Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Story Structure: Internal vs. External

(Note: This a re-post from an April 18, 2011 entry.)

The Ospreys returned to their nest last week. At first I noticed only one. A few days later I saw the pair sitting atop the nesting platform, surveying their domain.

So, what’s their story?

When I saw the Ospreys had returned, I thought about the long journey they had made from their wintering grounds along the western coasts of Central and South America, to the nesting platform alongside the Pend Oreille River near our home in North Idaho. I also thought about the instinct that drives them to make such a remarkable journey.

I thought about these things because of a recent conversation I had with a writer friend. Over coffee, one of the topics we talked about was how well-written stories always contain two stories: an external story and an internal story.

As a writer, understanding how to bring out the internal story in my writing is something I have had to learn, and continue to study. Even though I feel the internal story was probably lurking somewhere in the things I wrote, I hadn’t learned to recognize it, define it, and focus on making it a more effective.

The external story is the tangible story. It is the action a character takes to fulfill the need of the internal story.

The internal story is the intangible, abstract story. It is a character’s yearning for something that comes from within. It reflects a basic human need, a desire, a belief, or inner turmoil in a character’s life. It comes from a need for love or respect, a yearning for adventure, the desire to right a wrong, or to fulfill certain long-term hopes and dreams. These internal goals are what drive characters to act.

Here are examples of the general internal need that drives the characters of three famous stories:

The Grapes of Wrath: Tom Joad is driven by the instinct to survive; the urgent need to protect his family during the Great Depression.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch is driven by the desire to fight social inequality.

The Old Man and the Sea: Santiago is driven by a desire to secure the honor and respect of the village fishermen.

Freelancer Mary Lynn Mercer writes the following in her article, Five Keys to Effective Internal Goals:

“Readers are interested in characters whose external goals, motivations, and conflicts move the plot, but they care about characters whose inner landscape is vibrantly developed. Internal goals, motivations, and conflicts weave together the foundation of larger-than-life characterizations--the kind of characters readers remember long after the story ends.

Whereas external goals are physical and photographable, internal goals are born of intangible, universal human needs. Some examples of human needs include: intimacy, acceptance, identity, mastery, security, fulfillment, survival, harmony, and integrity. Usually, one need dominates a character for his or her life. The selection process is a blend of motivations planted in the character's backstory and individual personality.”

And later…

“An internal goal is the dominant landmark on the inner landscape of a multidimensional character. Around it revolves the internal conflicts and motivations that make characters feel real and make readers care.”

So, what about the Osprey? If I were to write about them, their journey—year after year—would be the external story. The unbendable need for the pair to return to their nesting place, reestablish their bond and raise their young would be the internal story, driven by instinct. And, of course, there would need to be conflict, such as how the Ospreys would boot out the Canadian Goose I sometimes see in the nest before the Ospreys arrive.

With a little research, writers can find several writing-related books and blogs that cover this topic of internal and external plots. But here is a bare-bones definition: Wanting a candy bar is an internal story. Eating the candy bar is an external story. Yum.


Jessie Gunderson said...

Yum is right! :)

I find that it helps to evaluate myself and people I'm close to. What is my husbands internal goal? What is mine? The difference between them is not only helpful for character debth but for conflict.

BTW- I like the new look of the blog

Norm de Ploom said...

Excellent explanation. It made everything so clear but then candy bars always do that for me.