Opposing Forces: Internal vs. External Conflict
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read

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If you ever think about your own life, it will become immediately apparent that your personal path has been forged by overcoming obstacles. It is no exaggeration to say that the person who you have become has largely been shaped by your struggles and how you confronted them.

Such challenges can come in many different forms, either psychological, physical or both. One could face contention against other people or outside forces, or merely find themselves at odds with competing ideas in their own mind.

In other words, it is conflict that forms our personalities and defines us for who we are. There is always something in our way, big or small, and we can often be completely unaware of how these forces affect us and mold our personalities.

It can be something as mundane as how we navigate around a person driving slower than us or something as consequential as wrangling with the decision to admit to a dear friend that you've lied to them. With each decision we make, we evolve one way or another. It is those forces which oppose us and how we take them on which will make or break us.

Conflict: The Essence of Narrative

So what is conflict? In terms of storytelling, conflict is the main driver of the story. It is that thing that a character must overcome, the thing that will change who they are. It is in following the character's journey in resolving conflict that we engage audiences and create the narrative artistic experience that elicits emotions and inspires self-reflection.

There are two basic forms of conflict, internal and external conflicts. Internal conflicts are when a character finds competing ideas, morals or desires within their own mind. External conflicts, on the other hand, arise from human or natural forces which get in the way of their goals. As stated, both can often come into play in the same story, one feeding the other, making choices that are much more complex.

Understanding the difference between internal and external conflict and how to use them is key in storytelling. As you continue learning about conflict, you will see that we can easily draw from our own experiences as well as examples from past creators and their works. This understanding will put you on the road to effectively adding conflict to your film and writing.

Internal Conflict: The Struggle Within

As already stated, internal conflict is when a character finds opposing points of view or feelings vying for dominance within themselves. And those clashing emotions and values can materialize from any number of sources.

They can include fear, desire, insecurity, indecisiveness, a sense of responsibility, a set of expectations and many more. It's common that a combination of such internal factors will often play into the internal conflict.

Internal conflicts can be very relatable because we all go through them on a daily basis. They can seem as silly as choosing whether to have fast food or a decent meal, or as serious as whether or not you're going to break up with your long-time partner. The epic scale of internal conflict is felt across all genres, where large and small stakes can be equally important.

Examples of Internal Conflict

Probably the most famous internal conflict of all time comes from none other than William Shakespeare. In his play Hamlet, the titular character's indecision as to whether or not to commit suicide is perhaps the most consequential internal conflict of all. Hamlet's iconic "To Be or Not to Be" monologue is emblematic of his main character flaw, indecisiveness.

But one can pull excellent examples of internal conflict from pop culture. Take, for instance, the struggle Luke Skywalker faces in the classic Star Wars film Return of the Jedi. When confronting his father Darth Vader, the Emperor Palpatine tempts him to unleash his hate and turn to the dark side of The Force. This choice between good and evil defines him.

In television, one can see the internal struggle the character Kim Wexler faces in Better Call Saul. Kim is an ethical lawyer who is romantically involved with the unscrupulous Jimmy McGill. Over and over, she finds herself either choosing to join Jimmy in his illegal schemes or opposing them. Her story arc falls upon the consequences of her choices.

Using Internal Conflict in Storytelling

When adding internal conflict to your writing or film, remember that the audience can't read a character's mind. There are two ways to help make that connection. The first is through exposition. A character can vocally express their misgivings, as Hamlet does in that famous speech. This can come through in dialogue, perhaps when a character seeks advice.

Storytellers can also have characters express their internal conflict through action. Think of a scene where a character is supposed to kill someone. We see them point the gun, and then, they put the gun away and leave, sparing the victim. Here, the audience sees the internal conflict with no word spoken. Visual cues are extremely effective in transmitting internal conflict. Consider physical acting examples like facial expressions, trembling, posture and more telling body language which can speak to a conflicting reaction to a situation.

External Conflict: Here Comes the World

External conflict is when a character is faced with an opposing force coming at them from outside of themselves. These sorts of conflicts can be more visceral than internal conflicts, engaging audiences in a more tactile way. Everything from natural forces to human antagonists can be examples of the challenges characters struggle to overcome. Coming up against external conflict requires choices that are almost always action-oriented, and as such, lend themselves to exciting scenes.

