Conflict Understanding the Most Essential Literary Element

It is the most common aspect of any movie you watch, story you read, or situation you find yourself in: conflict. Conflict is the driving forces of all plots as it creates obstacles for characters to navigate through and aids the author by providing the audience with a point in which characters can develop from.

Conflict can easily be defined as the struggle between two opposing forces. A conflict may be between a person and one of the following: another person, society, nature, something within himself or herself, or fate. A complication causes a plot to become tense or entangled as a result of a conflict. The author's rule of thumb is that both the conflict and the complication are usually resolved at the story's end. Also, although there may be more than one conflict in the plot, there is always a major conflict which drives the course of action.

It usually goes like this: Mike is a law student who has a penchant for playing high stakes Texas hold'em poker games on the weekends and has a history of losing big hands. His old buddy and fellow gambler "Worm" is just out of prison and itching to get back in the game. "Worm" is mostly motivated by an outstanding debt he owes to a mafia bookie before he was put away and the interest on that debt has been running ever since. "Worm" gets Mike back into his old ways which takes time away from law school and his relationship with his straight-laced and professional minded girlfriend. Eventually, "Worm" gets in too deep and asks for Mike's help in working off the debt. When a negotiation with the bookie goes bad, Mike find himself owing the debt as well and is given 24 hours to pay off the debt or he'll be turned over to the mafia boss he owes to.

This plot, which is basically the film Rounders starring Matt Damon, has an example of both types of conflict: the internal conflict Mike faces as he has to choose between his career in law and his loyalty to his friend and the external conflict of coming up with the money he owes to the bookie. Let's take a closer look at the different types of conflict below.

More than just identifying conflict, is it important to be able to discuss it. Some conflicts can be seen as both internal and external until they are fully explained.


Internal conflict can be defined as a struggle that comes within the mind of the character. This may be a decision that the character has to make as to what to do next, or whether they should befriend another character. In The Dark Knight, Batman choosing whether to rescue political celebrity Harvey Dent or his somewhat girlfriend Rachel from the Joker's trap is a typical example of an internal conflict.


External conflict is broken down into four categories: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society and man vs. force. More than just identifying conflict, is it important to be able to discuss it. Man vs. man is the most identifiable and easy to follow, so let's take a look at some other types of external conflict.

Man vs. Nature - A hunter trapped in the woods without shelter is an example of man vs. nature. He is up against the elements and struggling to survive exposed to the cold and danger of the woods.

Man vs. Society - Society can be defined in this sense as any group of like minded people. In Mean Girls (we've all seen it, just admit it) Cady has issues with the Plastics, a group of popular girls who dress, think, and talk alike. Cady up against the Plastics is an example of man vs. society.

Man vs. Force - Not often seen in literature, force is anything that can't be explained by science. A horror movie in which a teenager is trying escape a haunted doll is example of man vs. force.

In Apocalyptic action film 2012, Man vs. Nature is one of the major conflicts of the film.

Remember, all conflicts come to the resolution before the end of the plot. While analyzing conflict, be on the lookout for when that conflict comes to an end between the two opposing forces.

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