external conflict

[ ek-stur-nl kon-flikt ]
/ ˈɛk stɜr nl ˈkɒn flɪkt /
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struggle between a literary or dramatic character and an outside force such as nature or another character, which drives the dramatic action of the plot: external conflict between Macbeth and Macduff.
struggle between a person and an outside force: external conflict between parents and children.


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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is an external conflict?

There are lots of different types of external conflict, but what is common among all of them is that the conflict is always a clash between one person (or group) and a different person (or group). It is not a struggle within one’s self. That’s why it’s called external.

External conflict vs. internal conflict

You can’t have a story without some kind of conflict, because it’s what makes the characters take action and progress the story along. If there was no conflict, then every character would just stay the same.

External conflict is one kind of conflict within a story. Internal conflict is another one.

Internal conflict happens within the self. It’s the conflict of a person against their own mind: grappling with a difficult decision, trying to live in line with their morals, seeking the best path forward.

External conflict, by contrast, involves the struggle between a person (or a group) and a force that is outside. This can come in the form of “Person vs. Person” (interpersonal conflict) or “Person vs. Thing.”

“Person vs. Person” is your classic hero-and-villain narrative, where one person is fighting another. Usually, one is the protagonist, while the other is the antagonist (think Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader).

“Person vs. Society” is another form of external conflict. This is where one person fights against a whole corrupt society (think The Hunger Games).

The subset “Person vs. Thing” can get a little out there. One example, “Person vs. Nature” is where an individual struggles against a harsh climate, a storm, or some other natural disaster (think Robinson Crusoe). And “Person vs. Fate, God, or the Supernatural” (like the Odyssey or Poltergeist ) is on another realm completely. Horror and fantasy genres often use this mode, while science fiction might play with “Person vs. Machine” (think The Matrix or The Terminator).

What it comes down to is …

  • internal conflict = you vs. you
  • external conflict = you vs. anything else

What are real-life examples of external conflict?

External conflict gets used a lot when talking about literature. Writers and writing teachers may mention how to build stories by finding a good source of external conflict. Literary critics might describe the external conflict that drives a story as a redeeming (or terrible) aspect of that new crime thriller. Your book club might decide that the latest offering was a little lackluster in the external conflict between Becky and Karen.

In the geopolitical sphere, it describes international tension or wars between countries (as opposed to the internal conflict happening between the people inside a country).

The Game of Thrones television series is full of “Person vs. Person” interpersonal conflict, as various characters struggle for the throne. The novel Fahrenheit 451 is another classic full of external conflict, specifically “Person vs. Society,” where the main character is locked in a struggle against the entire culture and government that surrounds him. Remember Jaws? It’s also a good example of “Person vs. Nature” external conflict. The characters fight something in the natural world around them.

You might also use external conflict to describe your own (or someone else’s) difficulties experienced in everyday life like car troubles (Person vs. Machine), tensions at work (Person vs. Person or Person vs. Company), political or religious disagreements (Person vs. Government or Person vs. God).

External conflict is everywhere around us. It may be that the real key to understanding external conflict is figuring out how to best avoid it. Good luck out there!

How to use external conflict in a sentence