The best movies have stories that entertain us but at the same time connect with us and keep us glued to the screen. That kind of compelling drama happens on multiple levels, through internal conflict and external conflict. How you implement those two tools will determine how effective your story is.
Because without good conflict, your story won’t hold anyone’s interest. So the big question becomes: how do you sustain strong conflict throughout your project?
Today we’re going to show you. We’ll go over the two different types of conflict, plus we’ll include a free worksheet called the “internal and external conflict ladder” to help you create and track quality conflict over the course of your story.
We’ll also breakdown internal vs external conflict across several very different films so you can see this excellent writing tool in action.
Whether you’re working in film, television, or learning to write your first treatment, the techniques we cover can help you move your project forward.
What are the types of conflict?
When we talk about conflict in a story sense what we're talking about is the obstacles the characters face.
We can break those obstacles down into two distinct types: internal and external. Those are the obstacles we face inside of each of us, as well as those we face on the outside.
You know them well. There is that type of inner conflict that rages inside you over what to do in a particulare situation. And then there is that type of conflict you face when an obstacle is placed in your path; directly between you and your goal.
These types of conflict in narrative are as old as the spoken word itself. They’re on cave walls, in Homer, The Bible, and painted deep inside the Pyramids. They're a part of who we are every day.
That's why telling good stories is innate to being human. And look no further than Joseph Campbell's life's work and the Hero's Journey to learn more about that.
Today we're going to dive deep into these forms of conflict, so you can employ them in your stories, and spin the yarns that engage audiences and have the power to last.
The Types of Conflict
Person vs. Self
This is a kind of character conflict.
Since the dawn of humanity, we’ve been wrestling with what’s going on inside us. And this is really the epitome of internal conflict.
Person vs. self conflict is layered in plenty of of movies but it really shines in Television. Since TV takes us on an ongoing journey, we’re usually following a characters internal growth.
Think about Don Draper in Mad Men. We traveled with him for seven years as he made countless decisions, examined where they came from, and faced who he was as a person.
His “Hershey Bar” pitch speech was the epitome of that.
Damn, Don. You blew it.
If you want to go deeper on Don Draper and how to use that character model when you develop your own character dynamics, check out our video series on how to develop a TV show.
Episode 2 in particular deals with Don and creating memorable and effective character dynamics.
Person vs. Person
Are you the type of person who just loves superhero movies? Or maybe Star Wars?
Well then you're very familiar with this type of conflict, which the big screen right now. Just ask Thanos.
For every hero, there’s a villain. And We love sitting in the theater and watching them duke it out in Wakanda, space, or across the skies.
A character v. character conflict.
It doesn’t matter who wins, it’s all about the struggle. Eventually someone fades away.
“I don’t feel good, Mr. StudioBinder.”
Person vs. Society
This type of conflict is a bit trickier. It takes our protagonist and turns the world against them.Think about The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Another example of this could the recent film Selma.
Person vs. Nature
Remember when we mentioned cave paintings? Well this is the kind of conflict that probably showed up first there. How do we contend with the forces of nature that seem to conspire to end us?
Storms. Hunger. Predators.
We still love a good person vs. nature story. Think Castaway, The Day After Tomorrow, and Jaws.
We are going to need a bigger internal conflict
Person vs. Machine
One of the all time great science-fiction action movies ever made, The Terminator is exactly this type of conflict.
This type of conflict will be back
Some internal and external conflict has 'arrived'
2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix... The list goes on and on. Because once "man" conquered the natural realm he started looking for new antagonists in his fantasies and nightmares. Technology was an obvious choice
What about something that flips the genre on its head? The Iron Giant did just that.
So did Wall-E. Both stories that are more focused on a machine vs. person conflict.
Wall-E’s external conflict is being dragged into space.
Person vs. Fate or the Supernatural
Remember the opening of The Ring?
“Seven Days..of Internal and External Conflict.”
This type of conflict pits your characters against existential forces coming for them.
It could be the ghosts in their house, vampires on your college campus, or finding out that you’re a superhero like the main character in Unbreakable.
"My external conflict is this rain jacket..."
This is another kind of conflict that goes back to our roots. Like the role of the gods in Greek and Roman mythology.
When the gods are in control, all we can do is go along for the ride.
Now that we’ve covered the six main types of conflict let's dive into how they can help you with your storytelling.
The first step is figuring out what type of conflict your main character will face. And that's where you pick between the big two subcategories.
Is your lead wracked with internal conflict? Or are they going to face daunting external conflicts?
Let's go over each so you can decide.
As mentioned in the person vs. self section, the internal conflict definition is exactly what its name implies.
Internal conflict definition
A personal or psychological battle within the mind and psyche of a character. The character's drive to resolve this creates the plot and it's drama.
Classic examples of characters with internal conflict
- Hamlet (Theater)
- Antigone (Theater)
- Anna Karenina (Literature)
- Charles Foster Kane (Film)
- Blanche DuBois (Theater/Film)
- Don Draper (T.V.)
