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April 5, 2022

What Is External Conflict?

Conflict is at the heart of all drama. Without it, you have no plot. In both the three-act and five-act structure, conflict drives the narrative forward, from exposition through the rising action, all the way until the inevitable climax. Oftentimes, plots are driven by external conflict. 

So, what exactly is external conflict and how does it move the story forward?

Further, did you know there are two types of conflict - external and internal?

Understanding the differences between the two and how they drive your central character is an essential part of writing a spellbinding script. 

Internal vs. external conflict

Before we jump into external conflict, we must learn the differences between the two types of conflict: external and internal.

Internal conflict is the struggle within a character's mind, while external conflict occurs when a character is fighting against a force outside themselves. 

How does this translate to the screen? Let's dive a little deeper.

What is internal conflict?

Internal conflict is the conflict a character has inside them. 

These are the battles we all struggle with on a daily basis. These battles ultimately drive our behavior. 

For example, a character from a background of poverty might feel guilty if they suddenly win the lottery. Their battle with themselves would be an internal conflict over their character arc.

Often internal conflict is driven by a character's background or a traumatic event. Internal conflict often drives a character's goals and motives. 

 Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story
Buzz Light Year’s internal conflict about his role in the world is what drives his external conflict with protagonist Woody in Toy Story. Image credit to Pelicula Estreno.

Inner conflict on the screen

Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story is an excellent example of a character with internal conflict. He doesn't realize that he is a toy; he truly believes he is a space ranger. Instead, he identifies himself as someone special, on a mission. The revelation that he is just one of many clones of the famous toy leads to him re-evaluating his place in the fictional world of the toys. 

Inner conflict is much more complex to display on screen than external conflict. For example, screenwriters adapting novels often face the challenge of portraying a characters' thoughts and feelings, relayed directly to us on the page, on the screen. 

What is external conflict?

External conflict is driven by other characters or forces. For example, this could be an antagonist acting against the protagonist's values and stopping them from achieving their mission or finishing their journey. External conflict can also come in terms of an event or an outside force. 

External conflict on the screen

An example of external conflict can be seen in the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter's recurring battle with Lord Voldemort pushes all seven novels toward their resolution, and each time Harry fights against Voldemort is an example of external conflict. Further, this conflict forces other characters to align with "good" (Harry) or "evil" (Voldemort).

The relationship between internal and external conflict is not always easy to divide into two since a characters' external actions, which result in conflict, are also guided by their inner conflict. 

Types of external conflict

External conflict comes in many different forms, each presenting unique challenges to your main character.

Antagonists 

The most common form of external conflict is the antagonist or villain. 

The antagonist is directly opposed to the protagonists' mission and journey because they have fundamentally different values. 

The protagonist must defeat the antagonist. Often to succeed in their goal, they must grow more robust, overcoming their internal battles and defeating minor villains and problems along the way. 

In the Bildungsroman or "coming of age" genre, the protagonist must first become a man before defeating the antagonist. Harry Potter is the most famous example of this. Voldermort's ultimate goal and what drives him is to live forever - whatever the cost. It is only when Harry Potter gladly accepts his mortality and the possibility that he might die that he can finally defeat Voldermort. 

Forces of nature 

It is not just people that act as external conflict; conflict can be caused by nature or external forces outside our protagonists' control.

There are many great examples of this kind of conflict. In Titanic, the central conflict is caused by the iceberg. Once it strikes, a ticking time bomb begins as the ship slowly starts to sink. 

As viewers, we are aware of the historical context and know how this ends, but Jack and Rose and the characters on the ship are unaware of how things will end. At first, they think this is just a bump or something that can be contained by sealing off part of the ship.

Image of the Titanic sinking.
The collision of the Titanic with the iceberg is the central conflict in the 1997 film about the famous disaster.

The external conflict or disaster triggers the internal conflicts of your main characters: their deepest fears have been realized, and the prospect of death or total armageddon is a distinct possibility. So we get to see characters for who they indeed are. 

How to approach external conflict in your screenplay 

If you're in the early stages of plotting your screenplay and trying to establish how to introduce external conflict in your script, then begin by establishing your protagonist's values. 

Consider:

  • What drives your protagonist? 
  • What do they desire? Why?
  • What does your protagonist fear the most? 
  • What are their everyday struggles?
  • What is their downfall?

Think about people you've met in real life if you're struggling. Or even consider yourself. Once you've established these traits, you can begin to work backward and consider what external conflict would trigger emotions.

For example, an insecure character, afraid of losing their partner, will be triggered by a handsome stranger who suddenly appears and begins flirting with their partner. This will immediately cause conflict and jealousy.

However, such a handsome stranger is unlikely to affect someone secure in their relationships and themselves, so there will be less room for conflict. 

External conflict is at the heart of everything screenwriters do

External conflict carries narratives forward. Without a strong conflict then your screenplay is likely to fall apart. The most obvious external conflict is, of course, a great villain. 

And the best villains are fully-rounded characters; they would be protagonists in their own story; they have character traits and values that clash with your protagonist. This is where the external conflict stems from.

It's also worth considering that external conflict comes from other characters and the circumstances and environment in which the characters find themselves. 

Conflict in its most simplistic form is just a clash of values. This is how you should consider the relationship between external conflict and your character when planning your story. 

Good luck writers!

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What Is External Conflict?
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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