When I first started out as a writer, conflict was one thing I really struggled with. Writing programs, courses, and teachers all told me I needed to add more conflict to keep readers engaged. But they rarely explained why external conflict is so important.
What is external conflict anyway? What’s the difference betweenand ? How do I keep conflict throughout my book without overwhelming my reader?
It’s not easy, but there is a process you can follow.
Let’s take this all the way back to basics and look at some definitions.
What Is External Conflict?
External conflict is a fight (physical/psychological/emotional) between one character and an outside antagonistic force.
In its simplest form, we can see conflict as:
Point of view character + point of view goal + antagonistic force + stakes = external conflict
Let’s break down those four key story elements below.
1. Point of View (POV) Character
Ask yourself: Who is narrating the story or scene?
Your POV character is the character your reader experiences the story through.
If you’re telling a single POV story, then your protagonist (or your main character) and POV character are the same person. If you’re telling a story with multiple POVs (different characters telling the story at different times), then your protagonist isn’t always in control of the narrative.
By having an identifiable POV character narrating each scene, you invest the reader in that character’s journey. If you don’t invest your readers in the POV character, they don't care about what happens to them. This means they won’t care about any external conflict situations they get into.
And if readers don’t care, they put your book down. You don’t want that. I don’t want that. Nobody wants that.
Action: Make sure it’s clear who’s telling the story in each scene. If it’s unclear, make a note of that. If you’re using Fictionary, you can use the Point of View (POV) Story Element to keep track of unclear points of view.
2. POV Character Goal
Ask yourself: What is my POV character trying to achieve in each scene?
You need lots of external conflict in your novels to keep readers hooked. And you’re only going to create external conflict if your POV character wants something. If your POV character isn’t actively pursuing a goal, there’s no need for anyone to stand in their way.
In The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, Frodo must take the One Ring back to Mordor and destroy it. Otherwise, evil forces will use it to throw the world into darkness. In these stories, the external conflict arises because people are always trying to kill Frodo and steal the Ring. Now imagine if Frodo had said, “You’re all right Gandalf, mate. I don’t really fancy all this quest business. I’ll just stay in the Shire.”
There would be ZERO conflict. Frodo’s external goal (to take the One Ring to Mordor and destroy it) is what puts him in danger.
No POV character goal = no danger = no external conflict
Action: Make sure your POV character has a single POV character goal in each scene. Goals create the opportunity for danger or failure, which is the perfect breeding ground for conflict.
Which brings us nicely to…
3. Antagonistic Force
Ask yourself: Who or what is standing in the way of my POV character(s) achieving their goals?
An antagonistic force is simply an obstacle that stands between your POV character and their goal.
If there’s no POV character goal, there’s no need for obstacles because the POV character doesn’t want anything. Similarly, if there’s nothing (or no one) standing in the way of your POV character and the goal they’re trying to achieve, they’ll win all the time.
A character who wins all the time will bore readers, whereas conflict keeps them motivated to read.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the perfect example of a book that’s packed with antagonistic forces. In the first book, Katniss must win The Hunger Games, otherwise her family will starve.
There are so many things standing between Katniss and her goal. These include, but aren’t limited to:
● The Other Tributes: Katniss must kill the other tributes if she’s going to survive and win
● The Game Makers: The creators of The Hunger Games keep changing the rules and throwing more obstacles in Katniss’ path
● Her Mentor: Katniss’ mentor purposely withholds items from sponsors (which would help her win) until she performs the way he wants in the games
Katniss has a rough time in the Hunger Games arena. And that’s part of the reason the series was so successful. All that juicy external conflict hooks readers.
Action: Make sure you place plenty of obstacles between your POV character and the goal they’re trying to achieve.
Ask yourself: What are the consequences if the POV character cannot achieve their goal?
Now, we could stop there, and you’d have the makings of stellar external conflict. But there’s one more thing you need to take all that conflict to the next level…
But what are the stakes, and how do they work?
Stakes are all about the consequences of failure. What bad things will happen if your POV character fails to achieve the POV goal for that scene? For example:
● If your fantasy hero doesn’t get the magical object that’s going to save the world before the antagonist… the bad guy will use it to destroy the world (stakes).
