External Conflict

I’ve heard it said that when you apply pressure to something, you find out what’s on the inside.  It’s a bit of a gory analogy, but when it comes to storytelling, it fits.  Jessica Brody agrees that internal conflicts and character needs are revealed as they encounter external challenges.  Chuck Wendig also mentions the need for external conflict and adds that these conflicts should be next level. 

So, what are examples of extraordinary challenges that push characters toward internal change?   Since the Academy Awards were yesterday, this week I reflected on Oscar winning and nominated films.  As a result, today I’ll be looking at two types of external conflicts taken from movies selected by the Academy.    

The Reality the Once Known Isn’t Reality at All

Perhaps there’s no greater movie that can model this idea than Matrix.  In this film, as Morpheus welcomes Neo into the “desert of the real,” Neo discovers that his entire life has been spent inside of a computer construct.  The new reality forces Neo to struggle with the question of if he really is special, or just another ordinary joe.  This question is echoed in small obstacles (i.e. a talk from his boss when Neo is late to work) and bigger ones (i.e. epic standoffs between Neo and Agents that others have died fighting).

Stories that involve alternate realities can easily be sci-fi like Arrival but can also be cartoons like Coco or even dramas like A Beautiful Mind.  

The Need to Save a Loved One from Disaster

Just as Matrix is my first choice for movies that model alternate realities, The Godfather is my top pick for stories where the protagonist does the unthinkable to save a loved one.  While in many movies this desire to protect brings out noble characteristics (i.e. Cooper in Interstellar, Jamal from Slumdog Millionare) the internal world of Michael Corleone proves to be more sinister.

Challenges Michael face include having to protect his immobile father in a hospital from heavy-armed mobsters and figuring out a way to end the threats on his father’s life. The situations reveal not only Michael’s wit, but also his willingness to stoop to levels that surprise even his well-experienced mob cohorts.

The need to save a loved one from disaster fits into many genres.  This works for sci-fi and romance as mentioned above.  It’s also been seen in musicals (Jean Valjean protecting Cosette in Les Miserable), animations (Sen rescuing her parents in Spirited Away), and a mixed genres (Sam Wheat protecting the woman he widowed in Ghosts).

What are other types of external conflicts that you’ve seen?


Brody, Jessica; Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Wendig, Chuck, The Kick-Ass Writer

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