Types of Conflicts used in Storytelling.

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The single most factor that defines the depth and height of a certain story is the underlying Conflict in it. Writing a well-graded conflict is always a challenge for a writer, yet it’s the key to making your story memorable in the minds of the audience forever. Today we are going to cover the Types of Conflicts used in Storytelling with tons of related examples from films. At the end of this piece, I am sure you’ll be having a deep understanding of it and will be able to employ both internal and external conflict in your own stories.

Joseph Campbell, one of the most prominent contributors to Art of Storytelling said,

“If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.”

So, Let’s explore how to make our story big, by plotting interesting and unique conflicts.


Conflict drives Narrative

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As humans, our curiosity builds up when two forces oppose one another, for example, two people may resort to war due to their differences in ideology, culture, or psychology. This clash in two opposing forces is called Conflict.


Internal Conflict

Internal conflicts are internal issues like mental, emotional, or spiritual struggles a character faces. In simpler terms, there are conflicting ideas, a character has within himself. Remember the famous line from Hamlet, “to be or not to be, that is the question” is a perfect example of internal conflict where a character is on the pathway and confused about which road to pursue.

Examples of Internal Conflict in Cinema

Examples of Internal Conflict in Cinema

Though it’s hard to weave a cinematic story only around internal conflict, still there are some perfect examples in the history of Cinema where just the use of Internal Conflict has been used as a foundation for a great story.

  • The internal struggle of Indiana Jones mending his relationship with his Father.
  • Frodo fights against the power of the ring in Lord of the Rings, deciding whether to throw the ring or keep it for his selfish gains.
  • Every rom-com you love. From It Happened One Night to Set It Up, romantic comedies are stories of internal struggle.
  • Buzz Lightyear in the original Toy Story. He is conflicted because he thinks he’s Buzz Lightyear and not just a toy.
  • Other classic examples could be depression, alcoholism, fear of commitment, or even the evolving personality like the James McAvoy character in Split.
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Inner conflict in a story can be plotted in a scene where two people are talking as dynamic (or maybe even more dynamic) than a scene of two people fighting. This clash of ideologies often provides ground for more depth and thought-provoking writing. The Sunset Limited is a perfect example of this clash.

Incorporating internal conflict in your screenplay will enhance the layers of your Characters. To achieve this, first recognize your characters’ virtues and then instill an engaging inner conflict in them to create a more vibrant character.

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However, sometimes internal conflict is just not enough to weave a ratting story, and for that, we employ a compound conflict consisting of internal and external conflicts.


External Conflict

External conflict consists of the problems, antagonism, or struggle that takes place between a character and an outside force. External conflict stimulates actions that drive a plot forward.

In an external conflict, the character of the story may be struggling against another character, nature, or society.

External conflicts are often defined in contrast to internal conflict, in which the struggle is between a character and themselves—for example, between selfish and selfless impulses.

External and internal conflicts aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, they can often play out simultaneously.

Examples of External Conflict in Cinema

Examples of External Conflict in Cinema

Sometimes struggling on the outside is what causes the battle on the inside. Basically all good stories start when something goes wrong. No one wants to read a script or watch a TV show about a bunch of happy people.

When things go wrong, usually they become conflicts on every level of the character’s life. This kicks a story into gear.

  • Nazis chasing Indiana Jones to the ark enhances his struggle.
  • E.T. needs a way to go home.
  • Aliens have invaded Earth.
  • Computers in The Matrix controlling the world

The great thing about the external variety is that they can come in all shapes and sizes.  However, the size of the conflict is subjective, sometimes even a small external conflict can torment a character deeply.


Blending Internal and External Conflict

Combining both internal and external conflict is a perfect blend for a great story. Simultaneous use of both these conflicts enhances characters’ struggle and psychologically, Audience love to see a character suffering.

Blending Internal and External Conflict

Example of these blends are visible in the following

  • When Titanic is sinking, Rose has to decide whether she loves Jack or not, and wants to leave with him. The sinking of the Titanic is the external conflict while Rose’s own confusion demonstrates her internal struggle.
  • When in The Matrix, Morpheus has been abducted by Agents, Neo is conflicted to look inside to see if he is the chosen one or not.

A mix of both internal and external conflict leads to different types of Conflict in Storytelling.


Types of Internal and External Conflict

  1. Character vs. Self

As the title suggests, this kind of Conflict relies on the internal struggles of a character and subsides into the Internal Conflict Category.

In Character vs. Self, we traditionally follow what happens in the mind of a character. Whether it’s Don Draper trying to get over self-destruction, or the Marvelous Ms. Maisel conquering becoming an independent woman.

But some of the best writing takes a spin on this and creates external issues from the internal struggle.

Think about the movie Taxi Driver, where his own internal demons motivate him to take actions that fuels external conflicts in the story.

