Internal and External Conflict

All stories are about conflict. A story without any type of conflict is nothing more than a bunch of people sitting around talking. The two types of conflict are external and internal.

Bad movies focus only on external conflict (but really bad movies have no conflict at all). External conflict is often exaggerated such as putting the hero in a world of zombies or monsters, but even the most mundane external conflict is necessary because we need to see the hero struggle against obstacles.

Far more important than external conflict is internal conflict. Internal conflict comes from the following:

  • The hero holds a limiting belief
  • The hero has a dream that’s unattainable because of this limiting belief
  • The hero has a chance to attain this dream by deceiving others, but is forced to admit the limiting belief

Now the internal conflict comes from the hero trying to change outwardly without changing internally. Eventually this deception must be revealed and exposed.

In “La La Land,” the hero believes she’s not good enough to be an actress, yet still craves to be an actress. After numerous failed auditions, she appears in a one-woman show that she wrote, which attracts almost nobody but her friends and a handful of strangers. That’s when she decides to give up pursuing acting and tells herself that she’s a failure. Now the real conflict is how will she still attain her dream?

What makes the hero’s limiting belief so powerful is that it’s actually true. In “Star Wars,” Luke’s limiting belief is that he doesn’t trust himself, and it’s true because he really can’t do anything until he gets help from Hans and Obi-wan. Only after getting help from others can Luke overcoming his limiting belief.

To create internal conflict, your hero needs a dream and a limiting belief that’s keeping him or her from achieving that dream. In “Marty,” the hero sees himself as an ugly man, but he craves love, yet what woman would want to fall in love, let alone date, an ugly man? This internal conflict means the hero must overcome physical obstacles that help him overcome the internal conflict within himself, and that’s what makes “Marty” an interesting movie despite lacking massive action like buildings blowing up or monsters knocking jet planes out of the sky.

Start with a hero who has a dream, then create a limiting belief that keeps that hero from attaining that dream. In “Harold and Maude,” the hero wants to find love, but believes that life isn’t worth living. This creates internal conflict, and then the villain supplies the additional external conflict. In “Harold and Maude,” this occurs when the mother sets Harold up on various dates.

The external conflict isn’t just random obstacles like throwing radioactive monsters at the hero. Instead, the external conflict directly threatens the hero’s dream. In “Die Hard,” the hero’s dream is simply to get back with his wife, so the villain gets in the way by physically keeping the hero from his wife.

So start with a hero’s dream and then you can create both internal conflict and external conflict based on that hero’s dream. The internal conflict comes from the hero’s own limiting belief. The external conflict comes from the villain who makes the hero’s goal seemingly impossible to obtain. To overcome the external conflict, the hero must overcome the internal conflict, and that makes a far more emotionally satisfying movie than any amount of special effects and explosions could ever do.

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