Definition of External Vs. Internal Conflict

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Internal and external are the two types of conflict that drive a plot forward. Both types of conflict are usually necessary to make a story interesting to readers. Although they are different, internal and external conflict are related.

Internal Conflict

  • Internal conflict is a complication that happens within a character; it may be a moral dilemma the character is facing, or it may take the shape of a choice or a desire. As author Kurt Vonnegut said, "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water."


  • Internal conflict creates individuality for a character; it sets her apart from the rest of the story and gives a motivation for choosing certain actions. It can also be directly related to external conflict.

External Conflict

  • External conflict occurs between two or more characters, or a character and his environment; external conflict involves an interaction with the setting and other characters of the story. Wars, fights, love affairs, trying to get a taxi and all other situations in which characters clash create external conflict.


  • External conflict sets the overall tone for many stories. Multiple characters can be motivated by external conflict, and it creates situations in which characters are forced to interact.


  • Internal and external conflict play off one another. For example, a man struggling with a decision about whether to quit his job may snap at another character, which causes the two of them to fight. In situations like this, internal and external conflict have a direct link.




  • Photo Credit Ingram Publishing/Ingram Publishing/Getty Images

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