Have you ever wondered why some movies are so boring while other movies are so exciting? It’s all in the screenplay.

In this article, we will look at the differences between internal and external conflicts in screenwriting and how they can affect your movie.

We’ll also look at how you can use both to make your characters more interesting and engaging for your audience.


internal and external conflict

What Is internal and external conflict?

External conflict is a problem that is caused by some outside force. An example of external conflict is a villain. The villain presents an obstacle for the protagonist.

They are actively working against the protagonist and creating trouble for them.

The conflict does not stem from the protagonist and instead comes from something or someone else entirely. There are many different types of external conflict in film including: physical, social, and emotional.

Internal conflict refers to problems that are inside of a character’s mind that can stop her from achieving what he wants or has dreamed about all her life.



Internal Conflict vs External Conflict In Screenwriting

Internal conflicts are private struggles that take place inside a character’s head about life, love, family, career choice, or any other subject matter.

This is something that has been building up inside the character from the past or from an incident that takes place in your movie.

It can be something that makes him/her feel guilty about what happened or something that he/she thinks about on a regular basis.

Internal conflicts don’t really have an effect on the outside world, but they do affect how your character views themselves and those around them.

These struggles often come to a head during climactic moments of your movie and can sometimes lead to the end of a relationship or even death.

An example of this is in The Godfather where Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) has an affair with another woman whilst his wife, Carmella, is unaware.

Make Both Types Of Conflict Obstacles In Screenwriting

One of the hardest obstacles to overcome in screenwriting is conflict. It is essential to test your characters and see if they have flaws.

Here are some tips on how you can use the two types of conflict obstacles in your screenplay:


1. Man vs. Man Conflict

This is when a character is fighting against another person or people that he or she dislikes. These could be co-workers, family members, or other characters in the screenplay.

One thing to remember about man vs. man conflict is that there has to be something at stake for both sides.

It’s not just about fighting for the sake of fighting. There has to be something that both sides are willing to risk in order for the story to move forward.

2. Man vs. Self Conflict

This type of conflict is when a character fights against himself and his own flaws and weaknesses.

This can sometimes be more challenging than a character fighting against others because of how personal it is.

If a character loses his or her internal battle they can lose everything they have worked so hard for and sometimes even their lives if it goes too far.

Plan How External And Internal Conflicts Affect Each Other In Screenwriting

In screenwriting, conflict is defined as the opposite of harmony or agreement. In other words, it’s a state of opposition or antagonism that creates tension and suspense in a story.

Tension is created when two opposing forces are set against each other. In real life, this translates to any kind of dilemma that we must face in order to achieve a positive resolution.

The best way to create a sense of conflict is by setting up an obstacle between the character and their goal.

Any time there’s a problem for the character to solve, there will be resistance and conflict along the way.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is tasked with interviewing serial killer Hannibal Lecter in order to learn about Buffalo Bill’s next victim.

Her goal (to stop Buffalo Bill) is in direct conflict with Lecter’s goal (to avoid being imprisoned).

In Die Hard, John McClane wants to save his wife from the terrorists who have taken over the building where she works. His goal (to save her) is directly opposed by Hans Gruber’s goal (to take control).

The most effective conflicts are those that are deeply personal to your protagonist. You don’t want to paint yourself into a corner by creating an antagonist that is your hero.

Give Characters Opposing Internal Conflicts In Screenwriting

Internal conflicts are internal struggles. They occur when a character is forced to choose between two equally important goals that cannot be realized at the same time. This causes a conflict because the character must make a decision.

In most cases, the character has no hard and fast rules for making decisions (because it is not always necessary to do so), so they decide based on their emotions.


Since internal conflicts are internal, they are not usually visible to other characters in the movie. However, there is one way that an internal conflict becomes externally apparent: through dialogue.

Sometimes a character will reveal what is going on inside of them through the words they speak. For example, if a man is torn between his love for his wife and his love for his mistress, he may say “I love them both.”

Internal Conflict Examples In Famous Movies

Internal conflicts can be found in all movies, but they are especially prevalent in dramas and thrillers.

Here are some examples from famous movies:

In The Wizard of Oz, we see Dorothy torn between her desire to stay with her friends and her desire to return home. She makes this clear by singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” throughout most of the movie.

