure, the younger sibling is annoying and spoiled, but he’s going to rise above it. And that probably lasts until the younger sibling does something that slots right into the main character’s feelings about him being spoiled and annoying. And we’re right back to the yelling. That’s because you need complexity to make conflict in a story work. And you need believability if you’re going to have conflict change.

Inside-Outside: More Tips on Writing Conflict CANVA Family with guitarA story like the one we’re imagining is going to require you to bring in some external conflicts that force the siblings to work together. Or ones that make the main character truly change so that he’s not simply trying to do better, but he’s working to truly make the relationship better.

Change is tough and the methods to create believable change on the page require some skill to employ, but it’s worth it. Believable change, believable working out of conflicts, give the reader something to think about, something to consider for their own lives.

That’s the kind of thing that elevates a story from a pleasant pastime to something more meaningful and lasting. So make your inner conflicts complex, believable, and consistent, and use your outer conflicts to make characters confront themselves and bring out real change. It’s a challenge, but one every writer needs to take up. The rewards for the reader are well worth it.


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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

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