I recently asked this question, about inner conflict. Mark Baker supplied an answer to that question which redefined how I saw inner conflict, and as a result, the whole process of making a novel. Because this way of thinking is still new to me, there are some parts of it which I don't have figured out yet. One of those parts is this question.

Mark Baker explained that the novel revolves around the inner conflict: a choice between two options. The climax is when the choice is made. This makes sense to me. As long as you have a single novel.

What if you are writing a series of novels though? There is only so much back-and-forth you can show between the two options - it's going to get repetitive fairly quickly. If the inner conflict is the main conflict of the novel, this poses a problem; the last thing you want is a repetitive and boring main conflict.

How do you handle this problem?

It's obvious to me that one of two things has to happen. 1) The inner conflict miraculously stays original every novel. I can't see this working short of introducing new inner conflicts every novel, which won't work if every one of them is central to your character. A character can't have that many centers.

2) You work with an external conflict (which can change throughout and between the novels), and somehow make it as meaningful as the inner conflict. The actual inner conflict likely becomes a subplot.

Obviously one of these two things has to happen. How they can happen, I know not. Hence the question.


3 Answers 3


There is a long answer and a longer answer.

If you think of the most popular series in history the root of external conflict is obvious - It's in the title.

Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone (1997) Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets (1998) Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire (2000) Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix (2003) Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince (2005) Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows (2007)

There is no separation of conflicts (inner or outer). There is only cause and effect. Let's look at this simple plot:

Schizophrenic drug addict, Ben Davidson, rapes and kills Susan Wilson but avoids prosecution due to a chain of evidence technical infringement. Three years later Davidson is rushed to the ER with GSW to the chest received during another attempted rape. The only available surgeon is Dr David Wilson. The surgeon immediately recognises the patient as his wife's murderer. (Conflict). He refuses to perform the surgery. He comes into conflict with the law when he is informed he'll be charged with murder if he lets the patient die. Wilson maintains his resolve and is prepared to go jail rather save this man. The doctor is now romantically involved with a scrub nurse, Jenny. The nurse reminds him that he took an oath to 'first do no harm'. This triggers an internal conflict. After rethinking the issue the doctor remains adamant - "No". He tells his best-friend and colleague that he prepared to go jail for the rest of his life. His college says, "But what Jenny - the rest of her life." (The outside influence provokes new internal conflict - Is Jenny his future? - Subsequently the original conflict needs to be re-addressed. Our doctor performs the surgery, and saves Davidson's life. In the recovery room Davison apologies to Wilson for killing his wife, then promptly asks him to kill him. He explains that he'll never stop raping and killing - the voices make him do it, and he can't stop. Wilson responds saying he can't do it.If he's learned anything today it's that he's surgeon - it's not only what he is but its who he his. His job is to save lives and first do no harm.

Davidson responds "To who?" (We've gone back to the inner conflict).

Hopefully that demonstrates how resolving a conflict often creates another and new events or information causes seemingly resolved conflicts to be re-addressed.

Most series are vocational and good against evil.

Doctors will have new patients.

Lawyers will have new cases.

Police will have new criminals.

Coroners will have new corpses. etc.


This is an interesting question. I'm not a big reader of series fiction, but based on the series I have read or watched on TV I can think of several patterns:

  • New book, new character. Each of the chronicles of Narnia has a new central character, often with the central character from a previous book along in the mentor role. Thus Lucy and Edmund mentor Eustace in Dawn Treader and then Eustace mentors Jill in Silver Chair.

  • Ratchet up the stakes. Same character, but the stakes are higher in each book/season. Buffy took this approach and it got more and more forced as they tried to ramp it up the next season. They kept killing or deporting mentor characters (Joyce, Giles) or adding responsibilities (Dawn) to create a new step in the basic maturation plot. But by the end it was getting pretty hard to do yet another Buffy grows up arc.

  • Broken record. The same inner conflict plays our over and over again from book to book with little or no progress. The wounded detective genre of mystery fiction seems to use this a lot. Each case reveals the same woundedness in our detective over and over again. This is actually quite true to life, we do tend to keep bumping up against the same wound over and over again in our lives without making much progress. Broken record can go on indefinitely or it can end with the wound finally healed, as they did in House where House's inability to love is finally resolved as he goes off on a motorcycle tour with his dying friend -- an act of reconciliation and love.

  • Protagonist as mentor/ally. The series protagonist is not the hero of the individual stories, but takes the mentor or ally role from the classic hero's journey formula. The central character arc for each volume is the person the hero helps. Westerns, such as Lone Ranger or Bonanza seems to use this a lot.

  • More than one conflict. The same character may have more than one inner conflict to resolve. Each book tortures them in a brand new way. But I'm struggling to think of an obvious example of this. Maybe it does not work so well in a series where the reader really does want the same story over and over again.

  • Long slow arc. The series is really one long story and the arc or arcs is resolved over the entire series. Each book contains just one episode in the overall arc. LOTR is six books in three volumes but the main arc play out across the entire series. These are often billed as trilogy or whatever number -ogy depending on the number of volumes, indicating that together they make one story.

  • Family saga. The same basic story plays out over and over again from one generation to the next.

  • Tall tales. The books are essentially yarns or tall tales that rely more on whimsey than character development for their appeal.

  • News of the day. The hero does not develop much if at all, but each book stays fresh by taking on the news of the day -- the thing that has got everyone alarmed this season. Thrillers often take this approach. Lots of disarm the nukes plots in the cold war era. Lots of terrorist bomb plots today.

  • Will they/won't they: A romantic version of the broken record. Will the hero and the heroine finally get together? Sam and Diane. Tony and Ziva. Booth and Brennan. Maddy and David. When will those two crazy kids finally work it out?

There is no doubt, though, that a series has to keep pulling its punches in order to leave it somewhere to go. Thus few series are highly regarded as literature. They are most often popcorn books, relying more on invention and narrative force than serious character development for their appeal.


I recently read a series of books in which the main protagonist is struggling internally with a crisis of identity. After discovering that she has incredibly powerful magical powers, she has to reassess who she feels she is with these powers, especially as her environment completely changes.

After coming to somewhat accept these powers at the end of the book, the second novel has her elevated to a much more powerful position, and she has to again reassess who she feels that she is, and tries to find a balance between her old life and her new, eventually coming to fully accept her place in the world.

The third novel, after having accepted who she now is, has her dealing with the consequences of the choice made at the climax of book 2. Each of the three books follows the same thematic conflict, but addresses it in different ways, to very good effect.

So you have the option of keeping the same inner conflict, but developing the conflict alongside developing the story and the characters, allowing you to progress the story whilst not changing its essence completely.

Obviously if every story in the series addresses the same inner conflict repeatedly in the same way, they will become stale, but allowing the seeds of an internal conflict to grow into plants, and then germinating internal conflict seeds of their own that develop into different but related conflicts is how to keep a series moving forward.

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