Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! In a medieval-futuristic kingdom, the citizens are protected by the Institute for Elite Knights, established by the legendary heroine Gloreth, who, a thousand years ago, vanquished a "Great Black Monster." Ballister is about to be the first commoner to become a knight, as the queen is trying to change tradition so that "anyone can be a hero". But during the ceremony, the queen is murdered, and Ballister is framed. He's now being hunted by his fellow knights. Ballister goes into hiding and meets Nimona, a mysterious teenage shapeshifter, who has faced persecution for her powers and dubs herself his new sidekick.
To clear Ballister's name, the duo kidnaps the squire who gave him the murder weapon and discover that the Director of the knights is the murderer. Ballister and Nimona return to the Institute and trick the Director into admitting to her actions, as she feared allowing commoners to become knights would lead to the kingdom's downfall. Ballister records her confession and posts it online, leading to public outcry. The Director, recognizing Nimona's powers, discovers through ancient scrolls that Nimona is the Great Black Monster that Gloreth had defeated. She uses this to convince the public that Ballister used Nimona's powers to fake the confession. Shocked by the revelation, Ballister argues with Nimona and questions their friendship; feeling betrayed, Nimona flees into the woods and has a flashback in which she and Gloreth were childhood best friends, even after Gloreth discovered Nimona's powers. But when the rest of the village accused her of being a monster and attacked her, the village was accidentally set on fire. Instead of defending her friend, a confused Gloreth turned on Nimona.
Nimona breaks down and transforms into the Great Black Monster. She attacks the city, intending to impale herself on the sword of Gloreth's statue. Meanwhile, the Director orders a laser cannon to be fired to kill Nimona, knowing that the laser will also kill innocent civilians. But Ballister stops Nimona and apologizes. She changes back to human form as they embrace and make amends. The Director, unmoved, prepares to fire the cannon herself. To save the kingdom, Nimona assumes a giant, red phoenix-like form and flies into the cannon, resulting in her death as well as the death of the Director. Nimona and Ballister are honored as heroes. When Ballister visits his old hideout, he hears Nimona's voice.
Jeni: I can’t say enough good things about this movie. I’ve watched it twice now and can’t really find anything about it I don’t like. In some ways, its messaging is very overt in the way that most animated movies are. But there are other aspects that are really subtle. The art is beautiful, and some scenes are visually stunning. The world is a fabulous blend of something that feels almost historical and these lovely futuristic elements. Nimona is such a great character because she’s simultaneously unpleasant in some ways but also very relatable and engaging. She’s a lot in all the best ways. I think she’s got some manic pixie dream girl in here, but she has so much depth and serves as a lot more than just a lesson for the main character. So yeah, overall, just loved this movie, and I’m sure I will watch again. What did you think?
Carly: Well this movie was adorable and made me cry. I loved it. The graphic novel has been on my to-be-read pile for years, so I didn’t know what to expect going in. But it was so good! The analogy for being trans or not accepted for who you are inside was well thought out and emotional. Which I mean, of course considering ND Stevenson’s experience. I’m honestly a little obsessed with him and all of his work. Which makes it shocking that I haven’t read Nimona. But anyway, I cried and laughed a lot in this movie. I loved the animation style and the friendship. It is a theme for ND to write life-changing friendships, and this was a wonderful one. Found family for the win. Okay anyway, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: It really struck me in watching this that it has so many levels of conflict in it, and we’ve never done an episode just about conflict. How is that even possible?? This movie definitely does conflict well. There’s a lot of conflict inherent in the setup–the first “common” person to become a knight in this civilization is of course going to ruffle some feathers. Change always does. So, when we talk about conflict in storytelling, it always comes down to opposing forces. Those forces can be from a variety of sources, but it’s always going to be two or more elements, whether they are people or monsters or forces of nature–that are competing. And that competition, that conflict, is what pushes the story forward. It’s one of the main elements of most forms storytelling (there are some that do not rely on conflict, but they have their own sets of rules). A conflict comes about because the character has a goal and something is stopping them from accomplishing that goal. This is the heart of GMC, which we’ve discussed on a previous episode. But when a character has an obstacle to overcome, they have to challenge themselves to make an attempt at overcoming it. That space is where all the good stuff happens in a story. Now, there are several kinds of conflict, but they fall under two umbrellas: external conflict and internal conflict. A successful story is going to have both, and these two main kinds of conflict drive not only the story but also each other. So, yeah. That’s the nutshell version of conflict.
