This may sound like a hot take, but I do feel like Squid Game blew up because of its second episode. I haven’t finished watching the show yet, but I can confidently stick to that opinion.
For those who are living under a rock, Squid Game quickly became one of Netflix’s popular shows this year. It’s filled with gorgeous visuals, future TikTok trends, and many more reasons one might say the show became a hit.
Some wonder exactly why its popularity blew up like it did, and it’s because of the second episode. Why? Because the episode includes a lot of internal conflicts. How does that relate to a show blowing up? To answer that, we need to look to brain science.
There are two types of conflict in stories: external conflict and internal conflict. External conflict is defined as a struggle between a character and an outside force. In Squid Game, the external conflict is the players against the games themselves. If those players lose, then they will die, but why does that matter to the players if they die? Why are they even choosing to participate in these deadly games anyways? If they are participating in either getting rich or being dead, then why do they not get a job and get the money that way without having to worry about being dead?
I’m not trying to say external conflict is bad; it is important to have external conflict in your story to increase the tension surrounding it. But without any internal conflict, the audience doesn’t care about the characters and the story seems boring to them. Sure, it may be exciting to see characters facing challenging games or—in other stories—spaceship battles, wizardry duels, and giant monsters. But those things don’t make us care about the characters. If only external conflict is used, then your characters will feel like the punching bag for the plot; they are smacked with external conflict and more external conflict without any meaning to it. That’s not how a really good story is supposed to go; a really good story has the characters reacting meaningfully with the plot. That’s how most really good Disney movies go: almost every obstacle Moana or Hercules face is important to them—not to the world. So how did Squid Game create a really good story? By making every action matter to the characters. And how did they do that?
The answer comes in the form of internal conflict. Internal conflict is the type of conflict that happens inside of the character’s head—whether mental or emotional. Each one of us—whether we think of it or not—has some form of internal conflict. We each have a goal, or desire, we are trying to reach. However, there is a reason we may not fulfill that desire: fear. This fear is what makes us unable to achieve our goals. But this desire still matters to us, and if you share it with people then it might matter to them since they relate to you.
The same thing goes into watching movies and reading books; we relate and care about the characters who have a desire and a fear because we human beings also have internal conflict. Because of that, something magical happens when a protagonist shows off their internal conflict to the audience: the audience holds the character’s values close to them, and they pay close attention to the character’s actions. Author Abbie Emmons summarized this better than I could ever have: “Internal conflict is the secret ingredient to capturing your reader’s attention. When we know why it matters to the characters, we know why it matters to us. And when something matters to us we pay close attention to it.” That’s why Moana and Hercules caught our attention: when we know what they are doing matters to them, then it matters to us.
So how does this fit into Squid Game? In episode two, we learn about the internal conflict (both desire and fear) of each of the main characters. We learn why they are participating in these games that kill people. We learn that each of them is in extreme poverty and wants to get out of it (that’s the desire). Unfortunately, they have been faced with some fears that prevent them from reaching their goals: a greedy boss, struggles of moving, surgery of a loved one, a poor pregnant woman, the list goes on. These are the things that make us care about the characters; the writers are taking their time to introduce the main cast so they can show their desire clashing with fear and—more importantly—make us care about the characters and keep us hooked on what is going to happen.
But wait! There’s more. Another form of internal conflict is called “pain vs. pain”. It is when one type of problem a character is facing (the first “pain”) becomes more painful than another problem (the second “pain”). In the case of Squid Game, the reality of poverty is more painful than dying in a battle royale. As the audience can see, each character, in this case, suffers this sort of internal conflict—thus the audience cares about each of them.
The rest of the story is a tense series of events because the writers took the time to make us care about the characters. And that is why Squid Game blew up. Sure social media and the actual concept of Red Light, Green Light had some impact. But critically, it was the internal conflict that did it all.
— Billy Wikol