Hello friends, and welcome back to another post where my brain attempts to break down complex story concepts for fun! Today we're going ...

Hello friends, and welcome back to another post where my brain attempts to break down complex story concepts for fun! Today we're going to be looking at tension and conflict, and the types we can utilize to heighten story drama. Hopefully today's post will help you if you've ever had struggles developing conflict throughout a narrative!

Last week I hit the thirty or so percent mark of my WIP, Call of the Vanished, and felt something was really lacking. The plot was wandering, the characters moped around, and nothing seemed to be happening. I took a brief break from it, and when I returned, I realized that what I needed was, simply, conflict. I had built it up nicely in the beginning, but it had begun to fall away in the later scenes.

There are two key sources of conflict, but there is so much more within each one. Telling you to go add "internal conflict" or some "external conflict" into your scene doesn't paint a clear picture of what your story really needs. So what makes up internal and external conflict?


Internal conflict is everything going on inside of your character's head. Often we're our own worst enemies, and the way that we perceive situations, conversations, and ourselves, can help or hinder our physical actions. While antagonists are the favourite for throwing troubles at characters, the strongest and most powerful stories incorporate both types, with a focus on internal to communicate theme. Here are some types of internal conflict:

1) Fear vs Desire: Abbie Emmons introduced me to this on her Youtube channel (I highly recommend it!) and it's a brilliant idea. Every character wants something, but if they immediately get it, there's no point to the story. Instead, something should hold them back, such as a fear they have to struggle through to get what they desire.

2) Past vs Present: It can take years or decades to work through past hurts and mistakes, especially when they're repressed. But having past hurts brought up forces characters to reevaluate whether or not they want to forgive, or let go, a battle that can lead the soul to breaking point.

3) Lie vs Truth: Every character believes in some form of lie, whether about themselves, others, or the world. Character arcs often revolve around the character's journey from believing the lie to the truth, but it's never an easy one. The mental struggles to shed the chains brim with conflict and pain.

4) Values vs Pressure: This one is a type of internal conflict that results from external forces placing pressure on a character to do something, say, bully an outsider. The character is brought up against their values, and has to decide whether they want to stay true to them, or, for example, become an outcast too.


External conflict is any opposition to the character's actions that don't come from the character themselves. It can come in a lot of different forms, and can be either intentional or unintentional, depending on the source. External conflict can be best utilized to start the character on their arc, and force them to engage in internal battles (and hopefully win) until they are able to finally defeat the external forces. Here are some of the many sources of external conflict:

1) Villains: You probably saw this one coming. Villains have goals and desires that they will do anything to get, including kill, harm, or maybe manipulate the character. In order to reach their goal they get in the way of the character/protagonist's goal, with no regrets. Done right, villains can be a terrifying source of conflict, pain, or hatred.

2) The Environment/Nature: Unless you think the world has a brain, the environment doesn't intentionally set out to harm and kill people. But the weather, or events such as earthquakes, storms, and tsunamis, are forces that characters can hardly stand against, and are often perfect for wrecking plans and heightening the tension. Sickness and disease also fall in this category, as they don't choose their victims, they simply spread.

3) Society: Unlike the villain, society or a wider group of people may not have anything personal against the character and want to destroy their life. They may, however, hold many prejudices, beliefs, and traditions, which could come in conflict with the character's and lead to punishments such as exclusion banishment, or unwillingness to help in their task. If a character is treated like an outcast or criminal at every turn, saving the world might prove more than a little tricky.

4) People: Narrowing the focus from the last type, people close to or who the character knows intimately, can provide a strong obstacle to the character's goal or desire. Parents may not let their child go out late, a close friend might get the character into an argument over how unsafe it will be, or a sibling could threaten to tell a secret if they don't stop. 

Conflict in Isolation

In my opinion, every great scene or book has a diverse mix of internal and external conflict. While internal and external conflict can stand on their own, together they can help writers forge a story that both tells a tale of truth, and leaves the reader's heart pounding as the stakes are raised and raised. There can even be conflict between the internal and the external! For example, the character might desire to make a friend (yet are afraid of rejection), and just as they're about to conquer that fear, a potential friend could abandon her once learning about her heritage.

As with every part of storytelling, the more interwoven concepts and ideas are, the greater and more beautifully complex your story will be. Every story needs conflict to be worth telling, and the grounds for picking which type are ripe.

What's your favourite book that has an amazing mix of internal and external conflict? Do you plan conflict into your stories, or does it come organically? What's your favourite type of conflict?
Best wishes with your writing! <3

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  1. Raven Boys was one of my favorites for conflict. The characters are so believable too.
    Great post!

    1. I haven't gotten around to reading the Raven Boys yet, but I've heard great things. :D Thank you!

  2. Loved this post!! Will definitely be saving it for future reference!


  3. This is such a good post! It can be tricky deciding what kind of conflict to give your characters. I think I struggle a bit with creating conflict that's relevant to the story and doesn't just fill up space.


    1. Thanks so much Emily! Ah yeah true, that can be hard. I usually try and think of how the conflict will push my character away from their goal, or how it will force them to start confronting their fear/lie/ :)

  4. This is a great way to breakdown conflict. I hadn't thought of internal conflict in that way before!