External conflict is one of two types of conflict within literature and film (the other being internal conflict).
Whereas internal conflicts occur in the minds of the protagonist, external conflicts occur between the protagonist (our hero) and the outside world, which need to be overcome. Sometimes, while the challenge is against something physical outside of ourselves, they act as a metaphor or analogy for an internal conflict as well.
Below, I’ll provide twenty-five examples – both from real literature and once I’ve made up – that you can use as stimuli for your own plots.
Internal vs External Conflict
Internal conflict and external conflict are two fundamental types of conflict featured in literature and film.
- Internal conflicts are psychological struggles that happen within the mind of the protagonist and involve their inner values, emotions or motivations. These conflicts may arise from contrasting beliefs, fears or desires that lead to doubt, guilt, or anxiety.
- External conflicts involve clashes between the protagonist and an outside force beyond themselves. This could be other characters, society, nature or supernatural elements that create tension and challenge the protagonist’s status quo. External conflicts often propel the plot forward and provide a source of action and drama.
External conflicts can take different forms and serve different purposes in literature, such as creating tension, adding obstacles to the character’s journey, or revealing their strengths and weaknesses. By exposing the protagonist to external challenges and pressures, writers can explore the themes of power, justice, survival or change.
Types of External Conflict
There are four types of internal conflict: man vs society, man vs nature, man vs technology, and man vs man.
- Man vs society: Man vs society is when the protagonist battles against societal norms or institutions that conflict with their values or goals. In this conflict, the protagonist might feel like an outsider or reject what they see as a corrupt system that does more harm than good.
- Man vs nature: Man vs nature is when the protagonist struggles to survive in harsh environmental conditions such as extreme weather, natural disasters, or wildlife attacks. This conflict often highlights our vulnerability to the planet and our need to respect it.
- Man vs technology: Man vs technology is when the protagonist confronts machines or systems that surpass human understanding or control. Often used in science fiction stories, this conflict questions how far humans should go with technological advancements and whether we risk losing ourselves along the way.
- Man vs man: Man vs man is when the protagonist goes head-to-head with another character who stands in their way of achieving something they desire, such as power, love or freedom. This common conflict highlights our complex relationship dynamics and shows how sometimes we hurt each other even when we don’t want to.
External Conflict Examples
I’ve broken the following examples of external conflicts into the four themes: man vs society, man vs nature, man vs technology, and man vs man.
Man vs Society
Man vs society is a conflict type where the protagonist battles against social norms or institutions that conflict with their values, goals, or beliefs. It can highlight power imbalances, inequality and the importance of individuality and resistance in shaping society.
One example of man vs society conflict in literature is in the novel “1984” by George Orwell, where the protagonist Winston Smith rebels against the totalitarian regime he lives under.
He finds himself at odds with a government that monitors citizens’ thoughts and actions and forces them to conform to a distorted reality.
Winston’s struggle against conformity and oppression shows how societal norms can damage individuality and freedom.
Man vs Society Plots:
- Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury): A novel where a fireman resists a government that burns books to control the population.
- The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins): A story where teenagers fight in a state-controlled arena at the whims of a dystopian government, but find a way to fight back against the governing bodies.
- A Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood): In this tale, women are oppressed and reduced to reproductive objects in a patriarchal society.
- Brave New World (Aldous Huxley): This dystopian story follows people who attempt to live an alternative life within a society with strict genetic and social conditioning rules.
- V for Vendetta: This film adaptation of the graphic novel created by Alan Moore and David Lloyd explores an anarchist revolutionary fighting against a fascist regime.
- Fight Club (directed by David Fincher): This film depicts an underground group’s resistance against societal norms and conformity, but in the process, they develop their own destructive countercultural norms.
- 12 Angry Men (directed by Sidney Lumet): This film depicts a single juror who work his way through the prejudice of fellow jurors during deliberation.
- To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee): This famous American novel examines racism’s impact upon the lives of Black Americans in the early 20th Century. Atticus, the protagonist’s father, fights against the racism in his society, which makes him an outcast.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain): This story shows Huck following his conscience rather than abiding societal views held at that time regarding slavery.
Man vs Nature
Man vs nature is a conflict type where the protagonist struggles to survive or make peace with natural forces that are beyond human control.
This man vs nature conflict can reveal the beauty, cruelty, and unpredictability of nature, and question our relationship with it.
One example of man vs nature conflict in literature is “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer, where the protagonist Chris McCandless ventures into the Alaskan wilderness to connect with nature and find himself.
