What Is Conflict in A Story? [Definition, Types, and Examples]

what is conflict in a story

Key Takeaways:

Conflict in a story is the central challenge or set of obstacles that the characters must face. It drives the story forward, creating tension, shaping the plot, and often reflects the deeper themes or messages the author wants to convey.

Click here to jump directly to the best examples of conflict in literature and films!

Conflict is an essential part of any story. It is what drives the plot and keeps the reader engaged.

But what is conflict in a story? What are the different types? What are good conflict examples? And how can you use conflict to create a powerful novel or screenplay?

Because conflict is the driver for a story, I always take time to carefully consider how to best introduce it, build it up, and resolve it in the most satisfactory way possible.

When I wrote Bare Knuckle Days, an 80’s coming-of-age drama that won the Grand Prize in the FilmMakers International Screenplay Awards, I was faced with the challenge of two parallel storylines, each with its own central conflict, and how to weave them together into the main plot.

That’s the importance of conflict. Without it, you don’t really have a story. But do it right, and you have something special.

In this article, we will explore these questions and more. So let’s get started!

What is Conflict in a Story?

Conflict is the engine that drives a narrative forward. It is the source of tension and drama and propels the characters in the story toward a resolution to the story’s main problems.

Without conflict, a story would simply be a series of static events with no forward momentum!

The most fundamental form of conflict in literature is the struggle between opposing forces, whether two individuals, two groups, or even two opposing ideas.

This driving force can take many forms, from a physical battle to a clash of wills, but the result is always the same: conflict creates tension, and this keeps readers engaged.

Conflict drives change, and change drives the story!

So next time you’re stuck for ideas for compelling fiction, remember: all you need is a little conflict to get the story moving!

what is conflict in a story

Why is Conflict Important?

Conflict is essential in a story because it provides suspense, drives the plot, and develops the characters. Without conflict, the reader would have no reason to keep turning the page.

Conflict allows the writer to explore complex topics and create sympathy for the characters. The writer can show how the central characters grow and change in the story’s resolution by making those characters face challenges.

In addition, conflict can add humor to a story and make it more relatable. When readers see relatable characters struggling with the same problems they do, it can create a sense of connection.

Ideally, this necessary element should be presented as an internal and external conflict whereby the main character must face physical and psychological challenges.

Ultimately, a major conflict is essential to any good story. It keeps the reader engaged and allows the writer to create an emotionally complex tale with deeper meaning.

How To Write Conflict in a Story

how to write conflict in a story

1: Make the conflict complex

To create a truly compelling story, you’re going to need to create complex and multi-layered conflict. The story becomes more unpredictable when you introduce multiple points of conflict. Readers of your story will be eager to see how the characters resolve their various issues.

A thought-provoking conflict has the potential to demonstrate the nuances of the human experience. By avoiding the portrayal of characters as purely good or evil, a complex conflict reminds us that most people are capable of both virtuous and questionable actions.

An intriguing conflict has the potential to showcase the intricacies of the human experience!

2: Make the conflict active

One of the most significant mistakes writers make is to allow their story’s conflict to remain passive. In other words, the characters are not actively pursuing their goals but are instead reacting to events as they unfold. This can result in a storyline that feels stagnant and uninspired.

To avoid this problem, ensure that your characters always strive towards something in their own lives. They should be proactive in their quest to overcome the obstacles in their path, and their decisions should always drive the plot forward.

3: Make the conflict believable

A story’s conflict must be believable and realistic for readers to invest in the characters and the plot. Even if we’re talking about aliens or supernatural conflicts, realism comes from the protagonist’s decisions and how they implement them.

If the conflict is contrived or unbelievable, readers will have difficulty suspending their disbelief and immersing themselves in the story.

There are a few key elements that you can focus on to make your story’s conflict more believable.

  • First, consider the motivation of your characters. Why do they want what they want? What is driving them to take action? Make sure that their motivation is clear and understandable.
  • Second, think about the stakes involved in the conflict. What is at stake for your characters? How much is riding on the outcome of the conflict? What do they stand to lose? Higher stakes will make the conflict more intense and exciting.
  • Finally, ensure that the conflict is appropriate for the setting and genre of your story. A kitchen gunfight might be realistic for an action story in a dark house, but it would be out of place in a historical romance set in Regency England.

4: Make sure the conflict serves the story!

