Novel Writing: Grace Paley — How Internal & External Conflict Build Story

I came away from my workshop with Ann Hood last month with a legal pad filled with notes covering much more than the workshop’s promised topic of “beginnings,” and I promised to share many of those insights, here. So far, this is unfolding in the order in which I apply them to my own writing, rather than any logic better suited to an audience, so apologies for that.  Today was meant to continue with Character (see links at the bottom, for prior posts), but instead responds to a single, powerful margin note on Conflict.

Story is Made Up of Two Conflicts

On our first workshop day — prior to questions, discussion or critiquing — Ann Hood began with a lecture on ten successful ways to start a novel or story, and pitfalls to avoid. The hour-plus lecture was equivalent to a jeweler passing us diamonds while digging through a cart to find gold, as the “minor” points Hood used as illustration were entire lessons in themselves.

Within context of another point, Ann made reference to a lecture or workshop she herself had attended with Grace Paley decades back, in which Paley declared that every story is made up of two conflicts: the external conflict (war, the need to get free, search for a lost possession, argument) and the internal conflict (fear, insecurity, memory, rage).  The climax occurs when those two conflicts converge.

Much is made of plot points, of the actions and events that make up scenes, building the story’s arc toward climax.  And a line is often drawn (particularly in attempts to define literary fiction versus commercial fiction) between stories that derive from internal, character-driven conflict, and those deriving from external conflict and action.  What I could not remember hearing before, although instantly believed and understood, was this idea that both conflicts are at play, in layered tandem within a work.  Certainly I’d given attention to both internal and external tensions in my work, but it was new to hear them described as separate and equally important storylines: that internal conflict had its storyline and external conflict had its storyline, and that their related tensions and ultimate collision is what builds the depth, suspense and resolution in a story.

I immediately applied this to question my novel-in-progress, Wake. The draft is just now reaching a fully fledged form, and Paley’s standard provided the first clear questions I asked to define the structure I intended, and whether it was succeeding.

What is the external conflict? 

In Wake’s case, the external conflict is the search to discover if the ‘fatherless’ boy’s father is actually alive, and reunite them.  Saving the father’s life involves solving the mystery of whether he’d committed a crime during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  The search for the father is what propels the initial story, and the question of the father’s survival runs in essential opposition to the son’s need to have them all live happily as a family.  Side conflicts cause obstacles and tension, but this is the central conflict.

Oddly, the value of workshops or peer feedback is that, until being asked the question, I’d never recognized this was the actual conflict.  In my mind, Wake began as a love story and I was, well, rooting for the girl to get her guy back.  But I’d suspected for awhile that romantic love is not the true conflict.  It was the boy.  It was the crime.  It was the question whether the father would live.

What is the internal conflict?

You won’t find mention of Paley’s differentiation between internal and external conflict in Ann Hood’s book, Creating Character Emotions , but Hood’s discussion on page 11 of the range of emotions a character progresses through in the course of a novel offers insight into internal conflict.

Hood makes the point that characters develop through “a range of emotion, that [gives] them depth and complexity.”  She uses one of her own characters to show that characters progress or mature, from one emotion to another in the course of a novel.

In her example, the character starts as unhappy.  Then, “She moves from hope and excitement to loneliness and even despair before she matures emotionally,” ultimately reaching resignation.

Earlier, Hood portrayed the same character as moving into a stage of jealousy, noting that each emotion has its own point of maturity: she could not become jealous until she had felt hope, nor could she reach resolution without passing through that moment of jealousy.  Hood describes each emotion a character struggles with as “one step on an emotional ladder” that “characters should climb, emotional rung by emotional rung.”

Progressing through those emotions to resolve a single internal question (fear, desire, guilt) would be one way to explain internal conflict.

In my novel-in-progress, I thought the internal conflict was the longing of the female character to reunite with the lost lover — but isolating the external conflict, above, helped me refine this.  Love may motivate her, but the real internal motivation is the desire for the son to have his father, and this is in direct conflict with the father’s internal struggle with guilt. While the external conflict asks, “Will the father live?” the father himself asks should he be allowed to live, as his hidden guilt (for a crime other than what he was accused of) will not allow him to share in the happy-ever-after he has denied someone else.

Where external and internal conflicts converge = climax

In Wake, the two conflicts converge when the external world refuses to find the male character guilty of a crime. His inner guilt surfaces and must be resolved, pressing resolution of his inner (and external) mystery.

