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External Conflict: Definitions and Examples

External Conflict

As writers, we know that conflict, whether external conflict or internal conflict, is at the heart of all marvellous stories. A story without conflict is boring. And the last thing we want to do when we tell stories is bore readers.

I remember when I first started out as a writer. One of the first things I heard about was the need to create lots of external conflict in your story. I also heard about all the different conflicts you could include, and my head spun round faster than in that scene from The Exorcist.

I was looking for a simple way to find out what conflict was, and how I could get more of it in my stories…

And that’s when a writer friend of mine (the first ever Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Editor, in fact) recommended Fictionary to me. Conflict is one of the 38 story elements you examine when using the Fictionary Software. You can learn more in the software, but specific info about each element is present when you are editing so you make the best changes:

Story Element

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What is External Conflict?

Okay, so let’s get down to brass tacks here.

If you’ve been around any group of authors for three nano-seconds, you know they wax lyrical about the importance of external conflict. They’ll tell you that if your book doesn’t have external conflict, readers will yawn, turn out the light, and go to sleep, but what exactly is external conflict?

Good question. I’m glad you asked.

To answer it, you need to understand the difference between tension and conflict.

Tension Vs Conflict


Tension is the threat of something bad happening, and external conflict is the bad thing actually happening.

Here’s an example.

Say you’ve written a scene where your Point of View Character walks through the woods at night. They’re alone, and they’re confident there’s no-one around for miles… until they hear a twig snap behind them.

What was that?

Now, it could be an innocent woodland creature scampering through the woods while making their way home. Or it could be another person, and that person could mean your Point of View Character harm.

A quick glance behind them confirms they’re being followed.

That, my writerly friend, is tension.

There’s a clear threat. The person following your Point of view character could mean them harm, but we don’t know that for sure. The tension arises because the person following your Point of View Character could be a treat.

External Conflict

Conflict‌ is the bad thing actually happening. Examples include:

  • Gunfights
  • Magical showdowns
  • Blazing argument between two (or more, depending on your favourite flavour of romance) love interests.

Let’s return to our example from the previous section.

Say the person following your point of view character is a threat. They attack your Point of View Character, who’s forced to defend themselves. That’s conflict.

It’s an external conflict because a bad thing is actually happening.

Now you know what external conflict is, let’s take a quick peek at internal conflict, so you understand the difference.

Internal Versus External Conflict

Internal Conflict

But, hang on, you cry.

External conflict is great. But what in the name of Stephen King’s writing desk is internal conflict?

Another stellar question.

Internal conflict tracks the emotional journey of your protagonist or Point of View Character. It centres around the character’s emotional reactions to the external conflict. It’s also linked to the character flaw you’ve chosen for that character.

Examples of internal conflict include:

  • Moral Dilemmas: A test of the character’s principles, ethics, and beliefs.
  • Fears and Phobias: Fear is a common source of internal conflict in fiction, because characters have strong emotional reactions to fear. Fear is the foundation of character flaws (which are important if you want to give your readers a well-rounded, believable protagonist).
  • Conflicting Desires: When a character wants two things and can only choose one of them, and their emotional reaction to that.
  • Identity Crises: This is a common source of internal conflict in young adult, new adult, and coming of age stories.
  • Emotional Turmoil: Doesn’t mastiff if it’s anger, grief, or heartbreak. Emotional turmoil will create internal conflict for your characters.
  • Instinct Versus Reason: Situations where characters choose between what they want (instinct), and the right thing to do (reason).

Quick summary.

External conflict is plot driven: The fights, feuds, and verbal slanging matches. Internal conflict is the character versus themselves. It’s drawn from the character’s emotional experiences.

All good?


Then let’s move onto five ways you can use external conflict in your fiction.

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5 Plot Devices to Include External Conflict in Your Story

Conflict in Fiction

Character Vs Antagonist

One of the primary sources of conflict in fiction is your antagonist and their relationship with the protagonist. Your antagonist stands in direct opposition to your protagonist.

They might both be chasing the same external goal (or story goal), but your antagonist is trying to stop your antagonist from achieving the goal before they do. They might lock in a battle to the death. Or, they might follow an enemies-to-lovers romance arc and get on each other’s nerves every time they come into contact with one another.

Either way, ensure your protagonist and antagonist share enough page time to build up enough conflict between them.

An important thing to remember is your antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. It could be a supernatural creature or force. It could be society, or it could be a natural disaster (the movie 2012, anyone?)

We’ll talk a bit more about these types of conflict now.

A great example of character vs antagonist external conflict comes from the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Harry has to deal with the deadly feud between him and Voldemort, culminating in the epic last battle at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Character Vs Nature

Character versus nature is another popular conflict trope we can see across genres. One of my favourite things about this type of external conflict is you can have conflict at the global story level, or at the more nuanced scene level.

Story level Character Vs Nature happens when the force of nature is the main antagonistic force, like in natural disaster movies. Scene level conflict is smaller in scale, but still creates enormous obstacles for the point of view character. Maybe they’re trying to get home, but there’s a storm raging, and the road they need to use is closed.

