External conflict is easy to see. That’s what you see in trailers where the hero is facing the villain and lots of explosions, gunfire, and hand to hand combat occurs. However what’s far more compelling is internal conflict. That’s where the hero is torn between two equal decisions and doesn’t know which one to choose. Waiting to see which choice the hero makes creates tension and suspense, which is far more interesting than seeing endless explosions and car crashes over and over again.
In “Moonlight,” the hero has just had a sexual experience with another boy, yet this boy is the one who beats him up at school. Now the hero’s dilemma is that if he tells the school authorities who beat him up, he’ll get his friend in trouble. If he fails to tell the school authorities who beat him up, he’ll never get justice. So his choice is to attack the person who was really behind the physical assault. Waiting to see how the hero will react makes all his external decisions interesting. Finally see what the hero does creates a twist to the story that moves the plot forward.
In “Die Hard” there’s a scene where the villain taunts the hero over the walkie talkies and says he’s holding someone the hero knows. Right away, the hero thinks it’s his wife, but it turns out to be a sleazy guy who was trying to pick up the hero’s wife. Yet the hero knows that the villain plans to kill this guy, thinking it’s a way to get back at the hero. So the hero’s actions reflect his fear.
Instead of just seeing mindless action, we get to see the hero trying to solve the problem of saving the other guy’s life. Suddenly that seems far more meaningful than the dialogue suggests because it’s not just about seeing what happens but also understanding why it’s happening.
What’s crucial in every screenplay scene is not only seeing what happens but understanding why. In “Kong: Skull Island,” there’s a scene where a British special forces expert is confronted by the villain who wants to kill King Kong. The villain tells the British special forces expert that he was hired to do a job for the villain. Now the hero is torn between doing what’s right and doing what he was paid to do. Waiting to see what the hero will do creates suspense but once we see what the hero does, we better understand who he is and why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Until we know why a character is doing something, we’ll never care what he or she may be doing. In “Thelma and Louise,” Thelma robs a gas station. That by itself might seem trivial until e realize in an earlier scene where Thelma is fooling around with a hitchhiker, the hitchhiker teaches Thelma how he robs stores. Now we see where Thelma learned this and we understand why she did it because she and Louise need money.
Although we may not approve of thelma’s actions in robbing a gas station, we can understand what she did and why she did it. Knowing why she did it and how it affects her growth is far more fascinating than an endless amount of special effects, gunfire, and car crashes.
When writing your screenplay, always make sure the audience understand what your hero is doing and why. This why is the crucial missing element of far too many screenplays. To better understand how to create internal conflict, read “Story Genius.” Although this book is geared towards novelists, its principles work just fine with all forms of storytelling including screenwriting as well.