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Internal & External Conflicts
Hans Ness, Mar 30, 2024
You’re probably familiar with Internal and External conflicts, and you’ve probably been advised to include both in your stories. But let’s look at some of the different ways to combine them, and some of the exceptions. First, a quick review:

External Conflict — The physical plot. Easy to explain, especially for a younger/broader audience. Examples: beat the bad guy, solve the crime, win someone’s love.

Internal Conflict — In the mind. Examples: earn respect, become more considerate, become more confident, become a better person, get unstuck in life, find true happiness.

Zootopia — Judy Hopps’ external conflict is she’ll lose her job if she doesn’t solve the crime. Her internal conflict is her implicit bias against foxes.
Finding Nemo — Marlin’s external conflict is that his son is lost. His internal conflict is his fearful and overprotective nature.

External Only

Basic stories have only external conflicts, and many popular stories too. The external goal is specific, clearly established by the start of the rising action. This is common in action/adventure, mystery, and thrillers.
The Little Mermaid — Ariel wants to live as a human and win the prince’s love. (While her father is unsupportive, that serves only as an obstacle to her external goal, not an internal conflict because she has no doubts or reservations.)
Star Wars (a New Hope) and Raiders of the Lost Ark have no significant internal conflict.

Internal Mostly/Only

Dramas are driven by internal conflict. The external plot is only to serve the internal goal — the experiences the character needs to resolve their internal conflict. The external goal is minor or missing. The internal goal is usually implied and vague, not explicit or specific.
The Breakfast Club — Five teens have transformative conversations while stuck in detention, seeing past their cliques to realize they’re not so different. No external goal, just wait for detention to end.

External Mostly

Most stories have both, where most focus is on the external conflict. The internal goal is secondary, usually with little impact on the external goal. It may be discussed openly or not.
Moana — Her external goal is to sail the ocean and save her island. Her internal goal is choose her own path in life, despite her father’s objections. She achieves the external goal, then the internal goal quietly just happens.
How to Train Your Dragon — Hiccup’s external goal is to save the dragons. His internal goal is to earn his father’s respect, which he eventually does, but the external resolution does not depend on this. (Well, at some point his father helps by freeing Toothless after respecting Hiccup, but it’s just one step in the final battle.)

Equally Internal & External

Some stories give about equal focus to the internal and external conflicts. The conflicts are entwined so that one goal depends on the other goal. This internal goal may be discussed openly or not.
Cars — Lightning McQueen’s external goal is to win the race. His internal conflict is how self-centered he is, which significantly changes the external plot: He gives up his goal of winning the race to help someone else.
Up — Carl’s external goal is to fly his house to Paradise Falls. His internal conflict is his loneliness, grumpiness, and boredom. After he achieves his external goal, he realizes his internal conflict is unresolved; this is never spoken. This motivates him to help the boy Russell save the bird from the bad guy (new external conflict), and he ultimately befriends Russell and Dug the dog (internal resolution).
Zootopia — Judy Hopps’ external goal is to solve the crime to keep her job. Her internal conflict is her implicit bias against foxes. She is unable to solve the crime without Nick Wilde, but to get his help she must first overcome her bias.
Incredibles — Bob Parr wants to be a superhero again and defeat the villain, but he cannot do it without the help of his family, which doesn’t happen until he learns to respect and trust them. (Same pattern as Zootopia: characters must trust each other to reach external goal.)


Try to add an internal conflict for your protagonist. It’s especially interesting if the internal resolution enables the external resolution. But internal conflicts are optional if the external conflict is highly engaging.