Pretty much all conflict falls into one of three categories: man vs. man, man vs. himself, and man vs. another force. Each of these categories has its own unique personality and will affect a story in its own way.
Man vs. man is a conflict between two or more characters.
Man vs. himself is a conflict within a character, his struggle with something inside himself.
Man vs. another force is the broadest. It is a conflict between a character and something that is neither himself or another character. This could be an entity (such as a government), God, nature, etc.
Man vs. man and man vs. another force are external conflicts because they involve something outside of the character. Man vs. himself is an internal conflict. In short stories only one type of conflict may be needed, but it is generally best in longer stories to utilize both internal and external.
Here are examples from Trial at the Ridge. I used all three categories, and each affected the story differently:
The story takes place on a small family farm in the early 1920’s, and the central characters are Nathanael and William Whitlock, two young boys. The farm is facing foreclosure (man vs. another force), and the family has thirty days to make the payment. Meanwhile, the boys are preparing for a spelling bee at school, which will be a showdown between the two best spellers: one is Nathanael; the other is Zach, the banker’s arrogant and unfriendly son. This results in friction between Nathanael and Zach (man vs. man). Nathanael doesn’t want to lose to Zach, creating an internal struggle (man vs. himself) as he wrestles with his motivations. In the midst of this, Nathanael and William are trying to come up with a way to earn money and save the farm, and an unknown saboteur is thwarting their efforts (man vs. man.) The farm is further being threatened by a mountain lion (man vs. another force) that has begun making raids on their sheep.
1.) Readers sympathize with the Whitlock family and hope that they will get to keep the farm. Although the conflict is with the circumstance and not with the banker himself, readers see the banker in a largely negative light.
2.) The conflict between Nathanael and Zach draws out the character of both. Readers sympathize strongly with Nathanael but also recognize areas in which he needs to grow and overcome. Directly involving another character, this is perhaps the most personal conflict. Readers feel that Zach is an enemy, but they also want him to change.
3.) Sympathizing with Nathanael, readers want him to win the spelling bee. Although this does not seem very important in the scheme of the plot, readers do care about the outcome of the bee and don’t want Nathanael to lose to Zach any more than he does. This, an internal conflict, creates a particularly good backdrop for demonstrating character growth.
4.) The saboteur’s raids also create a more personal conflict, but this one may rankle with the reader more than the conflict with Zach because the adversary’s identity is unknown. It creates a feeling of helplessness in the reader as well as deepens the desire for the Whitlock boys to succeed.
5.) While readers understand that the mountain lion is simply following its natural instincts and habits, they will view it as a direct opponent. Although this technically is man vs. another force, it feels more like a man vs. man.
As the conflicts advance individually and begin to intertwine, suspense increases. Successes and setbacks, whether large or small, cause the reader to alternately cheer and groan. Each conflict will create different feelings, but all ultimately come back to the same point: Will the Whitlock family succeed?
Since each conflict affects a story differently, using all three in one way or another is a good way to round out a plot line, keep a story moving, and impact the reader on a variety of levels.