Carly: Okay so external conflict is basically the conflict we usually think of when we think of a story. It is the world acting upon your characters. It is the struggle between your characters and the world. Ask yourself, how does the world exert power over my characters. Now, when I say the world, that can mean a lot of things. But basically that is the antagonist, the plot, the antagonistic forces. In this movie it is mainly the Director and her machinations. But it is also the society as a whole, not being able to accept Nimona for who Nimona is. It is the society set up around fighting “monsters”. And it is the circumstances that have kept Ballister and Goldenloin from being together. Basically, you know when you’re like “can the world just give me a break for a bit” in your real life? That’s external conflict. External conflict is incredibly important when you are writing your book. It is the main thrust of the plot. If the world isn’t acting upon your characters, if you characters aren’t responding to the world, what is the book about? Obviously, there are exceptions to rules, but this may be the one thing that doesn’t have an exception (within Western storytelling and 3-act structure). You can have a very internal conflict driven story, but you still will have the world reacting and responding to your characters. You need it to move a story along. If you think of your world and the antagonistic forces as a character, then you can see how they interplay with your main characters throughout the story. Having a strong external conflict gives your story a forward momentum. And the more that pushes them externally the faster paced your story will become, which is of course a double-edged sword. Have we done an episode on pacing? If not we should. Anyway, external conflict = your plot (for the most part).
Jeni: If the external conflict is about the world acting upon the character, internal conflict is about how the character’s competing needs creates a sense of not always knowing the right or best thing to do. There’s a lot that goes into this–their general personality, their background, their goals. Actually, we covered a lot of this in the last episode about characterization. So definitely give that one a listen if you haven’t already. But essentially, no person–no character–is all one thing. For example, Nimona really wants to be accepted for who she is. She wants to be loved, but she is definitely not “nice” and often not even “good.” She has no love for this society, and yet, she doesn’t really want to see everyone get hurt. She’s complex. So when she comes up against conflicts, she has to decide which part of her will take the lead. This is what all characters must do. At its heart, this will be driven by their emotional wound and their lie. In other words, the ways they’ve learned to cope. Now, internal conflict is often synonymous with character arc, which is the way a character changes over the course of the story. I’d also like to add on to what Carly said that, while external conflict is definitely the main plot for genre fiction, when we get into contemporary, general fiction, or litfic, we find that the internal conflict is actually the main plot. The main difference is that in a story where the external conflict is the main plot, some external happens that forces the main character to act, while in a story where internal conflict is the main plot, the character makes a change first and that change is what causes external things to happen. This is really the meaning of “character-driven” and “plot-driven,” but no one uses those terms right anyway so I’ve given up
Carly: Okay now we get into the interesting stuff. And that’s how internal and external conflict interact with each other, it’s the push and pull between the two. Because that is where the most compelling stories thrive. So the external conflict is the world acting on your characters and the internal conflict is the characters acting upon themselves, the next step is figuring out how those two forces act upon each other. And that all comes down to responses. Now I think I’ve brought this cycle up before, but I don’t remember when and it always bears repeating. The way to create plot is by creating a cycle of emotional wounds > conflicts > actions (character decisions) > then conflicts as a consequence of those actions > etc. And this cycle is basically an interplay between internal and external conflict. It is the world acting on your character (external conflict) that then throws the character into chaos because that external conflict has poked at their emotional wounds. Their response comes from their internal conflict, but the response itself tends to be external. Their internal conflict has informed on how they interact with the external conflict. So we see this in the movie very clearly through Nimona. Externally, the world sees her as a monster that is a danger. But internally she is battling with her own self-perceptions and how the world has beaten her down into believing that she is a monster. The internal and external conflict are inextricably tied. Without internal conflict the external conflict has no meaning or power and without external conflict the internal conflict can’t be overcome. You don’t usually solve problems, even internal problems, by sitting in a vacuum and pondering them. You seek help, the world pushes at the internal problems by poking at them and forcing you to work through them. You can’t really have one without the other. And now I’m getting a little into psychology and therapy and I don’t mean to. But then again, what is a book if not about human experience? It is what connects readers to the story and you reflect that through the internal and external conflict.
