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The key to any story is a good conflict. But, there are two kinds of conflict- internal, and external. Sure, a story can get away with only having external conflict. But, great stories have both, and they’re interconnected. Internal growth drives external conflict, and character growth deepens your readers’ connection to your story. So, let’s talk about internal vs. external conflict.
What is External Conflict?
Your story has a protagonist. That protagonist should have a goal. A goal like, “I want to find and marry the love of my life,” or “I want to escape from prison and reunite with my family.” Your story tells the reader how the protagonist achieves their goal. External conflict is all the stuff that happens to your character. It’s the stuff that gets in the way of them achieving their goal.
So, that handsome man who wants to find and marry the love of his life? Maybe he gets into a car accident and his face is disfigured. Now, his girlfriend who he was sure was ‘the one’ can’t bear the sight of him. She leaves a ‘Dear John’ letter on his nightstand and he never sees her again. The car accident and your character’s disfigurement are the story’s external conflicts.
How is external conflict represented in a narrative?
Your external conflict will emerge through events in the plot. Typically these are the things that are outside your protagonist’s control. When I think of external conflict my mind conjures an image of rocks falling down a cliff and onto a roadside. If you’re in a car driving beneath those falling rocks then you’re in for some trouble, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
If you’re a writer looking for external conflict then you need to come up with a way to drop some rocks on your protagonists head. Figuratively or literally.
The four types of external conflict:
Character vs Character
Character vs Nature
Character vs Machine
Character vs Society
Now, for the other type of conflict.
What is Internal Conflict?
You still have that protagonist with a goal in mind. But, rather than physical obsticals, internal conflicts are all the ways your character gets in their own way when pursuing their goal. Internal conflict takes place inside your character’s mind.
Let’s talk go back to our boy who’s searching for the love of his life. Internally what is getting in the way of him reaching his goal? Well, because he was so handsome, before the accident, he was vain and he found himself attracted to woman only based on their looks. That’s why it only took a single flaw, his disfigurement, to send his fiance running for the hills. Turns out, she was just as vain as he was.
And now, with the loss of his looks, he no longer values himself as a person. His internal conflict was always there, but it was brought to the surface by events in the plot.
How is internal conflict represented in a narrative
Internal conflict is going to come through in your characterization. What are your character’s personality flaws? Is your character vain and shallow? Are they sheltered and fearful? How do these negative traits hold them back from achieving their goal? These are the personality traits that your character will need to overcome by the end of your story.
How are internal and external conflict related?
As we saw in the example of the man looking for the love of his life, external conflict should bring out your character’s internal shortcomings. They probably won’t realize they have a problem until your story’s inciting event. So, external conflict highlights internal conflict. But, your protagonist shouldn’t be able to overcome the external conflicts of your story without first conquering their inner demons. Loverboy shouldn’t connect with his soulmate until he realizes that there are more things to life then just looks.
Why are internal and external conflict important in a story?
External conflict is important because it’s what makes your story exciting. External conflict is your antagonist. It’s the major plot points of your story, the building tension. External conflict is when the deranged psychopath stabs a knife through the closet door.
External conflict also forces your protagonist to make decisions, to take action, to overcome their internal conflict. And why is internal conflict important? A reader will empathize with a character who has some inner demons to conquer.
But, let’s look at a real example of how internal and external conflict can play out in a story. I’m using the 1991 Christmas classic Home Alone. What can I say- I’m a millennial, I know this movie backward and forward.
Example of internal and external conflicts in Home Alone
The protagonist of Home Alone is Kevin McCallister a trouble-making, eleven-year-old boy with some serious family issues. Now, let’s take a look at his internal and external conflicts.
Kevin’s internal conflict
So, what inner demon could an eleven-year-old possibly need to conquer? Well, Kevin hates his family. He doesn’t want them around and he doesn’t think he needs them. Think back to the first act of the movie. Kevin complains about having to share a room with his cousin, he gets into a fight with his brother, and he alienates his entire family over a cheese pizza.
What’s the last thing Kevin says before the movie’s inciting event?
“I wish my family would disappear.”
So, let’s define Kevin’s internal conflict- Kevin does not value the love and support of his family and he’d rather live a life of solitude.
Kevin’s external conflict
When Kevin’s family mistakingly abandons him at home as they depart on an extended vacation, we have an external conflict. This is a genius external conflict because the writer has tricked Kevin into thinking he’s just gotten exactly what he wants. His family has disappeared.
And at first, Kevin is capable of handling himself. Sure, he has a few problems at the grocery store, and he’s terrified of the basement, but overall he does fine. Even better, he now has the freedom to eat copious amounts of ice cream and watch Gangster movies.
Trouble for Kevin starts when two would-be cat burglars show up to rob Kevin’s family home. But, even here Kevin devises a clever set of booby traps to try and thwart the robbers. And he does okay, for a while. Eventually, Kevin finds himself in over his head and cornered by the two criminals.
Resolving the conflicts
Writer, director John Hughes resolves both Kevin’s internal and external conflict in a clever way. He uses Kevin’s relationship with Old Man Marley to bring both conflicts to a satisfying conclusion.
Marley is the old man who lives on the same street as Kevin. Kevin’s first encounter with Marley is a frightening one as his brother, Buzz, tells Kevin that Marley lives alone because he murdered his family. Marley looms over Kevin throughout the narrative until the boy decides to face his fear of the old man and confronts him on Christmas Eve.
Marley explains to Kevin that he didn’t kill his family. Instead, Marley had a fight with his son telling him he never wanted to see him again. Does this remind us of anyone? Marley is Kevin’s future. This point is not lost on our protagonist.
(By the way, Hughes is clearly alluding to A Christmas Carol here with Kevin standing in as Scrooge while a ghostly figure named Marley warns Kevin not to make the same mistakes he did. Both Marleys even appear on Christmas Eve. Post that one on r/moviedetails, ya filthy animals!)
Marley later saves Kevin from being ostensibly murdered by the two burglars- Jeez, now that I think about it that’s a dark twist for a kids movie- Marley takes the robbers out with his trusty snow shovel and whisks Kevin to safety.
Kevin and Marley’s separate arcs resolve when they reunite with their estranged families reinforcing the theme of the movie: Family = important. If there’s a lesson to be learned from any of this it’s that John Hughes was a freaking genius.
Okay, let’s talk resources, wrap this thing up and get the hell out of here.
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
I just finished reading this writer’s manual. It’s amazing and there’s a whole chapter on conflict that inspired me to write this post. If you haven’t already read it, what are you doing? Use that link above and pick up your copy!