As a writer, it’s important to ensure that your story’s conflict serves the story. In other words, the conflict should be an integral part of the plot and the fictional world you have built, not just something happening to the characters.

The conflict should drive the story forward and provide tension and suspense. It should also be resolved satisfyingly, even if (or especially if!) the protagonist fails in their initial quest.

If the conflict in your story doesn’t serve its purpose, it can come across as contrived and forced. So, take a moment to consider the conflict and make sure it serves the larger purpose of your story.

5: Resolve your conflict without clichés

When addressing conflicts in your story, it can be tempting to rely on clichés or stereotypes as an easy way out. However, it is important to steer clear of these shortcuts. Instead, strive for more realistic and practical solutions.

Not only will cliched shortcuts make your story feel formulaic and unoriginal, but they can also alienate readers who don’t identify with the clichés or stereotypes being used.

Instead, resolve the conflict (or opposing force) in a way that feels true to the characters and the world you’ve created. This will require more work, but creating a unique story will ultimately pay off.

The Role of Conflict in a Story

rising falling action in a story

Conflict is the engine that drives the plot of the story forward and gives a tale its shape and purpose. In short, it is the struggle between two opposing forces, whether as a character’s internal battle with themselves or an epic clash between armies.

The introduction of a story is typically where the first hint of conflict is introduced. From there, the conflict begins to grow and develop (during the inciting incident and rising action sections of the story) until it reaches the climax, the point at which the tension is at its highest and the outcome of the conflict is uncertain.

After the climax is the falling action, and finally, the story ends with the actual resolution, the moment when everything is wrapped up, and the world enters its new normal.

In short, conflict in literature is essential to any good story. It gives the story purpose and keeps things interesting for the characters and the reader.

How to Use AI To Write Conflict

AI (artificial intelligence) story-generator tools have come a long way. If you are struggling with good ideas for your story’s conflict, try using one of these programs for ideas! While AI story generators cannot yet write complete stories without humans, they can make story writing easier.

To see how well this works using Sudowrite, I inputted the following sentence into the program:

Sudowrite conflict

Sudowrite gave me three options for possible story directions and I was able to choose which one I wanted to pursue. I chose one about a creepy temple, and this is what was written for me:

Sudowrite conflict 2

As you can see, using AI can be a shortcut to creating fantastic ideas for conflict in a story. It can also be used for other aspects of storytelling, such as describing characters, plot points, and events. I have used Sudowrite and Jasper.ai for AI storytelling, and Sudowrite is my favorite – click the link to check out my full review!

Types of Conflict

While conflict is often thought of as a battlefield, the truth is that there are many different types of conflict. In a story, this can take the form of inner struggles within a character’s mind, external obstacles they face, opposing goals between characters, or the challenges of relationships and interpersonal conflict.

Each type of conflict brings challenges and complications, adding depth and intrigue to the story.

Internal Conflict

internal conflict - man vs self

One of the most common types of conflict is internal conflict (aka ‘character vs. self’ or ‘man vs. self’).

This inner turmoil can manifest itself in many ways, but it always boils down to the central characters trying to overcome the mental and emotional obstacles in their own lives. It drives the characters forward, giving them a goal to strive for and a reason to keep going.

For example, a character might be struggling with an addiction, trying to break free from an unhealthy relationship, working through trauma, or overcoming a personal flaw stemming from doubt, fear, or guilt. At its heart, it is always about the character’s struggle with themselves.

This type of conflict can be challenging to resolve, as the character must overcome their own demons before moving on. It is also a common theme because it is something that everyone can relate to on some level. We all have inner demons that we must face, and watching characters do the same can be inspiring and cathartic.

Whatever the case, internal conflict gives the story depth and makes the characters more relatable and sympathetic. It reminds us that we are not alone in our inner struggles and that facing them head-on and even overcoming them is possible.

Great examples of internal conflict include Hamlet, Fight Club, Of Mice and Men, Rocky, and The Basketball Diaries.

External Conflict

Man vs. Man (AKA Character vs. Character)

external conflict - man vs man

Many literary works explore the theme of man vs. man (or character vs. character conflict), which arises when two characters directly oppose each other. This can be due to rivalries, differences in opinion, or simply because two characters are after the same goal.

It can take the form of a physical confrontation, as in the case of a boxing match, or a more psychological battle, such as between two rivals vying for the same position at work.