● If your romance main character doesn’t get to the boarding gate and declare their love in time… they’ll be alone forever (stakes).
● If your thriller detective doesn’t convince their boss to keep them on the case… the killer will get away with murder (stakes).
Including stakes in your scenes doesn’t mean your point of view character should always fail. But the threat of failure should always be a possibility. That threat of failure makes readers worry about your POV character. That’s where tension comes from.
Action: Think about how you can include stakes (or consequences of failure) in every scene to create tension. If you’re using Fictionary, you can use the What If Goal Fails Story Element to keep track of stakes.
Types of External Conflict With Examples
Now that you know exactly what external conflict is, let’s dig deeper and look at the most common types of external conflict in fiction.
This type of conflict is most common and is between one character and another. This could be a physical fight, a magical fight, or a verbal slanging match. It’s a conflict between two people.
Examples of Character vs Character Conflict in Fiction
● The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks: Shea Ohmsford (protagonist) fights against The Warlock Lord (antagonist) throughout the novel.
● Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: In the Sherlock Holmes series, Holmes (protagonist) fights Moriarty (antagonist).
● Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch: In the Rivers of London series, Peter Grant (protagonist) fights The Faceless Man (antagonist).
We often confuse this type of conflict with character vs character conflict. Authors usually personify society as a figurehead, president, or government body. However, the protagonist is really fighting societal oppression.
Examples of Character vs Society Conflict in Fiction
● The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Katniss (protagonist) is fighting the district system and the injustice of The Hunger Games (antagonist). Personified as President Snow.
● Divergent by Veronica Roth: Tris (protagonist) is fighting the faction system and the corrupt government (antagonist). Personified as Jeanine Matthews.
● The Magician’s Guild by Trudi Canavan: Sonea (protagonist) is fighting the unfair class system (antagonist). Personified as all the high-class magicians.
Character versus nature is exactly what it sounds like. It’s your protagonist (and supporting cast) against a natural force that acts as an antagonist.
Examples of Character vs Nature Conflict in Fiction
● The Martian by Andy Weir: Mark Watney (protagonist) fights the inhospitable living conditions on Mars (antagonist).
● Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Pi (protagonist) must fight the vastness of the ocean (antagonist).
● The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway: Santiago (protagonist) must fight the marlin and the raging sea (antagonist).
Character vs Supernatural (AKA Man vs Supernatural)
Character vs supernatural conflict happens when your characters are fighting a paranormal entity. Many genres include this type of conflict. The protagonist can be supernatural or human.
Examples of Character vs Supernatural Conflict in Fiction
● City of Bones by Cassandra Clare: Clary Fray (protagonist) must fight the demons (antagonist).
● Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo: Alina Starkov (protagonist) must fight the Darkling (antagonist).
● Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter (protagonist) fights Voldermort (antagonist).
Character vs Ticking Clock (AKA Man vs Ticking Clock)
Character vs ticking clock conflict happens when the protagonist is in a race against time against the antagonist.
Examples of Character vs Ticking Clock Conflict in Fiction
● Endgame: The Calling by James Frey: The characters race against time to find three ancient keys that will save their line from extinction.
● The Death Cure by James Dashner: Thomas (protagonist) races against time to find a cure for a disease known as the Flare.
● The Ticking Heart by Andrew Kaufman: Charlie Waterfield (protagonist) is given 24 hours to solve a mystery.
Conclusion: What Is External Conflict in Literature?
Understanding external conflict is crucial. Especially if you want to grab hold of readers and send them on a roller coaster ride through your pages. By mastering the art of external conflict, you can craft gripping stories full of twists, turns, and satisfying battles for readers.
So, remember to give each scene:
● A clear POV character
● An interesting POV goal
● Formidable antagonistic forces
● High stakes
With these elements in place, your storytelling skills will soar. And the best part? Your readers will eagerly turn the pages, hungry for more.
Fictionary Story Editing Software can help you keep track of the story elements that contribute to powerful external conflict. If you want to make sure your story is as strong as it can be, take a free trial of Fictionary StoryTeller now.