Internal and External Conflicts


This episode I’d like to call “The Crunchy Shell and the Creamy Middle,” but I don’t think anyone would be able to figure out what I was talking about. Stories use two types of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflicts are resolved by something changing inside the character, whereas external conflicts are resolved in the world around outside the character. When these two work together, the result can be dazzling. And when they don’t, the result can be devastating.

Spoilers! Spoilers! Spoilers! This episode contains spoilers for Gilmore Girls season 4 episode 8, “Die, Jerk…” and for Philip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass, as well as for the Roswell episode “Ch Ch Changes.”

Die, Jerk…

Gilmore Girls season 4 episode 8 is entitled “Die, Jerk…” (We’ll see why in a moment.) has a complete episode summary. For now, let’s look just at the “Die Jerk” story thread.

In the first scene, we learn that Rory wants to be on staff at the Yale Daily News, but first she must get a piece published in each department of the newspaper. She doesn’t think this is a big deal, even after she finds out that her review of a chamber-music recital never made the paper. Doyle, the editor, explains that it was “a bit of a yawn.” This thickens the plot, building on the first, external conflict, that Rory needs to get a review published.

She tries again, still with no luck. Doyle doesn’t just want facts. He wants opinions. She has one more chance. Her lifelong dream is to be a journalist. But by this time, she’s doubting her ability to make it as a journalist. This is an internal conflict. Her assignment now is to review a ballet. As she watches, we see the audience wince, and we hear the derogatory comments exchanged between Rory and her mom. But Rory does what Doyle asked. She writes what she saw and what she thought about what she saw.

The review gets raves. The ballet gets cancelled. The external conflict, that Rory needs to publish a review, is resolved. Her internal conflict is also resolved, as she’s proven her mettle as a journalist… Or is it?

We immediately discover that someone has painted the words “Die Jerk” on Rory’s dorm room door. We the viewers of course know at whom the sentiment is directed, but Rory and her roommates don’t. This is another external conflict, solving this mystery. They also don’t know whether this is an actual threat or whether someone is just acting out.

Fortunately, it turns out to be the latter, as Rory has a run-in with the devastated ballerina who had starred in the short-lived ballet. This leaves Rory internally conflicted, not only because she doesn’t like hurting other people, but also because she still doesn’t think she’s doing this journalism thing right.

Her mother is shocked at how harsh the review turned out in print. Her grandparents revel in the harshness of it; they’re very proud of their granddaughter. This serves only to conflict her further.

She decides to try to get a follow-up published, something that will help the ballerina, to try to balance out the damage she did in her review. This is another external conflict, as she’s trying to effect this change in the newspaper. She begs Doyle to let her review the ballet again, or to write a piece on the ballerina. We naturally can see right through her, as can Doyle:

DOYLE: I know what’s going on here.

RORY: What?

DOYLE: You’re feeling bad about the effect your article had on the people in the ballet.

RORY: No, that’s not it.

DOYLE: We heard about the dining-hall confrontation.

RORY: That was not really a confrontation. We were just chatting.

DOYLE: It goes with the territory. When I was your age, I reviewed a clog-dancing team that was really bad. I mean, even compared to other clog dancers. I was merciless.

RORY: But – but if I can’t re-review it, then can I just print the things that I meant to put in and didn’t have time to?

DOYLE: Hurting people’s feelings is what we do.

RORY: But when I become a real journalist, the people in my reviews aren’t gonna live in my building.

DOYLE: Doesn’t matter. When you write for the Yale Daily News, you are a real journalist.

RORY: I didn’t mean –

DOYLE: And if you can’t handle it, you should leave the paper.

RORY: I don’t want to leave the paper.

DOYLE: Good. Here. Your next assignment.

RORY: Thanks.

DOYLE: Knock ’em dead.

And Rory smiles at the thought that she already has what it takes to be a real journalist. This resolves or negates all the conflicts. She now feels confident in her ability as a journalist. She also has come to terms with the damage she did to the ballerina, and she sees no need to publish a follow-up piece.

