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Internal vs. External Conflict: How They're Used in a Story

September 13, 2023 (Last Updated September 13, 2023)

Marcy G.

Internal and external conflicts are essential elements in storytelling. Think about your favorite stories - they most likely contain conflict or something to overcome. Whether the conflict is related to a broad theme, relationships between characters, or a battle of the mind and heart, a successful narrative will use both, individually or in combination, to engage the audience, explore various themes and character arcs, and create depth and tension within a story. We will be breaking down each one by definition and purpose.


Internal Conflict


Internal conflict is a psychological or emotional struggle that takes place within a character's mind or heart. It involves their inner thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or desires.



Character Development: Internal conflicts are used to delve deep into a character's psyche, providing insight into their motivations, fears, and personal growth. They help the audience understand why a character behaves the way they do. 

Complexity: Internal conflicts add complexity to characters by showcasing their internal struggles, dilemmas, and moral choices. This complexity makes characters more relatable and relatable.

Theme Exploration: Internal conflicts are often tied to the story's themes. They allow writers to explore themes such as identity, self-discovery, morality, and personal transformation.



·      A character wrestling with their guilty conscience after making a morally questionable decision.

·      The protagonist battling self-doubt and fear as they pursue their dreams.

·      An internal struggle between two conflicting desires, such as love and ambition.


External Conflict


External conflict is a struggle that occurs between a character and an external force, such as another character, society, nature, or a situation.



Plot Development: External conflicts drive the plot forward by creating obstacles and challenges for the characters to overcome. They provide the story with action and tension.

Character Growth: External conflicts force characters to adapt, grow, or change in response to the challenges they face. They can reveal a character's strengths and weaknesses.

Engagement: External conflicts often capture the audience's attention and keep them invested in the story as they root for the characters to overcome obstacles.



·      A hero battling a villain in a physical confrontation (e.g., a superhero fighting a supervillain).

·      A group of survivors struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world filled with dangers.

·      A character facing societal discrimination and prejudice, fighting for justice and equality.


Combining Internal and External Conflict

Many compelling stories use both internal and external conflicts simultaneously to create well-rounded characters and engaging plots. For example, a character may face external challenges like a life-threatening situation while simultaneously dealing with internal conflicts such as overcoming their own fears or doubts.


Internal and external conflicts are powerful storytelling tools that work together to create depth, tension, and character development within a narrative. When used strategically and creatively, they contribute to the overall success of a story – leaving readers satisfied and ready for the next one!

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