How to Develop Your Plot With Three-Dimensional Conflict

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Conflict is critical to plot development. It's where your characters move forward the plot of your story. But… well, sometimes a plot just doesn’t seem to want to move. If you find your plot is stuck in a rut, it may be that it doesn’t have enough dimensions to it.

Yes that’s right, dimensions. Plot dimensions.

Plot Development: Three Dimensional Conflict

Photo by Matt Neale (Creative Commons)

How many conflict dimensions should your story have? Just like Goldilocks’s bears and blind mice and stooges, the answer is three: external-world conflict, external-personal conflict and internal conflict.

Here are the three dimensions of conflict:

1. External-world conflict

No world is perfect—each one has its problems. In Game of Thrones, winter is coming. In When Harry Met Sally, the world’s fast pace makes it nearly impossible to find a real connection. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, fame and money isolate the ones lucky enough to get them.

If your world doesn’t have a conflict, you’re in the wrong world. Or maybe you just haven’t delved into it enough yet. Dig deeper—what troubles and dangers lay within your world? What are its weaknesses and tension points?

Hint: The best world conflicts build out the story’s key themes.

2. External-personal conflict

The external-world conflict offers a foundation. Now that you’re grounded, find the tensions between your story’s primary characters.

If your characters are fully developed, they have needs, wants, and their own personal agenda. Even among friends, these varying agendas are bound to clash at certain points. So to find your most dynamic external-personal conflicts, explore your characters. Find where they clash most, and exploit it.

Even if you’re writing the rare one-character story, you need an external-personal level conflict. What elements are prominent in your story? It’s not uncommon for an inhuman element to be given characteristic attributes. In The Happening, for example, the villain is the Earth.

3. Internal conflict

What haunts your hero? What are his greatest weaknesses? What’s your character’s greatest struggle?

Your main character’s inner world should be as rich as the one you’ve created around her. In Delirium, Lena falls in love just as she reaches her 18th birthday, when emotions are surgically removed in her world. She has to choose between what her friends, family, and society expect of her, and what her heart wants.

The conflicts you establish in your hero’s internal world can be the difference between readers investing in your character or not. So don’t be afraid to get dark, challenge what your character knows, or be downright mean. Your character might not thank you, but your readers will.

Revealing the Conflict in the Real World

When these three dimensions of conflict come together, magic happens. Your plot starts to push itself forward in threads that feel organic. And, really, as far as your characters and world are concerned, they are—after all, these plot developments aren’t driven by a need for more plot. The forces behind your story’s world and your key characters are driving them.

When you implement the three dimensions of plot, your story starts to feel like it’s got all the dimensions of reality, too.

What tips do you have for discovering each of these dimensions of plot?


Pick up a story you are working on, or one that you struggled to make-work. Identify your three plot dimensions. Are they all there? Are any of them underdeveloped? Where are you having trouble? Spend fifteen minutes brainstorming ideas for any missing or weak plot dimensions.

When your time is up, share your ideas in the comments section. And if you share, make sure you give feedback on a few practices by your fellow writers.

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

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  1. David A Roberts

    Great points. I use Scrivener to write and I have a template that I use for every chapter to make sure I capture all the conflicts. I will have to add the world conflict to it to make sure I don’t forget that there is something bigger than what my character are going through.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      You sound so organized! I’ll have to try this. Thanks David!

  2. Dawn Atkin

    Three conflicts for stories.

    1 external world conflict.
    A world where woman are subject to abuse. Abuse that goes unacknowledged, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, lack of acknowledgement, lack of support services? In the 1970s where I grew up this was a reality (not for me fortunately).

    Two women want to change that, both charged by very different reasons why. Female one to overcome guilt and shame and lack of action when witnessing a rape, the other, female two, to seek revenge and put an end to such acts continuing. The male in the mix seeks to leave behind the rough and unsavoury reality of his younger life yet it comes back to bite too often.

    2 external personal conflict.
    Female one realises that the one she didn’t save is the same one she blamed herself for not sharing her guilt with. Now that one (female 2) wants to reignite an old friendship, this troubles her, she is torn between the desire to leave it all behind her or make amends for her past mistake. Female two is not aware of this shame that fuels her old friends passion for women’s rights. She believes she is a gift (albeit she does not know) . A gift that will assist her ultimate mission; her black purpose. The male seeks love and connection but is stuck between his own shadowy past that he wishes to leave behind and the skills he must learn to let love happen. And then there is the relationship when female two recognises him as a previous attacker and begins to plot his demise. Will she put an end to his transformation and her old schools friends first foray into true love.