This is about the emotional journey a character goes on.
There are lots of types of internal conflict. Think about it like it's the cartoon of the devil on one shoulder and angel on the other.
Use the Story Speedometer to create the deeper personal change for the characters in question.
Internal conflict examples
Internal conflict examples can seem like the more boring or easier ones to write.
But don't be fooled!
There are lots of types of internal conflict but they all require nuance and special care. You can’t rely on big set pieces or action packed moments for people to change, you have to rely on lessons, and personal growth.
You have to rely on the kind of change that really matters. Internal conflict examples obviously cover person vs. self, but what else do they cover?
What about person vs. supernatural? Perfect example of this would be Jack in The Shining.
All internal conflict and no play makes Jack...
Or Cole in The Sixth Sense.
This kids internal conflict ? He sees dead people.
Cole must deal with that "Sixth Sense" inside him that’s affecting the world around him...Externally. That's where you start to see the internal conflict and external conflict interacting.
What about person vs. society, like Brandon Teena’s decision to keep her trans lifestyle hidden in Boy’s Don’t Cry?
It’s just as much about her feeling comfortable within herself as it is about her fight against societal obstacles.
Internal Conflicts DO cry. Usually quite a bit.
External conflict is little easier to define than internal conflict.
There’s going to be a lot of physical obstacles in the way of your characters. But it has to be more than a physical obstacle, right?
It has to be an obstacle in between our character an a very important goal.
External conflict definition
The struggle between a character and any obstacle or force outside of himself that he must overcome to reach his goals, such as another individual, nature itself, or society.
Classic examples of characters facing external conflict
- Gilgamesh (Literature)
- Odysseus (Literature)
- Frodo Baggins (Literature/Film)
- Luke Skywalker (Film)
- Jack Bauer (T.V.)
Oftentimes external conflict is a tangible thing that gets in the protagonists way. It could also be another character, or characters. Or a rule in the society the character lives in.
Looking at that list of examples can't you easily picture the big obstacles and clear goals in each story? Odysseus, for example. had an ocean and an angry god between him and his family. Those are big obstacles, and a very relatable goal.
External conflict examples (from TV)
Now we've defined external conflict. But just like in the instance of it's twin the internal conflict, there are many different types. The key is making the choice that works with the kind of story you're going to tell.Think about a TV Show like The Americans. The writers needed to have recurring physical deterrents for their spy characters. The essence of their show is an external conflict.
Theses characters are behind enemy lines. They have external conflict facing them nonstop.
The same could be said for a show like Lost.
Being physically lost is an external conflict. Being emotionally lost... thats internal!
Our characters are lost on an island. How do we they home? Will they build huts like in Gilligans Island? Whatever types of external conflict you choose will heavily influence the story.
Applying internal vs. external conflict to your story
Now that you have all that down. Let’s bring it into your world and your project.
You’ve sat down to write your next masterpiece. You know the story and the characters, but maybe parts of the script are dragging and you feel like you're not hitting your moments.
One thing that that helps you d that is combining internal conflict with external conflicts. It can help you bulk up the story in the places it sags.
Maybe your story is too external conflict focused. Go ahead and add a dose of internal conflict to further complicate your protagonists journey.
Indiana Jones is dealing with dad issues. So shoot his Dad in the chest and make Indy retrieve the Grail to save him.
That way you have fun external obstacles with the internal obstacle that his Dad may pass without that father son reconciliation.
This is how the modern movie is formed. They almost always combine the internal and external conflicts.
Luckily we have an awesome tool you can use to plot out your stories internal and external conflict.
The Conflict Ladder
When you start off the with conflict ladder, hink of your character’s goal or end point as something way up high on a top shelf they can't reach.
Internal and external conflict will build the ladder that will get them to that goal.
When you picture a ladder, it’s got two long vertical outside rungs and many horizontal inside rungs.
The outside rungs represent the external conflict. The horizontal rungs represent internal conflict.
Now, you can try to climb up without changing as a person. It does happen in some films. In fact, a lot of macho action films contain characters who don’t change.
Think about Speed. Those people are the same all the way through.
But it’s a lot harder to climb this way.
It’s much easier if you change as a person internally and build the external set pieces around that goal. When you get both going in tandem, the sky's the limit.
Real talk: I still cry every time I hear “See you Again”
Let’s take a look at a few awesome internal and external conflict examples using our conflict ladder as a guide.
The Conflict Ladder examples
Internal and external conflict example: Knocked Up
The plot of Knocked Up is simple.
Ben and Alison leads very different lives but meet at a bar, then have sex.
She gets pregnant and they try to work things out over the next nine months to become a family.
The external conflict is the unexpected pregnancy.
The internal conflict is how far each of them is from being a person ready to form a family, and raise a child.
Apatow masterfully schedules the internal rungs to hit different times of the pregnancy. That way, as we track the literal growth of the baby we’re also tracking the internal growth of the characters.
