According to Robert McKee, “writers who cannot grasp the truth of our transitory existence, who have been misled by the counterfeit comforts of the modern world, who believe that life is easy once you know how to play the game, give conflict a false inflection.” (2020, pg. 210).
As screenwriters, it is crucial we grasp the role of conflict in our scripts and how they drive our stories forward. Without conflict, our characters have nothing driving them forwards, meaning our stories can become stagnant and not really stories at all.
External conflict is the essential thread that pulls the plot together. In this article, we will explore the definition of external conflict and some of the best examples of how it is used in our favorite films.
Defining External Conflict
External conflict is the struggle between a character and an external force. It is the opposite of internal conflict which occurs within a character. Kenney expands on this, citing external conflict as “a form of fight, argument disagreement, or only opposition in which two sides are present.” (1966, pg. 5).
These external, antagonistic forces can be constituted by another character, the real-world, society, or even the supernatural. Whichever external force is impacting our characters, it should create tension and obstacles for our protagonists to overcome.
Whether they’re able to defeat each obstacle along the way or not, the encounters a protagonist has with conflict forces them to grow and develop in their character arcs. Without conflict, a character has no chance to change, and therefore cannot evolve and drive their story forward themselves.
For more external conflict and the key differences between internal and external conflict, check out this Celtx blog.
Types of External Conflicts in Films
External conflict can be manifested in many forms and is key to understanding antagonists and the obstacles they put onto the protagonist.
Let’s take a look at the main types of external conflict and some examples of where it has been used in film.
Character vs. Character
This is the traditional and most common form of antagonism and external conflict. It involves one character against another, with opposing goals, wants, and needs.
In our lives, we will always be affected by others, and the character vs. character form of external conflict is something we all experience. Reflecting this in film is important and allows us to relate to the connection between protagonist and antagonist in various ways.
Popular examples of character vs. character includes Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader in Star Wars, Simba vs. Scar in The Lion King, Harry vs. Voldemort in Harry Potter, and Clarice Staling vs. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
Character vs. Society
The society in which we live has certain constructs and rules that we all live by, and this can be expanded upon in film and fiction. Characters who don’t fit into the social norm of the fictional world or whose values don’t align, battle against the constructs against them.
Katniss Everdeen vs. The Capitol in The Hunger Games, John Anderton vs. a pre-crime system in Minority Report, Halley vs. poverty in The Florida Project and June vs. a totalitarian society in The Handmaid’s Tale are all examples of a character trying to defeat the obstacles society throws at them.
Character vs. Nature
Nature can be a formidable antagonistic force, pulling characters into terrifying and traumatic situations. It isn’t a form of external conflict that is usually considered, however, when considered, the devastation of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, monstrous creatures, disease etc., have blighted many lives. Portraying this in film can be very relatable to many audiences.
Think of the crew in Jaws vs. the shark, the survivors vs. extreme weather conditions in The Day After Tomorrow, Beth and her family in Contagion, and the society in 2012 who all battled against extreme forces of nature.
Character vs. Fate/Supernatural
Character vs. fate is a common form of conflict that we tend to see in Greek myths and Shakespeare’s works. Protagonists often find themselves up against a bitter god or supernatural force. As we’ve moved into more modern times, these god-like entities have become more supernatural, inexplicable forms who try to take the protagonist in a less than ideal direction.
In this sort of conflict pattern, the protagonist must reconcile with their own humanity and their limitations in influencing their lives and the world around them. This could be in the form of a separate entity, or the fate that befalls them.
Fate and the supernatural have affected characters such as Neo who battles pre-determined fate in The Matrix, Ed and Lorraine Warren who try to understand the demonic entities in The Conjuring and Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey who encounters supernatural forces attempting to stall him in his journey.
Character vs. Technology
With technological advances in recent years, it’s no surprise that filmmakers have explored the possibilities of technology in their work. This isn’t always just evil robots with a vendetta against humanity, but all kinds of tech, including UFOs, AI, or software.
Exploring the problems technology can have on the organic world to the extreme has engaged audiences for a long time now, so it’s an effective form of external conflict.
From the traditional robot movie, I Robot, where Del Spooner encounters a vengeful robot during his investigations into the strange murder of Dr. Alfred, to Sarah Connor’s battle with The Terminator and Rick Deckard’s search to subdue four illegal replicants in Blade Runner, the way has been paved for more character vs. technology films.
The Art of Portraying External Conflict
External conflict is usually one of the first forms of conflict to be considered in filmmaking, with various cinematic techniques used to showcase it. The reason for this is because it translates well on screen and an audience can easily recognize and understand it.
It is especially important in movies which revolve around a dramatic goal, which Cattrysse (2010, 83) emphasizes. The hero of the story shouldn’t be waiting around for things to happen to them. They need to have multiple reasons to pursue their goal and further reasons to do so as they overcome obstacles.