As you read this, the examples from my work may or may not be meaningful, but what’s worth saying is how much more clear the story’s organization became after naming the external and internal conflict.  Both conflicts could be seen mapping naturally like veins through existing scenes, clear where they converged, and how that convergence located the resolution.  It became clear where the story should start, how much was needed to get into the action, when certain information should be divulged, and where the story would end.  Identifying how resolution hangs on the male character’s inner conflict confirmed opening lines I’d just written, which plant the seed on the first page that he believes “memory is fickle” and is certain of his own guilt.

The idea of internal conflict as rungs on an emotional ladder has helped me clarify the internal journey the male character goes through — particularly that the emotion he is experiencing or demonstrating in each scene is a progression of maturing experience.  I might have been attempting to portray him ‘consistently’ in earlier drafts, but now see where his internal storyline would have him confused, then resigned, then hopeful, then dutiful, then penitent, etc. The clarity of this has rendered more vivid scenes, and provoked different interactions than I was originally imagining with the characters around him, including his memory of a single moment of fury (which I wrote about in my last post).

For all that “clarity,” the work is still messy, at the moment. I’ve had some great writing days, but must confess frustration the past couple days while rereading a large patch that was much less finished than I hoped…  So I post this with well wishes for all of you and your writing.  I will clearly be busy with it, myself.

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What do you think?

I’d love to hear questions or your insights in the Comments.

Thanks to Gerry Wilson, who replied to the last post asking about Hood’s advice on writing characters most like oneself.  I’m getting through the stretch of notes that provoked this post, and hope to have that one up next.

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Prior post:

Coming next:

Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions: Amazon  Powells


Filed under Novel Writing, Relentless Wake, Writing Character, Writing workshop

10 responses to “Novel Writing: Grace Paley — How Internal & External Conflict Build Story

  1. Elissa, this is gold. I will copy/save, if that’s okay with you, so I can apply these ideas to my WIP on my next pass through it. These are things I know in principle, but seeing them stated so clearly is, needless to say, incredibly helpful. This is exactly the kind of scrutiny my first book needs, I think–along with making the main character less like me! Thank you for sharing your workshop experience. I can’t wait for the next installment.


    • Gerry, that’s how I felt about hearing Paley’s definition of story — it completely made sense, yet was something I hadn’t heard stated so clearly. I’m glad you liked it!


  2. I learned of internal vs. external conflict after finishing a draft, too. I’d only heard that it’s a good thing if internal and external conflicts are oppositional, not that their convergence was the climax, but it makes good sense, and will work for me. I also like, and will have to ponder, the stages of internal conflict as rungs on a ladder. I think all of these insights will be of benefit to my upcoming rewrite, Elissa. Thanks so much for taking the time to share them so clearly.


    • elissa field

      I’ll be reflecting on that: “it’s a good thing if internal and external conflicts are oppositional.” It certainly makes sense that this would be source of tension. I’m glad the post was useful — thanks for your comments, and I hope rewriting goes well. (BTW, I am still appreciating your great post, paralleling writing with the years you spent building your house!)

      Not responding directly to your comment, but considering ‘the convergence to be the climax’… In the past day, I’ve heard Stephen King’s advice against outlining, while another writer was adamantly recommending outlining and lots of it. To me, Paley’s explanation felt like a middle ground: seeing storyline as two unfolding roads, with the loose organization of recognizing where they oppose, where they intensify and where they cross. Last night I created the new document to construct second draft of my novel, so this idea of whether I am plotting loosely or controlling it tightly is pretty relevant for me.


      • I like the thought of having a middle-ground. I’m a pantser in that I like to consider myself flexible enough to follow the story, but the further I get, and the more manuscripts I have under my belt, the more I appreciate having a structural map of some sort. Good luck with the new draft!


  3. I often tell my students that you know you have reached the climax when it takes your breath away.


    • elissa field

      Thanks for sharing that, Linda. As I imported my novel’s first draft into Scrivener today, ready to chop away to reformat it for a second draft, I’m really thinking about form. I have to say, at the moment, a conversation in the middle of the story is more of a “breath-taker” than the ending… which has me thinking. So thanks, and I’m glad you stopped in.


  4. Sounds like that external-internal storyline would build great tension – thanks for sharing this, Elissa. I have a peculiar problem, though. I just divided my monster saga wip into three books; now my MC’s internal-external climax happens in book 2. I’ll have to think about book 1, maybe focus more on the other MC.


    • elissa field

      I could see that working, Beth – having each book focus on a different central character – and can think of some major sagas that have worked well that way. How interesting!


  5. Daphne (daphodill)

    Reblogged this on My Passion's Pen.


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