Jeni: One of the most interesting kinds of conflict a story can have is interpersonal. This is all about how characters interact with each other, and I find it a lot of fun to dig into when I’m editing because it means taking each character’s motivation and wounds and goals and seeing how they trigger those in other characters. When characters are allies or friends, it usually means their goals align, at least for the moment. But because the motivations behind those goals can be vastly different and the characters themselves have different personalities and backgrounds, they may not always agree on how to reach those goals. To use an everyday example, living with your best friend can be super hard because, while you may both want a safe and welcoming environment to come home to, you may have very different ideas about how to achieve and maintain that. What’s really fun about interpersonal conflict is that it can happen with any two (or more!) characters, from a main protagonist and a villain to two side characters who are mostly functioning in the background of the main scene. But interpersonal conflict helps add depth to both internal and external conflict. It can be a part of the reason a character changes over the course of the story, or it can make them double down on their motivation. It’s such a rich area to explore. The best way to think about this is that, in every situation in a story, each character present is going to have their own thoughts about what’s happening, their own needs, and their own motivations for being involved. This is how we get villains and heroes who work together for a time, as well as allies who split because their ideas about how to meet their goal are just too different. Consider: if each character were the main character of their own story, how would they act? How does that compare to the action of the story you’re currently writing? Your characters will likely surprise you! Just remember that this extends beyond arguing/dialogue. It has to be rooted in the characters’ psychology, and if the characters are to work together, they have to find a way to compromise. Honestly, I love that the resolution to the main conflict between Nimona and Ballister is that he apologizes. He sees the harm he did, and he attempts to make up for it.
Carly: Okay so one thing we haven’t really gotten into much is the romantic conflict in this movie. Mostly because while the romance is compelling, the main thrust of this story is the friendship between Nimona and Ballister. As you can tell by the fact that we didn’t even touch on Goldenloin in the synopsis. But to give you a quick overview: Ballister and Goldenloin (who has a first name but I prefer calling him Goldenloin) are two knights in love. But when Ballister goes into hiding they must contend with their belief in each other and who is lying to them. Now to get into romantic conflict, most people think that romantic conflict comes from the will-they-won’t-they thing. But mostly it comes from the “how will they.” Honestly, internal and external conflict are never more on display than they are in romance novels. Romance novels are a masterclass in writing all unto themselves. But you can see it so clearly because the internal conflicts are very obvious in a romance, and the external clearly interacts with the internal. Now let’s go back to the “how will they” in a romance. That is a conflict and a question because each love interest has an internal reason for why they can’t be together. In this story, it is about the fear that they don’t truly know each other. Goldenloin has to grapple with the idea that Ballister may have been lying to him their whole relationship. Ballister may have killed the queen, and if that is true, did Goldenloin even know him at all? Was their whole relationship a lie too? And Ballister is grappling with the fact that Goldenloin doesn’t believe him anymore. Maybe their relationship didn’t mean as much to him as he thought. The external conflict is poking at their internal conflict. Their insecurities are on full display when the world (aka the Director) frames Ballister for murder and forces them onto opposite sides in this fight. But it doesn’t work if they aren’t also questioning each other’s loyalties and love. There is romantic conflict there because we don’t know how they will overcome their internalized fears in order to be together. And that is the basis of romantic conflict: how will they overcome their emotional wounds and find a way to be together when the world is constantly driving them apart? That is where the excitement of a romance comes from: not the will they, but the how will they.
Jeni: The last point I want to talk about kinda goes off of what Carly was saying in terms of external conflict being the world acting upon your character. I just want to go deeper on this to discuss it specifically in terms of the setting. There are some obvious elements like weather or time of day. But there are other ways the setting needs to impact the story, and these mostly relate to society. Now, there is a kind of main plot that is a character against society, where there may not necessarily be A Bad Guy ™. We recently talked about The Hunger Games, and I think that’s a great example, especially when you look at the whole series. But in any story, regardless of whether it’s our current world or set in another time or place, society will impact the character in big and small ways. Society dictates a lot of how a character can move within their world. In this movie, we see a dichotomy set up between Nimona and the human characters. She can really only function as long as she looks and acts human; otherwise, she gets labeled as a monster and people get all pitchforky. For Ballister, he’s able to move within the world more normally, even when people think he murdered the queen. But it goes deeper than just the rules and who gets access to what resources. It’s also about how a character feels about themselves because of how society impacts them. This is going to come down to religion, what society values, how the government is structured, all those foundational elements of any group of people. The flashback alludes to the idea that Nimona is only this kinda mean version of herself because she’s been mistreated and isolated, and that’s what gives her this sense of having to prove that she’s worthy, even if that means being a villain. In a contemporary story that’s more driven by the character’s internal conflict, a big part of that conflict is going to come back to how society treats them or people like them. What are the implicit biases in that society about people like your main character? How does that character fight those biases, and how does that impact their overall idea about themselves? How does the messaging of their society impact what they think they can or can’t do? So, yeah, worldbuilding and setting can and should create a lot of conflict for your characters as well