These conflicts can be some of the most intriguing to read about, as they often lead to unexpected alliances and betrayals. Often, the stakes are high, and both parties fight for something they believe is worth fighting for.

The theme of man vs. man is often seen in stories about sports or competition, as it pits two individuals against each other in a test of skill and strength.

However, it can also be found in tales of love and hate, where two people are at odds with each other due to jealousy or some other strong emotion. In either case, the conflict between the two parties is usually intense and may have far-reaching consequences.

While this theme is certainly not unique to literature, it is a common thread that runs through many stories and poems. It is an age-old conflict that fascinates readers as it brings out the best and worst in human nature.

Great examples of Man vs. Man (external conflict) include Friday Night Lights, Election, The Professional, The Most Dangerous Game, and The Dark Knight.

Man vs. Nature (AKA Character vs. Nature)

External Conflict - man vs nature

Throughout literature, there are countless stories of man pitted against nature (AKA character vs. nature).

This is when a character must contend with external natural forces beyond their control, such as bad weather, natural disasters, hostile environments, dangerous animals, or even their own physical limitations. These challenges can test a character’s resolve and force them to adapt to survive.

This type of conflict in literature often creates a sense of hopelessness and despair as the protagonist struggles against overwhelming odds.

However, they can also be used to showcase the strength of the human spirit as the protagonist battles against all odds to prevail. Whether used to create suspense or inspire hope, there is a common thread of humanity trying to triumph over the forces of nature.

Perhaps the most iconic example is the story of Robinson Crusoe, who is stranded on a deserted island and must use all his ingenuity and strength to survive.

We see a similar tale in The Call of the Wild, where a dog must learn to fend for himself in the wilderness. Even in more modern literature, such as The Hunger Games, we see the characters battling against other humans and the elements of nature itself.

Ultimately, these stories resonate with us because they speak to our deepest fears and desires. We all need to feel safe and secure, and when we read about someone overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, it gives us hope that we can do the same.

At its core, it is all about hope, courage, and determination in the face of natural adversity.

Great examples of Man vs. Nature (external conflict) include The Hunger Games, Robinson Crusoe, The Old Man and the Sea, Never Cry Wolf, Jaws, Into the Wild, and Alive.

Man vs. Society (Character vs. Society)

External Conflict - man vs society

Man vs. society (AKA character vs. society) conflict occurs when the protagonist challenges an unjust social system or authority figure. Often, the protagonist fights against an entire group or institution, whether a government, a corporation, a school, or even the general public.

This type of story conflict can add an element of suspense and drama as the reader wonders if the protagonist will be able to overcome such overwhelming odds.

In addition, man vs. society conflicts can also be used to explore social issues and get the reader thinking about more significant problems in the world.

For example, a story about a character fighting against a corrupt government could raise awareness about political corruption or social justice.

Man vs. society conflict is a versatile narrative tool that can add suspense, drama, and depth to a story while simultaneously creating a commentary about the injustices and shortcomings of our own local and global institutions.

Great examples of Man vs. Society (external conflict) include V for Vendetta, 1984, Milk, Fahrenheit 451, and The Outsiders.

Man vs. Supernatural (Character vs. Supernatural)

External Conflict - man vs supernatural

In a Man vs. Supernatural story, the protagonist squares up against unnatural or alien forces beyond their control. This could be anything from monsters and ghosts to witches and deities. In short, anything not of our natural Earth.

The key is that the opponent is significantly more powerful than the protagonist, and the protagonist often has to rely on a combination of skill, knowledge, strength of will, and courage to prevail rather than brute force.

Supernatural conflict usually leads to a very suspenseful and exciting story as the reader wonders whether or not the protagonist will be able to overcome the odds of facing something that cannot be defeated by conventional means.

Man vs. Supernatural stories are often thrilling tales of good vs. evil that keep readers glued to the page.

Great examples of Man vs. Supernatural (external conflict) include The Shining, Odd Thomas, The Odyssey, Independence Day, and Poltergeist.

Examples of Conflict in Stories

Internal Conflict: Character vs. Self

catcher in the rye

In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is a prime example of an individual experiencing internal conflict.

As a teenager, he is caught between childhood and adulthood, innocence and maturity. This is evident in his relationships with people, his observations of the world around him, and his own thoughts and emotions. For Holden, everything seems phony, and he longs for something real and honest.

