Ever get so wrapped up in a story that you’re right there with the main character, feeling their pain and joy and facing every challenge alongside them?
The emotion you experience when watching a film or reading a well-crafted novel comes from the careful blending of the tensions in the character’s lives – the battles they fight outside of themselves and the battles within. Skilled writers blend the interplay between those two spheres of core conflict carefully and deliberately.
One of the first lessons I learned early on was to find the balance between the two, and that no good story can rely on only one kind of conflict.
We’ll take a closer look at the power of internal and external conflict in stories, give examples of both, and give tips for using tension to elevate your writing.
Understanding Conflict in Stories
In good storytelling, conflict isn’t an optional add-on. It’s the heartbeat of every tale. Without it, stories would just be a sequence of things that happen – with no suspense, no risk, no investment on the part of the reader, and no sense of triumph when resolution comes.
In creative writing classes, they’ll tell you to imagine a character. And then choose a goal or objective for that character. And then, you must throw every possible obstacle in the way of your character reaching that objective. And that is the science of a good plot.
What is Conflict in Good Writing?
When I say “conflict“, I’m not just talking about characters yelling at each other or duking it out. Story conflict can be as understated as a protagonist struggling with nagging, unnamed insecurities or as massive as men and monsters waging world war.
In other words, conflict occurs when a character’s thoughts, words, or actions are directly opposed by forces beyond their control.
Another way to think about conflict is to think of it as tension. Imagine it as the mountain our hero needs to climb or the thing that pulls them out of their usual routine.
This tension is what keeps you flipping through pages or binge-watching episodes. It’s the driving force of a good story and what makes you curious to see what will happen next. It makes you root for characters and experience their journeys and transformations along with them.
As novelist Donald Miller said, “Good stories must travel through conflict. And in epic stories, the conflict must become unbearable.”
What is Internal Conflict?
At the heart of most great stories, we find internal conflict.
This isn’t about the character’s changing circumstances or physical battles. It’s the emotional or spiritual tug-of-war happening inside a character’s mind and heart.
Perhaps there is a clash between what a main character wants versus what they know is right. Maybe they must struggle to overcome their fears in hopes of achieving their dreams. Just as with real life, when characters wrestle with these inner dilemmas, they start to change, learn, and grow.
Since stories are usually told through the main character’s point of view, the actions and motivations of the characters make them relatable. And the decisions they make – like when they decide to follow their heart or rise up against the status quo – give them compelling character arcs and give us, the readers, the drama we crave.
10 Types of Internal Conflicts
Internal conflict revolves around a character’s inner struggles with opposing desires, beliefs, feelings, or needs. There are ten types of internal character conflicts found in literature and stories:
- Man vs. Self: This is the most straightforward type of internal central conflict. The protagonist struggles with inner feelings and identities. Hamlet’s indecision and internal turmoil in Shakespeare’s Hamlet epitomize this type of character conflict.
- Moral Dilemma: A character is torn between two or more moral imperatives, unsure of the right course of action. For instance, should the character lie to protect someone they love or tell the truth and risk harming them?
- Desire vs. Duty: A character is torn between personal desires and a sense of duty. For example, a character may want to escape with a lover, but their duty to their family or country prevents them.
- Past vs. Present: The protagonist’s past (such as traumatic events, learned behaviors, or regrets) influences their present life, causing internal pain and setbacks. An example could be a character who wants to move forward in a relationship but is held back by a past divorce.
- Identity Crisis: These internal conflicts occur when a character questions their role, purpose, or sense of self. This kind of conflict can manifest in stories where characters grapple with issues related to personal identity, cultural identity, or social identity.
- Fear of the Unknown: A character is hesitant or afraid to move forward because of the uncertainty of the future or the unknown outcomes of their actions.
- Addiction: A character struggles with some form of addiction, whether it’s substance abuse, a behavioral addiction, or an unhealthy obsession. They must face the repercussions of their actions and the internal struggle over overcoming or succumbing to the addiction.
- Logic vs. Emotion: The character is torn between making decisions based on reason or emotion. For example, a character might know logically they should make a particular choice, but their emotions pull them in another direction. The character of Spock in the Star Trek franchise exemplifies the perpetual conflict between logic and emotion as he navigates his Vulcan rationality and human feelings.
- Self-acceptance: A character grapples with accepting themselves, whether due to physical appearance, inherent abilities, or societal expectations. This story conflict often revolves around themes of self-worth and validation.
- Survivor’s Guilt: After undergoing a traumatic event in which others suffered or died, a character struggles with feelings of guilt for having survived or for not being able to prevent the tragedy.