See how character versus nature is a great way to add external conflict to a story?

The Martian, by Andy Weir, is a fantastic example of a Character vs Nature novel. The entire story is about Mark Watney using his wits to survive Mars’s super hostile environment.

Character Vs Society

YA Dystopian novels are great examples of this.

These stories typically show a protagonist who’s oppressed by the accepted societal structure. They discover corruption deep at the heart of their society. The story arc usually involves some kind of rebellion in which the protagonist is the driving force behind dismantling the current regime.

A key component of the external conflict device is that authors personify society. They make society a character. This could be a president, a monarch, or a governing body.

An outstanding example of character vs society conflict comes from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Katniss lives in Panem, a dystopian society where tributes from the twelve remaining districts must travel to the Capitol to fight to the death. Collins personifies society using the character of President Snow (the “face” of Panem).

Character Vs The Ticking Clock

A staple of the thriller genre, a ticking clock can introduce a huge amount of external conflict. Say your protagonist thinks they have a certain amount of time to solve a crime. Then they discover the antagonist has planted a bomb. The protagonist must disarm the bomb, otherwise innocent people will die.

That’s a good conflict.

But you can use the ticking clock in other genres.

How many romance books have you read where the protagonist needs to get to the airport on time? If they don’t, their love interest’s mode of transport leaves and they’re gone for good.

You can use anything time sensitive to create a ticking clock.

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, the protagonist (Aiden Bishop) races against a ticking clock. He has to solve a murder within a time loop. Each time the day resets, he wakes up in someone else’s body, and the timeframe to solve the murder gets shorter every time.

Character Vs Character

This is actually my favourite type of plot device to use for external conflict. Car chases and magic slinging battles are fun, but character vs character conflict can supercharge your stories.

If you have your protagonist arguing with their friends, that’s Character vs character conflict. If you have a couple sniping in a passive-aggressive way, that’s character vs character conflict. And if you have the protagonists fighting with a sibling because, “I told you to stay out of my room, dude!”…

That’s character vs character conflict.

Human relationships are a breeding ground for conflict, so don’t discount them.

A phenomenal example of character vs character conflict comes from The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. This bestselling novel sees protagonist (Lucy) and love interest (Josh) go head-to-head at work as they both compete for the same promotion. This contest resulted in several comedic and heartwarming moments, all fuelled by conflict.

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Examples of External Conflicts from Books

External Conflict in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The primary external conflict revolves around Harry Potter’s struggle against Lord Voldemort, who seeks the Sorcerer’s Stone to regain his physical form and immortality. Harry, along with his friends, must prevent Voldemort from obtaining the stone, facing numerous obstacles and adversaries at Hogwarts.

External Conflict in Romeo and Juliet

The central external conflict in this tragic play is the age-old feud between the Montague and Capulet families. This bitter rivalry directly opposes the love between Romeo and Juliet, creating a tense environment that pushes the young lovers to extreme measures.

External Conflict in The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen’s main external conflict is set against the tyrannical Capitol, which forces her to participate in the Hunger Games, a brutal televised battle where only one participant can survive. She must navigate physical dangers and make alliances, all while under the surveillance of the Capitol and its manipulations.

FAQs: What’s External Conflict?

Fight Scene

Two Major Types of Conflict Are _____.

External Conflict: The character is trying to achieve something they want. There are external obstacles in their way.

Internal Conflict: The character is having an internal conflict with themselves. They battle their own morals, fears, instincts, etc.

How can the Fictionary Software Help Me Include More External Conflict in My Novels?

The Fictionary Software lets you track the Conflict Story element across all the scenes in your book. As you build your editing plan in Fictionary, keep track of where you’ve nailed conflict, where it’s weak, and where it’s missing altogether.

You’ll be able to see (at a glance) the scenes that need revising, and the helpful in app tips will give you guidance on how to fix external conflict issues.

Conclusion: External Conflict

So, who’s ready to fire up their keyboards?

We’ve gone from conflict confusion to conflict connoisseurs.

We’ve also looked at how the Fictionary Software can help you track the flow of external conflict throughout your entire novel. The Fictionary Software isn’t just the extra set of eyes all writers need…

It’s the expert eye that’s trained to spot and enhance external conflict in your manuscript.

You’re staring at that blinking cursor. You’re contemplating the various paths of chaos and conflict you can send your characters down. As you do that, just remember, the Fictionary’s got your back.

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Article Written by Shane Millar

Shane Millar

Shane Millar is the Community and Customer Success Manager at Fictionary, and a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Editor. He writes emotionally charged fantasy with flawed characters. Shane is also a podcaster, and the author of the Write Better Fiction Craft guides.

Shane holds a BA in journalism and is a member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). He lives in Buckinghamshire, England.

He has taken too many writing courses to count and enjoys reading as much as possible. Shane is obsessed with five things: the writing craft, mythology, personal development, food, and martial arts movies.

Want to hire Shane to edit your novel: