External and Internal Conflict: The Killer Combination

A general writing rule of thumb states that every page of your story should contain conflict. But sometimes it can be difficult to think up enough conflict to fill the nooks and crannies.

After all, your hero can’t be battling it out with the villain on every single page.

So what to do?

The secret of successful stories is the combination of the external conflict with the hero’s internal conflict. Doing so offers several benefits, including adding variety to the conflict, heightening the stakes, and, often, and contributing to a more enduring Resolution.

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The most powerful stories bring the external and internal conflicts to a climax at the same time.

The 2003 film adaptation of Peter Pan did a marvelous job of this. The physical conflict comes to an exciting, swashbuckling apex when Peter saves Wendy and the Lost Boys and duels it out with Captain Hook for good and all.

Peter Pan 2003 Jeremy Sumpter Jasaon Isaacs Swordfight

Peter Pan (2003), Universal Pictures.

In itself, the external conflict offers viewers all kinds of enjoyable tension and its incumbent payoff. But if the movie stopped at that—if it failed to bring Pan’s internal conflict into play as well—it would ultimately have fallen flat.

Instead, the film used the frame of physical conflict to force Pan to face his inner demons, walk with them to the brink of destruction, and then rise up to conquer both them and, as a result, Captain Hook and the pirates as well.

It was able to use both the outer and inner conflicts to strengthen each other and to present viewers with a solid and resonant finale. The external conflict provided the internal conflict an exciting and dangerous setting, while the internal conflict imbued the external conflict with deeper meaning. Working hand in hand, they present an unstoppable force of storytelling.

Wordplayers, tell me you opinion! How does your story use its external and internal conflicts to strengthen each other? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Wow, great reminder. All my fave movies and books have that internal conflict along with the external. I will definitely have to take another look at my novels and see if I’ve developed the internal enough. Thanks!

  2. When we think of conflict in great stories, we usually think foremost of the physical conflict – the fight scenes or car chases. But it’s the internal conflict that ultimately makes them so memorable.

  3. Great insight and use of film to illustrate. I’d always responded viscerally to active works that explore deeper themes and that’s what I’m doing in my mystery series about a female detective who’d been sexually abused as a child…she confronts her own demons as she brings down those external demons.
    Those are always the stories that stay with you.

  4. Good example. The technique is particularly powerful when the internal demons are somehow mirrored or exacerbated by the external demons, as perhaps you’re doing by forcing your detective to investigate sexual crimes.

  5. Great blog post about something many writers overlook!

    I have actually come to use the term internal and external “plot layers.”

    I was told in a workshop that there are a minimum of two plot layers required in every novel, one internal, and one external. And, as you said, ideally they resolve simultaneously in the climax.

    I touch upon internal and external plot layering on my own blog in the two posts below, one about Harry Potter, the other about the novel Stardust.



  6. I like the term “plot layers,” since it indicates that the external and internal conflicts are separate but closely related.

  7. Very cool post and a good reminder. The balance between internal and external is what makes it so difficult, but once you get it, the writing starts flowing. As I write my scenes, I am constantly asking if I am too focused on the internal and now should move on to external. Just like a boxing match. Ha!

  8. Like so much of writing, external and internal conflict demands a balance. Who knew writing was so much like tight-rope walking?

  9. The external conflict can be a mirror of the internal conflict.

    How else can these two conflicts be related? What other type of relationship, besides mirror-image or similarity, can exist between these two conflicts?

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