However, he must face a series of harsh obstacles such as hunger, cold, injury and isolation, and ultimately succumbs to nature’s power.
Man vs Nature Plots:
- Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer): The author recounts his personal experience of climbing Mount Everest and facing deadly storms and altitude sickness.
- Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton): A group of scientists battle ferocious dinosaurs in an isolated island nature reserve they thought they could control.
- The Revenant (Michael Punke): This book and film follows a trapper who fights to survive in the wilderness after being left for dead by his companions.
- Life of Pi (Yann Martel): A boy who is stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean must share space with a Bengal tiger and navigate through storms and other dangers.
- Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe): A castaway learns how to sustain himself on an uninhabited island amidst hostile wildlife, tropical diseases, and solitude.
- Jaws (Steven Spielberg): This film depicts the small-town police chief teaming up with researchers to catch Great White sharks preying on swimmers in the town.
- Cast Away (directed by Robert Zemeckis): This movie portrays Chuck, a man marooned after a plane crash, who must persevere as a castaway on a deserted island. It explores both his physical and mental struggle while stuck alone on an island.
- 127 Hours (Danny Boyle): This book (and subsequent film) portrays Aaron Ralston’s experience of getting his arm in a boulter stuck while hiking in Utah. He realizes he needs to cut his arm off in order to survive.
Man vs Technology
Man vs technology is a conflict type where the protagonist grapples with machines, tools or systems that challenge human control or understanding.
The man vs technology motif reflects our increasing reliance on technology and raises questions about its impact on humanity and morality.
One example of man vs technology conflict in literature is “The Matrix” directed by the Wachowski Brothers, where humans fight against a powerful computer program that simulates reality and enslaves human minds. It depicts how technology can become too advanced for humans to control or understand and lead us into moral dilemmas.
Man vs Technology Plots:
- WarGames (John Badham): A teen hacker inadvertently initiates a nuclear war simulation that threatens to trigger World War III.
- Ex Machina (Alex Garland): A programmer contests against his sentient creation, an artificial intelligence with advanced intellectual and emotional abilities.
- Blade Runner (Ridley Scott): In a dystopian future, a detective hunts down rogue androids who pose a threat to human existence.
- The Terminator (James Cameron): A cyborg assassin travels back in time to kill John Connor, the leader of the resistance movement fighting against machines overthrowing humanity in a post-apocalyptic world.
- I, Robot (Isaac Asimov): A detective investigates a murder committed by robots who are supposed to obey the three laws of robotics at all times.
- Minority Report (Steven Spielberg): This film portrays the government’s use of psychic technology that catches criminals before they commit crimes. The government stores personal information from every citizen without their knowledge, leading one character to question the morality behind this.
Man vs Man
Man vs man is a conflict type where the protagonist confronts another character or group who is obstructing their goals, values or beliefs.
These sorts of plotlines reflect human relationships and social dynamics, showing how competition, cooperation, trust, and betrayal affect us.
An example of a man vs man conflict in literature is “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas, where the protagonist Edmond Dantes seeks revenge against those who betrayed him and stole his position in society.
Dantes faces powerful enemies and employs cunning strategies to outwit them and restore his rightful place, showing how personal grudges can lead to complex plots of deception, justice, and redemption.
Man vs Man Plots:
- Les Misérables (Victor Hugo): The story follows Jean Valjean, a former convict who is relentlessly pursued by the police inspector Javert, as he attempts to live an honest life.
- Rocky (John G. Avildsen): A small-time boxer gets a chance to fight against the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed.
- A Tale of Two Cities” (Charles Dickens): This novel portrays a love triangle that plays out against the backdrop of the French Revolution in which social unrest pits two protagonists against each other: Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton.
- The Prestige (Christopher Nolan): Two rival magicians engage in a cutthroat competition to create the ultimate illusion and gain fame and fortune.
- The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola): Michael Corleone must try to protect his own position in the mafia amidst violence and betrayal among his own clan.
- Gladiator (Ridley Scott): Maximus fights back against the emperor after losing everything he held close. He becomes a gladiatorial slave and fights his way to the top to get closer to the emperor who wronged him.
Through external conflicts, authors shed light on various themes of power struggle, identity formation, justice-seeking, and the human condition itself. Whether it’s man vs society, nature, technology, or man vs man conflict type, these narratives can captivate audiences with their thought-provoking plots and provide us with a chance to reflect on ourselves and the world we live in. External conflicts remain a powerful tool for writers to reveal truths about humanity and illuminate our understanding of ourselves and others.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]