Every great story hinges on conflict.
Think about it. In every compelling story—whether it be a novel, fairytale, movie, play, etc.—the plot only occurs because your individual characters have problems. The conflict is the story, the driving force moving plot forward.
There are two different types of core conflict in fiction: internal and external conflicts. However, for beginning writers especially, one type of conflict often gets the brunt of the attention while the other can be overlooked or left out completely.
Here’s what you need to know about both types of conflict, how they contribute to your character arc, and how to make them work together for the most compelling stories possible.
The difference between internal and external conflict
External conflict refers to the problems happening outside of your central character: a monster, a villain, a social injustice.
Internal conflict refers to the problems or conflict happening inside your character: addiction, uncertainty, fear. The most effective stories will incorporate both types of conflict to give nuance to the character development and plot.
Think of external vs. internal conflict like this: External conflict is the monster waiting in the woods to fight your protagonist. It’s the villainous corporation tearing down the town park to build a mall. It’s the hurricane that’s approaching your character’s home. Meanwhile, internal conflict is your character’s secret fear that they can’t possibly overcome the monster. It’s their shame that they might actually like the idea of a new mall coming to town. It’s their struggle to evacuate knowing their home might be destroyed.
Depending on the particular story, either the external or internal conflict will be more important. One of them might be a secondary conflict. However, you always need both to move your story forward.
Uncovering a story’s external conflicts
External conflict always stems from outside forces working against your character; however, that’s really where the rules end. This major conflict can be really anything your character conflicts with.
External primary conflict (as well as secondary, minor conflicts) can appear in a few ways. Interpersonal conflict comes from other characters whose goals are in direct opposition with the protagonist’s goal. Social conflict comes from antagonistic or oppressive influences in the protagonist’s culture, political landscape, or community.
Your external conflict might also come from the environment or natural disasters (this is known as nature conflict), supernatural forces or beings, or even the main character’s destiny.
You can take a deeper look at all these different types of conflicts here.
Uncovering a story’s internal conflicts
Internal conflict, meanwhile, must come from within your character’s mind. Think about how often you might deal with your own internal conflicts or internal battles on a regular basis, in real life.
Do you go home to visit your parents for the weekend, even though you know it’s bad for your mental health, or do you deal with the guilt of telling them ‘no’? Do you indulge in the pint of ice cream to alleviate your feelings of stress in the moment, or do you go for a run, even though it’s the last thing you want to do?
Internal conflict obstacles arise when a character’s inner wants or needs go against what they’re trying to achieve. Sources of internal conflict include one’s own morality or philosophical beliefs, one’s background and past experiences, one’s changing identity, one’s self-image, etc.
In most cases, internal conflict is linked to what some writers call a character’s “thorn.” What’s the thorn in your character’s side that nags at them, day in and day out, making their life difficult? The “thorn” impacts everything your character does, because they’re constantly trying to escape the uncomfortable feeling it causes (whether or not they consciously realize it).
Here’s an example: let’s say a character’s thorn is that they believe that they’ll never be good enough, because that’s what a parental figure always told them. They may think they’re over this verbal abuse and may have gone no-contact with the parental figure, but they still find themselves developing perfectionist tendencies in order to “prove” that they’re good enough. They can’t deal with criticism in the slightest. They don’t take chances if they know there’s a strong chance they could fail, they don’t engage in risky behavior, and they never let anyone see their weaknesses.
However, suddenly, something arises in this character’s life that requires them to make a chance, to be vulnerable, and to risk failure. Thus, internal conflict is born.
How to connect internal and external conflicts
You’ll need to balance internal and external conflict if you truly want to create believable, interesting, layered characters and plot lines. After all, no one’s life is all external conflict and no internal conflict, or vice versa. Conflict arises, every day, both internally and externally.
That said, you don’t want to just decide to give your character an external problem and a completely unrelated, separate internal problem, and call it a day. The problems should be linked and work together in cohesion.
Here are a few ways to go about it.
1. Use the cause-and-effect approach
One of the easiest ways external and internal conflicts are combined in modern stories? One causes the other. Usually it’s the external forces causing the internal conflict, but not always; you add external conflict that drives your character’s related internal struggle.
Maybe your character’s external problem is that they need money. They have no job and are down on their luck, but there’s a pressing need for cash ASAP because rent is due or there’s a sick family member, a debt collector has come calling, etc. They know that they could make some quick money in an unsavory manner, but that would go against their core moral beliefs—and there’s your internal conflict.
In contrast, maybe your character’s internal conflicts come first. Let’s say that they think that they might be in love with their neighbor. Nothing in the external world has changed for them, but they just woke up one day, glimpsed him outside the window, and now they think that they’re in love. Unfortunately, the neighbor is married and that presents character-on-character external conflict for your protagonist, and so they spend the remainder of the plot trying to get rid of the poor, unsuspecting spouse.