How to Write Internal Conflict in Stories
Crafting authentic internal conflict in stories is like seasoning a dish; too little and it’s bland; too much and it’s overwhelming.
A story with only external conflict or outside forces would be flat, with little to make the reader care about the outcome. Characters with no internal conflict lack humanity, and the character’s journey may seem incomplete as the audience may be unable to relate to them.
However, if a story is too dominated by internal conflict that never externalizes, the audience may see the character as indecisive and self-absorbed.
How can you write characters with internal conflict that your audience can relate to?
You might think you should stick to conflicts that most of your audience has experienced. However, most readers can relate to an internal conflict even if they have not had those thoughts or feelings. Everyone has had some internal tug-of-war or struggle to overcome.
The emotional experience of those struggles may be transferred to your character through sympathy – as long as the way your character deals with their own internal conflicts makes sense.
Tips for Writing Internal Conflict in Stories
You must begin by understanding your character deeply. What are their dreams, fears, and core values?
Once you’ve nailed this down, consider scenarios where these deeply held core values contradict each other. Maybe they want success but fear public scrutiny. Perhaps they value family but yearn for adventure abroad. It can be helpful to prioritize the character’s values in your mind. The priorities may be unclear to the characters as they work out their related internal conflicts, but the author needs a firm grasp of them to craft a coherent plot.
Let these conflicts bubble within your character, occasionally spilling over in moments of stress or decision-making.
Don’t simply tell the reader that the character is indecisive; create circumstances that force a protagonist to make a decision that reveals their core values. Rather than explicitly saying that the character had a painful past, drop the character into a situation or conversation that triggers them or sends them on a path of discovery.
Using Dialogue to Create Tension
Dialogue can bring the conflict to light without explicitly stating the nature of it. Remember that the character may not be able to name their own internal conflict – and may not want their conversation partner to know about it. Use the dialog to reveal the character’s priorities in a natural way.
Never use dialogue just to “tell” the reader something about your story, characters, or message. Every conversation must have consequences. Every conversation must drive the plot forward. You want your readers to recognize and relate to the conflict without feeling the interaction is forced.
What is External Conflict?
Now it’s time to bring in the bad guys, the big guns, and the higher powers. Let’s talk about why compelling external conflict is crucial in stories.
External conflict is the struggle between a character and an outside force. Unlike internal conflict, which engages a character’s soul, external conflict pits a protagonist against tangible external obstacles. These could be other characters, societal norms, or even nature itself.
The Profound Impact of External Conflict
Character Development: Characters develop under the force of external challenges. External conflicts push characters to their limits and reveal their values, strengths, and vulnerabilities.
Driving the Plot: External conflict drives the plot forward. It provides the hurdles and challenges that characters must overcome. It’s the DNA of those gripping, can’t-put-it-down moments.
Theme Exploration: External conflicts allow writers to weave in broader societal themes and messages, making the narrative richer and more thought-provoking.
External conflict is more than just a storytelling device; it’s the crucible in which characters are tested, plots are shaped, and deeper truths are unearthed.
10 Types of External Conflicts
- Man vs. Man: This is one of the most common forms of external conflict, where two characters have opposing desires or interests. Think of the classic battles between protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains. This includes battles between two groups, classes, or armies as well as between two individuals.
Man vs. Nature: Here, characters face challenges from the natural environment or creatures. Examples include shipwreck or wilderness survival tales.
Man vs. Society: In these stories, characters challenge societal norms, laws, or cultural practices. They might stand against oppressive regimes or societal prejudices.
Man vs. Supernatural: Characters confront supernatural forces, such as ghosts, monsters, deities, or otherworldly entities. This is common in horror and mythological tales.
Man vs. Machine: Characters face challenges posed by technology or machinery. This is prevalent in science fiction, where characters might confront rogue AIs or become overly reliant on robots.
Man vs. Alien: In this classic sci-fi device, humans confront extraterrestrial beings – either in battle, cultural clashes, or efforts to understand the unknown.
Man vs. Fate/Destiny: Characters attempt to resist, change, or accept a predetermined fate or destiny. This conflict is central to tragedies or stories with a strong sense of destiny. It could even take the form of a time-travel tale.
Man vs. Time: This is slightly different than Man vs. Fate because of the breakneck pace of these stories. In Man vs. Time, characters are racing against the clock. Whether it’s to prevent a disaster, save someone, or achieve a goal before it’s too late, time itself is the antagonist.
