How to Use Internal and External Conflict in Your Stories
Conflict drives stories forward. Learn about different types you can use in your stories.
Have you ever noticed that in a book, or even a short story, things can never be simple? In romance novels, characters can never just sit down and talk to each other; they have to brood and worry and make grand displays at the last second to prove their love. In horror novels, characters don’t get out of the house the moment something creepy happens. Nope, they have to go explore and get into trouble. In thrillers, the stalker doesn’t leave a character alone because they asked nicely. Even adventures are subject to this - why couldn’t Frodo have just flown on the Eagles from the beginning?
Here’s the kicker: if books were simple, we wouldn’t read them. If stories were so uncomplex and easy, they wouldn’t be interesting to read or write. All stories need something that keeps the reader coming back for more, and makes them question what’s going to happen next so that they stay engaged with the story as it’s happening.
So how do you keep your reader engaged? You add conflict! Conflict in a story is when two elements - either external forces or inside ideals - duke it out and try to take control of the narrative. Conflict drives your story forward and builds up your characters from stock concepts to realistic people.
Here’s what you need to know about using internal and external conflict in your stories.
What are conflicts?
When we think of conflict, we usually think of something violent or dangerous. We think of arguments and fighting, a match between two different sides duking it out.
While yes, this is a kind of conflict, the term itself, when it comes to literature, covers a much wider range of ideas. When it comes to a story, a conflict is a clash between two or more opposing forces. It’s when various elements of the story are vying for attention and supremacy.
Conflict helps to create urgency in your story - usually, the main motivation of your character can be described as a kind of conflict that is disrupting their everyday life and needs to be resolved before they can move on. Conflicts can also drive unlikely pairings of characters to work together or cause characters who were once close to become distant, or even turn on each other.
Internal conflicts are struggles that happen inside a single character’s head or heart. They’re basically a fight between two opposing parts of the character that might value two very different things. These are your developmental conflicts; solving them is part of a character’s arc. They are often used to show off a character’s depth and explain their motivations.
For instance, in the series Avatar: The Last Airbender, Prince Zuko is highly driven by his need to restore his honor in the eyes of his father. However, the more he learns about the young Avatar he’s supposed to be capturing and the “opposing” nations, the more he realizes they have in common with them and the less he actually wants to bring any harm to them.
While yes, there are plenty of exterior forces working against Zuko during the course of the series, it’s this direct conflict between his growing appreciation for the people of nations he’d never had the chance to interact with outside of a war room before and his want to be loved and accepted by his father and his family that drives all of his actions and becomes major reasons for his alliance with, betrayal of, and return to “Team Avatar.”
External conflicts are struggles that happen outside of the character’s head and in the physical space of the story. Forces outside of the character’s control - governments, disasters, diseases, rivals, etc. - challenge the character’s motives and make it harder for them to reach their goals, giving us more tension in the story.
As an example of this, we can look at the Lord of the Rings series. Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring need to get the One Ring into Mordor to destroy it for good, but, as our debonair Boromir so wisely puts it, “one does not simply walk into Mordor.” Not only are they having to scale an active volcano, but the land is a den of evil inhabited by the worst of the worst, and even more urgently, the Ring Wraiths are actively hunting down Frodo from the moment he leaves the Shire. The Fellowship must traverse the land while avoiding, outwitting, or outright defeating Sauron’s agents.
While yes, Frodo’s internal struggle with the power of the ring is a major plot point and a huge motivation, the fact is that the Fellowship physically cannot take an easy route to Mount Doom - there are other forces in the world that motivate them to move forward and that they need to overcome in order to complete their mission.
Different types of conflict
So, as I mentioned, conflict doesn’t always look like an outright fight. There are different kinds of conflicts you can take advantage of in fiction to make your stories more interesting.
Different types of internal conflict
Whether or not it’s the defining conflict of the story, giving your character some kind of internal struggle makes them more interesting to watch when there’s no one else in the room. Here are some ways you can do that.