That gets them climbing toward the birth. Which matches up perfectly with them falling in love.
Let’s follow the rungs.
In one sense, Ben is a baby when we meet him. No responsibility, no job, no worries. Once he’s faced with a real challenge he’s got to figure out what he’s made of.
That means external things like baby shopping, but also the internal change of putting childish behaviors behind him and stepping up to be there for Alison.
Alison is on the other side of the spectrum. She is very much an adult, with the complete career. She has her life together, maybe TOO together? But she wants more.
The movie poses that parenthood loosens people up. And Alison needs to chill.
While Alison’s external conflict comes with being pregnant and dealing with the side effects, her internal conflict has to do with loosening up.
That means helping Ben with his porn website, goofing around with his friends, and getting over Ben’s demeanor.
While this happens, Ben becomes more of a provider and takes care of Alison.
It’s not perfect, but it starts to work.
They fit in each other’s lives.
When the two of them fight at the end of the second act it’s about the fear of what they'd have to become for one another.
And at the end of the film, when they reconcile, it’s because they’ve fallen in love with one another, and they're ready to embrace the change.
But what about Internal Conflict in drama?
Internal and external conflict example: Philadelphia
Philadelphia's plot is intricate.
A gay lawyer is fired from his high-powered law firm and wants to sue them for discrimination. He thinks he was terminated because he has AIDs.
When he can’t find anyone to take his case, he turns to a homophobic Personal Injury Lawyer who reluctantly takes up the cause.
So when the movie begins, we’re at the very bottom of the ladder.
As you can see, the struggle here works two-fold. Our external conflict is both the court case and the debilitating disease.
What makes Philadelphia even more complicated is that it also doubles down on the internal rungs. So there’s a lot to track.
Denzel Washington's lawyer character, Joe, has to overcome his inner bias toward homosexuals.
Tom Hanks’ character, Andrew, has spent his entire career looking down on Lawyers like Joe. He hates ambulance chasers. But now he needs one.
We see Joe’s internal conflict in some very detailed ways: particularly his reluctance to shake Andrew’s hand and the way he describes gay people to his wife.
Andrew, when he finally visits Joe to ask him to rep him, mentions seeing nine lawyers before Joe. That’s how much he hates him.
But both men need each other and begin to climb.
What makes them climb? A chance encounter in a law library where Joe, a black man, sees Andrew discriminated against. It’s discrimination he’s felt his whole life. The two share a connection now related to their internal conflicts and external conflicts.
Each man succumbs here to needing the other. And they climb together. United. Until they’re not. Joe has to deal with his homophobia.
And it takes time.
It’s always interesting to see a character climb only to slip and falls a few times.
The story hits it externally when Joe and his wife go to an all gay-men’s ball. But we see Joe full circle internally when he slow dances with his wife next to Andrew and his partner.
Joe has accepted they are the same. Now he can win in court. Andrew is a little different. At first he spurns lawyers like Joe. Then has to lie prostrate in front of him. He’s combative when they talk.
But after Andrew realizes Joe is on his side, knows the law, and is working hard, he pulls back. You sense it in their conversations.
These two men respect each other now.
They’ve changed internally and can now take on their external, societal, adversary. And when they get to the courtroom each trusts the other to shine.
That’s how they win.
Internal and external conflict example: Titanic
You guys heard of this little flick from the 1990s? The ship of dreams...
Guess what the external conflict in Titanic is…
The boat sinking.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg...
No pun regrets! The entire first hour of Titanic is a person vs. person struggle between Cal and Jack / Rose.
Rose is trying to escape Cal and his marriage. She even considers suicide.
Jack saves Rose’s life and her internal conflict switches to falling for him and forsaking her family. Jack’s internal conflict is thinking he’s not good enough for Rose.
So we have a Gift Of the Magi scenario going on.
Jack is trying to be seen as a gentleman.
Rose is trying to be with a commoner.
And then the iceberg hits and we have a new external conflict.
So our ladder for this movie actually changes halfway.
Now Jack and Rose are united in love, their internal conflict is almost completely resolved, but they have to struggle up the remaining external rungs.
Too bad they can’t lie that ladder sideways and float on it.
Only one of them makes it through these conflicts.
She’s a better person for it.
Although I’m sure Bill Paxton’s character disagrees. Have you ever seen this alternate ending to the movie?
I can't imagine why they didn't use this
Now you know the types of conflict and you've seen a few classic examples that can help you put the conflict ladder to use, and start getting your story climbing clearly towards it's goal.
Sometimes you have great ideas of characters, and conflict, but you still need to figure out what the spark is that lights the fire of your plot.
For that we direct you towards our free inciting incident generator along with 15 excellent screenwriting tips.
An inciting incident will help you define what your story is going to be about, and get you excited to start writing.
Check back for more writing tips and templates!
Like this post? Share it!
"Internal Conflict vs. External Conflict: How Using These Screenwriting Techniques Can Improve Your Characters." #screenwriting #screenplay