External conflict is an essential part of screenwriting in that it’s essential in driving any plot. It is different to internal conflict in that whilst internal conflict is within the characters, external is outside of the character. In this article we’ll seek to define what external conflict is as well as provide some brilliant external conflict examples.
We’ll look at:
- What is External Conflict?
- What are the Different Types of External Conflict?
- Which are the Best Examples of External Conflict?
Defining External Conflict
External conflict is when characters are faced with forces outside themselves, beyond their control, which oppose their needs and wants.
Internal and external conflict are not mutually exclusive, both are necessary in well written stories. External conflict is the basis of the entire plot, driving the narrative forward. Whilst internal conflict adds depths to characters and storylines.
External conflict is essentially the outside forces that pressure the protagonist into action. Internal conflict will be the pressure a protagonist puts on themselves, something that external conflict can exacerbate, motivate or call into question. But external conflict is the pressure point unique to this story.
A protagonist has a long life outside the point at time in which we are seeing them and. The external conflict is usually the reason why we are meeting them at this point in their life. This is unless of course the story encapsulates the protagonist‘s entire life, in which case conflict will be many and varied.
Types of External Conflict
There are three primary forms of external conflict within screenwriting. Each is vital to understanding antagonists and obstacles.
- Nature vs Character – This is when the world is opposing the goals of the protagonists. This could be a natural disaster, a global pandemic or an evil creature of some kind.
- Character vs Character – This is the simplest form of conflict and involves the battle of the protagonist and antagonist, both of whom have opposing goals, needs and wants.
- Society vs Character – In this form of conflict, the protagonists are faced with a society that opposes them. Dystopian societies involve this form of conflict, where it seems that the protagonist is overwhelmed by societal oppression.
These three forms of external conflict are the most common but not the only forms. There are other subcategories that can be extrapolated from each. These often include:
- Supernatural vs Character (a variant of Nature vs Character eg. Ghost Stories, Poltergeist)
- Technology vs Character (a variant of Society vs Character eg. 2001 Space Oddysey, Blade Runner).
- Animal vs Character (another variant of Nature vs Character mixed with Character vs Character eg. Moby Dick, Jaws).
The aforementioned three are the primary forms of external conflict. However, you’ll see in our examples that from the three primary forms of external conflict, secondary ones will spring. Furthermore, types of external conflict are by no means mutually exclusive. To the contrary, they often spawn and feed each other.
External conflict is rarely the only conflict in a film of course. In most films, the external conflict feeds into and creates internal conflict within the characters who have to deal with it. Internal and external conflict need each other to survive and it’s in this relationship that drama thrives.
Let’s take a look at some examples…
10 Brilliant External Conflict Examples
External Conflict Example 1: The Pandemic in Contagion
A fitting way to begin an article written during a global pandemic is to describe the Nature vs. Character dynamic of the external conflict in Steven Soderberg’s 2011 thriller Contagion.
The obvious external threat in this film is the virus that is killing 1 in 4 of the world population, spreading at an overwhelming rate and leading society into chaos. This external conflict speaks to a valuable and often cited theme within cinema (and art in general), humans fighting to survive in the unnatural habitat they have created in the modern world.
The film follows an ensemble cast as they each find their own ways of coping with a pandemic. We watch as scientists at the CDC attempt to create a vaccination, as members of the public deal with the impact of the virus on their lives and as W.H.O. officials try to find out the source of the virus.
The entire plot revolves around the pandemic. It threatens every character’s primary goal, to survive, thus serving as the external conflict and main antagonist for each character. It also breeds other external conflicts, such as the rioting in the streets, which in turn affects the characters.
Example 2: The Zombies in 28 Days Later
The zombies threaten the lives of the protagonists. Cillian Murphy’s Jim wakes up from a coma to find the world as he knows it has ended. The external conflict in this film is the zombies who are trying to kill Jim and the other humans. Again, similarly to Contagion, it’s a virus that spreads amongst the population causing the zombie epidemic.
Other external conflicts in 28 Days Later are impacted and created by the apocalypse that the zombies have brought about. Christopher Ecclestone’s Major Henry West is the leader of a group of soldiers who have become radical in their response to the apocalypse and attempt to abuse Selena and Hannah.
They too threaten the lives and the freedom of the protagonists and serve as a secondary antagonist and secondary external conflict. There is a chain reaction of external conflict here, one setting off another and building and building, threatening to crush the protagonists.
Other films and TV shows that feature zombies as the external conflict include Zombieland, The Walking Dead, Train to Busan and Shaun of The Dead. Each example uses zombies as the inevitable external conflict, but also feature humans acting in a villainous manner towards each other in response to the apocalypse.
External Conflict Example 3: The Shark in Jaws
Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws is an excellent example of Nature vs. Character as an external conflict. The external conflict is the titular shark.
