Internal vs. External Conflict

Conflict is key to any good story, without it, the plot is not able to move forward in a realistic and readable way. Without it, the story just moves on and on without any stakes and stakes are what fuel a good story. In this article, you'll learn what conflict is and the difference between internal and external conflict.

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What is conflict in literature?

Reedsy explains conflict in one simple formula.

Conflict = (Character + Want) x Obstacle

Almost always, the protagonist in the story wants something but there is something in the way that stops them from getting it. Hence, a conflict is created. This interaction between the character, their want and the obstacle drives the story. There may be multiple obstacles that pop up and different kinds of wants or short-term goals that will eventually help them get to their long-term want/goal. Readers will be desperate to know what happens and how the conflict or if the conflict is resolved.

There are two broad types of conflict that are commonly used in a story. These are external and internal conflicts.

External Conflict

External conflict is the struggle between characters and forces outside that keep them from getting what they want. This could be things like nature, laws, other characters or anything else that is something external (so not within a character's thoughts and feelings) that are stopping them from achieving their goals.

An example of external conflict is in The Lion King. Simba has an external conflict with Scar as Simba is trying to retake his Kingdom that has been stolen by Scar. Thus, the goal here is that Simba wants his Kingdom back and the conflict is Scar who is getting in the way by stealing that Kingdom and making it more difficult for Simba to achieve his goals.

There are different types of external conflict but they can be narrowed down into these four categories:

  • Character vs. Character: This is when a character has conflict with another character. An example of is this in The Lion King as mentioned above.

  • Character vs. Society: This is when a character has conflict with the society around them. An example of this is in The Hunger Games. The main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is trying to overthrow the government who have forced the districts to play a dangerous game, a duel to the death where only one can survive. This story ultimately revolves around Katniss overthrowing the government and Panem which has become a corrupt society, which is why it falls into the Character vs. Society category.

  • Character vs. Nature: This is when a character struggles against the forces of nature. This doesn't have to be secluded to the four seasons but rather natural things, such as death, disease, ageing, etc. An example of this is in The Fault in Our Stars. The main characters, Hazel and Augustus, are battling cancer, a force of nature which they are unable to control.

  • Character vs. Technology: This is when a character has a conflict against technology, whether it be a technology of his own making or of technology of the world. An example of this is the classic horror movie Frankenstein. Dr Frankenstein creates a beast by sewing body parts together, taken from a graveyard. This beast, however, provides conflict as he scared the local people and eventually comes after Dr Frankenstein.

Internal Conflict

Internal conflict is the struggle between a character's own desires, wants, emotions and values that prevent them from achieving their goals. These conflicts may result from a character's own desires, past trauma, fears and duties. Internal conflict is used to add mood, depth, morality and humanism to the character.

An example of internal conflict is in Toy Story. When we first meet Buzz Lightyear he's a determined, fierce astronaut. Only that's the problem, he isn't really an astronaut but a toy. He has an internal conflict with himself as he struggles to realise that he is a toy and represents the conflict between who you think you are and who you actually are.

Whilst internal conflict is on its own a well-rounded a large conflict, it also happens in conjunction with external conflict as the external conflict is what brings the action and complexity to a story. The internal conflict is what prevents your character from achieving their long-term goals that revolve around their internal being - their thoughts and feelings.

You should now have a better understanding of the different types of conflict used in literature and inspiration for how you can apply it to your own story.