External Conflict scenes are your verbal camera at its widest angle and it is focused on the entire stage.
External conflicts test the protagonist’s courage, nerves, and determination.
They are high tension scenes that focus on the question of whether the overall story goal will be achieved. They are the main actions and reactions that provide the turning points and lead directly to and include the climax of the story.
External scenes show the characters caught up in the situation of your premise such as: boy meets girl, the volcano erupts, aliens invade the town, a body has been found, they are all forced to go to a wedding or reunion, or the wagon train heads out for the wild west. They do not address the subplots unless and until the subplot collides with the main plot at the climax.
They introduce the protagonist, the inciting event, the story goal, the prize for reaching the goal, and the cost for not reaching the story goal (stakes). They show him developing and attempting a plan of action for tackling the story problem. In the usual three-act structure, his first plan fails and he must come up with a second plan (the wrong solution). That plan fails and he must come up with the third plan (the right solution).
There have to be some positive moments where it looks like the protagonist is gaining ground. You could divide them equally: five scenes where he is making headway and five scenes where he is losing ground.
1) If you have a story idea, list your initial thoughts on events that will happen to trigger then escalate this external conflict: snags in the plan, unexpected discoveries, reversals, gains, and increasing levels of threat. Arrange them in an order that shows cause and effect and final resolution. The first scene should contain the inciting event. The final scene should contain the climax.
1. Dick learns a meteor will strike.
2. Dick thinks of a way to stop it while it is still far away. He will nudge it with a satellite.
3. The satellite crashes into, but doesn’t change, the meteor's trajectory.
4. Dick comes up with plan to divert the meteor with a laser beam.
5. They can’t get the beam close enough from the ground.
6. They send the laser to the space station. The equipment breaks off and is lost in space.
7. They are back to the drawing board - all seems lost. They enter countdown mode.
8. Dick comes up with a final plan. It is do or die. They will nuke the meteor.
9. They rev up the shuttle loaded with a lethal payload to intercept the meteor and, despite last minute glitches, the shuttle takes off on a suicide mission.
10. Their plan succeeds and everyone lives, except the crew of the shuttle.
2) If you already have a rough draft, save a copy of the draft as “External Scenes” and delete everything except for scenes that show the protagonist dealing with the overall story problem. Are they in a logical cause and effect order? If not, can you revise them so that they are? Do all of the scenes contribute in a meaningful way? If not can you cut them?
3) Which scene contains the inciting event? It is Chapter One or Two? If not, can you move it up?
4) Which scene contains the climax? Is it resolved too soon? Are there subplots and other story lines that drag on after it? Can you cut them or move them up?
5) How and where does your protagonist enter and exit the story? How does he end up?
Next time, we will explore antagonist scenes.
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Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.