From the moment the Great White shark kills its first victim it becomes the primary antagonist. Jaws is a threat to the lives of the people of Amity Island. Brody’s quest to kill the shark and keep the people of the island safe makes up the main drive for the film.
The shark is also a threat to the reputation and profitability of Amity Island, as the town cannot function as a tourist attraction and holiday location unless the town is safe. So it’s both the livelihoods and lives of the residents that are threatened by the Great White.
The tone of this external conflict is so memorable because of the atmosphere surrounding it as well as the its brute, animalistic force. The shark is such a beast that no human could defeat it at face value. It takes cunning, skill and heroics to defeat.
This form of external conflict is also represented similarly in films such as…
Example 4 : Pacino/De Niro in Heat
The dual protagonists/antagonists in Michael Mann’s crime masterpiece Heat are a perfect example of the Character vs Character conflict. In a story where both characters’ goals are in direct opposition, Neil and Vincent become the external conflict to one another.
- Al Pacino’s Detective Vincent Hanna is hell bent on catching criminals. However De Niro’s Neil McCauley is a career criminal.
- They are two sides to the same coin, their goals in direct opposition.
- Hanna will catch Neil – but Neil will evade capture from the detective. One has to fail for the other to succeed.
A Crucial Scene
In the scene below, both characters tell each other that they will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. They both are willing to kill the other if it comes to it. This makes the conflict between them all the more compelling as the stakes are raised and the likelihood of a solution is hard to see. Simply, there won’t be a solution without conflict.
“If it’s between you, and some poor bastard whose wife you’re gonna turn into a widow – brother, you’re going down.”Detective Hanna to Neil McCauley
Pacino’s detective openly states that he’s willing to kill McCauley should it come to it. He faces external conflict to catch McCauley and stop him from committing crimes. This creates internal conflict within him, including his inability to commit to his marriage.
“There’s a flip side to that coin. What if you do got me boxed in, and I gotta put you down? … I will not hesitate, not even for a second.”Neil McCauley to Detective Hanna
Likewise, McCauley states his desire to evade capture at all costs. Each character’s willingness to kill the other should it come to it drives the plot forward and creates internal conflict within each.
Neil’s internal conflict stems from this external conflict represented by Hanna. He is unable to build a life for himself because of his life of crime and his need to have to disappear at a moment’s notice.
This “two sides of the same coin” is a dynamic in external conflict that is common in films. Similar dynamics include, for example…
- The Joker and Batman in The Dark Knight.
- Frank Abagnale Jr. and Carl Hanratty in Catch Me If You Can.
- Toby Howard and Marshall Marcus Hamilton in Hell or High Water.
External Conflict Example 5: War in Battle Royale
War never changes. The most obvious form of external conflict is the war between two nations and ideals. In this sense, it is an example of Character vs Character.
Every soldier wants the same thing, to survive. But they stand in the way of each other’s desire to survive. They also commit their lives to their countries or a cause, which could be seen to be an example of Society vs Character, an ideal or nation state forcing characters into situations that leave them at risk of death.
The primary external conflict in Battle Royale is the other students. Forty-two enter and only one can survive. So the external conflict comes from each of them competing to be the one that survives. The notion of survival at the expense of others serves as the overarching external conflict.
Again, the film also incorporates elements of Society vs Character, the characters being forced to kill each other by the authority figures in the film.
Films about sports teams competing or competitive fighters also incorporate this conflict. For example, Warrior positions two opposing fighters in direct competition, both having to fight to survive and win the bout.
Example 6: Divorce in Kramer vs. Kramer
In the first half of Kramer vs. Kramer, the audience witnesses Joanna leave her husband and then watches from Ted’s perspective as he learns how to be a good father.
The above scene comes at the midpoint of the film. After 18 months away, everything changes as Joanna returns seeking custody.
Divorce as an external conflict is very intricate in that it creates an awful lot of internal conflict for each character. In Kramer Vs Kramer both main characters want custody of their son, Billy.
The external conflict comes from this fight over custody. Both want the same thing but only one can have it. This external conflict drives the narrative. Furthermore, internal conflict and other external conflicts branch out of it.
- Ted struggles to manage childcare and his work.
- Ted has to find another job after he is let go or face certain defeat in the court case for custody.
- Both characters face internal conflict at having to take their son away from one of his loved ones.
The divorce is the conflict in the film, it drives the plot forward and influences Ted, Joanna and Billy throughout the film. But also, intriguingly and arguably, this external conflict is one born from internal conflict itself.
Are the characters incompatible and thus serve as external conflict for one another? Or does their own internal conflict force the external conflict in the first place? The film tries to answer this question through the messy divorce portrayed.
External Conflict Example 7: Syndrome in The Incredibles
In The Incredibles, the external conflict is also Character vs Character.