Since external conflict can take any form, it's important to both welcome their broadness and temper their scope. The most common type of external conflict comes by way of other people. Think of a clash between kings or just two office workers competing for a promotion.

Nature also provides external conflict, such as coming across an aggressive dog or driving through a hurricane. In fiction, even supernatural forces can come into play, adding another dimension to the character's journey.

Navigating the resolution of external conflict is often employed in the formation of the hero. Taking on what seems like overwhelming odds over a power you do not control makes for a rousing story arc.

These are the types of narratives that most often have audiences cheering, providing the greatest thrill. Balancing these types of conflicts can help retain the punch they pack; a little external conflict can go a long way.

Examples of External Conflict

The history of external conflict in storytelling is truly epic. One can find it way back in Greek mythology and the great hero Hercules. His fabled Twelve Labors had him physically taking one external conflict after another. Battling mythical beasts and questing for magical items proved Hercules' strength to the gods – his main goal. By overcoming these external obstacles, he defined his character.

Fast forward to modern horror films for more examples. In the movie Us, a family is confronted by a violent group of doppelgängers. Adelaide Wilson, the mother in the family, is forced to physically defend her husband and children from these terrifying intruders. In the course of doing so, Adelaide learns something about her past and who she really is.

A more conventional example of external conflict can be found in the television show Billions. Billionaire Bobby Axelrod is up against U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes' attempts to regulate his business. Bobby's conflict has him making unethical to illegal choices fueled by his thirst for financial conquest. Representing law enforcement, Chuck is the external agent of Bobby's struggle.

Using External Conflict in Storytelling

External conflict is often used as a grandiose way of providing a proving ground for a character's actions. Whether it's overcoming a zombie apocalypse, searching through rubble for survivors of an earthquake, or just a simple boxing match, audiences can see exactly what a protagonist or antagonist is facing right away.

While many of these external forces aren't something audiences run into in real life, they can be a reflection of everything from news stories to sporting events which they are all familiar with. As such, they are readily employed as an epic backdrop for the character's journey.

When the external conflict is more personal or common, the storyteller has to make the stakes more relatable. Consider the case of a clash between friends or perhaps contending with an unfair boss. Folks confront situations like this all the time and can end up literally seeing themselves up on a screen.

While it may seem easier to root for somebody fighting off a hungry shark in a horror movie, a deft writer and director can emotionally draw in the audience with more pedestrian struggles. Not having enough money, being rejected by a lover and other common occurrences can be very powerful external conflicts that will effectively engage audiences.

Blending Internal and External Conflict: The Best of Both Worlds

If you pay close attention, virtually every narrative will employ a mix of both internal and external conflicts. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the titular character at first has the internal conflict of whether or not to murder his king, and later faces the external threat of being punished for his deed.

In the Hollywood spectacle 2012, the main character Jackson Curtis has to deal with the external threat of outrunning natural disasters. But he also faces the internal conflict of choosing who he will rescue and who he will leave behind.

By understanding the difference between internal and external conflict, storytellers can balance both to engage audiences on multiple levels. On the one hand, they can face both familiar and unfamiliar scenarios where they can see where a character's choices will lead them in the real world.

Think of a house on fire: The character must choose to escape the flames. The external conflict is clear, they either stay and burn or leave and survive. Existential conflicts like this one are straightforward and relatable, even if the audience has never experienced a fire in their own lives. It is purely an external conflict since the fire lives outside of the character’s mind.

Now on the other hand, the storyteller can go inside a character's thoughts and empathize with how hard it is to decide what to do, even in such a stark life and death situation, by simply adding an internal conflict to the situation. Think back to the character in the fire. Suddenly, they recall they left behind their cat and a new element of internal conflict.

Consider the internal conflict being faced by the character. Returning to the fire could kill them. But should they risk it to save their beloved companion? An inner moral and emotional high-stakes choice must be made. You see the anguish in their face, dithering between exiting and turning back, unsure what to do. By skillfully blending both internal and external conflict, your story will be one to remember.

Ready to Write

Now that you’ve got a better idea of internal and external conflicts in storytelling, it’s time to get your feet wet in the process. Whatever story you’re all set to let loose on the world, keeping these lessons in mind will enhance those plans. Remember: your characters already have conflicts. But now you’re more prepared to really roadmap them.

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