The subject matter of any story that describes the nature of the central problem falls into one of four domains – Universe (a fixed state), Mind (a mind set or attitude), Physics (an activity), or Psychology (a problematic chain of thought).
All four domains must be explored in every fully developed story, but only one will be see as the source of the story’s problem and the other three will exhibit the ramifications of that problem as it ripples out to affect all of the characters.
The reason for this is easy to see if we consider a problem in real life. We might first ask ourselves, “Is the problem caused by something external (like the creature in the original Alien movie) or by something internal (like Scrooge’s outlook and attitude in A Christmas Carol).
An earthquake, an asteroid, and a shark are all external problems, but with one caveat – any of these might be seen as characters if they are imbued with human traits as opposed to being viewed as forces of nature.
So, if you actually try to get into the head of the shark in your storytelling or if you portray the asteroid as having a mind of its own – literally – then it becomes a character and as such whatever is driving it is an internal issue. But, under most circumstances these things would be seen as just that – things – and therefore would be appreciated by both author and audience as external problems.
Naturally, then, any story in which the central problem is caused by a character – by any entity that is host to human traits and considerations – then it is an internal problem. Essentially, the concept is, is it mind or matter. Or, as has been said, “What’s mind? No matter. What’s matter? Never mind.”
Once you have determined if your story’s problem (or any problem you encounter in real life) is caused by something external or internal you have a much better grasp of the nature of the beast, and therefore of which tools you’ll need to bring to bear in the attempt to find a solution and implement it.
That, in fact, is the real underlying message of a story – for this particular kind of problem, here’s the best tool set (means or methodology) for solving it. So, stories are about first identifying and then determining the best way to solve a problem.
Still, while we can learn much about a problem just by ruling out external or internal so we have a better focus on where the real issue resides, we can learn much more, even at this most broad stroke initial level of parsing the problem in our dramatics.
To do this, we can sub-divide both external and internal into two other categories: State or Process. An external state is a situation; an external process is an activity. The difference between the two is that a situational problem is unchanging, like being stuck in an overturned boat under the water, whereas an activity problem is like a bridge that is crumbling while you try to get your troops across it to safety. Both are external, and yet they are different “flavors” of external, and therefore will require different approaches and skill sets to solve.
Similarly, an internal problem can be a fixed state such as an attitude, outlook, fixation or prejudice that essentially never changes (at least until possibly at the climax of the story). While, on the other hand, an internal problem might be an activity – a manner of thinking or a process or chain of thought – that causes problems.
Hamlet, for example, is defined by the trait that he overthinks the plumbing. For example, he finds the kind kneeling alone in prayer and could easily kill him at that moment. But, he begins to reason, point by point, that he cannot act then because the king, being in prayer, would go to heaven and that is not sufficient for his revenge.
In another example, imagine a fellow about to interview for a job for which he is perfectly qualified and completely confident. But, he begins to think that maybe he is too perfectly qualified and therefore will be seen as not having growth potential and…. if he isn’t seen favorably, it will make him nervous and… if he gets nervous, he’ll become tongue-tied and… if the becomes tongue tied they won’t think he can communicate very well and… so on. Clearly, he didn’t have the wrong attitude, but the problem is because of the path his thoughts take – the process or activity of thinking itself: an internal activity.
To be clear, all four of these domains will be explored as the story unfolds, as we usually first become aware of the true nature of a problem by examining its symptoms. And only when we have used those symptoms to triangulate on and diagnose the problem are we certain of which of the four is the actual source. Only then can we bring to bear the proper tools to solve it, and, again, the story’s message, ultimately, is an argument as to which is the best set of tools for the job.