Conflict is the heart and the soul of a story, any story. So if you want to write a story, you’ll have to learn what external conflict is.
There are 4 types of conflict in stories and they are divided into 2 groups
- man vs man
- man vs society
- man vs nature
- man vs self
The “man vs man” external conflict is the most popular one. Simply put, it centers around two or more people fighting each other.
This type of conflict is so popular because most stories tend to have both a protagonist and an antagonist that compete or contrast each other. Even if the reason why they’re fighting is political or philosophical, as long as they are both characters, this is a man vs man conflict.
In the movie Loving a mixed couple is trying to get permission from the government to marry each other. Since it’s illegal for a white man to marry a black woman, they will have to persevere in their fight against both the law and people’s prejudice.
This type of external conflict is “man vs society” because the Lovings are not fighting against a specific person, but rather against institutions
(just a random douchebag).
Let’s see an example of external conflict of “man vs man” in my favorite scene from Stranger Things season 2.
Desire is the first element of external conflict, and also the most important. In order to feel something for the character we are seeing on screen we need to be able to understand him and empathize.
If a character spends his days happy and satisfied, nothing will ever happen and nobody will ever care. A desire can can be useful to showcase a character’s personality, his situation or his ambitions.
For example: let’s say that two young girls have to decide what costume they want for Halloween. One says that she wants a Elsa costume, the other one says that she wants a Spiderman costume. This decision alone tell us that the two girls have very different personalities.
In the previous episodes of Stranger Things we’ve seen that Hopper decided to live in an isolated cabin in the woods with Eleven because he’s afraid that if someone finds out that she’s still alive, they might take her away.
So Hopper’s desire is to keep her safe at any cost. He wants security
Even though Eleven is happy to live with someone who cares about her, she still misses her friends and she also wants to know more about her parents.
Eleven’s desire is to be able to discover the truth about herself and to not feel lonely. She wants freedom.
So what can we say about Hopper and Eleven just by looking at what they want?
Hopper’s desire to keep Eleven safe is understandable, after all she spent years being tortured and manipulated by a mad scientist. If she had to be exposed, who knows what could happen.
The problem is that he goes too far and ends up being obsessed with keeping Eleven’s whereabouts a secret. This tell us that he still can’t get over his daughter’s death and that he feel that the only way to not lose El is to control her.
Eleven finally feels free for the first time in her life. Now that she is not confined inside a lab, she wants to be able to live like a normal girl and maybe even find out who her parents are and why she ended up in the hands of those scientists.
Unfortunately, Eleven doesn’t realize that freedom doesn’t mean “no rules”. Hopper might have exaggerated but he is right about the fact that she is still in danger. Rather than trying to find a compromise with him, she decides to break the rules and leave
Each person has an understandable desire to do or have something. Those two are stubborn people with LOTS of baggage, but their desire for freedom and security is what makes them human.
Now we know what they want but this is not enough for a conflict. Their desire is not the reason why they start arguing, just because they both want something doesn’t mean that they cannot reach a compromise.
The reason of the conflict is the fact that they have opposite goals: basically, if one person obtains what he wants, the other will be unhappy.
If Hopper manages to control El, she will keep being lonely and suffering in silence.
If Eleven leaves and someone sees her, Hopper might lose her forever.
Giving your characters opposite goals also creates stakes, so that the argument or the fight doesn’t seem petty.
My favorite example of a petty (and totally useless) external conflict is a discussion between Christian and Anastasia in 50 shades darker.
In this scene Anastasia is at work talking to a client, when her husband Christian comes in furious.
A few minutes before Anastasia’s assistant said that the IT department had yet to change her email address from anastasiasteel to anastasiagrey. Ana responds that she prefers to keep her professional email address as it is.
This creates a problem when Christian tries to send her an email. And all this leads to his storming into her office and kicking out the client in order to say the most ridiculous “serious dramatic line” in the history of cinema:
“I tried emailing you, it BOUNCED”– Christian Grey
Now, let’s just compare the scene from 50 shades darker and the scene from Stranger Things. What is at stake? What happens if the people involved don’t get what they want?
- Hopper: he might lose a person he cares about and feel responsible for not being able to protect her
- Eleven: her friends might forget about her and she may never know the truth about her parents
- Anastasia: she will have to go down to the IT department and ask them to change her address
- Christian: he will have to type
anastasiasteelinstead of anastasiagreywhen he writes her an email
It’s subtle, but can you see the difference between what Hopper and Eleven risk to lose and what Christian and Ana risk to lose?
Your characters need to have a GOOD REASON to fight,
This is the part where you actually sit down and write the fight. The most important thing to keep in mind is that no conflict comes out of thin air, there must be some kind of escalation that brings the character to confront each other.
In the scene from Stranger Things,
That “something” is Eleven ignoring Hopper while going into her room. When he sees her act like that he snaps but still tries to keep calm. He keeps asking her if someone saw her because right now he is not thinking about her needs, he is more concerned with “damage control”.
Eleven realizes that he doesn’t care about understanding why she left, so she snaps trying to explain that she only did that because he couldn’t keep the promise he made.
He decides to ground her, not realizing that by doing so he is just making things worse (he is limiting her freedom even more). She uses her powers knowing that he can’t compete with her on that level.
The tension keeps rising when they start actually “attacking” each other with their respective “weapons”.
Hopper insults her calling her a brat, knowing that this will hurt her feelings. Eleven, using her powers, throws a book at him and puts obstacles in his way.
We reach a conclusion when Hopper starts yelling “grow up” and Eleven screams as all the windows break.
The tension gradually raises, and both characters do or say something that throws the other off balance.
If the writers hadn’t decided to take their time to make the situation escalate gradually and just made El throw random stuff at Hopper, the scene wouldn’t have been as good as it is.
Another important part of the confrontation is the subtext, what is not explicitly said but can be understood by the words that the character uses.
“I don’t lie! I protect and I feed and I teach. All I ask is that you follow 3 simple rules” = I do everything I can for you and ask for nothing in return
“You are like Papa” = You’re keeping me locked here and punishing me if I don’t do what you say
There’s no need to spell out everything that the character is thinking in detail. A few words are more than enough to make us understand how they’re feeling.
Even with though she has a limited vocabulary, Eleven’s anger and frustration are pretty evident.
As I said before, conflict is the heart and soul of a story. A 2 pages scene that is well written can tell us more about the characters
So whenever the protagonist of your movie or TV series has to face a “man vs man” external conflict, remember the 3 elements that make a conflict great: desire, opposite goals, and confrontation.