Personal desires versus expectations
A character who wants to do one thing but is expected to do another has an excellent internal conflict you can explore. Characters who have to work in direct opposition to their own internal goals are a goldmine for angst and drama, and make for awesome turncoats! They can also be fascinating to watch develop on a more subtle scale, though; watching someone’s worldview change is exciting and fascinating when it’s done right.
With this particular kind of internal conflict, the setup and the stakes are everything. Generally, this kind of conflict is set up in one of three ways:
- Your character may be forced into a situation where they must make a choice that has the potential to hurt themselves or someone they love for the greater good. They may love someone who is extremely dangerous, or be forced into a dangerous situation to provide for a loved one.
- Your character is in a situation where they must choose between the life established for them by their loved ones or their society and the life they imagine for themselves. This might mean choosing between staying in one place and going off on an adventure, or it might entail choosing whether or not to take up a leadership role they do not feel qualified for.
- Your character is at the heart of a political struggle. They might agree with a certain politician’s platform and policies, but dislike them as a person and feel repulsed by them outside of professional settings. They might support a party or ideology that they later discover goes against their personal code.
Maybe your main character isn’t a bad guy, but they’re forced to do bad things in order to survive. This is an internal conflict known as morality versus circumstance, and it’s perfect for creating sympathetic characters while acknowledging the horror of their situation.
For this, the best example I can give is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Katniss is thrust into the Games when she volunteers, taking her sister’s place in order to save her life. But the Games require extreme moral sacrifices from her; if she wants to get home to her little sister, she has to kill every other child in the arena. Throughout the story, we watch Katniss struggle to retain her humanity and kindness despite the lethality of her situation, and in the end, watch her live with the aftermath of having taken lives. This trauma informs the rest of her decisions in the series and shows us why she takes the actions that she does. It’s the same message, over and over: no more. Never again.
Moral quandaries are fun because they can put your reader in the “what if” headspace. What if they had to make these choices? What would they do? Watching a character make a difficult moral decision or series of decisions can help your readers feel more empathy for them; even if they don’t like what the character is doing, they can understand why it’s happening.
Though not often used in full stand-alone stories, having a character facing their deepest fears is a great way to explore an already fleshed-out character by tearing them down. This is one of the “stock episodes” or recurring themed episodes in long-running series, but it’s recurring for a reason! While most character development focuses on motivation and what characters are running toward, exposing characters to their fears and self-doubts shows the audience what they’re running from and what really makes them tick.
For instance, in the Divergent series, our protagonist Tris must endure the use of simulation serum - an injected serum that induces a hallucination - and her mental fear landscape in order to join the Dauntless faction. This landscape produces scenarios in which the participant must face each of their biggest fears, as a means of proving that they are brave and courageous enough to join the fearless faction. Tris faces down seven fears in her simulation, each one representing a different deep-seated value that she has. One of her fears, for example, presents itself in the simulation as a crowd of crows attempting to devour her. The deeper fear is later expanded on as a fear of losing control and of being powerless in her situation. Seeing these fears shows us more about Tris, and why she appears as Divergent - her values are more complex than the surface-level separation of the factions.
Disorder and illness
Sometimes, the internal conflict we’re watching isn’t about personality; it’s about a physical or mental disorder or illness. It’s character vs. self. This is a topic that’s hard to write about; unless you’ve lived with a particular diagnosis, it’s extremely difficult to portray it authentically. If you choose to write with this internal conflict, be prepared to do a lot of intense research, and hire sensitivity readers from the group you’re writing about.
An excellent example of this in fiction is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. This story follows Hazel Lancaster, a teen with terminal lung cancer, as she meets and falls in love with Augustus Waters, another cancer patient from her support group. This book is deeply moving not only because it explores the sense of dread and resignation that comes with a terminal diagnosis, especially at such a young age, but because it also explores the defiance and drive to live life as fully as possible with the time that remains. We know from the start that Hazel is dying, that all of her friends are dying, but the book is about the way they choose to live and love despite it all.
