What is External Conflict in Literature? - Definition, Types & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Conflict?
  • 1:34 Examples
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

In this lesson, you will learn how a conflict drives a story. External conflicts are examined with examples from classic and modern literature to demonstrate the concepts.

What Is Conflict?

What makes a story interesting? When you read a book or watch a movie, why do you care what happens? Yes, most stories have characters, a setting, and a plot, but there is one thing in particular every story must have in order to create interest in the audience: a conflict.

A conflict in literature is defined as any struggle between opposing forces. Usually, the main character struggles against some other force. This type of conflict is what drives each and every story. Without it, the story would have no point or purpose. There needs to be some struggle in order for the reader to get involved and care about what might happen to the characters.

There are two types of conflict that can drive a story. The first is an internal conflict. In this case, the struggle actually occurs inside a character, usually the protagonist, or main character. With internal conflicts, the character could be struggling with a decision he must make or with his own weaknesses in his personality.

The second type of conflict is an external conflict. This conflict takes place outside of the protagonist. External conflicts are struggles between the protagonist and some other force outside of his body. The main type of external conflict occurs when the protagonist struggles against the antagonist, which is a character who mainly opposes the protagonist. However, other types of external conflicts can also arise due to other characters, acts of nature, or society itself in which the character lives.

Examples in Literature

Classic Examples

Let's look closer at external conflicts and examine some examples in literature. In almost any story you read, you can probably identify external conflicts. One classic example occurs in Shakespeare's play Macbeth. In this play, Macbeth is struggling with an internal conflict, his ambition, which turns violent, pushing him to murder the king in order to take his place. But he also has several external conflicts. After he murders the king, some men take up arms against him and he has to physically battle these men. Those are external conflicts that occur between Macbeth and other characters.

Another Shakespearean example occurs in Romeo and Juliet. In this play, the two title characters fall deeply in love but are from feuding families. Their struggle to be together is external, as it is between the two lovers and society's pressures for them to hate one another. It is in fact this struggle with their society that actually causes the tragic deaths of both title characters.

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