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What is External Conflict in Literature?

    what is external conflict

    Want to know what makes a story interesting? Conflict. There would be no reason for epic battle scenes or archnemesis face-offs without it. Get ready to dig deeper into the different types of external conflict and how they shape a story and the reader’s experience. 

    External Conflict Definition

    An external conflict is a struggle or problem a character (usually the protagonist) faces with a source outside of themselves. These external sources of conflict often include other characters, society, or nature.  In other cases, the conflict stems from technology, as becoming more and more popular in dystopian literature, or fate. Regardless of the source, these conflicts stand between a character and the attainment of their goals or desires.

    A story can have one conflict or multiple. In some cases, an external conflict is *the* conflict in the story, meaning the story revolves around the build up to and resolution of said challenge. Other times, external conflicts are additional sources of tension, chaos, and struggle, helping add depth and complexity to the characters and overall plot.

    External Conflict Pronunciation

    Here is how to pronounce this two-word literary term correctly: ek-stur-nuhl kon-flikt

    The 5 Main Types of External Conflict

    There are five main types of external conflict found in literature: character vs. character; character vs. society; character vs. nature; character vs. technology; and character vs. fate.

    Let’s dig a little deeper to better understand each type of conflict.

    Character vs. Character

    This classic conflict occurs when a character, often the protagonist, faces opposition from another character. In this instance, the “other character,” is who we would classify as the antagonist. The antagonist must be “defeated” (in some sense of the word) in order for the protagonist to achieve their goals or obtain their desires.

    Harry Potter’s ongoing clash with Voldemort is a perfect example of a character vs. character conflict. Another example? Simba battling Scar in the fight for the crown to the Animal Kingdom in Disney’s The Lion King.

    Character vs. Society

    In this type of conflict, the protagonist battles not just against one person, but an entire community, culture, society, or institution. Oftentimes, the tension is rooted in a disagreement over (or complete disregard or betrayal of) societal norms, values, or beliefs.

    For example, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, a white lawyer, stands up against the racial prejudice and injustice prevailing in the American south when he defends Tom Robinson, a falsely accused black man. Meanwhile, in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen stands up to the tyrannical Capitol and the dystopian society they have created.

    Character vs. Nature

    Wait—can nature be an antagonist? You bet. In character vs. nature conflicts, natural forces present major obstacles for the main character. These natural forces often include storms, natural disasters, dangerous diseases, wild animals, or the wilderness in general. The protagonist must overcome the challenges presented by nature.

    We can see this play out in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” as an unnamed man struggles to survive in the harsh conditions of the Yukon wilderness. Similarly, we see this man vs. nature conflict play out as Chuck Noland struggles to survive on a deserted island after a plane crash in the classic film, Cast Away.

    Character vs. Technology

    Technology is becoming a more and more popular source of external conflict in modern narratives, especially within dystopian novels. In this type of conflict, characters face challenges involving machines, robots, or any sort of advanced technology (yup—that includes AI). 

    Ray Bradbury explores the dangers technological advancement could have on society in his short story, “The Pedestrian.” Similarly, popular shows like Westworld and Black Mirror explore the dark side of modern society and technology.

    Character vs. Fate

    Character vs. fate conflict revolves around a protagonist’s struggle against predetermined outcomes or cosmic forces beyond their control. Despite their efforts to change their destiny, the character is often confronted with inevitable events or circumstances that shape (and sometimes end) their lives.

    For example, no matter how hard he tries, Macbeth cannot escape the prophecy of his eventual downfall and tragic fate. Similarly, the characters in The Final Destination movies avoid a tragic accident only to realize that they can never truly escape their death. 

    Understanding the Difference: External Conflict vs. Internal Conflict

    While external conflicts stem from challenges presented by outside forces, internal conflicts refer to the psychological or emotional struggles within a character—almost like a battle with themselves. With internal conflicts, characters must confront and sort through conflicting emotions, desires, beliefs, or moral dilemmas. In turn, readers gain deeper insights into the character’s struggles and growth throughout the story. That said, both types of conflict work together to make the story interesting and keep us rooting for the main character’s success.

    The best part? Stories don’t have to pick just one. A dynamic plot can explore both internal and external conflicts, adding a sense of depth and complexity that draws readers in. Typically, authors utilize external conflict to drive the plot forward, while leaning on internal dilemmas to explore character development and introspection.

    What is the Purpose of External Conflict in a Story?

    Every good story has a good central conflict. After all, not only do conflicts help make a story engaging for the readers by adding depth and tension, but they literally help move the plot forward. Without a conflict, you’d be reading nothing other than a descriptive text or informative article rather than a page-turning novel.

    More specifically, external conflicts allow authors to develop characters and explore themes with more depth and creativity, giving them a space to reflect the complexities of real-life struggles and interactions. These conflicts not only drive the narrative but also provide insight into the characters’ strengths, weaknesses, and growth throughout the story. They can be used to heighten suspense, build tension, and steer the plot towards resolution, intertwining with other elements of the story to create an engaging reading experience.