2. Make one type of conflict stand in the way of solving the other
While you can’t have a plot without conflict, you also can’t have a plot if your character isn’t actively trying to overcome or escape that conflict. Because of this, one way that you can interweave internal and external conflict is by ensuring that one stands in the way of the other.
For example, maybe your main character’s main source of external conflict is that they need to win a big promotion at work in order to pay for their upcoming wedding. However, they really don’t want to spend all that much on a big, fancy wedding, as dropping such a large amount of cash on a frivolous affair scares them, but they’re going through with it because of their spouse-to-be.
So, their internal conflict keeps them from really going for the promotion, but then that causes their fiancé to doubt their loyalty, which then, of course, causes more external conflict. In this case, only one conflict can be resolved.
On the flip side, maybe your character’s main source of internal conflict is that they feel that they can’t trust anyone around them due to their past. They’re working on resolving these issues in therapy, but then external conflict blows up in their face—their partner has been cheating on them, their boss lied to them, and their dog has been stealing their socks and hiding them under the couch for weeks. All this external conflict just proves to them that they can’t overcome their internal conflict.
3. Make solving one type of conflict worsen the other conflict
But let’s say that you’re actually nice to your characters one day and decide that, rather than making their lives worse, you’re going to let them solve either their external or internal conflict—except that in doing so, the other type of conflict in their life is going to worsen as a result (okay, so maybe you’re not being all that nice).
Maybe your main character, who has been struggling to fix their marriage (aka, external character-on-character conflict) throughout the entirety of the plot, finally overcomes their childhood-derived self-doubt and gains new self-love and confidence… but in doing so, drives away their spouse who doesn’t like the new-and-improved them.
Maybe your main character, who has been struggling with their personal dark side, finally overcomes their external conflict, winning the big showdown against their arch-nemesis… but in doing so, they take things a little too far and unleash the full wrath of their darkest behavior. The balance of conflict has been tipped.
4. Make solving one type of conflict inadvertently solve the other type of conflict
In contrast to the above, you can also make it so that solving the internal conflict resolves the external conflict or vice versa. This is a much simpler method and one that is often used to strengthen themes that deal with looking inward in order to solve external problems.
For example, a main character might be internally conflicted about whether they want to stay in their small town and take over the family business, or chase their big-city dreams; meanwhile, their external problem is that their small town announced it won’t be putting on its annual fall festival, which is its main source of tourism business, due to lack of resources. As such, your main character decides to rally the other local businesses together to save the town’s fall fest, and, in doing so, discovers they really love the area and want to stay.
Or maybe your main character, who has been struggling with their personal dark side, finally overcomes their external conflict and wins the big showdown against their arch-nemesis—and they discover that they have the strength to overcome anything. If they can take down the bad guy, they can take down their own personal demons.
Examples of stories that blend internal and external conflict effectively
So what are some great examples of stories that successfully blend internal and external conflict? While many novels do this, here are a few specific examples you might already be familiar with.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
In The Hunger Games the central conflict is pretty apparent, and this external conflict occurs right away. Our main character Katniss Everdeen must enter the Games and fight against other competitors who are trying to kill her.
However, this book is not without its fair share of internal struggles, including moral conflict. Katniss deals with her guilt over participating in the Games, wrestling with her own feelings about what she needs to do to win, and even her romantic feelings as she begins to fall for fellow competitor Peeta—while also using the relationship as a strategic advantage.
These internal conflicts affect the decisions that Katniss makes throughout the Games as she attempts to balance both her external and internal conflict, and the ways in which solving one of them (the external, or winning the Games) would likely worsen the other (her guilt and inability to adhere to her moral code).
The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
In the first Lord of the Rings book, protagonist Frodo is tasked with carrying the Ring. This directly causes his external conflict, as suddenly his life is threatened by those who wish to take the Ring for their own. However, Frodo must also resist his own desires to use the Ring himself, causing an internal conflict. This is an example of how external conflict can lead to a character’s internal conflict, and both the external and internal conflict tie in with the book’s theme of good vs. evil.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
In the first Harry Potter book, we see how a character can work toward overcoming both types of story conflict concurrently over an entire novel. The source of Harry’s external conflict is Voldemort’s attempts to acquire the sorcerer’s stone. Meanwhile, the internal conflict is Harry’s self-doubt and feeling like he doesn’t belong. However, as Harry works toward solving his external conflict, he’s inadvertently working toward solving his internal conflict, too, by creating a place for himself at Hogwarts, growing his skills, and believing in himself.
Story conflict occurs in many layers
Conflict drives every good story, and both types of character conflicts are necessary to create well-rounded, interesting characters and plot lines. Whether your characters are driven by external forces or fragile morality, you’ll find that incorporating conflict in several layers will make your writing even more engaging.
Not sure what kind of conflict you want to add to your story? Check out our 50-plus plot archetypes to get your creative juices flowing.