Thursday, June 6, 2013

External Conflict Scenes

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.

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 for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Look for Dick & the Angry Meteor, by Christopher Hudson, on a book shelf near you.

  2. Christopher, I will be first in line to buy it. :) Anyone who wants to write this thriller, feel free.

  3. I'd read that one, too, Christopher.

    Diana, thanks so much for another helpful post. I am not a plotter, but I can see how this approach can help me as I sort the scenes that have randomly come to me and put them in the proper order.

  4. Great post, Diana! The plot, like the writer's desk and thoughts, needs to be organized and fluid. (We won't discuss where my desk and thoughts fall on a scale of 1-10 in this regard.)

    The three-act structure, which on the surface appears somewhat rigid, actually allows for significant flexibility. Each act contains options for several scenes in which subplot(s) can be developed, as well as sufficient latitude for the protagonist to tell you (and your readers) his own story.

    Too bad Dick didn't come up with a way for the shuttle to be an unmanned ship that was remotely controlled. On the other hand, we can't always have a 100% happy ending. That's not realistic. :-)

  5. Very helpful. I tend to not be a plotter, but I'm also open to trying new (to me) ideas.

  6. Diana, I see so many manuscripts where the inciting incident does not occur, nor does it even feel close to occurring, within the first 50 pp. I know there's no rule in this regard, but considering it is a common chunk of pages for an agent to request—and that by then most readers will want to know what kind of story this will end up being—it's not a bad idea to try to launch the story by then, or have accumulated much momentum in that direction. Your thoughts?

    As I say each time you post, so many readers will find your advice useful!

  7. As a reader, I need the inciting incident to happen at the beginning. It doesn't have to be page 1. But, if it's not there by the end of Chapter 2, I'll put the book down. I need to understand what story promise the writer is making early on. I stop watching movies for the same reason. I'll give it ten, fifteen minutes tops, to intrigue me. Life is too short for bad fiction. :)

  8. I attended a workshop on pacing yesterday and one point was that reader expectations have changed. Readers today want things to move more quickly than they did when Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Dickens were writing. In fact, Hubster and I watched "Roman Holiday" for our weekly Netflix Nite and I doubt that movie would win an Oscar today. Something has to happen early on--doesn't have to be car crashes or dead bodies (although that's what Hubster asked when we were about 15 minute into the movie), but readers get impatient if there's too much time spent on the "ordinary world"

    Terry's Place


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