To quote Robert McKee, “When the protagonist steps out of the Inciting Incident, he enters a world governed by the Law of Conflict. To wit: Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.” (pg. 210, 2005)
So, what is conflict? In essence, it’s a collision of different motivations, ideas, desires, or values, and is present in all our lives. To conflict is human, and it’s crucial that conflict flows through the stories we tell to drive them forward and create narrative tension.
Conflict pushes our characters forwards and is what drives them to go and continue their journeys, whatever they may be. We tend to categorize conflict into internal and external conflict. In this article, we will be exploring the importance of conflict in storytelling and how you can best use it to bring your stories to life and engage your audience.
How effectively you use conflict as a storyteller can highly influence an audience’s reaction and engagement to your story.
Why is Conflict Important?
Your story should not just be a simple telling of events, but instead a journey of ups and downs, changing circumstances, evolving characters, and plot. Conflict is woven throughout all these elements – it is the story.
Think back to your favorite stories. There’s always one or two characters you root for (usually the protagonist), the characters you love to hate (usually the antagonist), obstacles for the characters to overcome, moral and ethical dilemmas. This is all down to conflict and the differences in actions, beliefs, and motives. If conflict didn’t exist, both the characters and the plot would remain stagnant.
Conflict in storytelling presents an authentic reflection of the real world; all of us experience the ups and downs of life and go through similar struggles to those of the characters we read about and watch on screen. To completely omit conflict from the stories we tell would be unnatural and not a true representation of the world we live or the lives we lead.
Conflict is the key to all stories, so it’s crucial that all writers master the skill and can weave it into all aspects of their stories, in a meaningful way.
Understanding Internal Conflict
Wijayanti and Laba cite internal conflict as “battles that occur in the mind of a character due to different desires or choices.” (pg. 35, 2020) alongside conflicting emotions or fears. In short, a character is battling opposites in their head, like the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.
Causes of Internal Conflict
Internal conflict is always within the mind of one character. This could be caused by depression or other mental health problems, fear, reconciling past trauma or problems, or a moral dilemma.
It is often helpful to think of conflict as x vs. y. For example, desires vs. duties, emotions vs. logic etc.
Examples of Internal Conflict in Literature
Hamlet – William Shakespeare
A well-known example of internal conflict is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The title character, Hamlet, battles his inner demons throughout the play beginning with the appearance of his father’s ghost in the opening scene. His father tells Hamlet that he was murdered and implores him to take revenge.
As McKee states, here is where Hamlet “steps out of the Inciting Incident…” and “enters a world governed by the Law of Conflict.” (pg. 210, 2005), namely his battle with whether his father was indeed murdered and if so, how he will seek revenge.
Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” plays out his inner conflict effectively, sharing his thoughts and self-doubt with the audience. In this literary case, Hamlet’s inner conflict gets the better of him, and he doesn’t act until it’s too late, subsequently causing his downfall.
Crime and Punishment – Dostoevsky
A prosaic example of internal conflict is Raskolnikov’s struggle in Crime and Punishment. Author, Dostoevsky, explores his internal guilt and desire for redemption despite his feelings of superiority over those who he has harmed.
The external effects of his crime dwindle as his internal struggle heightens. The conflict between his desire to confess and desire to escape push to the forefront and are the start of Raskolnikov’s mental degradation, forcing him into his eventual redemption and confession. His inner conflict is what sends him to prison and to eventual peace, not the external influences and actions of others.
The Impact of Internal Conflict
Internal conflict is in all of us, and we can all relate to the characters we meet in one way or another. It incites character growth and forces them to change perspective, change direction or approach which in turn drives the plot and makes for exciting and engaging storytelling.
By exploring a character’s inner thoughts and conflicts, we enable an audience to establish a deeper connection with them and the story. They have a more profound understanding of why a character may decide to act in a certain way or follow a particular path.
Exploring External Conflict
We return to Wijayanti and Laba who explain that external conflict is “…shown through actions (struggles, squabbles, and physical struggles), characters where there are good and bad characters, dialogues, descriptions and so on.”
External conflict consists of physical obstacles between characters and their goals. These could be other characters, societal rules of the world, natural phenomena such as hurricanes, treacherous oceans or desert plains. Anything that stands physically in a character’s way.
Types of External Conflict
We can also broaden the definition of external conflict into different categories. Let’s return to our x vs. y analogy.
Man vs. Man
Known as probably the most common external struggle, man vs. man is determined by the protagonists and antagonists. One person tries to outwit the other and will sometimes take extreme action to do so.
Here we would consider the classic hero and villain stories:
Think Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), James Bond and Goldfinger in Goldfinger (1964), Harry Potter and Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Rowling, 2007) after seven years battling various forms of Voldemort, both physically, mentally, and through others, Harry comes face to face with his enemy for the final time.
Man vs. Nature
The antagonist of a piece doesn’t always need to be a person. Often, forces of nature threaten the success of a protagonist’s quest, or a deadly predator. A ferocious storm, earthquake, volcanic eruption… the possibilities are endless.
