E is for External Conflict

Our two greatest problems are gravity and paperwork. We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.

— Wernher von Braun, Rocket Engineer

BLAST_EConflict is the engine of every story, and there are two kinds: internal and external. Because we’re on the letter E, let’s examine the external type of conflict…

3 Tips for Writing External Conflict

– Most people talk about External Conflict as “pick one of the three types”, but I recommend using at least two to deepen your story.

  • Person vs. Person (i.e. hero vs villain, be it human or monster or machine)

  • Person vs. Nature (i.e. hero vs tornado or drought or space)

  • Person vs. Society (i.e. hero vs government or cult or industry)

– External conflict must have consequences. If your heroine fights with the antagonist, she can’t just get up the next day as if nothing happened. Conflict has to affect the story.

– External Conflict exacerbates the protagonist’s Internal Conflict. The two may be different, but they are linked.

2 Examples

Dystopian tales are great examples of external conflict. Not only is the protagonist battling individual antagonists, she’s also at odds with society and/or the regime. In THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss faces all three external conflicts:

  • Katniss vs People – her opponents in the game

  • Katniss vs Nature – trackerjacks, fires, drought, floods in the game

  • Katniss vs Society – President Snow and his oppressive regime

Same thing with space stories, like STAR WARS:

  • Luke Skywalker vs Person – Darth Vader is the main antagonist.

  • Luke Skywalker vs Nature – Traveling through space is dangerous! Hello, asteroids! Not to mention they encounter some pretty inhospitable planets during their journey.

  • Luke Skywalker vs Society – Then there’s the big baddy, the Galatic Empire.

These stories all have individual villains, a corrupt society, and nature working against the hero.

1 Link for more help

Conflict is one of the most important ingredients to an engaging story. In this post – 3 Things That Keep Your Story on the Road, Not the Goat Path – I talk about how Change, Conflict & Stakes are needed in every scene.

It’s kind of a good all-encompassing post for my first three letters, since I talked about Character Change last post, and will talk about Stakes, specifically False Stakes, tomorrow. See you then!

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

15 thoughts on “E is for External Conflict”

  1. I remember learning about these! It’s amazing how much these can apply in daily life.


  2. I’d forgotten about this bit… I think it was mentioned in “20 Master Plots”, a book I should revisit. Loving this theme! Your posts have been wonderful, and super succinct!

  3. Fun fact: I read this during lunch, and I was having a bit of Sabina vs. Meatball Sub–they’re SO messy. Great post, and I agree that the most captivating stories have at least two of the three external conflicts 🙂

  4. Hi there – More great advice. And, we have plenty of real world examples to call upon and place in our fictional works. 🙂

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