Different types of external conflict
External conflicts are a little easier to explain. They’re often categorized as “character” or “man” (as in humanity) versus another force.
Character versus character
Character versus character is…well, exactly what it says on the tin. Character A has something they need or want, but Character B has something else they need or want that’s on the opposite side of the spectrum to Character A, so they fight. Batman versus Joker, Roadrunner versus Coyote, Tom versus Jerry, Voldemort versus Harry Potter, the rival families in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
It’s the basic setup for any hero-villain story, but it can also be an interesting mini-conflict to add to an existing plot to highlight the individuality of characters who are largely on the same side. This is another stock episode - the big blowout argument that splits up the team. Usually, this will resolve itself by showing us that the characters work better together than they do apart, or that they do value each other despite harsh exteriors.
Another interesting way to use this conflict is to fuel a realization of common goals, such as in an enemies-to-lovers trope story. Take Pride and Prejudice, for example. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet meet and immediately dislike each other. They’re both headstrong, blunt, highly motivated people with a bevy of societal expectations that they hate, whom everyone seems to be trying to shove together. Obviously, this brilliant anti-socialite and the anti-social bachelor with no interest in marriage are going to butt heads. But through their verbal sparring, they come to realize that they have a lot in common; they both love reading and philosophical debate, they both need their time alone and independence, and they both value their families above all else and will do anything for them. Without that initial conflict, their love story would make very little sense, and wouldn’t be the esteemed classic that it is today.
Character vs. society
Society conflicts are a form of conflict where a singular character or a small group of characters face off against a larger societal issue. It looks similar to the internal conflict personal desires versus expectations, but is often played on a larger scale. The person isn’t clashing with society just because of their personal desires; more often than not, they’re clashing because of a key, unchangeable feature of themselves. The society they live in is discriminatory toward entire groups of people, and so those people clash with the rules set in front of them. A classic example of man vs. society would be 1984 by George Orwell.
Another great example is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In this story, the society of Gilead puts extremely harsh rules in place for women; everything about their lives is controlled, from their clothing to their sex lives. Their bodies are controlled by the state on a literal level - Handmaids live strictly-controlled lives on a precise schedule for optimal chances of conception and healthy birth. They’re seen as little more than procreation objects, despite their supposed importance and the “reverence” offered to them. The society we watch our protagonist Offred (whose name has even been taken from her, with her only being referred to as the property “Of Fred”) suffering in and railing against.
Man vs. Nature
In this example of external conflict, our main character struggles against the forces of nature to survive. Nature conflicts often serve as vehicles for allegories about humanity’s place in the universe when used in science fiction. Sharknado might be the most famous cinematic example of this type of conflict in recent years, as Fin works to stop tornadoes from raining sharks down on the United States. (A job he’d have to continue across another five movies.)
This conflict has roots in classic literature too. In Robinson Crusoe, the main character must find a way to survive after his ship is shipwrecked on an island. Ernest Hemingway uses nature as a source of conflict in The Old Man and the Sea.
Natural disasters push characters to their physical limits, with character arcs often focusing on people learning what they’re capable of, or what moral compromises they’re willing to make to survive.
How to utilize conflict in your story
So, if all stories need conflict of some description, how can you incorporate conflict into your writing?
Well, to put it simply, you need to figure out what your character wants and then put something in the way of getting it. Let me break down how to do that.
The first step is identifying your character’s motivations. What do they want to accomplish with their life? Sit down with your character and discuss it with them. Write out a list of things that your character values, such as family or faith. Focus on things that are important to them personally, not to the story as a whole. Add to this list the things that the character’s home society values, such as modesty or comfort.
Then, separately, write out the things that you need them to do to progress your story. These can be translated into the motivations they have for actually participating in the tale you want to tell, and hopefully a hint at the conclusion you’re heading toward.
Now, read over their values and the story’s goals. Ask yourself some questions:
- Do any of the values go against the goals? In what way? How can you address that in your writing?
- Do any of the values go against each other? In what way? How can you address that in your writing?
- Are there any physical barriers that they need to overcome? Do your characters need to move from one side of a setting to another or face any natural conditions that might make their journey harder?
- Are there other characters in your story that have vastly different values? How do the villain’s values and goals match up to your hero’s? Do they have anything in common? What about characters on the hero’s side? How might this difference or similarity in values change the way these characters interact?
Use these questions to guide your story outline. Build conflict into the framework so that you can refer to it in the writing itself. That will help you keep up with conflicts and keep them consistent throughout the entire story.
It’s a good idea to use conflict to set up your characters’ arcs. Conflict is a great way to encourage character growth, and a wonderful way to drive a story forward. Give each of your major characters their own internal conflicts; whether or not you address it directly, you can use it as a reference point to plan their actions and reactions to the other happenings in the story. If you get stuck in a scene, you can ask yourself how the main conflict applies to it and use that to guide how you move forward.
You can also use conflict to drive major story beats for everyone. If one character is particularly passionate about a goal but the others have values that interfere with getting to that goal, you’ve got some great conflict. If a character has a particularly strong value but is in an environment in which that value is actually a setback, you’ve got conflict! Watching the characters resolve (or fail to resolve) conflict makes for great storytelling.
Conflict building in action
Let’s look at this process in action with our previous example, The Lord of the Rings.
- Our protagonist, Frodo, is a Hobbit, and as such, values peace and quiet. He has grown up listening to the adventure stories of his uncle Bilbo, and because of this, values the idea of independence and adventure. As a young, softer soul himself, Frodo also values good people and kindness.
- Our antagonist, Sauron, is a ruler of a corrupted land, and as such, values power and supremacy. He is desperate to gain control over the entirety of Middle Earth and as such, values knowledge and influence.
- For our story to progress, we need Frodo to accept the Ring from Bilbo, leave the Shire, travel to Mordor, and destroy the Ring.
- Hobbits value their calm home lives, but Frodo yearns for adventure. This is a conflict, and we can explore it by having him intrigued and excited to go on his quest, but also missing the comfort and safety of home as the journey gets harder.
- The physical journey through Middle Earth is a long and difficult one, as there are no fast means of transportation. Frodo will have to team up with others in order to make it the entire way. This clashes with his need for independence, which we can explore by putting him in situations that make him rely on others - for instance, sustaining a serious injury or being overwhelmed by the power of the Ring - and see how it makes him feel and what he does.
- Because Sauron wants power and control, he must have agents all over the map and ways of communicating with them. So, for Frodo to get the Ring all the way to its place of destruction, he must avoid these agents and try not to be found by Sauron, so that he cannot take the Ring back.
This is an extremely simplified version of the story, obviously (I don’t want to even attempt a thorough summary of Tolkien; that would take up several pages), but it might help you see how conflict can drive action and move a story forward in a way that’s interesting to read. Without the conflicts, we’d just be watching some guy take a roadtrip with his friend.
Look, not every conflict needs to be world-shaking. Your character’s internal conflict doesn’t need to have a huge dark-night-of-the-soul for every little challenge that they face. Sometimes, your character is just going to be vaguely uncomfortable or annoyed by a situation, and you don’t need to explore it fully for it to be interesting for the audience.
Conflict is interesting because it shows us that the characters and their world are not perfect. There are things that they struggle with, and outside forces that fight back against them, just like in real life. We may not all be fighting dragons, but everyone’s had a moment where their personal beliefs were challenged or their goals were behind frustrating obstacles. That drive to get through your situation is universal, and it makes a great opportunity for your audience to connect with your character’s goals more authentically, and get more invested in their story.
By putting intentional, interesting conflict in your writing, you can move them from flat tropes to dynamic stories that leave people wanting to know more.