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December 3, 2013

By Shawn Rhodes

I was riding in a transport vehicle full of Marines when it came to a stop underneath a bridge in the countryside south of Baghdad.  We were there to protect the bridge above us because it served as a supply route for American forces.  I looked out and noticed the road around us was pitted with craters from mortar impacts – insurgents had been trying to destroy the bridge all week to slow down our supply line.

Later, I would learn that stopping a vehicle above an area that has already been targeted by mortars is a really bad idea.

An explosion rocked the ground in front of the vehicle.  Someone shouted an order to evacuate, so the Marines closest to the rear jumped the ten feet to the ground below.  I was in mid-air when a mortar exploded underneath me.

As a war correspondent, it was my job to live with the Marines around me, capturing their stories with articles and photographs.  Every day I watched as they were maimed or killed in combat.  I didn’t ever think I would be joining them.

Thankfully, I survived that day.  Once the Marines killed the insurgents firing at us, I began gathering quotes about what had just happened.  I discovered something about conflict that changed the way I wrote from that day forward.

I asked each of the Marines, “What was the scariest part of what happened today?”

At first, I was confused when I heard dramatically different answers.  Some focused on the physical danger they were in, others focused on making sure they set up their weapons properly, returned fire and didn’t snap under the stress

How could a shared experience mean so many things to different people?

The answer was: People have two perspectives on conflict – how they see themselves and how the world sees them.

When I realized this, the angle I took in my writing changed dramatically.

Modern psychology teaches that each person has an internal and an external frame of reference.  I learned on the battlefield that I could capture both of those frames of reference in my stories to tell a more compelling – and personal – story about the Marines I was serving with.

Telling The Story – Internal Conflict

All of our characters, if they are human, are struggling with internal conflict.  It is this conflict that often drives the external actions that make a plot.  In order to describe the internal conflict your characters are experiencing, it is vital writers develop and share the character’s way of seeing their world.  For some characters, this is easy as an inner monologue.  I found when I was sharing perspectives of Marines I was with that it’s easy to dig a little deeper by asking how they felt about a given situation.  If you approach your characters in the same way, you’ll develop depth in your characters your readers will connect with.

Telling The Story – External Conflict

This type of conflict deals with how your character interacts with the world around them.  It begins with how they are perceived by other characters which drives the events in the plot.  Secondly, it is important to include how your character’s external struggle affects other characters and events.  On the battlefield, it was easy to focus on the outcomes.  While a historian is interested in ‘just the facts, ma’am,‘ readers are interested in how that character’s inner struggle affects their actions, which in turn affects external events.

Bringing The Two Together

The best stories involve the flow of internal and external conflict of each character in relationship to other characters experiencing conflicts of their own.

What makes a story told by a friend more interesting than the nightly news?  We understand friends‘ driving motivations, what makes them angry, and what they are trying to accomplish in life.  That’s why we can spend more time cruising Facebook than trying to solve world hunger – people identify more with stories they’re personally involved in.

If a writer can share a characters internal conflict, describe their external conflict, and how it affects the internal/external conflict of other characters and the plot, they’ve hit gold.

People love reading about characters they can relate to.  As a writer, be sure to include the internal and external conflict each of your characters shares.  The result will be characters your readers connect to and care about.


Shawn Rhodes is a speaker, writer, coach and consultant in the fields of professional performance and personal development. He is known as an award-winning, internationally-published author, war correspondent and teacher. For decades he has shared the benefits of the martial arts to the public, developed ways to focus under stress, be passionate in a profession, and be confident in everyday life. Shawn will be speaking about conflict more in his workshop at the Mid-Winter Conference West and Reading Festival.


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