We go to ‘watch’ movies, so the visuals are extremely important in portraying conflict and the effect it has on the story.
Cinematography plays a huge role in illustrating external conflicts through camera angles, lighting, and composition of a scene. Big and small changes can make a huge difference in emphasizing tension and struggle within a scene.
Low-angle shots can make a character or object seem imposing and high-angle shots the opposite, portraying them as more vulnerable.
Handheld cameras capturing ‘found footage’ like in The Blair Witch Project can enhance the external conflict of the terrifying unseen entity in the woods. They can also enhance the impact of high-speed car chases, portraying the point of view of a specific character, putting the audience in the center of the action.
An atmospheric soundtrack can make all the difference to the emotion and tension of a scene. A suspenseful piece of music can heighten tension whilst a poignant melody can draw out empathy in the audience for the characters on screen.
Silence can also be a smart strategic choice for filmmakers, creating a stark contrast that emphasizes the raw reality of the conflict taking place.
Once filmmakers have shot the scenes and composed their music score, editing is the final piece of the puzzle in best evoking external conflict. Quick cuts and close-ups can intensify an audience’s engagement with the conflict whilst longer, more deliberate cuts can allow an audience to reflect.
Montages and insights into parallel character perspectives on screen can be an efficient way to push the narrative forward through external conflict.
It is important to also note that within the chaos of fast-paced action scenes with quick-fire moments of conflict, it is crucial that the edit allows the audience to seamlessly follow what’s going on.
Impact of External Conflict on Character Development
External conflict is important in developing characters along their journey and reflects their strengths and weaknesses. Adversity forces characters to confront these strengths and weaknesses, fears, and vulnerabilities.
This could be a heroic character pushed to the limit in demonstrating their courage in the face of danger or a flawed character grappling with outside influences. Whichever external conflict they face, characters’ resilience, determination, and resourcefulness are forced to the forefront. In these situations, a character can either showcase their strengths, or their weaknesses are exposed.
The exposure of a character’s weakness isn’t necessarily a negative thing, but more so shows their humanity, and therefore gives the audience opportunity to relate and empathize with them. Instances where characters don’t overcome the external conflict they face are chances for them to evolve and adapt to the world and circumstances around them. Through this, their character arc becomes more compelling, creating a domino effect on the narrative itself.
Evolution of External Conflict in Cinema
As filmmaking has evolved since the silent movie era, so has the portrayal of external conflict. Societal, technological, and cultural landscapes have all had a marked effect on cinematic practices and techniques.
In early films, conflict was often straightforward, mirroring societal moralities of the time. Throughout the mid-20th century, conflicts in cinema began to mirror the complexities and ambiguities of the real world.
The post World War II era saw more anti-hero and morally ambiguous characters who reflected the grey shades of human nature in the face of external conflict and how the world’s population was becoming more aware of these sorts of characters in the real world.
The introduction of CGI and digital effects unlocked opportunities for filmmakers to create otherworldly scenarios and ideas. We saw the fantasy and sci-fi genres flourish with more emphasis on dynamic action sequences which in themselves expanded the possibilities of external conflict.
As the human experience evolves, cinema and the portrayal of external conflict will evolve along with it.
Contemporary Films and Their Approach
Modern films have redefined the approach to external conflicts by adding layers of complexity and nuance, often pushing the boundaries of storytelling. Let’s take a look at two examples of where contemporary filmmakers have been successful.
In director Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite, he explores the intricacies of class conflict, challenging the conventional hero-villain dynamics that we know from many other films. Joon-ho expands on this dynamic by exploring the gray areas of privilege, morality and desperation which forces the audience to question their own position in society.
Inequality and social mobility are current issues that many modern families and individuals struggle with, so Parasite is a very important movie to many, highlighting a very real problem.
Similarly, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar puts humanity in a battle to survive, with the search for new habitable planets in distant galaxies. The narrative and external conflict goes beyond the individual protagonist and reflects the entire human race’s plight for survival.
The physical challenges faced in Interstellar are combined with the internal journey of the protagonist to showcase the individual struggle amid that of humanity.
Joon-ho and Nolan are both challenging traditional storytelling norms, providing audiences with a more profound and engaging cinematic experience, which more and more people crave.
External conflict is more than just hero vs. villain but can come in a variety of forms. The societal and technological advances that have been made since the dawn of filmmaking have meant that filmmakers have expanded and continue to expand upon simple conflicts and truly reflect the human condition.
With even more innovations coming to fruition all the time, it’s crucial that filmmakers, and us screenwriters continue to search for fresh ways to build upon how we present external conflict in our stories. How will you be part of this exciting era of storytelling?
McKee, R. (2020) Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of Screenwriting. HarperCollins.
Kenney, W. (1966). How to Analyze Fiction. Monarch Press, New York.
Cattrysse, P. (2010). The Protagonist’s Dramatic Goals, Wants, and Needs. Journal of Screenwriting. Vol 1, No 1, pp 83-97.