The Internal Conflict Formula That Generates Plot Points and Strengthens Theme, by Lynn Johnston
Internal conflict is what happens when a character wants two things that are mutually exclusive. Sometimes the conflict will be something big: perhaps your heroine is in love with George but also lusts after Fred, and she’s unable to choose which man she wants to be with.
Or maybe she’s a homicide detective, and she wants to build a case on the evidence, but she also wants to prove that her BFF—who the evidence points toward—isn’t the killer.
Real people have lots of small internal conflicts too, and giving your character a couple of little ones can make her more real to the reader. “I want an ice cream sundae but my jeans are already too tight. Should I drive straight home or stop at Baskin-Robbins on the way?”
Will every character have internal conflict? No. It’s possible to have a character whose conflicts are entirely external. Take the recent Conan the Barbarian remake (starring Jason Momoa): at the beginning of the film, when his father is killed, the young Conan has already demonstrated that he has the warrior spirit needed to avenge his father, but he’s too physically weak to defeat his father’s murderer. During the movie, Conan doesn’t learn any life lessons or change his philosophy or fall in love. He just learns to fight and grows more muscles so that he can defeat his nemesis. No internal conflict, no character arc.
But…internal conflict is one of your primary tools for getting the reader to engage with your characters emotionally. It can be used to create both sympathy and empathy for your characters. So please don’t discard it unless you’re sure your readers are going to find your characters compelling without it.
The Internal Conflict Sentence Pattern
Internal conflict can be articulated by filling in the following sentence pattern:
I want ________, but I also want ________, and I can’t have both because ________.
Here are some examples of internal conflicts:
- I want to make partner at my law firm, but I also want to stop ruthlessly competing with my colleagues, and I can’t have both because if I stop being ruthless, I’ll stop winning cases and my rival will get the partner position.
- I want to give in to my attraction for Rex, but I also want to be emotionally safe, and I can’t have both because when my father abandoned my mother, I learned that men can’t be trusted.
- I want to make peace with my father, but I also want to punish him for leaving my mother, and I can’t have both because anger and forgiveness are mutually exclusive.
Notice that the reason for the conflict (“I can’t have both because…”) often arises from the character’s backstory, but not always—sometimes the reason a character can’t have both desires is that reality doesn’t work that way.
A three-dimensional character might have multiple internal conflicts other than the one associated with the growth arc.
Internal Conflict as a Vehicle for Theme
If the character’s story involves wrestling with a touchy social or psychological issue, like poverty or abortion or mental illness or child abuse, she’ll have an internal conflict related to the issue—because if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be wrestling with it.
Let’s say we’re writing about a heroine who believes wholeheartedly that the mentally ill should be locked away in asylums and drugged into docility. (Why she believes this, we won’t worry about for now, except perhaps to assume that she’s got a history with someone whose mental illness caused them to hurt her.)
Let’s say that our heroine is a medical student doing her residency, and she’s been assigned to a psych ward for eight weeks. At first, she sees the patients’ disturbed behavior as evidence that her belief is correct—by drugging the patients until they’re barely present mentally, they’re easier to deal with and their docility causes her to conclude that they’re happier that way.
But what if she were to become fond of one of her patients? Friends, even? And what if her new friend tells our heroine that he’d rather hang from the edge of reality by his fingernails than be drugged into numb oblivion?
Then our heroine would start to wrestle with the question of whether the drugs she’s administering to her patients are doing more harm than good. Her internal conflict statement would be:
I want to make life easier for myself and for my patients by following the doctor’s orders, but I also want to help my new friend on his journey back to mental health, and I can’t have both because I’m starting to believe that the drugs the doctor is prescribing for my friend are hindering his healing.
When the issue that the character wrestles with is framed as an internal conflict, it suggests scenes, doesn’t it?
You can imagine the heroine’s friend pleading with her not to administer the medications.
You can imagine the resident questioning the doctor’s judgment (and perhaps getting thrown out of her residency, or tarnishing her own record via disciplinary action).
You can imagine the heroine catching her friend spitting his pills out and struggling with the dilemma of whether or not to report it.
You can imagine the heroine contacting a social worker on her friend’s behalf, in hopes of finding a treatment program that doesn’t involve those medications and that will be covered by the friend’s insurance.
You can see the heroine organizing a protest among the other residents or talking to a journalist in the hopes of raising awareness of the issue, and getting fired from her job.
You can see the heroine enlisting the help of another resident (the love interest, perhaps?) in researching other treatment options that might help her friend.
In other words, a properly-structured internal conflict generates plot.
Do You Need to Resolve All Your Protagonist’s Internal Conflicts?
The internal conflict associated with the growth arc must be resolved—if it isn’t, the character hasn’t grown. If you’re writing a series, you might have the character make progress toward this in each book, resolving the conflict in the final book. Or you might give the character multiple internal conflicts, and resolve on conflict per book.
If there’s a romance subplot, the associated internal arc will be completed when the two lovers either get together or decide to part forever. Is there ever a time where you’d leave the romantic internal conflict unresolved at the end of a story? Yes—if you’re writing a series where you want the readers to wonder until the last book if the lovers are going to get together.
For all other types of internal conflict, it’s up to you. An unresolved internal conflict might be exactly what you need to illuminate a character’s contradictory nature or to hint that he’s a troubled soul. Unresolved internal conflicts can offer potential for humor. They can be used to create an air of mystery about a character.
When in doubt, ask yourself how the internal conflict is going to make the reader feel while it’s unresolved and once it’s resolved. Will those feelings make your reader’s experience of the story better or worse?
I challenge you to look at the protagonist in your work-in-progress: can you write out his or her internal conflicts using this sentence pattern?
I want _____, but I also want _____, and I can’t have both because _____.
Writing mentor Lynn Johnston blogs at Write Smarter, Not Harder, where you can download her free ebook, Editing for Story. She’s the author of The Writer’s Guide to Getting Organized, The 30 Day Novel Success Journal, and The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance. Her self-study workshops include Dynamic Characterization, Editing for Emotion, What Romance Readers Want, and Plotting the Perfect Romance.