Developing Themes In Your Stories: Part 3 – The External Conflict

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

So far in our series Developing Themes In Your Stories, we’ve covered how understanding your protagonist’s character arc and developing your story’s premise sentence can help you consciously nurture literary themes. Today we’ll discuss a third way of mining for themes by looking outside your characters and studying the external conflict.

Like with the previous installments, this post features brainstorming and writing activities you can work on during any point in the writing process. Even if you’re still in the planning stages, these exercises can help you recognize your story’s themes before you start drafting.

How Does External Conflict Affect a Character’s Internal Journey?

External conflict plays a crucial role in a protagonist’s internal journey. It can catalyze the plot that sends the character on his ride, and can mirror or contrast his personal struggles. That’s why our working definition of “theme” includes external conflict. Its impact on the protagonist – and on readers – reflects some of the themes delivered in the story.

If you need a second angle on the subject, consider exploring a “what if” scenario. For example, what if your story’s external conflict had never occurred? It’s likely that the plot’s events and the character’s internal journey also wouldn’t have happened. Therefore, external conflict isn’t just important to the story – it’s mandatory. And, these “what if” scenarios are one of a couple ways we can glean external themes (themes from the external conflict) from the stories we write.

You’ll want to prepare a premise sentence, or an outline or general idea of your story, before doing today’s activities. Head over to “Developing Themes In Your Stories: Part 2 – The Premise” to learn how to craft a premise that includes the internal and external conflicts.

What If the External Conflict Had Never Happened?

Once you have your premise sentence and have identified the external conflict and internal journey (a.k.a. internal conflict), ask yourself, “What if the external conflict had never happened?” Then, consider how your protagonist and his circumstances would be different. Would he have faced the same obstacles or hardships? Would he have still fought for his goals and learned the same lessons?

We’ll explain how these “what if” scenarios reveal literary themes in the next section. For now, here are examples from three published novels to get you started:

  • Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone: What if the chimera and the seraphim weren’t at war? Would Madrigal (a demon) and Akiva (an angel) have met and fallen in love? Would anyone have dared to dream of peace between the two races?
  • Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief: What if the story didn’t take place in WWII-era Germany? Would the Hubermann family’s decision to hide a Jewish man in their basement have still been considered a crime? Would Liesel have lost her birth family and been forced to move into a foster home?
  • Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: What if civilization and most life on Earth hadn’t been destroyed by an apocalyptic disaster? Would the unnamed father and his young son still struggle to survive every day? How would their relationship be different?

Activity #1: Create a “what if” scenario(s) for your story. Ask yourself how your protagonist, his circumstances, and his world at large would be different if the external conflict hadn’t happened. Feel free to pose as many questions and imagine as many possibilities as you’d like. You may also practice this exercise with novels you’ve read before doing it with your own stories.

What Lessons Would Be Lost Instead of Gained?

Oddly enough, some of your story’s external themes already shine through in the “what if” scenario you created. The key to finding those themes is using a “backwards” approach. Instead of looking for what lessons or high-level concepts would be learned or gained, you’re looking for what would be lost or never achieved. This emphasizes not only how the external conflict influences the internal journey, but also why the story is important to begin with.

Carefully study your “what if” scenario. What ideas would be lost if the story never took place? What lessons would the character never learn because his internal journey hadn’t been triggered? Some potential themes will be directly stated in your scenario; others might take a little digging before they’re clear.

Below are some themes unearthed from the sample “what if” scenarios in Activity #1. Maybe you’ll see other themes I may have missed:

  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone: war, peace, hope, love
  • The Book Thief: war, compassion, loss, family
  • The Road: mortality, family, isolation, resourcefulness

Activity #2: Using the “what if” scenario(s) created in Activity #1, look for possible lessons or ideas the protagonist would never learn if the external conflict never took place. Consider how the character or his world at large would fail to change as a result. List any possible themes you discover when you’re done.

What Are the Potential Results or Consequences?

In addition to “what if” scenarios, the results of the protagonist’s actions can reflect external themes. The character’s successes and failures, as well as the reasons for and consequences of his attempts, often impact or are impacted by the external conflict. And, the themes expressed in these actions and results frequently mirror the same themes you’d find in a “what if” scenario, and perhaps introduce new ones.

Think of it this way. Something has to motivate the character for him to react to – or even launch – the external conflict. Maybe Hero A rebels against the government because he believes its leaders abuse their authority. Or, maybe Hero B volunteers to give a bone marrow transplant so his best friend can beat cancer. The reasons for these actions (injustice and friendship, respectively) are possible literary themes.

What about the results? Perhaps Hero A joins other rebels and leads an uprising that topples the government. Depending on the details, some themes that could rise from those results are power, sacrifice, and loyalty. As for Hero B, perhaps his friend dies despite the bone marrow transplant. Again, depending on specifics, this ending could reflect themes like mortality, courage, and love.

Activity #3: Consider your protagonist’s actions in regards to the external conflict. What does that character do? Why does he attempt these actions? What is the outcome of each action? See if you can pin down specific concepts that act as motivators, reasons, or results / consequences, and write them down. When you’re done, compare your new list of possible external themes to the list you created in Activity #2.

We’ve got one more way of helping you nurture literary themes in your stories. Come back in August for Part 4 of this series, when we’ll focus on using dialogue to demonstrate theme.

What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul.


Sara Letourneau 1 croppedSara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to writing a fantasy novel, she reviews tea at A Bibliophile’s Reverie and is a guest contributor for Grub Street Daily. She’s also a published poet whose works have appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her personal blogFacebook, and Twitter.

Enjoyed this article?