The weakest stories are nothing but external conflict where the hero battles one obstacle after another like a bad karate movie where an endless stream of people keep attacking for no apparent reason. The best stories contain both internal and external conflict. External conflict is what the villain creates to oppose the hero such as in “Star Wars” when Darth Vader’s stormtroopers try to shoot and kill Luke and everyone else.
yet external conflict alone is never enough. The best stories also include internal conflict. That’s where a hero is torn between two choices. Initially, the hero embraces a false belief. In “Star Wars,” Luke thinks he has to stay on his uncle’s farm and doesn’t trust himself. Gradually he learns to trust himself to the point where he trusts in the Force to help him blow up the Death Star.
Internal conflict gives meaning to external conflict, but the way internal conflict appears in most every story is through deception. When the hero engages in deceiving others, it’s only a matter of time before he or she is found out. This deception is what makes the internal conflict visible.
In “Harold and Maude,” the hero is secretly seeing Maude, a much older woman. That’s the internal conflict because he’s hiding this fact from his mother. The external conflict is Harold trying to deal with the dates his mother keeps setting up for him. Eventually when Harold reveals his deception, he’s forced to face the consequences and change as a result.
In “Tootsie,” the hero is dressing up as a woman to play a part in a soap opera. His deception creates internal conflict because he can’t be himself on the set, and that’s keeping him from falling in love with an actress he’s working with.
In “While You Were Sleeping,” the hero pretends that she’s engaged to a comatose man, only to fall in love with the comatose man’s brother.
Deception is the key to make the internal conflict visible because movies rely on visuals. Unlike novels where you can get inside the hero’s thoughts, movies must show the hero’s internal conflict and that’s what makes deception such a valuable tool for a screenwriter.
Any time there’s deception, there’s tension. Any time there’s deception, there’s also the eventual unveiling of this deception, which forces the hero to deal with the internal conflict.
In “School of Rock,” the hero pretends to be a music teacher. When his deception is discovered, he appears disgraced and is forced to change.
In “The Proposal,” the hero pretends she’s engaged to her American co-worker so she can stay in the United States. When she reveals her deception, she’s forced to change.
Deception works by creating tension and suspense. When the deception is revealed, it pushes the hero into finally changing for the better.
When writing your screenplay, find a way for your hero to deceive others in pursuit of a goal. Then make sure the other characters eventually discover this deception to force the hero to change.