    3 internal conflict .
    Female one is constantly seeking to prove herself a grown up. Never really revealing her motive. Ashamed of her inaction and nervous around men. Female two, a victim of horrid domestic abuse and rape twitches as her black shadow dances in the light. She is dissociated but does not realise that her plot of revenge is evil masked as the right thing to do. Does she let her friend have love or does she continue with the mission. The male in the mix has a constant battle with letting the past go. He does however make the transition but cannot share his past nor does he want his new female friend to be introduced to any part of it, including not meeting his dying mother.

    This novel and the characters evolved. I started with a one liner ” three young school friends go to a festival.”
    It’s set in the 1980’s and the main theme has evolved around taking action for women’s rights and especially sexual or domestic violence. Within that context life paths play out and skirt around, shame, guilt, vulnerability, and the desire to make a difference. How to make a difference though is interpreted between the light and the dark. I’m nearly, finished a couple more chapters then I’m ready for first draft and beta readers.

    This is my first ever novel attempt. Thanks to NaNoWriMo last November. I have to say though the story has surprised me.

    This exercise has been great I can see that it has all three conflicts. I can also see where I need to strengthen it. Especially the male character. As he really is trying to transform. Yet will his galant effort be rewarded with love from female one or hate and revenge from female two?

    Even I don’t know the answer to that. I’ll let the characters work it out on the page.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Looks like you’ve got a strong story in development–good luck with it!

  3. Parsinegar

    Great post, Emily. Thank you.

    My protagonist is facing challenges from multiple directions. In the world outside, he feels like he has been abandoned to gradually slip into his dreary death bed, as he cannot see why everyone puts a rejection signature upon his worldview and the actions arising from it. A total confusion about what constitutes his best once-held goals of life circles around his head every single morning he wakes up. The confusion would become harsher as a series of happenings push him into drug addiction.

    His external world problems generally concern his relations with others. The valuable connections he has grown over a lengthy period of time would be all lost at one point of the story and this would make him feel more insecure and develop misconceptions regarding the basic notions such as fairness, equality and goodness of human nature. The character falls into a serious suffering from paranoia as his best friends unintentionally do harm to his deeply respected attitudes.

    The internal clash of this guy is portrayed in the every single paragraph of the story, though would be raised to be overtly discussed only the finishing chapters. His thoughts about what happens around him and for him, and the reasons and rationale he struggles to weave for them would be a common concern of his. For instance, he would think, “who should I talk to that I don’t want to be this person I am?”, or “why can’t people understand that I just try to like them, and like myself at the same time?”. The final act reveals that his most aggravating concern of life is that he becomes aware of his inability to control and endorse his own actions.

  4. George McNeese

    The external world conflict needs work in my story. I thought about a few scenarios to use, but nothing that would be central to the story. It could be a rainy day throughout my story, or have it set in winter, or have it blistering hot. Haven’t decided yet. The other two conflicts I can delve more into as I write my next draft.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      It took me a while to figure out the external-world conflict in my story too — but in every draft it’s become richer and richer until it’s become so complex and intertwined with the other pieces of the story that it’s completely inseparable now. It’ll get there! The key question that helped me along was, “Why does X main character event matter to the greater world of my story?”

  5. Ellen Mulholland

    These are great, Emily! Of course, you’ve put a crimp in my story now – I need to go back in with a fine-tooth comb and see where/how I am bringing this 3-dimensionality! Love it! Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Eliese

    This was really helpful. Thank you.

  7. Rawan Abdulelah Abdulmajeed

    1. He lost his gentle when he is a romance with her girl friend
    2. He runs away when she start asking about their relationship
    3. she left before I told her my feeling

  8. CC Riley

    This is great. My WIP and I have been pushing through the planning phase for a couple of days now, and these tips should really help me make sure that my plot is going to work in all three dimensions.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Glad to hear it! I wish I’d been smart enough to plan out my novel like that before I started writing it … would have saved me so much time.

  9. Shalini

    Thank you for sharing these tips.. i realised i need to strengthen the external world conflict in my story..have been too caught up in the second n third conflicts, maybe because they r easier to express.. thanks again! 🙂

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Glad these tips were helpful, Shalini–have fun developing your world conflict!

