How to Craft Riveting Internal Conflict For Your Story
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Conflict is the crux of any good story.
External conflict, which we broke down recently here on the blog, occurs between a character and an outside force, whether that be another character or an element of nature, society, or technology. On the other hand, internal conflict arises from an ethical or emotional debate that occurs within a character.
This style of conflict, while occurring in some form in every story, has the same ability to carry the full weight of a plot as external conflict. But how? Well, let’s discuss internal conflict together today!
What is internal conflict?
Internal conflict pits a character against their own mind or heart, which is why this type of conflict is often called "Character vs. Self." For this type of conflict to play out, a character must be pulled in two or more directions while attempting to make an important decision.
Common pulls, or triggers, include:
• Desire. Simply put, a character wants something.
• Need. A character requires something for physical, emotional, spiritual, or mental survival.
• Duty. Obligation leads a character to do what they feel is right or necessary, regardless of whether they desire to take action.
• Fear. The assumed consequences of a circumstance or decision pressure a character to act (or remain inactive).
• Expectation. A character feels obligated to do as others wish, often for sheer social self-preservation.
When a character experiences two or more of these triggers at a time, internal conflict is born. The character knows they must make a decision on what actions (or lack thereof) they will take, but the triggers they experience make the decision difficult.
During this time, your character may experience doubt, confusion, mental or emotional distress, anxiety, or fear.
Here are a few examples of internal conflict as found in popular novels:
In Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, books are illegal. Guy Montag is a fireman, whose job it is to set fire to any homes that are found to contain such illegal materials. However, one day, while on a call, his curiosity gets the best of him. He decides to steal a book to discover why the government considers it so dangerous.
Having looked at the book, Guy is faced with a choice: Will he do his duty as a fireman and protect his family by burning the book? Or, having been mentally and emotionally starved by a society that demands ignorant complicity of its citizens, will he attempt to preserve the knowledge and power found in literature?
In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to compete in a government-mandated, fight-to-the-death style arena game in order to protect her sister. Katniss doesn’t want to kill her fellow competitors, but with a family that relies on her for survival, Katniss is desperate to win.
Fear, duty, and need intertwine as Katniss fights to survive the Games without sacrificing her soul to the government that oppresses her.
In The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Aragorn is the long-lost rightful king to the realm of Gondor. Prophesy dictates that he is the man to take the throne, but Aragorn hesitates to fulfill this prophecy, fearing that the same corruption that ran through his ancestor’s veins will cause him to turn also to darkness and lead his people astray.
How can we use internal conflict successfully?
The key to crafting successful internal conflict lies in consequences. In essence, your character should be stuck between a rock and a hard place. No matter which decision they make, negative consequences should ensue—or, at least, your character should believe they will ensue.
These consequences, a.k.a. stakes, are what create tension, which is just a fancy word for keeping readers on the edge of their seats because they have too many questions that need answering.
• “What will the character choose to do?”
• “Will they really face those consequences?”
• “How the heck are they going to get out of that situation?”
• “Will they really risk all of that just for this?”
Eventually, of course, your character must come to some sort of decision, whether that be to take one specific action or to try to avoid any action at all costs. In any case, whichever trigger wins out will serve as your character’s motivation.
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How do internal and external conflict intertwine?
On a grand scale, motivation is one of the key elements of great storytelling.
You may only need a character, a goal, and a source of opposition to build a basic plot, but it’s your character’s motivation—a.k.a. the reason they choose to pursue their goal—that will, with any luck, resonate with your readers.
I mention this now because motivation is born out of internal conflict, as we discussed above. When a character is unhappy or their needs aren’t met, when duty gnaws at their conscience or when peer pressure weighs heavy on their shoulders, when fear pushes them to be brave in spite of danger...
These are all experiences that we, as humans, have faced in our lives. They’re relatable, even if the character or their goal is not, which is how you bridge the divide. How you build a human connection that hooks readers into your story.
And so readers are invited to walk beside your character in their journey. As your character's motivations lead to action, as action leads to internal and external consequences, as consequences lead to further internal and external conflicts, your readers will be right there, too.
By digging into internal conflict and getting to know what makes your character tick, a cycle is born. A plot is built, pacing is established, a theme emerges, and your character begins to learn, grow, and develop. Before you know it, you have a story.
And a damn good one at that.
Writers, I hope you've enjoyed this two-part miniseries on external and internal conflict! If you have any questions about either type, make sure let me know and I'll get back to you ASAP.
Is there an element of conflict I didn't cover in these articles that you'd love for me to discuss? Don't hesitate to leave me a shoutout in the comments below!