In the 1988 Willow, the protagonist struggles to learn magic as he faces an evil sorceress.

We’ve previously discussed how every story requires a throughline – the plot arc that binds the story together. Most manuscripts desperately need to prioritize a single plot arc and cut whatever doesn’t fit within that. But like most things, throughlines are more complex in practice than in theory.

Many popular stories have two plot threads that could qualify as a throughline. They both appear early, are present throughout the story, and peak at the climax. Combined, these threads create a story greater than the sum of its parts.

Roles in the Throughline Partnership

At Mythcreants, we define a plotline (aka plot thread or plot arc) as a specific problem that ends with a resolution. The tension created by a problem and the satisfaction of resolving it forms the basis of every story. While most stories of significant length have more than one plotline, multiple threads often compete with each other for page space. To keep one plot thread from stealing attention from another, they have to be different in nature.

So, a dual throughline doesn’t just have two central plot threads, but also those threads must fill different roles in the story. Previously we’ve called these roles the internal conflict and the external conflict.

  • The internal conflict is more personal and has smaller stakes. It is emotional in nature and requires a good look at what’s happening inside the hearts and heads of the characters. Most internal throughlines are character arcs.
  • The external conflict is higher in stakes and larger in scope. Lives often rest on the outcome, and it usually impacts more than just the protagonists. The external conflict is the most obvious plotline, and so it is most likely to be considered the main conflict of the story.

Some plotlines, particularly relationship arcs, could qualify as either the internal plot or the external plot. Using a relationship arc as the external plotline creates a character-focused drama or romance, whereas using a relationship arc as the internal plot creates a buddy-cop feel. There’s also room in many stories to sandwich a relationship arc between a more internal character arc and action-packed external arc. The movie Stardust is a good example of this. The protagonist learns to believe in himself, gains a healthy relationship, and defeats all the people who want to hurt his love interest.

An ideal internal-external pairing has synergy between the conflicts. To allow scenes to cover both plotlines at once, the external plot can force the protagonist to face their personal problems or give them a chance to achieve their dreams. In a typical buddy-cop story, the two characters must work together to address the external conflict. If their relationship falls apart, so does their ability to win the day.

How They Work Together

Throughout the story, the internal plot gives the story emotional depth and meaning, while the external plot makes the story exciting. However, they also have somewhat different times to shine during the story.

One of the biggest inherent challenges in storytelling is making an engaging opening. The problem is that while tension is a huge factor in engagement, tension isn’t that effective until the audience is attached to the characters. In other words, it’s not enough for the story to feature a problem; people have to care whether the protagonist can solve it. And unfortunately, it’s difficult to both feature a high-stakes conflict and get to know the main character at the same time.

The internal plot, however, has an easier time being present when the protagonist is introduced. Because of its emotional nature, it creates a bond with the protagonist rather than getting in the way. Personal problems make characters more sympathetic, and while internal conflicts don’t create as much tension as external ones, they still add tension.  

Once the internal plot has done its job in the beginning, the external plot comes into play, heating up to an exciting story. However, the external and internal plotline will continue to tag team to manage the story’s pace. When all those fight scenes start to tire the audience, the characters will pause for a personal conversation focused on the internal plotline. If the story is a romance or drama that prioritizes internal or social conflicts, a break for action will save the audience from watching the characters waver back and forth without getting anywhere.

When both plotlines are of central importance, they peak at the same time, creating a stronger climax than either could achieve alone. While the external plotline creates the most riveting climactic conflict, the internal plotline is key to resolving that conflict in the way that satisfies the audience. Characters need to earn their endings, and with this dual structure, a character’s ability to overcome their inner demons makes them both able to win the external conflict and worthy of winning. To the audience, this pairing often appears as an inner battle nested in the middle of a big fight scene.

Case Study: Willow

Willow is questioned by the village wizard before a crowd.

Spoiler Notice: The ending of Willow

To show you this dynamic, I’ll summarize how it works in the 1988 movie Willow, a delightful film considering its age. Willow opens with a prologue focused on the external plot. This is pretty typical; prologues exist mainly to set up the exciting external conflict before the story slows down so the audience can meet the protagonist.

In Willow’s prologue, a baby prophesied to cause the downfall of the evil sorceress, Queen Bavmorda, is stolen from the queen by a desperate midwife. Then the movie jumps to focusing on the protagonist, Willow. Willow’s family finds the baby floating on a raft in the river, neatly linking him to the external plot.

Right after Willow takes in the baby, the movie introduces the internal conflict. Willow badly wants to learn magic, both for his own satisfaction and to support his struggling family. He’s hoping the village wizard will take him as an apprentice. That evening, he performs stage tricks at the village fair, but his big “disappearing pig trick” goes wrong at the last minute, embarrassing him in front of everyone. Then the wizard arrives and presents Willow with a test to prove himself a worthy apprentice, and Willow fails.

Now that the audience sympathizes with Willow, it’s time to go back to the external conflict. The fair is interrupted when hog-hounds sent by Queen Bavmorda tear the place apart searching for the baby. Because of this event, the village finds out about the baby and the danger it poses. They decide Willow should go on a quest to return the baby to where it belongs. However, there’s still time in this sequence for the internal conflict. Before Willow leaves, the wizard tells him that he has the potential for magic. Willow failed the test, because he lacks confidence. Now the audience knows not only what Willow wants, but what’s holding him back.

Willow has a series of external-plot focused adventures as he travels in search of a safe home for the baby, hunted by the villain’s warriors. Along the way, he has the chance to use real magic for the first time. He’s given a wand, a mentor to coach him, and a compelling external reason for why he must succeed at it – he has to undo some of the damaging spells that Queen Bavmorda cast. However, he struggles to get the wand to do what he wants.

The movie climaxes when he is up in Queen Bavmorda’s sorcery tower, after she’s already stolen the baby and defeated his mentor. Willow’s humble abilities are no match for the queen’s power, and the queen plans to banish the baby to oblivion so the prophecy can’t be fulfilled. To win the day, Willow hides the baby by performing his disappearing pig trick – the same one that embarrassed him at the village fair. It won’t work if the queen knows it’s a stage trick; she’ll just search around and find the baby. Willow has to show enough confidence to convince her he’s using real magic to send the baby somewhere out of reach. It works. The queen becomes so upset that she falls victim to her own magic.

The evil queen has been defeated, and Willow goes home with newfound confidence and magic skills.

While the bare bones of plot are surprisingly simple, in practice most stories have a plot structure that’s quite complex. So if you’re struggling with plotting, don’t despair; it takes time to master. Just focus on the basics, and add from there. Even the most complicated stories are built from those blocks.

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