  1. Character vs. Character

Often conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist, who must be defeated, consists of Character vs. Character Conflict. This is probably the most common external struggle. We see it in comic book movies, Star Wars, and even in sitcoms like The Good Place.

Can Character vs. Character be internalized?  

Truly, if you internalize it, you get Character vs. Self, but think about movies about the possessed when Voldermort takes over Harry’s body in Order of the Phoenix, or even the possessions in Get Out.

Those become inner conflicts as one person tries to take over another.

  1. Character vs. Society

When the protagonist questions or rebels against the norms of the society or the whole community at large, it creates a rift called Character vs. Society conflict. Most works of literature that focus on this type of conflict are intended to encourage readers to examine how their own society functions in unjust ways.

Usually the topic of political thrillers, or tragic movies like The Elephant Man, this typically covers these types of outer conflicts

Can you make Character vs. Society internal?

If one have seen Manchester By The Sea? A lot of the conflict in that film comes from how Casey Affleck’s character is viewed in his town after his actions causes the fire in his own house. How he deals with that society gaze, is a character vs. society conflict that is internal.

Think about Oscar in The Office. He was never conflicted about being gay, but it took multiple seasons for the other characters and Michael Scott to truly accept him.

  1. Character vs. Nature

In this type of conflict, the opposing force is not another person, but instead the natural world. The protagonist stuck in the natural wilderness, or threatened by a storm, or struck by a terrible disease, while he must fight for their life causes this conflict. Many adventure stories centre on a Character vs. Nature conflict.

There isn’t a better example here than Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, where Tom Hanks is trapped in an alien island where he fights for his survival. Life of Pie is another great example.

In television, Lost Series is an epitome of Character vs. Nature.

But what’s the inner issue that arises with nature?

Characters like the Wolfman or even Fiona in Shrek are compelled to adapt nature in their own internal mind, submission to laws of nature. That might be their internal conflict in nature.

5.Character vs. Technology

In this type of external conflict, a character must fight against some element of technology, most often motivated by the will to survive or protect others in danger.

In most Character vs. Technology stories, the struggle between the main character and the opposing technology highlights human imperfection, greed, and fragility, utilizing strong internal conflict that showcases technology’s effect on society and/or the human mind.

Terminator series and Television series iRobot are perfect examples of this kind of conflict.

Characters dealing with things internally would be like Terminator 2, where that machine has to learn to be better? It has to make an internal change to try to be more human.

Or even stuff like Artificial Intelligence, where the robot boy desperately wants to change to become real. But his programming will never allow that.

Again – these are reaches – but that tends to be where our most incredible stories lie. In the grey areas between accepted tropes.

  1. Character vs. Fate/Supernatural

In this category, a character faces the supernatural elements or the wrath of gods, vampires, or his own fate. The problems here aren’t always tangible. They might be spiritual or little biblical. Greek stories where Gods play a subtle yet prominent part can fall into this category.

It also pops up in The Leftovers, Zombies Films, and Underworld Series involving Vampires and Werewolves.

This kind of conflict is the basis for the Coen masterpiece,  A Serious Man.

Types of Internal and External Conflict

How do we weave internal and external conflict into our stories?

The core crux of any good story is Conflict. A story’s core arc can either showcase an external or an internal conflict. Your choice of conflict defines whether a story isplot- or character-driven, but it’s not at all uncommon for a single story to contain both types of conflict. In fact, I feel, both external and internal go hand to hand and thus create a mix that amplifies the drama.

If the conflicts are not increasing or decreasing in intensity and revolving at the same pace then it won’t be a bumpy ride and the story will seem like it is going for an endless loop. You need to incorporate both internal and external conflict to push or flip the character a little and keep the audience hooked.

How Does conflict help in pushing the story forward?

In every scene, ask yourself, how does this work with the conflict I’m writing? Recognize the internal and external conflicts and merge them, finally playing them off in a way that the outcome is a character who went through shit and came out Clean or Dead, whatever the case may be.

Let’s take a look at a few scenes and examine the facts.

In the final scene of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, we have a gunfight going on. But as the camera spins, so do the characters’ insides. This whole movie is about trust and greed. Can you trust someone who is greedy? Is there honour among thieves? So here, you have the obvious external threat from the guns and internal issues from the hearts of the men who wield them.


Keys to Writing Conflict in a Story

We can all agree that the best-written film and television take characters on multiple journeys. We need to see what they’re going to physically surmount on the outside to know how it will reflect on the inside and vice-versa.

Just make it gripping!

If you think about how these types of conflict work in everything you watch, and then start to apply those principles to your own work, suddenly you’ll unlock the ability to push your stories to more dynamic places. 

Do you have some amazing examples? Do you have some ideas about types of conflict we didn’t mention?

Let us know in the comments below.


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