Yet, at the same time, he is afraid of change and struggles to let go of his childhood. This conflict within himself ultimately leads to his breakdown.

Holden’s story is a resonant example of the internal conflict many people also experience as they move through real life.

External: Character vs. Character

lord of the flies

In most stories, the protagonist is pitted against an antagonist, creating an external conflict. However, sometimes the conflict is between two characters who are equally matched. This can create a tense and suspenseful story as readers wonder who will come out on top.

A classic example of character vs. character conflict can be found in William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. In the book, a group of boys are stranded on an island and must fend for themselves. The conflict arises when two boys, Ralph and Jack, start vying for power.

The two are evenly matched in ability and charisma, making it impossible to predict who will emerge victorious.

External: Character vs. Nature


Character vs. nature conflict occurs when a character struggles against an outside force of nature.

This can take many forms, one of which is characters battling the elements, such as in The Perfect Storm, where a group of fishermen must fight against a raging storm at sea;

Another is when the main characters struggle against a natural disaster, such as in The Impossible, where a family must survive after being caught in a devastating tsunami;

Another form of character vs. nature is when the characters battle dangerous animals, as in The Revenant, where an 1820s fur trapper must fight for his life after being attacked by a grizzly bear.

Whatever form it takes, this type of struggle provides an opportunity for characters to showcase their strength and determination in the face of natural external forces.

External: Character vs. Society

to kill a mockingbird

In Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, the main character, Atticus Finch, is in conflict with the community in which he lives.

Atticus is a well-respected lawyer and moral man who believes in justice and equality for all, regardless of race. However, his town is racially divided, and the people are overwhelmingly prejudiced. This conflict is evident throughout the novel but is perhaps most apparent in the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of a crime he did not commit.

Despite knowing that Robinson will almost certainly be found guilty, Atticus persists in fighting for his innocence. In doing so, he risks everything – his reputation, safety, and even his life – but never gives in.

The external conflict between Atticus and society highlights the injustice of racism and underscores the importance of standing up for what is right despite overwhelming odds.

External: Character vs. Supernatural


In Stephen King’s The Shining, the central conflict is between the protagonist, Jack Torrance, and the supernatural forces present in the Overlook Hotel.

Jack is a writer who has been struggling with alcoholism and anger issues, and he takes a job as the winter caretaker of the hotel to try to get away from it all and focus on his work. However, it quickly becomes apparent that something is not right at the Overlook.

The hotel seems to have a mind of its own, and it starts to drive Jack insane. He becomes increasingly violent and eventually tries to kill his wife and son. In the end, the family can escape, thanks mainly to Jack taking his own life in a final stand against the ghosts that have taken over the hotel.

Final Thoughts

Conflict is an integral part of any story. It creates tension and suspense and makes the reader want to keep turning the pages.

To create conflict that works, you need to understand what it is and how to use it effectively.

The tips we’ve shared should help you write compelling conflict that will keep your readers engaged and help you become a better writer!

Conflict in a Story

Common Questions (FAQs)

How do you identify conflict in a story?

Look for scenes where the characters are struggling to achieve a goal. This can be an external struggle, such as overcoming an obstacle, or an internal struggle, such as dealing with a personal issue. Conflict can also arise when two characters have different goals or values. For example, if one character wants to leave a relationship but the other wants to stay, this can create tension and conflict.

What makes a good conflict in a story?

A good conflict in a story is relatable to the reader and elicits an emotional response. It should also be believable and make sense within the story’s context. Another essential aspect when you create conflict is that it should be active rather than passive. Finally, a good conflict should have a clear resolution, preferably satisfying for the reader.

What is moral conflict?

Moral conflict is an important element of storytelling as it immerses readers in a protagonist’s dilemmas. It refers to a character’s struggle between two opposing moral principles, such as truth and loyalty or lawfulness and mercy. This conflict can arise within the character, causing them to make difficult decisions. Alternatively, it can come from outside sources – people or institutions asking them to perform an action against their beliefs. Writing moral conflict adds depth to characters and effectively displays their principles.

Interested in learning more about great storytelling? Check out these other helpful articles:

What is Pacing in a Story? Tips for Story Pacing for Writers

What are the 7 Elements of a Story? [Essentials to Include!]

How to Write a Character Backstory: Guide for Fiction Writers

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