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External Conflict Definitions and Examples

Conflict in a novel

External conflict (and some internal, too) will be covered in this post.. And what to look for when self-editing using the Fictionary story element: Conflict. After all, when you know what you are looking for, you can find it more easily. 

Conflict, conflict, everywhere, not a skirmish in this scene. 

Editing your manuscript is simple. You sign into Fictionary, open the “evaluate” page, you name your scene in seconds, three words simple, you have the protagonist, tick, the entry hook is there, tick. 

Editing is a lark. 

Oh No—wait a minute—at the conflict Fictionary element of story, you freeze. You think you know what conflict is, but you cannot find it in your scene.  

Conflict in a scene Cue an excessive use of exclamation marks and an unquantifiable amount of question marks—WHERE IS THE CONFLICT IN THIS SCENE?!?!?!?!?!?!?


Does your edit ever feel like this? That’s great—you caught it now. Seriously. If you know what the issue is, you know you need to fix it. 

Knowing what’s wrong is the first half of the solution. This blog will help you with the second half. That’s what Fictionary’s elements of story are all about. That’s what editing is all about. 

Sorting the story out.

When you know what external conflict is, your editing will be less “Argh” and more “Ah ha”. We all love the Ah ha moments of editing success. A Top Tip I learnt: if you cannot find a story element in your story easily, then it is probably not there. 

External conflict—the basics

It is time to get to definitions. What is external conflict?

External conflict, as Kristina Stanley explains in her great blog on how external conflict links to POV character goals, is the action that is happening in a scene. A physical fight, an argument, a battle to win a race, etc.

The Big VS:

When you are looking for the conflict, you have two main types of conflict.


Internal Conflict = Character vs Themselves

External Conflict = Character vs Other


Looking for internal conflict or external conflict

Internal conflict is the protagonist vs themselves.

When the reader reads the disconnect between the internal voice of the character and the actions that they show the rest of the world, this is internal conflict showing.




External conflict subdivides into four main categories.

External conflict is the protagonist against someone or something other than themselves.

Perhaps, a character vs a character, think Sherlock vs Moriarty.

Or a character vs society, think the Handmaid’s Tale.

Or a character vs nature, think Moby Dick.

Or a character vs technology, think the Matrix.

How do you check for the external conflict in your scene?

In your first draft, it is important to Write the Fight. Nobody is perfect, hence why we need editing, and we all need to edit. Perhaps you forgot to write the fight, and you are now at the second draft. When editing how can you seek the external conflict? External conflict is the action in the scene, but not just any action, external conflict is versus other action.

  • Is there someone else in the scene, are they conflicting? No, why not.
  • Is the weather in the scene versus the protagonist?
  • No, why not.
  • Is the technology in the scene versus the protagonist? No, why not.
  • Not every place in every scene needs to have conflict, but if the conflict is not obvious, then you need to look for conflict in all the usual places to see if you can see a place where conflict could be.

For example: there is someone washing the dishes, and there is no conflict there, ask yourself if the reader needs to see the dishes being washed. On the other hand, the dishes are being washed aggressively because the protagonist is sick and tired of their partner never lifting a finger around the house, then the external conflict is visible, and can be felt by the reader.

If you cannot see where the conflict is in a scene you have two choices. Either find the fight—the conflict—then re-write the scene with the fight in it. Or peek at your story arc, peek at your blurb, can you cut this scene and the action in the scene from your story?

Checklist to see if what you have written is external conflict:

Does your conflict show in the action?

Does your conflict show in the dialogue?

Is your conflict a versus conflict?

Have you checked it off in Fictionary?

Now we know what we talk about when we talk about external conflict

Using Fictionary Story Elements, on a scene-by-scene level, is the most efficient way to edit. We all know conflict-free stories are dull, predictable even. Being predictably dull won’t win awards in fiction.

If the reader knows what is going to happen, why would they turn over the page? If your reader knows that the protagonist will survive, why carry on with the story?

If you want to win awards, one way is to polish up your usage of internal or external conflict in your scenes. And if you are serious about writing great books, join the Fictionary Community. The Fictionary Community is a space where you can talk self-editing, ask questions, and connect with other writers and editors alike. The Fictionary Community is also where you can find out about the Fictionary Book of the Year Award.

Come and say Hi!

Post Written by L Cooke

As a Fictionary certified Editor, I will explore your Work-In-Progress, chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene, story-element-by-story-element. You will end up with a treasure map of sorts, full of actionable advice and a greater understanding of your Work-In-Progress.

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