Man vs. Reality: Often found in surreal, psychological, or speculative fiction, characters battle against a reality that’s shifting, deceptive, or unstable.
Man vs. The Unknown: Here, characters face the vast mysteries of the universe, the unexplored or the incomprehensible. This can be found in exploratory sci-fi or stories centered around human insignificance in the cosmos.
How to Write External Conflict in Stories
How do you create an external conflict that resonates with your audience? Tension done right adds immediate zing to your story – but readers don’t actually care if a whole planet gets blown to smithereens unless they’re concerned about that planet in the first place.
First, identify the core theme of your story. Is it love, survival, justice, or redemption?
Once you’ve got your theme, design external forces that threaten to tear it to shreds. For example:
If your theme is love, the external conflict can be societal norms that keep lovers apart.
If your theme is survival, it might be a treacherous desert or a pack of wolves.
If your theme is justice, your conflict could be a wrongful murder charge.
Remember to keep your conflict realistic to the setting and the character’s abilities.
Let the conflict escalate. Start with minor challenges and build up to the most thrilling and difficult confrontation. Never just tell your reader that “it’s really important” that your character overcome the obstacle. Rather, intensify the conflict through dialogue, action, and careful descriptions of the setting. Raise the stakes. Make it hurt. Put everything on the line.
An external conflict should not just be an annoying obstacle; it must push your characters to evolve, adapt, and emerge stronger. It must force them to evaluate their core beliefs and loyalties. It must either alienate them or force them to bond with the people around them. It must not just block their way but reshape their journey entirely.
Balancing Internal and External Conflict
Balancing internal and external conflicts in a story can be tricky. Both are essential elements, but the blend and the resolution of both are what make a story memorable. Here are some tips on balancing internal and external conflict.
Parallel Development: Connect the external conflict to a character’s internal struggle. For example, a character facing an external enemy could simultaneously grapple with self-doubt. This creates a multi-layered narrative where actions reflect inner journeys.
Pacing: Not every scene has to have a high-stakes battle or a profound introspective moment. Vary the pace. After an external showdown, slow things a bit with internal reflection, allowing the reader to relax and deepen their connection to the character.
Interconnected Resolutions: Ensure that the resolution of one type of conflict affects the other. If a character overcomes an internal fear, let that influence how they handle the next external challenge.
Use Side Characters: Side characters can be excellent tools to highlight a protagonist’s internal and external battles. A best friend might point out a character’s internal turmoil, or an antagonist could intensify the external pressures.
Get Feedback: Once you’ve written your story, get feedback. Sometimes, we’re too close to the narrative to see the imbalances and inconsistencies in our own stories. A fresh pair of eyes can spot areas where one type of conflict might overshadow the other.
How Internal and External Conflicts Interact (With Examples from Books and Movies)
Let’s look at classic literature and movie examples showing the dance between external and internal conflict.
1. Hamlet by William Shakespeare:
Internal Conflict: Hamlet’s indecision and moral quandary over avenging his father’s death.
External Conflict: The actual act of confronting and potentially killing King Claudius, who has taken the throne.
Interaction: Hamlet’s internal moral struggle makes him delay the act of revenge, leading to increased tension and complications in the external world.
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:
Internal Conflict: Katniss Everdeen’s struggle to retain her humanity in a brutal, televised fight to the death.
External Conflict: The very real physical danger she faces from other tributes and the manipulations of the Gamekeepers.
Interaction: Her internal resolve to not become a pawn or lose her humanity directly influences her choices, alliances, and confrontations in the arena.
3. Spider-Man (Movie Series):
Internal Conflict: Peter Parker’s sense of responsibility (“With great power comes great responsibility”) battles against his desire for a normal life.
External Conflict: The villains he faces as Spider-Man and the challenges of concealing his secret identity.
Interaction: Peter’s internal dilemma often leads to hesitations or decisions in his superhero role, impacting how he tackles external threats and personal relationships.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger:
Internal Conflict: Holden Caulfield’s deep sense of alienation and his disdain for adult phoniness.
External Conflict: His interactions and confrontations with adults and peers in the real world as he drifts around New York City.
Interaction: His internal feelings of detachment and mistrust often exacerbate external situations, leading to misunderstandings, conflicts, and isolation.
Every unforgettable story hinges on the balance of two opposing forces – external and internal conflict.
Conflicts are more than just plot points. They make characters human and push narratives forward.
Don’t shy away from these moments of tension. Dive into the emotions and environments of your characters. Weave together these moments of internal struggles and external forces and find glory in their resolution. Use external and internal conflicts to craft a journey that readers remember long after turning the last page.
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