Internal conflict and external: Differences and similarities

Conflict may consist of characters butting heads with others, characters against natural forces or characters against things within themselves such as their own emotions or impulses. The first two are external conflicts or conflicts that originate from outside the character while the latter internal conflict comes from inside the character. Conflict against others could be a character against another or against a group, an entire society, supernatural beings or any other sentient entities. A character might also struggle against nature as in the case of a storm or a fight to survive while lost in the woods. Internal conflict might include a character struggling with unpleasant habits or the psychological effects of past trauma.

...However, one thing to keep in mind is that the two types of conflict are generally related and influence one another. It would be a rare novel that had only one type of conflict. For example, a character may be upset about an internal struggle to lose weight or stop drinking or smoking, but that may manifest in becoming short-tempered with family members in an external conflict. Similarly, while someone reading a fast-paced thriller does not want to get bogged down in pages and pages of a protagonist having a psychological crisis, a book in which characters are internally unaffected by outside events is generally less compelling and less realistic than one in which they are.


A particularly skilled writer might combine many types of conflict for an effective and suspenseful story. For example, in a television movie written by Stephen King, “The Storm of the Century,” the natural external conflict is a terrible blizzard that cuts off a remote island. Next, he introduces the antagonist, an evil supernatural character who is in conflict with the rest of the townspeople. Finally, he shows the townspeople in conflict not just with one another but within themselves as secrets many of them had hoped to carry to the grave are revealed. Internal and external conflicts take turns coming to the forefront driving characters’ actions and causing them to act in certain ways and make decisions that keep pushing the plot forward and heightening suspense for the reader.


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