Internal versus External Plot

Internal versus External PlotWhat really makes a story is the interplay between internal versus external plot. I upset some folks when I say ‘anyone can do plot.’ What we usually mean by plot is the stuff that happens – events: things that occur one after the other.

There is a limited number of plots and a limited number of story types.

Here is the plot for every sports movie ever: enter the big tournament, go through the training montage, lose the qualifying round, fluke the draw for the final, win the title (or lose gallantly). That is all external plot.

Internal plot is what transforms the character at the centre: why the story matters. For the sports movie it could be the core message or theme; triumph over adversity, perseverance, finding inner strength. Perhaps it’s ‘winning isn’t everything,’ or ‘relationships matter more than medals.’

Great Expectations is a World View story. Pip goes through the wringer to discover money and status are false idols. People matter; Joe, Biddy and Estella.

Pride and Prejudice (yes, collect a sticker) is a Romance story in which love conquers Darcy’s pride and Lizzie’s prejudice. The external plot is about advantageous marriage, the Longbourne covenant and later, saving the family reputation after Lydia’s elopement. The internal plot is Lizzie overcoming her prejudice and risking all for love. It helps that Darcy gets off his high horse and does the same.

The external plot exists to challenge the character‘s status quo. Each plot event either obstructs or elevates their progress toward becoming a better person.

Own Goals

The progress of the story proves the character’s external goals are false. For the internal plot the character has four stages to go through

  • discover their true goal,
  • overcome their resistance,
  • accept it, and
  • achieve it.

What do I have in my fantasy series?

Book One: Jo’s external goal is to find Varla and exact revenge against the Vipers. Her internal goal is to take control of her own destiny; the future is not fixed as her Second Sight would indicate.

Book Two: Jo’s external goal is to keep her found family safe from harm. The internal goal is to exercise that first lesson in control. She has to embrace her role as the resistance fighter and put an end to the pursuit.

Book Three, Jo’s external goal is to bring down the Empire. No small thing. But her internal goal is to make a secure future for herself and her real family. No one else can do this for her. She has to accept her role as head of a family and do whatever it takes to protect them. That involves some pretty unpleasant choices.

Within and Without

I neglected the difference between internal versus external plot for the longest time. I only appreciated internal plot once I focused on character arcs and transformation. After all, what is it that drives a transformation? Whatever the trigger, transformation has to come from within. You can’t tell someone what is true about themselves, they have to arrive at that belief.

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