Examples of man vs. nature stories include the storm that causes Chuck Noland’s cargo plane to crash in Cast Away (2000) and the infamous shark spreading terror and death in Jaws (1975).
Man vs. Society
Society comes with its own set of rules, not always in alignment with the values, morals, and goals of your story’s protagonist. They battle societal norms to reach their goal, often for the greater good at the forefront of their minds.
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (Collins, 2008) battles the Capitol its division of the Panem nation into districts, and brutal Hunger Games.
Man vs. Machine
Technology has always been a huge theme in stories, especially when we think of the fantasy and sci-fi genres. It’s when this technology gets out of control that the problems really begin.
The title character of The Terminator (1984) fights the ‘good guys’ to find and destroy the woman who threatens the future of the machines, Sarah Connor.
In The Matrix (1999), the protagonist, Neo, fights against the machines who hold them all hostage in a virtual world, hell bent on distracting them from their own world’s destruction.
Man vs. The Supernatural
Supernatural horrors and thrillers have become more and more popular in recent years with existential forces hunting the protagonists down and terrifying audiences.
In The Ring (2002), Rachel is determined to solve the mysterious circumstances surrounding her daughter’s death after she watches a frightening video tape. But after the watches the tape herself, it’s clear the forces that killed her daughter are after her: and she has only seven days to live.
It’s important to remember that external conflict doesn’t just default to threats that we can visually see. Sometimes, as we see in the above example, they can be hidden!
Key Differences Between Internal and External Conflict
We’ve established that internal vs. external dialogue is conflict within oneself vs. conflict against outside forces. But just what else sets them apart? Let’s dive a little bit deeper into the differences.
If a protagonist is facing internal battles, this will require some work on their inner decision-making process and mindset. Characters will need to confront their fears, desires, and moral dilemmas and necessitates self-awareness and introspection.
Sometimes the support of the other characters can help a protagonist consolidate and come to terms with their inner struggles, but ultimately, it’s up to them.
Conversely, external conflict requires a different approach of tangible action, negotiation, or the utilization of external resources to ‘beat the bad guy’, whether the bad guy is a person, force of nature, societal issue or existential presence.
Physical confrontation, strategic planning, and overcoming hurdles are how characters tend to resolve their conflict. They are more likely to work with the protagonist openly and physically, and their success depends on determination, resilience, and resourcefulness.
A fantastic example is in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), where an ensemble cast of eclectic and eccentric characters are thrown together to fight against the mighty Ronan who is determined to seize a powerful orb which the guardians just happen to have.
Each character in Guardians has a physical skill and attribute to bring to the team. By working together, they ultimately defeat Ronan, making the way for Thanos to take center stage as villain. Simultaneously, each character has their own internal battles from past trauma and loss.
The Interplay Between Internal and External Conflict
It’s crucial to remember that internal and external conflict are not mutually exclusive. Moreso, they should be interwoven to create an authentic and relatable plot. It can be fascinating to read or watch, but even more so to write.
Often, a character’s internal turmoil can be the driving force behind external conflicts. Fear, doubt, and unresolved issues can drive a character to impulsive action, impacting everyone and everything around them.
For example, in Guardians, Drax calls the bad guys to the planet where the group are hiding out, because he finds out one of their companions, Gamora associates with the man who killed his wife and daughter. In this moment, it’s Drax’s inner turmoil that drives him to call the bad guys in, and wage a physical battle, and therefore, external conflict.
External conflicts can also provoke inner struggle. A horrendous physical ordeal can call a character’s values, morals and thoughts into question.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), Ron abandons Harry and Hermione in their quest to destroy Voldemort’s Horcruxes. This is due to the physical hardships they’re experiencing and the influence of one Horcrux’s dark magical powers. Unable to cope, a switch flips inside Ron, and he leaves. In turn, this has a direct affect on Harry and Hermione, and so, the conflict continues.
The interplay between external and internal conflicts provides a rich tapestry of character development and plot progression. They often work in tandem to bring characters and stories to life.
Conflict is the lifeblood of storytelling and is woven into every page, scene, character, and plot point. It creates ups and downs, moral dilemmas, and emotional resonance in narratives.
Internal conflict, the battle within a character’s mind, delves into personal dilemmas, moral choices, and emotional turmoil. It serves as a catalyst for character growth and can determine their personal fate, as seen in examples like Hamlet and Crime and Punishment.
In contrast, external conflict manifests as evident struggles against the world, and can involve confrontations with other characters, nature, society, technology, and the supernatural. It demands physical action and resilience, as exemplified in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy.
External and internal conflicts often intersect, with internal turmoil driving external actions and external conflicts forcing inner battles. Conflict guides characters and instigates change in their trajectory. It makes narratives engaging and unforgettable. Writers, make sure you learn to skillfully weave it into stories to engage and resonate with audiences.
McKee, R. (2020) Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of Screenwriting. HarperCollins.
Wijayanti, I.G.A.N. and Laba, I.N., 2020. Conflict Analysis of Novel Main Character: A Discourse Perspective. International Journal of Linguistics and Discourse Analytics, 1(2), pp.32-39.