Use Multiple, Related Internal And External Conflicts In Screenwriting

The best screenplays have multiple, inter-related conflicts. Your protagonist has a central conflict in the form of their goal and the obstacles that get in the way of them achieving it.

But every great story also has at least one additional conflict that works to deepen the overall story, whether it’s internal or external.

Tension is what keeps your audience engaged, and having multiple conflicts helps build this tension.

Internal conflicts are conflicts between important secondary characters within your story and can include:

  • A character’s wants versus their needs,
  • A character’s goals versus their fears,
  • A character’s desires versus the world around them.

External conflicts arise from a character interacting with another person or group of people who might be trying to help them reach their goal or stop them from reaching it.

An example of this would be a man (Protagonist A) who wants to buy a boat but can’t afford to do so (his need).

He works hard to save up money and finally manages to scrape together enough funds (his want).

Another character (Protagonist B) then tries to steal those funds from him which forces him to either fight them off or try and run away while they chase him down (his fears).

Plan Character Arcs Alongside Internal And External Conflicts

One of the most common mistakes I see in upcoming screenwriters is their failure to map out the character arcs. They have a killer story, know exactly what they want to say, and have mapped out a killer plot.

But when you look at their characters, those characters are one-dimensional. They don’t change over the course of the story and just make the same decisions repeatedly because that’s what the plot requires.

Trying to write realistic characters without having a sense of how they’ll change over the course of your screenplay is like trying to build a house without a blueprint.

You can’t get very far unless you know what changes you’re aiming for on each level of conflict.

Character development must be done simultaneously with external and internal conflict development. 

If you don’t establish clear goals, stakes, obstacles, and resolutions for your character during your first act, then your second act will be confusing as you try to figure out how to deepen your character arc within that context.

Don’t try to wing it! 

Your main character should not suddenly transform into an entirely different person based on what happens in the midst of an action sequence or third-act climax. 

Change happens slowly over time as we experience new things and react accordingly. 

You need to plan.

How To Add External Conflict To Your Story

External conflict occurs when the main character is prevented from achieving his or her goal by an outside force. External conflicts can come in the form of villains, natural disasters, physical disabilities, and even other characters.

What Is External Conflict?

External conflict is usually introduced at the beginning of the plot and continues until it’s resolved at the end.

In some stories, the conflict may be introduced later on in the plot – but only after the initial conflict has been resolved.

In most stories, there are two types of external conflict: man-made and natural. Man-made conflicts tend to occur between two characters whereas natural conflicts are caused by forces of nature like floods, fires or earthquakes.

The presence of external conflict is essential for stories that revolve around a goal; without external obstacles to overcome, there would be nothing for your hero to do but sit around and wait for things to happen. 

Without any obstacles in their way, your characters will have no reason to act or change.

How Internal And External Conflict Work Together

Internal and external conflict are two of the most important aspects of storytelling. We’ll look at how they work together to create a compelling story.

Tension is one of the most important tools in a writer’s toolbox. It’s what keeps readers on the edge of their seats and what makes your characters do crazy things, like jump off water towers or punch out their boss.

Internal conflict without external conflict can be interesting, but it’s not very exciting. Think about it – if you’re reading a book about a guy who is thinking about killing himself, he could just think about it for 300 pages and then decide not to kill himself at the end.

That might be an interesting read, but it’s not going to keep you glued to the edge of your seat. So that book needs some external conflict too – something that will push him toward suicide or force him away from it.

If that wasn’t enough excitement for you, throw in some external conflict!

Types Of Internal Conflict In Screenwriting

The effects of an internal conflict will be visible in the character’s behavior or in their dialogue and how they relates to other characters.

The character might seem drawn, tired, or withdrawn and there might be a general feeling of something being “not quite right”.

Some examples of internal conflict in screenwriting would be:

The instinctive desire for revenge on a murderer who killed your father can be an internal conflict.

You might feel that you should dig up a gun to enact your own justice, however, there is still a part of you that wants to let go of the past, forgive and move on.

A man who is hired by a criminal organization to get rid of people they don’t like might have an internal conflict when it comes to killing children or women.

He knows he has no choice but he feels bad about it and wishes that he didn’t have to kill anyone at all.

