All conflict is not equal. Outer conflict occurs when the hero fights or confronts other people or obstacles. That may be visually interesting, but physical action by itself is meaningless. What’s far more important is the motivation behind the physical action. By defining your story’s theme, you automatically know your hero’s inner conflict.
The theme defines opposite extremes. In the beginning, the hero starts at the opposite end of the theme. By the end, the hero changes and embraces the theme. So why can’t the hero just change right away? It’s because the hero has a belief (character flaw) that holds him or her back.
To achieve a goal (the outer conflict), the hero must constantly confront and challenge his or her belief about themselves (the inner conflict) that’s keeping them from their dream.
In “Star Wars,” the outer conflict is that Luke must fight against other people, but the inner conflict is that Luke must learn to trust himself. Luke wants to live an adventure, but isn’t confident he can pursue it.
In “Harold and Maude,” the outer conflict is that Harold prefers death over life, but the inner conflict is that Harold must learn to embrace the excitement of living. Harold thinks pretending to be dead is better than actually living.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the outer conflict is that George Bailey thinks he needs to leave his small town to be happy. The inner conflict is that George must learn that being surrounded by friends and loved ones makes him far happier right in his small town.
Whatever belief the hero holds, that belief has created a dead end life in the beginning of the story that keeps the hero stuck in the opposite of the theme. Only by changing this deep-seated belief can the hero change their physical world as well.
Changing beliefs is never easy. That’s why the hero can’t change their physical actions right away because their old beliefs keep holding them back. To change, the hero must go through four distinct steps:
- The hero has a limiting core belief that directly opposes the hero’s dream
- The hero gets exposed to a new belief that provides a path to the hero’s dream
- By trying to hold on to the initial core belief while embracing a new belief, the hero’s life becomes chaotic
- The hero finally dumps the limiting core belief and takes a chance to embrace the new belief
In “Harold and Maude,” these four steps look like this:
- Harold doesn’t know how to be happy other than by embracing death
- Harold meets Maude, who shows him how to live a carefree life
- Harold tries to stay with Maude without getting rid of his initial core belief that embraces death
- Harold fakes his suicide one last time before choosing to embrace life by playing the banjo
Not only should every scene force the hero to move towards embracing the theme or staying stuck in the opposite of the theme, but every scene should also challenge the hero’s core belief. When the hero starts changing this core belief, they can then move towards embracing the theme. When the hero clings to this old belief, then they stay stuck in the opposite of the theme.
What creates drama isn’t just forcing the hero to confront and challenge their limiting core belief, but in being tempted to cling to their old beliefs to get what they think they want.
Once you know your story’s theme, you must define your hero’s core belief that has created the initial dead end life (the opposite of the theme). This core belief affects the hero in four different ways:
- The limiting belief keeps the hero from achieving a dream
- The limiting belief appears to help the hero achieve a dream
- The new belief appears to keep the hero from achieving a dream
- The new belief provides a path to help the hero achieve a dream
(The limiting belief keeps the hero from achieving a dream.) In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey thinks he either needs money or an adventure out of his small town to be happy. Because he has neither, he’s unhappy.
(The limiting belief appears to help the hero achieve a dream.) When the villain, Mr. Potter, offers George a high-paying job, this temptation plays on George’s core belief. Since George thinks he needs money to be happy, Mr. Potter is willing to pay him lots of money and George is briefly tempted to take the job.
(The new belief appears to keep the hero from achieving a dream.) When Uncle Billy loses the savings and loan money by giving it to Mr. Potter by mistake, George thinks the lack of money will ruin him and takes his frustration out on his family.
(The new belief provides a path to help the hero achieve a dream.) After seeing what life could look like without his family and friends, George finally realizes his family and friends are worth more than any amount of money in the world.
What is the limiting belief of your hero and how does it directly conflict with the goal or dream the hero wants to achieve?
How does this limiting belief hurt the hero? How does this limiting belief appear to help the hero?
What new belief comes into the hero’s life? How will this new belief help the hero achieve his or her dream?
What far too many screenwriters do is focus on physical action, which creates weak stories like “The 355” or “Terminator Genisys” that’s all action but no story. Instead, focus on identifying and challenging your hero’s limiting belief. This tug of war between beliefs (representing your story’s theme) is what really creates an interesting and compelling story.