Conflict…Internal versus External…Fight!


Conflict essentially is what will make your story tick.

If you really want to give your story some depth, you need internal conflict.

Internal Conflict

Internal conflict revolves around the protagonists  self-doubt – his or her dilemma over the best way to achieve the Story Goal.

We have all been in a situation, where we have been outside our comfort zones, and we have not sure if we were doing the right thing to hit our goal.

Characters who have internal conflict are easy for readers to relate to maybe more so than those that have external conflicts. More interestingly, a protagonists internal conflict will create suspense, as readers will not know how to resolve their personal dilemma until the moment of crisis. Will your main character make the right choice? What is the right choice? All these questions help maintain interest from the reader.

Basic overview : Protagonist will have an established method to solve problems. During the pursuit of the story goal, external conflict will develop pressure on the protagonist leading to an internal conflict regarding his approach and the problem in hand.After said conflict and learning’s the protagonist will emerge victorious.

A tried and tested way to create internal conflict is to use a plot device ( see plot devices article) or introduce an  encounter with a Impact Character – a character with a very different approach to solving problems. This allows the protagonist to ponder whose approach is better.

You can create more suspense by putting in events that show the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches. But the better the impact character’s approach looks, the more pressure there will be for the protagonist to change.

The Protagonist does not always have to change, but the conflict creates the suspense and intrigue that they will change.

External Conflict


External conflict is usually the catalyst in genre or popular fiction. It’s a sort of entry-level conflict that every protagonist undergoes. In basic genre fiction the protagonist knows they are morally superior to the antagonist and so carry on with no reason to evolve or change. Here any tension in the story relates to whether the hero can outwit, out fight, or outgun the forces of evil, it does  however lead to a very shallow character profile and story.

Nowadays, as everyone becomes more sophisticated and demanding of their book choices, emotional depth is of the utmost importance. Blending external and internal conflict is a vitally important component of modern literature.

The Story Goal is always the base element, the thing that must be obtained and achieved by someone.External Conflict is the “What” the thing that must be achieved at all costs.

Every secondary and minor character will be involved in some respect to resolving this problem but when we boil it down, it will always involve to characters: the protagonist and the antagonist.

Your Protagonist will be the primary character who pursues the Story Goal and the person whose action or choice determines the outcome. Your Antagonist will be the character opposed to the Story Goal, who wants the Protagonist to fail, and who does everything in his/her power to make sure the Goal is not attained.

Usually its :

Person vs. Person
Person vs. Society
Person vs. Machine
Person vs. Nature
Person vs. Supernatural ( Demons, Gods, Beings, Ghosts, Haunted Washing up liquid…you get the picture)


The majority of time to keep things equal and interesting  external conflict relates to two human individuals slugging it out for the story goal.

After all, Clash of the Titans aside, pitting a human against a supreme being unless they are super stacked up with “Special Powers” will seem a bit unfair, and if they beat them, unbelievable.

For instance, in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea, the sea is the Antagonist which thwarts the old fisherman’s goal of taking home a prize fish. The Sea doesn’t do this intentionally. It isn’t even possessed of consciousness or intelligence (except perhaps in the man’s mind). It’s just a force too powerful to be beaten.

Orson Wells in 1984 created an external conflict between a large society and a single protagonist to great effect. It seems to be fashionable that we have an affinity to protagonists who stand up to society and “The Man”.

Of course, no matter how evenly or unevenly matched your Protagonist and Antagonist are, external conflict alone is often not enough to sustain your readers’ interest.

By skilfully navigating you protagonist through a world with internal and external conflict, the story will appear less one-dimensional – and have a richer deeper feel to the Plot. (Click for Plot Arcs)

Neil Sehmbhy is a an author who lives in a town that likes to think of itself as a city. Author of the forthcoming Corporation, Jinx and Sunder novels, you can follow him on Twitter @NeilSehmbhy

One response to “Conflict…Internal versus External…Fight!

  1. Pingback: Sort yourself out: five keys to resolving conflict | Speak for Yourself·

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