Write Better, Right Now: External Conflict

External Conflict

Write Better, Right Now is all about helping writers understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level. For writers looking for free creative writing workshops, check out Workshops for Writers!

Write Better, Right Now’s topics for August:

External conflict is everything that happens outside of the character or to the character. The moment when a character gets into a car accident is an external conflict. Another character going after the main character’s love interest is external conflict. Having to climb a sentient mountain while battling dire wolves is an external conflict.

Writers use external conflict to place obstacles in the characters’ paths, but they also use external conflict to color the story, quicken or slow the pace, and add diversity to the narrative structure. External conflict helps the reader see what the character is made of as they go through the tests of the story.

Let’s dive into it more below!


Not all external conflict in a story is good or really aligned with the themes or events in your story. The right type of conflict for your story is what is most logical and impactful for your story. A story that spends the first half focusing on the romance story of two characters but ends with a dinosaur attack will be hard to pull off because the setup and world of the story don’t lend themselves to the main conflict.

Now, if that story was about two characters finding love during a dinosaur attack, then the conflict would make sense. The slush pile where all submitted stories go is filled with stories where the conflict doesn’t connect with the story or characters. Conflict will happen with no bearing on the plot and seem to come out of nowhere.

Your story’s conflict should be well-laced throughout your story so it surprises your readers but still leaves them rooted completely in your story. Some writers accomplish this by foreshadowing, tying their story’s conflict into the story’s themes, or simply by having their conflicts all centered around their main plot.

Foreshadowing is a literary technique where you leave hints for the reader in the text of a future event. The event doesn’t have to be bad, just like conflict doesn’t have to be bad. What foreshadowing needs to do is be perceivable or readable by the reader. Because if the reader doesn’t catch the foreshadowing, then it’s not foreshadowing.

You can also take a look at your themes and brainstorm conflicts that may relate to them. For instance, if you have themes about moving out, growing up, and finding yourself, you could have conflict related to losing money for an apartment down deposit, having the character get swept up with the wrong crowd, and so much more.

When you’re writing a short story, it’s best to contain your conflicts. You can even have one main or central conflict that spurs all other conflicts in your story. In a story about a young child learning karate, all your conflicts could have to do with failing or succeeding at karate. Where short stories go off the rails is when the conflict is not only not connected but overshadows the plot, so all the story is, is conflict.


Read Come Softly to Me in The New Yorker and note each moment of external conflict.

Does the external conflict connect in any way to the themes, subjects, or plot of the story? Are there repeated conflicts that build to a bigger conflict? See what you can find by dissecting and examining the external conflict of the story.


  1. 6 Types of Literary External Conflicts and How to Use Them
  2. Conflict 101: External Conflict
  3. Examples from Fiction External Conflict
  4. Different Types of External Conflict
  5. 4 Main Types of External Conflict

To check out past topics covered in the Write Better, Right Now series, check here!

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Catch you next time for our Write Better, Right Now post on internal conflict.

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