External conflicts deal with conflict outside of your protagonist. That’s the villain, the earth quake, the monster. Your character may grapple internally with how to handle the conflict, but the object of conflict itself is not happening in your character’s head.
External goals are the obvious goals that drive the story forward from the inciting incident on. Ralph’s medal, destroying the one ring, ect. It’s a tangible item or other person that’s easy to identify, and while it drives the plot, it’s ultimately secondary to the intangible changes made within the protagonist along the way.
That tangible object and conflict is going to vary genre by genre. In an action story, it’s going to be the villain and the thing central to the villain’s plan. In a love story, it’s going to be the character of desire, in a crime story, it’s going to be the criminal, often with the object being sought a victim whose time hasn’t yet run out.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll get into the external conflicts from several different genres that are outlined in Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid, along with some examples of my own.