Outer-rise seismicity and dynamics are examined using inelastic models of lithospheric deformation, which allow a more realistic characterization of stress distributions and failure behaviour. We conclude that thrust- and normal-faulting outer-rise earthquakes represent substantially different states of stress within the oceanic lithosphere. Specifically, the normal-faulting events occur in response to downward plate bending, which establishes the 'standard', bending-dominated state of outer-rise stress, and the thrust-faulting events occur in response to an elevated level of in-plane compression, which develops only in response to exceptional circumstances. This interpretation accounts for the observation that normal-faulting outer-rise earthquakes occur more frequently and are more widely distributed than their thrust-faulting counterparts, an observation for which the simple bending model offers no explanation. In addition, attributing both thrust- and normal-faulting outer-rise earthquakes to plate bending implies that both classes of events should occur within relatively close lateral proximity to one another because both are allegedly a manifestation of the same bending-dominated stress distribution, whereas, in reality, this is not observed. We propose that the tendency for thrust-faulting outer-rise earthquakes to exhibit greater source depths than their normal-faulting counterparts (an observation that is frequently cited in support of the bending interpretation of the former) is merely a consequence of the fact that bending-induced tension is confined to the upper lithosphere. Our model predicts that outer-rise in-plane-force variations may promote thrust-faulting outer-rise activity prior to an underthrusting interplate subduction earthquake and normal-faulting outer-rise activity following such an earthquake, but that both forms of outer-rise activity are unlikely to be associated with the same subduction earthquake. A corollary implication of our model is that subduction earthquakes are likely to be either preceded by or followed by an absence of large outer-rise earthquakes. Levels of in-plane compression necessary to generate thrust-faulting outer-rise earthquakes are attributed to stress concentrations within the subducting plate that are induced by relatively localized resistance to regionally distributed plate-driving forces. Resistance of this nature may result from either the attempted subduction of relatively buoyant (i.e. isostatically compensated) bathymetric features or the existence of strong interplate asperities.