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Conflict is inevitable in life. It's part of being human. And that's why conflict in fiction can also be used to create powerful stories. Conflict is often the catalyst for change, and we want to see a change in a character arc in any given story.
When issues arise, there are two main types of conflict: external and internal. External conflict occurs between people or groups. Internal conflict occurs within a person or group.
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Strong screenplays and novels are built off the interplay of compelling conflict, both internal and external. A story with only external conflict might feel shallow and full of action just for action's sake, while a story with primarily internal conflict might feel too cerebral and not exciting enough.
Below, I explain how to write a story with conflict, using some core conflict types and examples of story conflicts in film and television.
Internal conflict is a struggle occurring psychologically within a character. Internal conflict can be caused by a variety of real-life factors, including fear, anger, jealousy, greed, envy, pride, shame, guilt, resentment, love, or a moral conflict.
Internal conflict can be tricky for writers to get the hang of. Too much internal conflict can have a protagonist acting very passively while things happen around or to them without them taking any agency. Internal conflict done right can be great for building characterization and aiding in drama.
Here are some great examples of internal conflict in film and television:
Screenplay by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna
The protagonist, Rebecca Bunch, experiences internal conflict in a way that is often comedic, musical, and totally innovative. Rebecca struggles with work, life, relationship issues, and a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Her feelings and conflicts are often expressed through musical numbers in this musical dramedy.
Screenplay by Jim Uhls
This movie famously takes The Narrator's internal conflict and explodes it into a walking talking external manifestation. At the beginning of the film, the audience learns via voice-over that The Narrator is unfulfilled in his monotonous normal life. The film's plot has him meeting the charismatic and anarchic Tyler Durden, who brings The Narrator into a fight club, which injects action, chaos, and destruction into The Narrator's dull days. It's only at the end of the film we learn that SPOILER Tyler Durden is actually a manifestation of The Narrator's internal conflicts.
Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Joss Whedon, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow
In a film that features a world where toys are sentient and aware of their existence as playthings, one in denial of his identity drives the plot forward. Buzz Lightyear's internal conflict of not believing he's a toy but an actual space ranger plays into every scene that he's in. In turn, Buzz's internal conflict is a driving factor for Woody, as he strives throughout the movie to convince Buzz that he is, in fact, a toy.
In literary terms, external conflict is when outside forces oppose a character's interests. That could be a single conflict with a single antagonist or several secondary conflicts. External conflict is usually easier to identify because it involves other people and is the primary conflict in a story. Internal conflict is harder to spot because it's happening inside of you.
The major conflict is more closely associated with the film's overall plot, driving the story forward. External conflict is most easily thought of as an obstacle in the central character's way. These obstacles can take many shapes and forms, such as other characters, animals, nature, society, technology, the supernatural, or even the passage of time. Sometimes, all of these obstacles fold up into a larger conflict theme. Supernatural forces, nature conflicts, person versus person conflicts, and person versus society conflicts are most commonly found in films.
Here are some examples of external conflicts in movies and TV shows:
Screenplay by David Koepp and Michael Crichton
The external conflict in "Jurassic Park" is, of course, the dinosaurs escaping and threatening the characters' lives. It's an example of a person versus nature conflict, which is a common type of conflict that can be seen in other films such as "Jaws," "The Birds," and "Cujo."
Screenplay by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray
The first and second Hunger Games movies primarily feature character vs. character external conflict. The contestants of the Hunger Games must kill each other until there is only one victor, so the individual characters pose a physical threat to one another. While the other movies feature aspects of people vs. society, the third movie further utilizes this as a form of conflict. Hunger Games winners have joined the rebellion against the society that instituted the concept of the games in the first place. Other films that feature similar forms of external conflicts include "The Maze Runner" franchise, "The Divergent" franchise, and "Battle Royale."
Created by Robert Kirkman
For a post-apocalyptic television show about life after a zombie outbreak, this series has utilized many different types of supernatural conflicts to drive the show well into its 11th and final season. There are the people vs. the supernatural, in the form of the constant threat of zombies infecting and killing everyone, type of conflict. There are threats from other human beings over supplies, space, and way of life representing people vs. people. There are people vs. society as characters fight against rivals who are forming societies they disagree with. TV shows tend to explore all sorts of internal and external conflict, as all conflict drives a show through multiple seasons.
Hopefully, these examples demonstrated the importance of both types of conflict in stories. Both forms of conflict are needed to make for an exciting movie with dynamic and relatable characters. Next time you're watching a movie or TV show or reading a book, pay attention and pick out the external and internal conflicts you see! Happy writing!