What is External Conflict? (with Examples and Writing Tips)
External conflict is the struggle between a protagonist and something in the outside world. It could be against an antagonist, society, nature, technology, or the supernatural. Defined in opposition to internal conflict, any type of ‘fight’ that exists outside the character’s head is external conflict.
In this post, we’ll look at external conflict's role in good writing, giving you some prime examples of the literary device at work — while also dropping some writing tips from top writers and editors.
So, what does external conflict do for us, anyway?
External conflict is at the heart of every story
One way to put it is that a story’s external conflict is its story. It’s the obstacle that needs to be overcome or the resistance our hero is up against to achieve their goals. In most Western story models, the catalyst or inciting incident of a plot often arrives as a real-world threat to the protagonist’s way of life, which drives our hero into taking action. It’s the evil oil baron arriving in town to scare off the locals or an ancient spirit that has started haunting a school for orphans.
Ultimately, adding in an element of external conflict is what gives a story substance and stakes. Almost immediately after Luke Skywalker is tasked with saving Princess Leia, he learns what lies in his way: the evil Darth Vader — the man who killed his father. If Vader didn’t exist as the primary source of external conflict, then Star Wars would be the story of a farm boy who went to collect a princess from a space station.
Example: The Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel finds a Harvard academic searching for the Holy Grail. But without some sort of stakes, this book could easily read like a sleepy travelogue interspersed with lectures about the Crusades. Thankfully, a zealous monk belonging to an extremist faction of the Catholic Church is also after the Grail — and willing to kill anyone who gets in their way!
By adding an institutional foe (The Church) personified by an active threat (the murderous monk), Brown turns a treasure hunt into a high-octane chase story that keeps his readers on their toes.
Tip: Where possible, have your antagonist be a character
When your character is up against an abstract enemy — social pressure, the environment, fate — it is often best to channel that conflict through an actual character. You ideally want someone your protagonist can argue or reason with.
Let’s say your protagonist is wrongly convicted of a crime and up against an uncaring criminal justice system. Your antagonist should be someone who represents that system. Maybe they’re:
- A relentless US marshall who’s only doing their job
- A district attorney looking to impress their boss by securing high-profile convictions
- A police detective who just wants to clear their caseload and get a promotion
- A lobbyist for the prison industrial complex
Where possible, you want to put a human face on your hero’s adversary — otherwise, they’ll spend most of the book screaming into the wind instead of tackling the conflict head-on. This idea of personifying an abstract conflict is twice as important if your story’s main struggle is happening between your protagonist’s ears.
It brings internal conflict into the real world
Our last post mentioned how internal conflict is a narrative's true heart. While it’s true that most stories hinge on whether a protagonist can find it in them to change their worldview or attitude, internal conflict alone isn’t always enough to get readers invested. Unless this transformation in our hero’s inner life is reflected by their actions and behaviors, the story will be trapped inside the character’s head.
A story’s main external conflict should ideally take the character’s internal conflict and dramatize it by adding real-world stakes.
Example: The Godfather
A character’s true colors will usually come out when they’re faced with a decision that tempts them to break their strongly held beliefs. In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Michael Corleone is the ‘good son’ of the family. Having returned from WWII, Michael is torn between his personal desire to stay out of ‘the business’ and his culturally-ingrained sense of obligation to his family. To get him to the point where one of those ideals has to give way, Puzo creates a situation where Michael has to choose between surrendering his reputation as a moral man by executing a rival mobster and a corrupt police captain — or putting his family’s safety at risk.
In this situation, your characters will become fully dimensional as they struggle between staying the person they thought they were… or becoming the person they need to be.
Tip: Push your character out of their comfort zone
If you’re ever looking to create conflict in your story, don’t just make your characters encounter thugs with guns or the threat of nuclear annihilation. Those sorts of conflicts are overplayed and so generic that almost nobody can truly identify with them. Instead, think about your character’s defining traits — what they are comfortable with — and put them in a situation where they are uniquely unprepared to deal with it.
A terribly shy accountant who must run away from the police? Dull.
A terribly shy accountant who must publicly confront her company’s CEO? Now that’s interesting!
To bring a character’s interior journey into the real world of the story, their internal conflict will usually be mirrored by an external conflict that tests their attitude or belief system.
It gets the reader to question a character’s motives and choices
The antagonizing force in a story often serves as a foil to the main character — testing their morality, worldview, and resolve by opposing the hero of our story.
In stories where the protagonist and antagonist are at direct odds with each other, the characters should be sufficiently balanced so as to allow us to consider both characters' perspectives. If we’re looking at a crime caper where a detective is solving a bank heist, you may wish to give the burglar a good reason for committing their crime. Then you can start to play in some interesting waters: is a thief who steals to save their child less noble than a cop who’s working to serve a corrupt system for the benefit of a soulless bank?
There are also antagonists who represent two sides of the same coin. The villain in many stories will often have the same objective as our hero, though their approaches to achieving that goal are vastly different. This usually sets up an interesting conundrum for the protagonist — whether achieving their goal is worth the price they have to pay. It also invites us as readers to reflect on what’s most important, a character’s end goal or the route they take to get there.
Example: The Prestige
Spoiler alert! The question at the heart of the 2005 adaption of Christopher Priest’s novel is, “How far are you willing to go to get what you want?” The story centers on rival magicians in the Victorian era — both in pursuit of a grand illusion that sees a man instantly transported across a theater.
As their rivalry grows more intense, we discover the lengths they will go to pull off this single trick: Borden, one of the magicians, turns out to be a pair of twins who each live half a life in order to preserve the trick’s secret. Angiers, the other magician, has found a way to clone himself on stage every night before instantly killing the ‘original’ to ensure that there’s only one of him at any given time.
Angiers and ‘Borden’ are set up as parallel protagonists, which allows the audience to be behind both of them, to an extent. We support Angiers in his quest to create this trick, but it’s only over the course of the story that we realize the grisly and immoral sacrifices that he is willing to make.
By having an antagonist who serves as a ‘funhouse mirror’ version of the protagonist, the reader is asked to consider: is our hero in the right? and Are they going about things the right way?
And that concludes our guide to conflict in literature. Remember that conflict is at the heart of storytelling the next time you read or write any piece of fiction. It will drive your plot, provide your characters with motives, and give your readers something to be excited about.