Conflict 101: External Conflict - article

What Is External Conflict?

Conflict is a necessary ingredient to any good story. Without some obstacles to get in your main character’s way, he/she will reach their goal with no opposition. Doesn’t sound like too exciting of a story, does it?

Every story on your bookshelf includes at least one—but probably multiple—forms of conflict. As you build your narrative structure, you’ll use conflict to build tension and keep your reader turning the page.

There are two main types of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflict refers to the inner struggle that affects a character’s mental and emotional state. External conflict refers to conflict between the main character and any external force, such as a villain, government, or nature.

Examples of External Conflict

There are four main types of external conflict:

1. Character vs. Character

This is where one character conflicts with another. This type of conflict occurs because a protagonist and antagonist have the same goal, have conflicting goals where they stand in each other’s way, or one wants what the other has.

Harry Potter’s conflict with Voldemort throughout J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an example of Character vs. Character conflict.

2. Character vs. Society

This is where the main character conflicts with a government, system, or a societal mindset. This type of conflict usually occurs because the character has a strong motivation to take action against their society, whether it be for survival, freedom, morality, or some other desire.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of Character vs. Society conflict.

3. Character vs. Nature

This is where the main character conflicts with an animal, weather, the terrain, or some other facet of nature. This type of conflict usually involves the main character fighting for their survival.

Andy Weir’s The Martian is an example of Character vs. Nature conflict.

4. Character vs. Technology

This is where the main character conflicts with some element of technology. This type of conflict usually involves the main character fighting for survival or protecting others.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an example of Character vs. Technology conflict.

How to Add External Conflict to Your Story

In order to add external conflict successfully into your story, you must ensure that your protagonist and antagonist are equally paired. If it’s too obvious which one is going to win in the end, your story won’t have enough tension—which means the reader won’t feel the need to keep reading!

All moments of external conflict should also raise the stakes by keeping the main character from reaching his/her goal.

As an exercise, ask yourself the following questions to map out your story’s conflicts:

- What does your protagonist want? Why do they want to achieve this goal?
- Who or what opposes your protagonist as they attempt to reach this goal?
- Why does the antagonist or antagonistic force oppose your main character?
- What steps will your protagonist try to take to achieve their goal? What about your antagonist?
- How will the conflict end? Who will come out on top? Why does one win out over the other?

Once you’ve thought about these questions, it should be easier to figure out the plot elements that build your story.

How Internal and External Conflict Work Together

You need both external and internal conflict to write a great story. Without one or the other, a story will likely fall flat. But how do you make the two work together to create a seamless plot?

The simplest answer is: make any conflict oppose your character’s main goal or motivation. If your character wants to get the girl, every conflict in your story should make it more difficult for him/her to do so.

The difference between the two is that the main character will likely overcome multiple external conflicts throughout the story, but the internal conflict tends to stick around until the end.

External conflict can also arise when two or more characters’ internal conflicts contrast each other. For example, in Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook, Allie’s need to live up to her parent’s expectations and Noah’s underprivileged background causes them to struggle to maintain a relationship.

As long as your character has a strong motivation and you create internal and external conflicts that make it more difficult for your character to reach that goal, you will likely write a great story.

Share this story
Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn