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Internal and External Conflict: The Secret to an Amazing Plot Twist

by Bethany Meyer

 

I’m a huge fan of plot twists. Love them. Hans from Frozen turning out to be a throne-stealer and murderer was one of the formative points of my childhood.


But what makes a plot twist more than just a shock factor? What makes it satisfying?


I’m sure that most of us have been told to make the plot twist logical, to scatter your breadcrumbs of hints before uniting them into one glorious moment of “Aha!” That advice still holds true, and I consider that to be the foundation of all good plot twists.


However, I would argue that there’s a way to make your plot twist pack an even bigger punch. To make the biggest impact on both your audience and your character, craft a plot twist that unites the internal and external conflict.


Before we flesh this out a little more, let me explain internal versus external conflict for the newer writers in the room.


Internal Conflict is the emotion-based part of the story: Anna looking for love, Katniss Everdeen protecting her family, Steve Rogers trying to protect Bucky Barnes. The internal conflict represents the journey your main character undergoes throughout the story, the driving force behind every single one of their actions. Anna clings to Hans because she’s desperate to be loved, Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games because she wants to protect her sister, Steve commits treason because he can’t let Bucky get arrested. The internal conflict threatens our characters spiritually and emotionally but usually doesn’t present any physical danger.


On the other hand, External Conflict is a practical and physical threat: Darth Vader on the loose in the galaxy, Grievers in the Maze. Normally the external conflict is some form of invasion from the outside, and it threatens your characters’ safety and happiness. Darth Vader is a danger to Luke and Leia because he could destroy them with the Death Star, the Grievers in the Maze have killed Maze Runners before, and they will again.


Often, writers mistakenly assume these conflicts have to be entirely separate from one another, and in doing so, they weaken the story. The characters should have a stake in the external conflict because of their internal conflict, such as Carl from Up facing down Charles Muntz because Charles is Carl’s childhood hero and the man who led him to his beloved wife, Ellie. Thomas must face down the Grievers and escape the Maze because it’s the only way he’ll uncover his past.


This is where the trick to your plot twist comes in.


For this kind of twist, you rely on the two conflicts remaining seemingly separate. You trick the audience into thinking that the internal and external conflicts are, at best, loosely related. Don’t worry about audiences getting annoyed with it, because, after all, we plan to fix the issue when the plot twist comes to fruition.


Which brings me to the next step: execution. Choose your timing, craft your buildup, and pull the curtain, revealing to your audience that the two conflicts were related all along.


One can easily find examples of this happening in a number of stories, but my favorite example is Spiderman: Homecoming. Spoilers ahead.


Our main character, Peter Parker, leads a double life as a student but also a hero, which is a perfect setup for our internal and external conflicts to remain separate. Internally, Peter struggles to form real connections with people, while externally, he’s hunting down a crime ring led by a man called the Vulture. Separate conflicts, right? Wrong.


Peter finally gets up the nerve to ask Liz to the dance, and when Peter arrives at her house to pick her up, the door swings open to reveal none other than the vulture himself. The Vulture is Liz’s father.


Delicious.


Not only is this plot twist genius because this switcheroo unites the two conflicts, but there could be no better lead-in. The story itself is practically custom-built for it. Consider: Peter leads two lives, and we, the audience know this. In fact, we also want his lives to remain separate because if the worlds come together, Peter’s life will cave in. Unfortunately, the writing rule of thumb is “always make the worst happen.” Therefore Peter’s two lives simply cannot remain separate. Truly, the setup is by far the biggest reason why the plot twist works so well for Homecoming. It’s as unpredictable as it is inevitable, and that payoff makes it incredibly exciting and devastating.


Now, listen. Will this plot twist always be what your story needs? Certainly not. All stories are different. As a matter of fact, this plot twist needs a very specific set of circumstances to do its best work. But that’s why I think you should know about it. When the time comes, you’ll notice that you have the right criteria to pull it off, and you can craft a plot twist that’s not only shocking but mind-blowing.



Bethany Meyer is an indie Young Adult author. She discovered a love of writing when she was young and has been writing ever since, aiming to create stories that touch people's hearts--and sometimes even break them. When she isn't writing, she enjoys reading, drawing, or consuming a large number of animated movies.


Instagram: @scribbledfiction



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