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Classic Story Conflicts


Disciplines > Storytelling > Plots > Classic Story Conflicts

Description | Example | Discussion | See also

Intrapersonal | Interpersonal | With authorities | With criminals | International | With nature | With machine | With supernatural


Stories are often based around a central conflict which generates the energy and tension that propels the protagonist forward and creates excitement for the reader or viewer.

Here are common conflicts that occur:

Intrapersonal conflict

In intrapersonal conflict, the tension is internal to the person themselves. They may well have some psychoanalytic issues. The whole story can thus be based on the person's internal demons and battles.

This form of tale can be quite traumatic for the viewer, who may be reminded of their own internal issues which they have suppressed.

Intrapersonal conflict can be central to the story, and can also happen as a sub-element in other forms of conflict as well, for example where the reluctant hero forces him- or herself into action.

Interpersonal conflict

Interpersonal conflict reflects much of real life as we argue and fight with those close to us and with more distant but very real enemies.

The personal conflict may thus range from domestic argument to problems with the boss to heroes and villains duking it out with fists, swords and guns.

For the viewers it provides vicarious release as we see the players in the story doing what we would like to do to our own personal enemies.

Conflict with authorities

There are always authorities over us, from family and companies to police and government. These can easily lose the personal element and become a more distant institution with whom we fight.

We all have perhaps had difficulties with the law or our employers from time to time and can find sympathy even with those who break the rules and fall into far greater conflict than (thankfully) we have ever had to contend with.

Conflict with criminals

On the other side of the protagonist who fights with the establishment is the establishment who brings to book those who would break the law.

A significant proportion of all movies, TV and books are about detectives, police and others who solve crimes and defeat the bad guy, reflecting our deep need for order and happiness that somebody out there is protecting us.

International conflict

Beyond the law is when systems of law conflict with one another. International conflict is played out in grand warfare that sets the stage for huge battle scenes and human tragedy on a massive scale.

International conflict is often ideological conflict, where the underlying issue is one of differences in fundamental belief. This conflict between nations can also be driven by power-hungry dictators and leaders who seek to expand their empires into other countries. The history of changing borders and local feuds is often all the excuse that they need.

International conflict in stories gives us a sense of awe at the scale and power deployed. It is interpersonal conflict writ large. It reminds us of the armies that protect us from invasion and thus we feel safe.

Conflict with nature

Another way of creating grand scale is to involve the forces of nature, whereby people fight against storms, tornadoes, freezing cold and parching heat. The battles can be with the weather, high mountains, deep caves and stormy seas.

One of the scary things about battles with nature is the impersonal nature of it all. The weather does not care about you and can turn from glorious to torrential in very short order. Conflicts with nature (as in fact any form of conflict) can thus turn back to intrapersonal conflict, where the real opponent is your own weaker self.

Conflict with machine

In contrast with the disorder of nature, we can also fall into conflict with the machines that we have built ourselves. We wrestle with machines from cars to computers and robots as our creations either do not performs as they should, or acquire an imagined or real malign intelligence.

These duels with machines reflect our fear that our children will become powerful and turn against us. Children remind us of our mortality and their freedom of spirit and natural disobedience have led to myths of uncontrolled monsters. In more modern times, this has been translated into the perhaps more acceptable 

Conflict with the supernatural

Perhaps the most awesome and terrifying form of conflict is with an unknown intelligence that comes from some other dimension or plane of existence. With powers unknown and beyond our own, they make impenetrable enemies whose motivations are often uncertain and have abilities which are frankly terrifying.

Supernatural stories tap into deep and primeval fears and it is not surprising that many horror stories are based in supernatural conflict. The Greeks and Romans told tales of Gods and spirits, and through the ages since myths about ethereal ghosts and pagan beings have continued to shake our foundations. 

See also

Classic Story Types


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