  10. Kym Bolton

    This actually ties in quite nicely with the character development sheet I’ve been working on for my male protagonist, so I thought I would try and flesh out some of the conflicts that he has, or do affect him:

    External – World

    J’s upbringing in a quiet coastal town, with happy and loving parents. His father died, which is one conflict in his life, but the biggest, and most telling, was that he was unaware that he was the grandson of a Duke. His grandfather died when was 11, and he inherits the dukedom. He’s taken away from everything secure, happy and certain, to a life of misery and loneliness.

    External – Personal

    Plunged into a totally different world he has to learn to navigate and find himself. He is bullied at school, but does manage to find a few close friends, who are able to accept him, and look past his unconventional childhood.

    He desperately misses his mother and close family servant, and is never allowed to see them. He is allowed to correspond with home infrequently.

    Internal Conflict

    Partly because of his nature, but fuelled in the greater extent by what has happened to him since his grandfather’s death, he has become obsessive about controlling his environment – the ultimate neat freak. In actual fact, he could be considered to have mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Everything needs to be in its place and run to time. This causes amusement, and some frustration with his friends, but has prevented him from forming strong emotional attachments/relationships with females. He is a virgin, but has become adept at covering it up.

    However, he harks back to his happy live with both of his parents, and feels that there is something missing – he has no idea how to go about letting go enough to allow some woman into his life.

  11. Young_Cougar

    These are awesome tip, and ell timed. (For me.) I had just been thinking about the External-Personal conflict of a character and this helped to develop them further. I was also undermining the rest of the conflicts and this really gave me a wake up call. Thank you!

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Thanks Cougar, sounds like you’re well on your way to getting your story on track. To me, IDing the issues is always the hardest part. Good luck!

  12. Eliese

    1. The threat of a possible war.
    2. Hunting royalty and having the same desires combined with jealousy.
    3. The death of her brother haunts her. Her weakness is her pride.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Your conflicts are on point, complementary and rich. Sounds like a fascinating story Eliese!

  13. Michael Cairns

    Hi Emily
    Great stuff, thanks.
    As you mention, I think the best external world plots are those that somehow mirror the internal conflict. When this is done subtly it adds another dimension to the story and lifts it above the humdrum.
    In my WIP, the Earth of the future is dying, one city still clinging to the tiny reserves of oil beneath the surface. Everyone who’s anyone has already gone off-world, leaving the final city to the criminals and workers. All three of the main characters are facing a future where their particular roles in society are to become irrelevant once they are shipped off-world and Earth left to die. The aim, hopefully, is to tie in the end of the world we love with the internal battles the three are facing as they try to figure out what, if any, place they have in a new world. And of course, they might just be the answer for one another…

  14. buck wade

    I’m working on a supernatural drama book set in a fictional town in Germany during the 30 Years war, but am first working on the supernatural elements, research on Germany, etc, before I truly begin. Here are my ideas for it:

    1. External World Conflict: the village’s currency is rice, 1/4 of it being imported from other German states/towns/villages, so as the years pass by, the economy in the village starts to fail, people start blaming witches (starting the witch trials), poverty spreads, paranormal activities become even worse (increases in demonic possessions, eaten victims, corpses with bite marks). The source of all the chaos is a single powerful man that only the focused characters find out about.

    2. External personal conflict: in part 1 of the book, the main character is a girl whose frustrated at her mother and her servant because they won’t reveal their pasts. Her curiosity leads her to learn things about them she regrets, and changes her views on them, while her mother starts suffering nightmares from her past, and the servant starts to act weird.

    3. Personal conflict: In part 1, the protagonist struggles to love her family as she used to, and accept the evil in her subconscious that was given a form after looking into a mirror.
    In part 2, a new protagonist struggles with her ideals of never giving into hatred and despair, to keep pushing forward and moving on (even when her father abandons her, her mother dies, and her own brother betrayed her once and died later), deny and destroy the evil that’s been given a monster form by the mirror, no matter how abnormal it is for one to literally destroy a part of what makes them who they are.

    While those 2 characters are the main characters, I’m planning to put in other characters whose perspectives are shown, conflicts, and development.

  15. Anastasia Nicholson

    I am thinking of writing a short story about absurd love of a woman to her teacher. She developed romantic feelings towards her teacher, being in a position, when any real relationship is highly unlikely. It seems that this unattainability of the object of passion is what feeds her torturing feelings. When she finds herself in a position, when she can have relationships with the same man years later, she is disgusted at the idea. The external world conflict could be her need to take care of her own family and follow her husband, who found a job in a different area. External personal conflict could be that the man she fell in love with is married himself and has kids, he can not threaten his career by being involved with his student.



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