External and Internal Conflict: The Killer Combination

This week’s video demonstrates, using the 2003 film adaptation of Peter Pan, how to power pack your story’s finale by combining external and internal conflict.

Video Transcription:

The more conflict we pile into our stories, the more interested our readers will be. A general rule of thumb states that every page of your story should contain conflict. But, sometimes, it can be difficult to think up enough conflict to fill the nooks and crannies. After all, your hero can’t be battling it out with the villain on every single page. So what to do? The secret found within most successful stories is the combination of the external conflict with the hero’s internal conflict. Doing so offers several benefits, including variation of the conflict within your story, heightened stakes, and, often, and a more enduring resolution.

Creating Character ArcsThe most powerful stories are usually those that bring the external and internal conflicts to a climax at the same time. The 2003 film adaptation of Peter Pan did a marvelous job of this. The physical conflict comes to an exciting, swashbuckling apex when the titular character arrives to save Wendy and the Lost Boys and duel it out with Captain Hook for good and all. In itself, the external conflict offers the viewer all kinds of enjoyable tension and its incumbent payoff. But if the movie had stopped at that—if it had failed to bring Pan’s internal conflict into play as well—it would ultimately have fallen flat.

Because the film used the frame of physical conflict to force Pan to face his inner demons, walk with them to the brink of destruction, and then rise up to conquer both them and, as a result, Captain Hook and the pirates as well, it was able to use both elements of conflict to strengthen each other and to present the viewer with a solid and resonant finale. The external conflict was able to give the internal conflict an exciting and dangerous setting, while the internal conflict was able to give the external conflict a deeper meaning. Working hand in hand, they present an unstoppable force of storytelling.

Tell me you opinion: Does your story use its external and internal conflicts to strengthen each other?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Wow, great reminder. All my fave movies and books have that internal conflict along with the external. I will definitely have to take another look at my novels and see if I’ve developed the internal enough. Thanks!

  2. When we think of conflict in great stories, we usually think foremost of the physical conflict – the fight scenes or car chases. But it’s the internal conflict that ultimately makes them so memorable.

  3. Great insight and use of film to illustrate. I’d always responded viscerally to active works that explore deeper themes and that’s what I’m doing in my mystery series about a female detective who’d been sexually abused as a child…she confronts her own demons as she brings down those external demons.
    Those are always the stories that stay with you.
    http://www.tobyneal.net/

  4. Good example. The technique is particularly powerful when the internal demons are somehow mirrored or exacerbated by the external demons, as perhaps you’re doing by forcing your detective to investigate sexual crimes.

  5. Great blog post about something many writers overlook!

    I have actually come to use the term internal and external “plot layers.”

    I was told in a workshop that there are a minimum of two plot layers required in every novel, one internal, and one external. And, as you said, ideally they resolve simultaneously in the climax.

    I touch upon internal and external plot layering on my own blog in the two posts below, one about Harry Potter, the other about the novel Stardust.

    http://coreyjpopp.blogspot.com/2010/11/subplots-plot-layers-stardust-and-neil.html

    http://coreyjpopp.blogspot.com/search/label/Harry%20Potter

  6. I like the term “plot layers,” since it indicates that the external and internal conflicts are separate but closely related.

  7. Very cool post and a good reminder. The balance between internal and external is what makes it so difficult, but once you get it, the writing starts flowing. As I write my scenes, I am constantly asking if I am too focused on the internal and now should move on to external. Just like a boxing match. Ha!

  8. Like so much of writing, external and internal conflict demands a balance. Who knew writing was so much like tight-rope walking?

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