How to Create Dramatic Conflict in Your Stories

Conflict is the driving force behind every story. It supports narrative causality and provides the juice of the tale. Conflict derives from forces that oppose each other and operates on multiple levels. There are three main types of conflict: external, internal, and internal/external.

Understanding Conflict Types

External conflict is typically represented through protagonist/antagonist interaction, but it can also take the form of environmental opposition such as a threat presented by a volcano, or a cyclone.

Internal conflict pits the protagonist against himself, in effect, turning him into the story’s antagonist — as in Fight Club (conflict between the character’s wishes, goals and desires, and between defining traits).

Internal/external conflict is the most common form. Here the protagonist is confronted by a mixture of inner and outer obstacles.

The Matrix

The film The Matrix is a good example of how conflict is distributed amongst the three types. At an internal level, the protagonist, Neo (Keanu Reeves), experiences tension between his belief that his current existence is real, and his growing conviction that the world as he knows it is an illusion. It is only when he comes to accept he is “The One” that he is able to resolve this conflict and defeat the antagonist, agent Smith. His inner journey, therefore, is to accept the truth by choosing to believe. By contrast, Neo’s fight with Smith and the machines represents the story’s external conflict. Although this conflict is ostensibly inside the matrix, it does spill over into the real world, with real world consequences. Lastly, the internal/external conflict is a combination of the aforementioned.

At each stage of the journey, the two conflicting strands impede and deflect each other in a causal way, until the resolution. In The Matrix, Neo’s inner struggle to believe interacts with his outer struggle to defeat agent Smith, creating the internal/external conflict through-line. It is only when he syncs up his inner and outer life that he is able to achieve success. This through-line is the chief driver of the story.

In Summary

Conflict is the fuel that powers your story. There are three main types of conflict: external, internal, and internal/external. The last combines the inner and outer journey of the protagonist and constitutes the most important through-line of your story.

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Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

10 thoughts on “How to Create Dramatic Conflict in Your Stories”

    1. I’m glad to hear it, Kevin. I post a new one every Monday, so look out for them. Thanks for the comment. I always appreciate feedback.

  1. Let me know if I’m off track here, but I think the Internal/External appeals to Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption” as well. What I mean is, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins in another brilliant but underrated performance) has to deal with becoming used to being an innocent man wrongly convicted to 2 consecutive life sentences in Shawshank Prison but he also has to deal with the inmates and staff’s treatment of him as well. When he burrows his way out of the prison at the end of the film, it is as much an external freedom as it is an internal one. He can think and say and do whatever he wants. Is this right?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Krystal. Yes, I think, overall, the structural approach has its uses in helping us to track down and remedy story problems in general.

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