I'm mapping out a new story and was trying to figure out the external conflict that moves the story and motivates my heroine/hero. In a discussion about conflict with my eldest son, he brought out a book he studied in college: The Art of Moviemaking: Script to Screen by Richard Beck Peacock. It's $85 US on Amazon.com, so it's not an inexpensive book - textbooks rarely are - though you can get cheaper used copies. (I'd hoped those years he spent in college might pay off somehow ... though I'd thought it would be for more than a textbook.)
Lo and behold, there's actually a section in Chapter 9 called 'External Conflict.' Yay! So, there are various types of conflict a writer (screenwriter or otherwise) can use to drive their story:
1. An Extraordinary or Random circumstance: Catastrophes that can change the path of the protagonists's life. In Jumanji, an enchanted boardgame that "pits two kids against a series of vengeful forces of nature." Think of "the shocking loss of a job, the announcement of a fatal illness, or a miscalculated scientific experiment."
2. An Individual: Think In the Line of Fire where Clint Eastwood is a Secret Service Agent who must stop John Malkovich from assassinating the president.
3. A Group: The author mentions The Rock with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery where the 'good guys' must face off with a group of disgruntled Marines led by Ed Harris.
4. An Institution: In this case, the organization is thought to be a legitimate bureaucracy - "the CIA, hospitals, corporations, or prisons. Wall Street, schools, the military, the IRS, etc." Think of The Shawshank Redemption - Tim Robbin's character Andy must work around the corruption of the prison he's been placed in after the brutal murder of his wife and her lover.
5. Society: This one runs a whole gamut - ever seen October Sky - a true story about a young lad stuck in a Pennsylvania coal mining town in the 1950s with no hope of ever escaping the fate of becoming a miner. (If you haven't seen this lovely movie with Jake Gyllenhaal, Laura Dern and Chris Cooper, go rent it this weekend, it's wonderful.) In a sci-fi society, see Blade Runner, or even The Matrix.
6. Forces of Nature: Fire - like Backdraft, or other natural disasters such as Twister, Dante's Peak, Volcano, or The Perfect Storm.
Hmm, so where does The Firm fall? Is Tom Cruise facing a group or an institution? Or Signs? Is the alien invasion in that movie a Group? Or an Extraordinary Circumstance? In either case, there is definitely an external conflict moving the storyline along.
For my story, I've done a bit of brainstorming with Sue, and I've decided to use an individual to make it more personal. Now I just have to figure out the heroine's Internal Conflict - which perhaps will be tomorrow's blog.