Types Of External Conflict In Screenwriting

 External conflict simply means that there is a problem to solve, a goal to achieve or an obstacle that must be overcome. It is like a test of your character’s skills, abilities, and resolve.

This type of conflict is what drives your story forward, by posing a problem that needs to be solved.


Screenplays that use the TEST OF SKILL plot point include The Fugitive, Shawshank Redemption, and Star Wars

In this type of conflict, one or more characters are faced with the challenge of finding a way out of an apparently hopeless situation.

The steps they take to find a solution will lead them into even greater danger or difficulty.

Core Conflict In Screenwriting

The core conflict of a story is the driving force for the narrative. It is what keeps the audience engaged, caring about the characters, and wanting to find out how it all ends. 

Without a core conflict, there is no story; without a character facing a challenge, there is no plot.

What Is Core Conflict?

Another way to think of it is, “what is keeping your hero from achieving his or her main goal throughout the story?”

While there are certainly other elements in a story, such as secondary conflicts and subplots, at its heart, every screenplay should have one main conflict that resonates with its audience.

This conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be life-threatening or even dangerous but if it isn’t interesting to your audience, they will have trouble relating to your story and might not finish reading your script.

Creating Conflicts

The best conflicts are based on universal truths and fears that everyone can relate to.

The conflict can be between:

  • two people (a love triangle),
  • between an individual and his or her environment (an underdog sports team trying to overcome long odds), or
  • within an individual (being torn between two loves).

There are many different types of conflicts.

Major Conflicts In Screenwriting

If you want to be a screenwriter, then it is vital to understand the basics of these major conflicts. 

Tension is required in any screenplay and there are several different kinds. The one that you choose depends on the genre. Some movies or TV shows require more tension than others.

Drama tends to use more tension because it is a slower-paced genre than something like action/adventure or comedy.

If you are writing an action drama, then it might be better if you utilize an external conflict instead of an internal conflict.

However, if you are writing an action comedy, then it may be better for you to use an internal conflict to give the audience more time to laugh between fight scenes.

You can also add tension by using multiple conflicts at once in your screenplay.

If you have a character who is being chased by bad guys and just found out that he has cancer, you have now added both external and internal conflicts.

This will help keep your audience interested in what is happening in your script while they try to decide which type of conflict they would like to see resolved first.

Minor Conflicts In Screenwriting

Minor conflicts in screenwriting are those that are resolved quickly and easily. Minor conflicts serve to move the story forward but they do not cause full stops in the action or drama. 

In a major conflict, the main character and his/her goal are challenged by an obstacle.

The obstacle prevents the main character from attaining his/her goal and creates tension for the audience. In a minor conflict, there is tension but it is not sustained.

Types Of Minor Conflict

An example of this is Innocent Conflict. This type of conflict is created when characters get caught up in a misunderstanding about each other or some situation that has arisen. 

For example, if two young lovers are planning to meet at 5 p.m. for a date, one of them may be held up by traffic and arrive late.

The other might misinterpret this and get angry. Or one of them might think that this would be a perfect time to break up with the other — but not only does he/she want to break up with a loved one, he/she wants him/her to suffer as much as possible before doing so!

The innocent conflict between these two lovers over something as simple as traffic can lead to a lot of laughs and provide plenty of opportunities for humor.

Have Multiple Layers Of Conflicts In Your Stories

Conflict is at the heart of every story. If you’re having a hard time creating conflict, it’s likely because you aren’t using multiple layers to build it.

In screenwriting, there are three main layers of conflict: the external, the internal and the moral. As you develop your characters and plot, make sure that each layer is present.

External Conflict

This layer involves an obstacle or problem that is outside of the protagonist.

It’s the most obvious obstacle — like a man who wants to win a race but has a broken leg.

Internal Conflict

This is the emotional journey of your protagonist as he/she deals with his/her external conflict.

This conflict is about how they feels about dealing with their external problem. 

Perhaps they must win this race to keep their ranch, but don’t know if they can do it. 

Moral Conflict

This involves an ethical decision that your protagonist must make during his/her journey to resolve the external and internal conflicts. 

The most interesting moral conflicts are those that are not black and white, but involve shades of grey. Perhaps your hero must choose between saving themself or someone else.