The primary antagonist, Syndrome, wants to make himself super and wants what Mr Incredible has – superpowers. He is jealous of the superpowers and resentful of the luck at being super through genetic convenience. Meanwhile, he believes his genius goes unrewarded. So he seeks to kill the supers and replace them with his technology based super persona.
“When everyone is super, no-one will be.”
In this statement Syndrome shows the jealousy that has festered in him since he was “Incrediboy” and ultimately rejected as Mr Incredibles sidekick. The internal conflict within him fuels the external conflict in the film.
The Incredible family’s mission is to defeat Syndrome and prevent him from achieving his goal. They are fighting for their own survival and have to fight against Syndrome to do so.
External Conflict Example 8: Poverty in The Florida Project
The external conflict in The Florida Project is Society vs Character. Halley and her daughter Moonee are poor and much of the film is focused on their inability to achieve what they want because of this poverty.
- Moonee wants to go to Disneyland, but it is financially impossible.
- Halley loses her job, and has her benefits cut.
- Halley can’t afford rent unless she works as an online sex worker.
- Halley’s care over her daughter is jeopardised by this and the people she meets in this line of work.
Poverty is at the heart of this realist drama. All of the conflict and obstacles that the characters face stem from money, or lack thereof. Not only that but the film explores the way in which society traps those in poverty. They not only face external conflict because they live in poverty but hope of escaping it also acts as a kind of external conflict.
Other films portraying this kind of Society vs Character dynamic include…
- Parasite – in which the Kim family face poverty, which leads them to their ‘parasitic’ actions.
- City of God – in which occupants of the city ‘favelas’ are lead into crime by poverty.
Example 9: A Totalitarian Society in The Handmaid’s Tale
In dystopias the conflict is integrated into the world itself through Society vs Character. In The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, June and the rest of the Handmaids are oppressed by the patriarchal ruling government in Gilead. The state restricts their hopes, dreams, goals and any sense of an independent life. Moreover, it does this because they are women.
- The Commanders and Aunt Lydia’s repress, imprison and rape the Handmaids.
- The Eyes are ever watchful and June doesn’t feel safe doing anything.
- The society indoctrinates some of the Handmaids into supporting the patriarchal ruling government.
- The oppression of the society is often personified within specific characters, mainly the Waterfords and Aunt Lydia, who imprison June.
The Handmaid’s Tale presents quite an overt form of the Society vs Character form of external conflict. It does this largely via the fact that the society is so large, extreme and powerful and the characters facing it are so small. This uphill battle, however, is what makes the conflict so compelling, the odds small but all the more rewarding if and when overcome.
Similar types of external conflict also include…
- V For Vendetta, The Hunger Games and Snowpiercer, which all feature an oppressive dystopian society.
- 12 Years A Slave – Where Solomon Northup faces oppression from the institution of slavery and those who enforce it.
External Conflict Example 10: Time in Toy Story 3
Time is the Nature vs Character external conflict that faces all humans on the planet. Mankind has a limited amount of time in life and all are faced with the challenge of doing as much as possible before time runs out.
Time and the approach of death are surprisingly prominent in Toy Story 3.
- Time has changed Andy and now the toys are faced with the realisation that they have ran out of time with him.
- Woody has to come to terms with no longer being Andy’s toy.
- The impending doom of the toys takes a very real manifestation when they are in an incinerator and hold hands as they embrace their end.
Once they are safe, the toys then watch as Andy gives them away to Bonnie. They discover that they have a new lease on life and a new person to spend time with.
Time takes on both a literal and deeper meaning in Toy Story 3, creating a kind of layering of external conflict.
- The characters are constantly faced with situations in which time is a pressure on them.
- But time is also the overarching narrative drive, being that the toys have a limited about of time to prove their time with Andy is not up.
- On top of that, time also acts as a deeper subtext, rearing its head most prominently when the toys stare death in the face.
This layering of external conflict is crucial to the appeal of a film such as Toy Story 3, capturing younger and older audiences alike.
Time in other films
Time is a frequent source of external conflict. Often protagonists have to do something before a deadline, with a varying degree of stakes and tone at the heart of the deadline and potential outcome.
- The Hangover – the trio have to find Doug before his wedding.
- Midnight Run – Jack has to return the bounty on ‘The Duke’ within five days.
- Coco – Miguel has to get his ancestors blessing before the day of the dead ends or be trapped in the afterlife.
- Back to The Future – Marty has to fix the past before he becomes erased in the future.
Time could be integral to your screenplay. Like the previous examples of external conflict, it could be the basis to your writing. It’s a jumping off point for your story from which you can raise the stakes and incorporate other conflicts, both internal and external.
As we’ve shown, external conflict can take a myriad of different forms. It might be a starting point but by no means is it a finishing point. Instead, it serves as a flame to touch-paper, starting a fire that captivates but that has little limits in what it can encompass and impact.
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This article was written by Benjamin Hewitt and edited by IS Staff.