I have been doing A LOT of online pitch conferences lately. Every time I do one, I think “I really need to write a blog about conflict” but then it gets pushed to the side for more pressing issues.
So I am borderline thrilled to finally be writing this blog. Hopefully, you like it too. 🙂
Though my inspiration comes from verbal pitches, this advice applies to query letters, Twitter pitches and even manuscripts.
There are two types of conflict in a novel: external and internal. The external conflict is how the plot unfolds, the physical actions of your characters, and the ways they’re acted on by the outside world. It drives your plot arc. The internal conflict is your protagonist’s mental or emotional motivations, how they feel about the world around them and the other characters, and what they want for themselves. It drives your character arc. Both are essential in a novel. Depending on what type of novel you’re writing, one may be more important than the other. Commercial fiction tends to be more plot-driven, so the external conflict is more likely to take center stage. Literary fiction tends to be more character and writing-driven, so the internal conflict needs to be well-articulated.
The challenge in pitching (and writing) is making sure both conflicts come across. If you only focus on one, the story will feel imbalanced.
External conflict pitfalls and solutions
Most often the pitches I see that focus primarily on external conflict fall into genres that work with action-driven stories, like thrillers or fantasy. An FBI agent needs to stop a killer before he kills again. A warrior princess must stop an evil warlord from using magic to take over the world. On the surface level, it seems obvious why these characters act the way they do in your book. It’s an FBI agent’s job to catch killers. It’s obvious to the warrior princess (and the reader) that evil doers must be stopped.
The potential pitfall of these types of conflicts is that there are oodles of other books in the market with similar conflicts. So having a protagonist whose character shows depth and nuance makes all the difference in the world.
Give your characters additional motivations to make them feel well-rounded. Perhaps the FBI agent’s life is falling apart, and she needs to catch this killer to keep her job and make herself feel better about the choices she’s made in her personal life. (But watch out for clichés, like the FBI agent coming out of retirement to solve a case that’s personal to her.) Perhaps the warrior princess grew up never believing in the power of her own magic (because she was scolded by her mother when she tried to use it), and she needs to harness this power to stop the evil warlord.
But don’t just stop there, keep drilling down, adding more detail to fill out your character’s backstory. This can help drive the action as well. The FBI agent could decide to attend her nephew’s baseball game to make up for not being there for her family, and she could lose an opportunity to catch the killer (which would make her more likely to lose her job). The warrior princess could attempt to use her magic in a way that seems to make a situation worse for someone else (which would make her question the value of her magic all the more, and make it harder for her to finally accept that only her magic can stop the warlord).
If you’re just starting to write your book, you could spend some time brainstorming about your characters before you get going. If you’ve already written your book, you can still brainstorm, and then add new scenes and revise existing scenes in a way that shows character development.
Internal conflict pitfalls and solutions
Even though I prefer character-driven books, a book that’s almost all internal conflict with very little happening externally can be difficult to sell. Often the book is about the character coming to terms with something—a death, a move, an end of a relationship, a difficult moment in their life. There are a lot of ways in which a conflict like this could lead to a really interesting plot. And yet, I see and hear pitches all the time that stop with this. When I ask (during verbal pitches) where the book goes from there, the authors often answer with more internal language (the character feels this, the character realizes this). What I want to know is how this internal state manifests itself in the external world. What does the character do as a result of that emotion and how can that create an active and compelling plot?
Sometimes I’ll get a pitch where the characters take action, but it’s not action that has a sense of conflict. For instance, a woman struggling to overcome the end of her marriage moves back in with her parents and decides to plant a vegetable garden. The vegetable garden might lead to some internal healing, but what is happening in the book while this healing takes place? If the book is just her gardening and thinking about her marriage, the writing would have to be absolutely spectacular, and even then, it could be a tough sell. If someone is stealing her vegetables before she can enjoy them, there’s an external conflict she can explore that ties into her internal conflict.
Another possible way to take your internal conflict and add an external component is to shift your thinking from “how” to “if.” Instead of being a story about how she adjusts to a new town, make the story about if she’ll be able to adjust to a new town. The shift from “how” to “if” immediately adds tension because it presents the option that she may not be able to do it. It gives the reader a question that they will turn the pages to find out (assuming you add a lot of specifics that show why adjusting will be hard for her externally as well as internally). “How” has the assumption built into it that she will adjust, so there’s no question there.
And of course, try to avoid clichés when talking about internal conflict, such as the character learning to love themself. These kinds of internal conflicts are universal, but they’re too abstract, and they’ve been done so many times that they don’t show what’s unique about your book. It’s often through detail and specificity that character comes through, so try to evolve your internal conflict beyond the abstract and expected.
The level of internal and external conflict that’s right for your book will vary depending on the premise and genre. But hopefully, this gives you some ideas on how to be less (more?) conflicted while you’re writing.