External And Internal Conflict

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External And Internal Conflict

As contests go, a boxing match is pretty straightforward: two guys (usually) beat each other until one falls down and can't get up. This is primeval conflict—man against man in violent confrontation. Because violence is so unambiguous, movies featuring this kind of conflict resonate with everyone and therefore do well globally. But violence isn't the only kind of conflict there is—or even the most common.

Movie heroes battle individuals, groups, natural and supernatural forces, or their own inner demons. When a protagonist is forced to face his own flaws, this is known as "internal conflict." All other conflict can be grouped together as "external conflict."

Because movies are a visual medium, the most successful screen stories depict external conflict represented by a visible, tangible external antagonist. Films with external conflicts include When Harry Met Sally (man against man), Jaws (man against nature), Rosemary's Baby (man against the supernatural), and Erin Brockovich (man against society).

But movies are rendered more interesting when they include internal conflict in addition to the external one. The most gripping stories include external situations or antagonists that force a hero to face and conquer his character flaws in order to succeed. In The Verdict, written by Barry Reed and David Mamet, Paul Newman plays an alcoholic lawyer who must overcome his inner demons and win a ground-breaking case against a corrupt institution. The internal conflict deepens the external conflict and strengthens the movie.

Boxing matches are only compelling because we get caught up in the drama of watching an underdog dig deep within himself to muster the strength to win. We are awed by the sheer determination exhibited by the combatants, and wonder if we have that same ability inside ourselves. Effective internal conflict can range from overcoming awkwardness or insecurity (The 40 Year Old Virgin) to struggling with addiction (Leaving Las Vegas) or madness (Shine), but in order to be dramatic, it must be expressed visually.



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