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External Conflict

External conflict is a type of conflict, problem, or struggle that takes place in a novel, narrative poem, play, or other literary work.

The external conflict is focused on a character and an outside force. This is one of several types of conflict that help to move the plot forward. 

Depending on the story, the external conflict might be central to the storyline, or it might be something that happens on the side but that adds to the character’s stresses. Additionally, there might be more than one type of conflict in a story or more than one example of a type of conflict. One character might have two or three external concocts to contend with, or they might be dealing with an external and internal conflict. While the most important conflicts are those concerned with the protagonist, secondary characters can also have important external conflicts that propel the story. 

External Conflict pronunciation: ehx-tur-nuhl cahn-fleect

External Conflict definition and examples


Definition of External Conflict 

An external conflict is defined by a character’s struggle with an external force. This could be society, another character, or some other force, like the natural world, that they can’t escape. It is the opposite of an internal conflict which occurs within their mind. The most common is “character against themselves.” This might be their internal compulsions, more detrimental personality traits, or some other element that occurs within their body. Integral and external conflicts can happen at the same time. A character might conflict with their neighbors while at the same time dealing with compulsions the threaten their life. 


Types of Conflict 

There are several primary examples of conflict throughout all genres and styles of storytelling. They are:

  • Character against character. This is the most obvious and commonly used type of conflict in storytelling. It involves stories in which two characters are up against each other in some way. This is an example of an external conflict.
  • Character against technology. In this conflict, a character is up against the threat of technology. This might refer to a storyline such as is present in the film The Matrix.
  • Character against supernatural. In these stories, characters are up against supernatural elements like ghosts or monsters. This means that the main character/s have to work even harder as they are likely up against something they don’t totally understand.
  • Character against nature. This is another external conflict that occurs outside the protagonist’s mind. The character struggles against the force of nature. This might include a storm or an animal. For example, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (explored in more detail below).
  • Character against themselves. This is an internal conflict, one that occurs within the protagonist’s mind. The main character might be struggling to overcome something like an addiction or a fear. Alternatively, the main character might seek the morally correct path to walk in life while fending off their more destructive nature.
  • Character against society. This is a broader, external conflict in which the main character or characters are up against an institutional problem—for example, slavery or a totalitarian regime. Many dystopian novels include this conflict, among others. 1984 by George Orwell is a great example. It’s explored in more detail below.  


Examples of External Conflicts in Literature 

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway 

The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway’s most popular novels. In the story, Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, battles with the ocean and an enormous marlin he hooks on his fishing line. The bulk of the novel is devoted to this conflict and his physical and mental fortitude in the face of it. Although he does real in the marlin, the ocean takes it back, and he’s left where he started. 

Read Ernest Hemingway’s best books and poetry. 


1984 by George Orwell

In 1984, readers can find examples of internal and external conflicts. Winston Smith has to contend with his society, the rules of the dystopian Party, and more. He’s constantly on guard, trying to make sure that no one knows he’s thinking independently, keeping a journal, having sex, or buying objects from off-limits stores. These seemingly small rebellions are huge acts in his eyes and the eyes of the Party. They are part of what eventually leads to his fate.

Explore George Orwell’s best books. 


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

In this classic, long poem, the Mariner tells a terrifying story of external and internal conflicts. He describes being trapped alone at sea, faced with the prospect of death in multiple forms, the resurrection of his comrades, and other supernatural elements. Here are a few famous lines from the poem: 

Water, water, everywhere,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.

The speaker is alone, resource-less, and forced to face the fact that the ship and the sea will likely be his grave. 

Discover Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s other poems. 


Why Do Writers Use External Conflict? 

Conflict is crucial to writing a compelling story. Without some kind of conflict in the novel, whether that be human against human or human against society, etc., readers won’t have anything to keep their attention. There would be nothing to drive the plot nor a reason to get to the end of the novel/poem/story to find out how the conflict is resolved. External conflict is one of the more common types of conflict and usually the one that readers first consider when they consider the board word, “conflict.” 

Although this word evokes images of battles, fights, and arguments, external conflicts can be simpler. For example, someone’s attempts to befriend a disgruntled neighbor or a character’s quest to make their way through a storm. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Anti-Hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and a villain.
  • Audience: the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
  • Characterization: a literary device used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
  • Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
  • Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not use a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.


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