The external conflict looks relatively simple and one-sided at first. All Tom Benecke has to do is to walk a very short distance along a narrow ledge, pick up a single sheet of paper, and then walk back to his open apartment window and climb through. But the external conflict becomes more complicated during his little adventure. The story is somewhat similar to Jack London's well-known "To Build a Fire," although the settings are entirely different. In London's story the man only has to walk from point A to point B through a snow-covered landscape. Point B is a cabin where there will be a roaring fire and food and companionship. The external conflict gets more complicated, however. The protagonist falls through a snow covering into icy water and he must build a fire to keep from freezing to death. But he builds the fire in the wrong place and it gets extinguished by snow falling off the tree branches. Then his hands freeze and he can't light his matches. The external conflict becomes a matter of life-and-death, and he loses.
Tom Benecke's external conflict grows more ominous when he realizes that the ledge is not as wide as he thought it would be.
He moved on the balls of his feet, heels lifted slightly; the ledge was not quite as wide as he'd expected. But leaning slightly inward toward the face of the building and pressed against it, he could feel his balance firm and secure...
The reader (who is out there with Tom in his imagination) can understand how such an unnatural position could become more and more of a strain, especially on the leg muscles, until they became torture. Tom might not feel the strain at first, but it would become more and more painful the longer he stayed out there in the cold. It is also very awkward for him to have to keep his face pressed against a brick wall.
Tom knows that his greatest danger is in losing his nerve. This might be said to be true in any external conflict. If we lose our nerve we will probably lose the conflict--whatever it might be. But he reasons that he won't lose his nerve as long as he doesn't allow himself to think about his situation and as long as he doesn't look down.We know this makes good sense. Don't look down!!! When he reaches that precious piece of paper, however, he finds that in his awkward position with his face pressed against the bricks he can't get his fingers on the paper without looking down at least for an instant.
At the same instant he saw, between his legs and far below, Lexington Avenue stretched out for miles ahead.
Jack Finney's description of Tom's vision of nighttime Manhattan from eleven stories up is brilliant.
He saw, in that instant, the Loew's theater sign, blocks ahead past Fiftieth Street; the miles of traffic signals, all green now; the lights of cars and street lamps; countless neon signs; and the moving black dots of people. And a violent instantaneous explosion of absolute terror roared through him.
The rest of the story is much more of an internal conflict. Tom Benecke has become thoroughly unnerved by the feeling that he is like a fly clinging to a wall. He feels certain that he is going to succumb to vertigo and fall eleven floors to his death. He can't force himself to move his feet on that narrow ledge. To make matters worse, he inadvertently closes the old-fashioned double-pane window when he does finally manage to get to it and can't get it open again. (This would be part of the external conflict, wouldn't it?)
The fact that this story includes both a strong external conflict and a strong internal conflict is what makes it so gripping. Jack London's protagonist only had an external conflict, but he was a simpler type of man. Tom Benecke is a smart, urbane, articulate, imaginative sort of man, and that makes his problem much more acute.