"Okay, smartypants," you say. "We've got a handle on internal conflict. What's all this malarkey about external conflict?"
Gosh, I'm glad you asked. Well, you didn't, but I'm going to tell you anyway. External conflict includes the obstacle(s) that your hero and heroine must face in the story, rather than within themselves. These are the gunfights or chase scenes or tense hostage situations, among other things. Who or what is the villain in your manuscript? Pretty simple, huh? You needn't make it such a spectacle, either. Your external conflict can be as large as a war, or as small as a suitor competing with your hero for the heroine's hand in marriage. It can even be between your hero and heroine, in addition to their internal conflicts.
Let's take our heroine and hero from yesterday. Your heroine - let's call her Marsha - is a fledgling reporter for ESPN, vying for a better job. She needs a compelling human-interest story to snatch the position. Your secret-poet hero, John, is a lineman for the San Francisco 49ers. What happens when Marsha finds out the macho football star is a poetic softy? Now you have an external tug-of-war: Marsha wants to blow his cover because she needs that job, and his story is just the thing to secure it. John wants to keep it secret, because maybe he thinks if people believe he's gone soft, he'll lose his job. This isn't internal baggage, although their internal baggage often compounds the problem of the external conflict. Marsha's forced to deal with a man she thought was the usual macho male, and John is forced to drag his poetic side into the open for her scrutiny, because she just won't leave him be. Why do they keep coming back to one another in spite of their differences? Tension. More on that tomorrow.