Opposing Forces: Internal vs. External Conflict
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read

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When reflecting on our own lives, it becomes evident that our personal journeys are shaped by overcoming various types of conflicts. The conflict type can vary based on the situation. It can be a moral conflict, psychological conflict, physical conflict, societal conflict, or all of the above, play a significant role in shaping our character arcs and defining who we are. They can manifest as contention with others, external forces, or even conflicting ideas within our own minds. Indeed, conflict lies at the heart of our personal growth, continuously influencing and molding our identities.

These conflicts come in different forms, ranging from seemingly mundane situations like navigating traffic to profound moral dilemmas, such as grappling with the decision to come clean to a close friend about a lie. With each decision and confrontation, we undergo an evolution. It is the opposing forces we encounter and how we face them that ultimately make or break us.

In the realm of literature, conflicts serve as the central driving force behind narratives. Whether it is the primary conflict that propels the plot or secondary conflicts that add depth and complexity to the story, they all contribute to our understanding of the human condition. These conflicts can manifest externally through direct confrontations or internally through mental struggles and identity conflicts.

It is through our encounters with conflict, both large and small, that we navigate the external and internal struggles that shape us. The way we approach and resolve these conflicts defines our character and determines our growth. Embracing the challenges that arise in our lives allows us to confront the complexities of the human experience and develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

Conflict: The Essence of Narrative

conflict 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

Internal Conflict

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 in literature 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.

These examples demonstrate the power of internal conflict in literature and storytelling, as characters wrestle with their own beliefs, emotions, and choices. Whether it is Shakespeare's introspective dilemmas, the internal battles of iconic characters like Luke Skywalker and Kim Wexler, or the profound psychological conflicts explored by authors like Margaret Atwood, internal conflicts add depth, complexity, and relatability to narratives, allowing audiences to delve into the rich inner worlds of characters and ponder the complexities of the human psyche.

Using Internal Conflict in Storytelling

When delving into character development within your writing or film, it's crucial to remember that the audience can't directly read a character's mind. However, two powerful methods can bridge this gap and effectively convey internal conflict. The first method involves exposition, where characters articulate their religious conflicts, misgivings or inner struggles against societal norms. This technique may remind one of the iconic soliloquy delivered by Hamlet, wherein he openly deliberates his doubts and fears. By employing dialogue, characters can seek advice or engage in introspective conversations, thus providing the audience with valuable insights into their internal conflicts.

Additionally, internal conflict can be effectively portrayed through action. Picture a scene where a central character, battling their own principles and societal norms, is faced with the daunting task of taking someone's life. Initially, we witness them pointing the gun, but instead of following through, they ultimately decide to holster the weapon and spare the intended victim. This silent struggle is visually depicted, offering the audience a profound glimpse into the character's inner turmoil. Visual cues like facial expressions, trembling, posture, and other body language can communicate conflicting reactions to a given situation, showcasing the character's development over time.

In the realm of storytelling, conflicts manifest in various forms, with each type of conflict having its own significance in shaping the narrative. The central conflict stands as the primary challenge or obstacle that the characters face. This core conflict serves as the driving force of the plot, propelling the story forward and generating tension.

In the context of ongoing conflict, which persists throughout the narrative, internal conflicts play a pivotal role. These internal conflicts occur within a character's mind and heart, often pitting their desires, beliefs, or emotions against each other. Exploring these inner struggles enables storytellers to add layers of complexity to the central character, making them more relatable and captivating for the audience. Internal conflicts can arise from moral dilemmas, personal dilemmas, conflicting goals, or unresolved emotions.

External Conflict: Here Comes the World

External Conflict

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, spanning across various literary works and forms of media. From Greek mythology, where the great hero Hercules faced a series of external conflicts in his Twelve Labors, to modern horror films like Us, where Adelaide Wilson confronts violent doppelgängers, external conflicts have played a pivotal role in defining characters and driving narratives.

In the realm of literature, iconic characters like Atticus Finch from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Winston Smith from George Orwell's 1984 face direct conflicts against oppressive systems and ideologies. Atticus Finch, a lawyer, confronts the deep-rooted racial injustice of his society, fighting for justice and equality. Winston Smith, a citizen of a totalitarian regime, rebels against the oppressive government's control over individual freedom and expression. Through their struggles, these characters embody the resilience and determination to challenge the status quo and fight for what they believe in.

Another notable example of external conflict can be found in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy, where Katniss Everdeen confronts the tyrannical Capitol in a deadly fight for survival. Her direct conflicts against the oppressive regime become a catalyst for rebellion and inspire hope among the oppressed districts.

These examples showcase how external conflicts shape the trajectories of characters and narratives, highlighting the enduring power of direct conflicts in storytelling. Whether through physical battles, legal challenges, or ideological clashes, these conflicts create tension, propel the plot forward, and offer deeper insights into the human condition.

Using External Conflict in Storytelling

External conflict is often employed as a grandiose mechanism, providing a proving ground for a character's actions against external struggles. This could be them overcoming a zombie apocalypse, scouring through rubble for survivors of an earthquake, or engaged in a simple boxing match. These scenarios allow audiences to instantly understand what a protagonist or antagonist is facing.

Although many of these external forces aren't situations audiences encounter in real life, they often mirror everything from news stories to sporting events, making them familiar and thus, readily used as an epic backdrop for the character's journey towards the meaning of life or other goals.

When the external conflict is more personal or common, such as political conflict or a person Vs. society scenario, the storyteller must craft stakes that are more relatable. Take, for instance, a clash between friends or contending with an unfair boss. These are situations people confront regularly, and they could end up seeing their own struggles reflected on the screen.

While it might seem easier to root for somebody fighting off a hungry shark in a horror movie, a skilled writer and director can emotionally engage the audience with more everyday struggles. Dealing with insufficient funds, experiencing rejection from a lover, and other common occurrences can serve as potent external conflicts that will effectively engage audiences. The power of strong conflict can turn these seemingly pedestrian struggles into compelling storytelling.

Blending Internal and External Conflict: The Best of Both Worlds

Internal and External Conflict

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 gained a better understanding of the various forms of conflict—both internal and external—in storytelling, as well as how to identify and differentiate between different types of conflict, it's time to dive into the process and unleash your story upon the world. By incorporating these valuable lessons into your writing, you can enhance your plans and create a truly compelling story.

Remember, your characters already possess conflicts within them. However, armed with the knowledge of different forms and types of conflict, you are now better prepared to map out their journeys. This roadmap will guide you in weaving a narrative that captivates your audience, evokes emotions, and keeps them eagerly turning the pages or glued to the screen.

Explore Daisie's myriad of film recordings that delve into filmmaking, screenwriting and storytelling all while exploring themes of internal and external conflict. Some of the best minds in the arts are gathered here to share their knowledge and help you grow as an artist in your own right.