    How to Identify a Story’s Conflict

    Want to know the secret to identifying the external conflict in just about any story? Follow the steps below:

    1. Pay Attention to the Characters’ Goals: Figure out what the main characters want or need.
    2. Look for Obstacles: Keep an eye out for anything standing in the characters’ way of achieving their goals or desires.
    3. Consider the Source of Tension: Think about where the  tension is coming from, asking yourself who or what specifically is getting in the characters’ way?
    4. Analyze Points of Tension: Pay attention to the story’s rising action, looking for moments of increasing tension or drama—it’s a hint that conflict is around the corner!
    5. Identify the Climax: As the story progresses (and conflict builds), keep an eye out for the narrative’s climax—this is where the character will face their biggest challenge, revealing the main conflict.

    Now that you have all the clues, you can determine what kind of external conflict (or conflicts) the character is facing. Is it character vs. character, character vs. society, character vs. nature, character vs. technology, or character vs. fate? Then, as the story continues, pay attention to how the conflict is resolved. Does it end in happiness? Success? Defeat? Death?

    Tips for Teaching External Conflict in Secondary ELA

    • Start with Examples: Introduce external conflict using examples from literature, movies, or real-life scenarios, showing how different types of conflict play out in different contexts.
    • Analyze Short Stories: Choose concise yet impactful narratives that allow students to analyze conflict while digging deeper into theme, plot dynamics, and character motivations. (Check out some of my favorite dystopian short stories.)
    • Act It Out: Have students act out scenes depicting external conflict scenarios to help them understand the emotions and motivations involved in conflict situations.
    • Get Creative: Challenge students with fun writing prompts that encourage them to explore different types of external conflicts and resolutions.
    • Incorporate Video: Show students examples of different external conflicts using film clips and videos, highlighting how they are portrayed across different media and genres.
    • Make Real-Life Connections: Discuss how conflicts in society, politics, or personal relationships resemble those in literature, helping students make connections between literature and real-life situations.
    • Look in the News: Encourage students to analyze news articles or current events to identify real-life examples of external conflict.
    • Debate It: Let students weigh in on an issue by hosting debates or classroom discussions on ethical dilemmas related to external conflict situations portrayed in literature.
    • Promote Reflection: Encourage students to reflect on their own experiences with conflict similar to those in the story, fostering empathy and personal connection to the material.

    Examples of External Conflict from Literature

    1.  External Conflict in The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

    One of the main sources of conflict in The Outsiders is the rift between the Greasers, a group of working-class boys, and the Socs, a rival gang of affluent teenagers. There is a lot of tension, violence, and social prejudice between the two groups, driving much of the plot’s overall conflict.

    More specially, Ponyboy Curtis, the protagonist of The Outsiders, faces multiple conflicts throughout the novel, both internal and external. However, the primary conflict he must overcome is that of character vs. society as he struggles with societal expectations and prejudice based on his socioeconomic status and identity as a “Greaser.” 

    This lesson explores four types of conflicts in The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.

    2. External Conflict in “To Build a Fire” by Jack London 

    “To Build a Fire” by Jack London is a great example of a conflict of character vs. nature. In the story, an unnamed protagonist must battle to survive in the unforgiving Yukon wilderness. Throughout the story, the man faces everything from the frigid temperatures to treacherous (read: very dangerous) terrain. His struggle to survive in such brutal conditions becomes the central focus of the story.

    Despite his efforts to build a fire and warm himself, he ultimately succumbs to the brutal cold (spoiler alert: he dies). London uses this man’s struggle with nature to create a compelling story that explores the fragility of mankind compared to the formidable powers of nature.

    3.External Conflict in “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury

    In classic Bradbury fashion, “The Veldt” creates an air of caution around technological advancement and over dependance. Throughout the short story, the external conflict of character vs. technology develops as the Hadley family adapts to their new tech-savy HappyLife Home. However, the more the family depends on technology, the less they are able to control its consequences.

    As Mr. and Mrs. Hadley quickly realize, their children’s obsession with the technology starts blurring the lines between reality and illusion. The more they are consumed by the wonders of technology, the less regard they have for their parents’ authority (and wellbeing… iykyk). In the end, the obsession with and reliance on technology leads to a lapse in empathy and moral judgment (and, ultimately, death). This tragic resolution underscores Bradbury’s commentary on the importance of human relationships over technological advancements.

    Access the full short story analysis here.

    Additional Resources for Teaching Conflict

    Students can track a story’s developing conflict with this plot diagram template.

    Use these short stories to explore conflict in the Hero’s Journey.

    Teaching conflict as part of plot? Tips and short stories for teaching plot.

    Support students understanding of external conflict with these videos:

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