In the last scene of the episode, she listens for her next assignment to an especially bad musical performance. We see in her face the words that will eventually describe the ear-piercing cacophony. And we see that she’s okay with that.

Together And Separate

The story threads build off of each other, causing attendant conflicts and resolving them. External conflicts can generate or resolve attendant internal conflicts and vice-versa. However, they are still separate conflicts, and this affects how we perceive the story as its told.

We never find out, for example, how Rory feels about the “Die Jerk” graffiti on her door, because that’s an external conflict. It’s enough that Rory learns who put it there and why. We don’t have to understand how Rory feels about the mystery of it.

Similarly, two separate conflicts spawn from this resolution. Firstly, Rory is upset that she hurt the ballerina, an internal conflict. Secondly, Rory wants to publish a follow-up piece to offset the damage she’d done, an external one.

External conflicts, true, happen when the conflict resolves outside the character, even if the attendant circumstances are inside the character. Conversely, internal conflicts resolve inside, even if the situations causing them are outside. Even so, we need to understand what’s happening inside if it’s an internal conflict. Therefore, what’s happening inside will be brought into focus by a well-told story, in order to set up the internal conflict to be resolved internally. And we need to understand what’s outside, if it’s an external one, and so what’s happening outside will be brought into focus in this case.

The Golden Compass

Don’t you love it when an author grabs you by the nose, pulls you into his story, strings you along on the edge of your seat, and then lets you down with a lame ending? Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is such a story. This is the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman expertly weaves a fantasy tale, draws you in, only to let you down at the end by resolving an external conflict with an internal solution.

In this fantasy story, a young girl named Lyra, a very special girl indeed, she finds herself on an adventure to the great white North. Throughout this adventure, she is always able, with the help of her allies, to accomplish what she needs to.

At the very end, the antagonist is about to open a gateway to another world– The way Philip Pullman tells the story, this does not come off as wierd or cheesy at all. By the time you get that far in the story, this all seems completely natural and believable. Pullman introduces his innovative creation, his world, to you so expertly that you never feel there’s anything strange about it.

The antagonist is about to open a gateway to another world, but this will kill Lyra’s best friend Roger. This is the ultimate climax. Lyra in this last great quest must stop the experiment and save Roger, and she has to do it on her own. And I fully expected her to, somehow, because that’s how the story was set up.

But she fails. The gateway opens. Roger dies. And Lyra, an eleven-year-old girl, devastated, with her dead friend in her arms, has a sudden change of heart and decides to follow the antagonist to the other world in order to… I’m not exactly sure. After 349 pages, the entire focus of the story turns around in the space of one more page, and I don’t know what’s going on. I guess I’m supposed to read the next book in the series in order to find out, but I don’t think I’m going to. I don’t like to be let down.

We all know about Deus ex Machina, God from the Machine. We all recognize that when the gods come down and magically make the hero’s problems disappear, that’s lame. This is similar. Maybe we can call it Deus ex Persona, God from the Character. Actors used to wear masks on stage to indicate which character they were portraying. This is as if the actor suddenly changes masks, and as a result all of the conflicts that mattered no longer matter. Deus ex Persona. How lame is that?

Ch Ch Changes

The third-season episode of the sci-fi series Roswell, “Ch Ch Changes”—and I swear that’s actually what it’s called—does the same thing. Liz is experiencing strange changes, and everyone’s looking for a way to stave them off. Suddenly, Liz accepts these changes.

Fortunately, Gilmore Girls never lets me down like this.


One response to “Internal and External Conflicts”

  1. […] Timothy King escreveu alguns comentários sobre a relação entre conflitos internos e externos nas histórias. Ele explica que “conflitos internos são resolvidos através de alguma mudança ‘dentro’ da personagem, enquanto os conflitos externos são resolvidos no mundo ao redor da personagem”. King coloca ainda que quando os dois tipos de conflitos são usados de forma adequada, o resultado é surpreendente. Quando o encaixe é ruim, o resultado é devastador. […]

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