Three Types of Conflict in Stories

**NOTE: This article was adapted from a section in our new book, The Break In.

In real life, sane people generally try to avoid dangerous, uncomfortable situations. In storytelling, you must learn to do the opposite. Creating reasons for your hero to fail or back out of the challenges presented to him or her is vital to making the audience care about your story.

Conflict is the cornerstone of great storytelling because it demands change. Our favorite heroes in movies are the ones who encounter the most difficult circumstances and, as a result, change for the better. Whether or not we realize it in the moment, we love stories with heavy conflict because they inspire us to make heroic choices when we encounter obstacles in our own lives.

Conflict in stories can take many forms but can always be categorized into one of three types: external, internal, and philosophical. Knowing how each of these conflicts fits into your story is vital for developing layered, interesting characters and a meaningful narrative.

1. External Conflict

This is the most obvious type of conflict where a character wants something, and a physical, visible obstacle threatens his or her efforts to get it. For example, in Lord of the Rings, Frodo wants to get the ring to Mount Doom. But along the way, he encounters various battles with orcs, ringwraiths, and traitors.

External conflict will be obvious and natural to most films, especially action, horror, and mystery/thriller. But for films focused on relationships or emotions, you may have to take special care to include external conflict. Strive to give your characters a specific outward goal to chase throughout the story. Then, create outward, visible conflicts that stand in the way of achieving this goal.

2. Internal Conflict

Internal conflict is the emotional or moral battle that happens inside a character. A common form of this is temptation — where a character knows he or she shouldn’t do something but wants to do it anyway. Other times, characters battle internally with intimidation — where they know they should do something, but they lack the courage to actually do it.

Looking at Frodo in Lord of the Rings again, we see him struggle with both of these things — the temptation to give in to the power of the ring and the intimidation of being a lowly hobbit facing powerful opponents.

Internal conflict doesn’t just have to happen inside a character’s mind. Sometimes, internal conflict can play out amongst a team that wants the same thing externally, yet faces difficulties working together to achieve their common goal.

3. Philosophical Conflict

The final type of conflict is the battle between competing ideals or worldviews. This is typically the conflict at the heart of your story that drives everything forward. And usually, it’s what you want people thinking about when they leave the theater.

In Frodo’s journey, he stands up against tyranny and selfishness, choosing instead to fight for justice and humility. Simply stated, it’s a battle of good versus evil. But the philosophical battle doesn’t always have to be so black and white.

Especially for films that deal with political, religious, or social issues, there’s a tendency to present philosophical conflicts in a way that demonizes the opposing view, portraying it as unreasonable and idiotic. We can understand why people do this, but we’ve also come to understand why it’s a bad idea.

Avoid One-Sided Battles

In both storytelling and life, it’s important to listen to opposing perspectives and try to understand the people who hold them. It’s okay to believe that your position is right, and even to argue for it, so long as you present both sides of that argument in a compelling and respectful way. To incorrectly portray an opposing view is dishonest and, in turn, violates authenticity in your story.

“As a writer I want everybody to get a chance to voice their opinions. If each character thinks that they’re telling the truth, then it’s valid. Then at the end of the film, I leave it up to the audience to decide who did the right thing.”
— Spike Lee

Because our films up to this point have dealt with our views on Christianity, we’ve often faced a fear that presenting any worldview as being stronger than Christianity would work against our cause. It’s understandable why people would want to make a philosophical battle one-sided: you don’t want to betray your own stance. However, when you look at how a “one-sided” approach plays out, it becomes clear why it’s the wrong method.

When an audience watches a movie where one side has all the answers and the opposing view is floundering in their idiocy or is simply evil for the sake of being evil, there are two reactions:

  1. People who already agree with the premise have nothing to learn, and…
  2. People who disagree with the premise either get angry, or they lose interest because they can’t relate.

In both scenarios, nobody’s views actually change.

It doesn’t matter what your stance is — conservative, liberal, religious, atheist, indie, mainstream, nostalgic, modern. Your story will be more compelling if you present powerful reasons why both sides could win.

How to Use the Different Types of Conflict

As you’re crafting a story, make a habit of regularly outlining how these three conflicts manifest themselves in each character, scene, and act. Writing down the external, internal, and philosophical driving forces is a great way to discover things you’ve left out of a plotline or character. You’ll find that adding external stakes to a scene will make it more grabby or exciting. Adding more internal stakes will make scenes more emotionally fulfilling. And working out philosophical battles will make them more meaningful.

If you can get every conflict working together, you’ll have everything stories are meant to be: entertaining, moving, and inspiring.

Final Note: If you liked this article, you’ll love our new book, The Break In. Be sure to pre-order THIS WEEK for 20% OFF.