Character Development Screenwriting

External conflict in Screenwriting: The four MAIN types of external conflict

External conflict drives the narrative forward. There’s something about external conflict that’s intriguing, and keeps you wondering “who will win?”. 

It’s the same in film, as an audience member you sit there wondering who will win, what is happening? Why exactly are they fighting? Usually, it’s obvious, and, you, me and the rest of the audience will have a clear favourite. 

But, when we strip it back, these are the questions, you, yourself as a writer should be asking whilst developing the plot.  

Why are they fighting? Who will win? Why is this happening? 

In today’s article, we will look into what it is, the four main types of external conflict and how you add it to your story. 

Let’s check these out now!

What is external conflict?

External conflict is physical conflict stopping your protagonist from achieving their goal. The external conflict helps drive the narrative and can come in a few different forms. 

It helps develop the story and provides hurdles and resistance to your protagonist as they look to achieve their goal. These hurdles add to the story and essentially this is what drives the story and adds to the twist and turns of the narrative. 

Simply put, external conflict drives the narrative and keeps the audience guessing, meaning they’re left wondering “what’s next?!”. That’s what you want, engaged and happy viewers. 

Let’s check out the four main types of external conflict and how you can achieve this in your next screenplay. 

What are the four main types of external conflict?

Here are the four main types of external conflict and a bit of background about what they are and how best to utilise them when developing your plot. 

1. Character vs Society

Character vs Society

Character vs society is the first type of external conflict we will delve into. With this style of conflict, this is where the character is struggling against some form of conflict within society. This is a great example of where internal conflict can be partnered with external conflict in an encapsulating manner.

This can be anything relating to societal issues, from politics to racism to freedom to homophobia. Then from these external conflicts it draws a reaction from the main character to do something about it, whether it’s to survive, educate, to get justice and so forth. 

It’s all about the conflict the protagonist comes into contact with, in terms of a societal issue, and how they’re going to resolve or combat this. 

A couple of great examples of this are: 

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare 

Read more on internal conflict: Internal Conflict: Crafting EXCEPTIONAL internal conflict in your script

2. Character vs Character

This type of conflict is simply a character struggling against another causing external conflict. The cause of the conflict can differ depending on what the plot is and its goals. Here are a couple of examples of character vs character external conflicts: 

  • One character may want to hurt or harm your character out of greed, spite, or they are just plain. 
  • Your characters both have the same goal and are fighting to achieve this. 
  • One character is trying to protect a person, city or object from the other character looking to cause mayhem. 
  • They both have different goals, but they stand in each other’s way, causing external conflict as they both want to achieve their goal but only one goal can be physically achieved.

These conflicts can be born out of survival, greed, honesty, deceit and many other factors. The key to achieving a strong character vs character external conflict is to ensure they are developed fully and have strong characteristics and traits

You may also like: 15 Incredible Tips For Writing MEMORABLE Characters

3. Character vs Technology

Character vs Technology conflict is where your character is fighting against some form of technology. This usually triggers the character to turn to survival or to help others that are in danger. 

When it comes to character vs technology conflict it highlights the fragility of the human being and opens up the weaknesses in which the technology will look to take advantage of. 

It shows how the technology can tear through the human population creating strong conflict meaning the protagonist/characters in the story having to defend against this incoming threat. 

It is also the perfect setup for internal conflict. Technology can be used to create a lot of minefields in your story, adding obstacle after obstacle for your characters to get through to save their world. 

A great example of this is iRobot originally written by Isaac Asimov, later crafted into a movie starring Will Smith.

It’s quite common for secondary characters to have their own smaller intertwining story arc within a character vs technology plot. Make sure your secondary character is developed fully and you can weave this into the main plot creating and engaging storyline. 

Something else you may be interested in: Our top 9 screenwriting tips to help you become a better screenwriter.

4. Character vs Nature

External Conflict: Character vs Nature

Character vs Nature conflict is a common type of external conflict. It’s an incredibly strong concept. 

This type of external conflict is usually motivated by a form of survival or struggle. You will find the main character struggling against the weather (E.g stormy weather in the sea), or against an animal or animals, maybe even the terrain (E.g mountains). 

This provokes a strong emotive reaction from the protagonist, mainly survival or helping others to escape. 

These are often combined with strong internal struggles where the main character has to navigate some personal issues or challenge their beliefs. This is occurring parallel with surviving the physical conflict they’re challenged with.

Here are a couple of popular examples of character vs nature external conflict: 

  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • Jaws by Peter Benchley
  • The Martian by Andy Weir 

You may also be interested in: Visual Screenwriting: How to write CAPTIVATING visuals

How do you add external conflict into your story?

This is an important factor when creating external conflict. How to you add external conflict seamlessly into your story? 

Your story’s key arc will either contain a form of external or internal conflict, hey! Even sometimes contains both. 

How can you build a strong external conflict and add this into your story with precision and ease? The best practice is to ask a few key questions to understand why the external conflict exists. These answers will help you understand the external conflicts and lay them out in your story. 

  • What are the protagonists wants and needs?
  • What is driving them to achieve their goal? 
  • Who or what is your protagonists opponent? 
  • Why are they opposing your protagonist?
  • What steps are needed for each force to achieve its/their goals?  
  • How is this external conflict going to end? 
  • Who comes out victorious? (Or neither come out victorious, just a lesson learned).

Now you’ve mapped out these answers you can continue to add the external conflict to your storyline and build out the individual arcs and intertwined the conflict to push the plot along. 

You may also like: How to create a compelling character arc 

Why is external conflict important?

It’s important because it is the easiest type of conflict for the audience to comprehend. It translates from script to screen pretty smoothly. 

It means it’s understandable for the audience and easy for the viewer to recognise that there is a form of external conflict brewing. 

If you watch a lot of trailers the first bit of conflict you pick up on is the external-facing conflict. An example would be in the Titanic trailer, the conflict that stands out immediately is the character vs nature conflict. However, the internal conflict is prevalent as we understand more of the love story between Rose and Jack. 

Don’t get us wrong, Internal conflict is just important to the viewer. But it can actually help sell the movie quicker as it’s easier to show the audience and the reader, especially when it comes to creating a 30-second sizzle trailer. You want the physical conflict to be prevalent, and wow the audience. 

Then once you’ve hooked them in they’ll be absorbed by the internal conflict and the intricacies of the story. 

You may also like: Character development: The fundamentals of developing the ultimate character!

The Final Cut

To sum up the article, external conflict comes in four main types and helps to create an interesting plot. The conflict can be anything from questioning societies views to surviving a natural disaster. 

The main point to take away from this article is to have a strong external conflict that you can use to push and pull the main character as they try to achieve their goals. This paired with internal conflict can help shape an exciting, engaging plot that will keep your viewers on the edge of their seats. 

Let us know down below in the comments what you thought of our article on “External conflict: The four MAIN types of external conflict”. 

Scroll further down to read more articles on screenwriting and how you can develop an award-winning film. 

Happy filmmaking!

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