External conflicts are obvious to the audience and easy for storytellers to conceptualize. The hero either defeats the villain or they get beat; they either convince the jury or they are thrown in jail. But while these conflicts are usually the first thing that new storytellers reach for, they’re no more important than the other side of the coin: the conflicts that take place inside a character’s mind.
Internal conflicts give stories depth and meaning, but many storytellers aren’t sure how to execute them. How do you create an epic struggle based in amorphous thought-space? It’s easy to hand the character a solution on a platter, but that’s never satisfying. We can do better.
I’ll go over two types of internal conflicts. After describing how to set up and carry out each, I’ll show you ways to bring them together.
Problem-solving conflicts apply when a character has to think up a plan, solve a mystery, or otherwise find an objective answer to their problem. Using clues and logic, they have to get from ignorance to enlightened without making it look too easy. Once they have their “Eureka!” moment, their conflict is resolved.
1. Start With a Puzzle
First, you’ll need a problem for your character to think through. Give it clear stakes so your audience knows what bad things will happen if the character doesn’t figure it out. Raise those stakes as you approach the climax of the story; it’s great if your protagonist’s life ultimately depends on solving this riddle.
ExampleYour protagonist is a cop, but the latest serial killer isn’t a human. It’s a demon they can’t arrest or even shoot. You have planned that this demon is actually an unhappy ghost from an unsolved-murder case, a child named Clarissa who was found dead in her bedroom. Now your protagonist needs to figure this out. The longer they take to solve the problem, the more people will be killed.
2. Plant Clues
Before the internal conflict begins, make sure your character has the right information. They can proactively acquire more clues as they follow up, but they’ll need something to start with. Generally that something is given to them beforehand while their attention is elsewhere.
ExampleFirst, you introduce the unsolved-murder case. You don’t want it to look important, so you mention it either in passing or as though it’s part of a side plot. Maybe someone begs the cop to reopen the case, and they refuse. After that, your cop makes an observation about the serial killings. They notice that all the victims are parents killed inside a child’s bedroom.
3. Break the Problem Into Steps
Now we’re in the struggle itself. The character can’t just go from ignorance to their “Eureka!” moment; the puzzle they are facing must be broken down into a series of steps. At each step they can either gain another clue through their ingenuity or think over the clues they have, reaching a smaller conclusion. While these steps are moving them closer to their goal, it shouldn’t feel that way. Instead, each step should lead to another perplexing question they don’t have an answer for. This will maintain the tension.
ExamplePredicting the next target, your cop has sprung a trap for the serial killer. But then it turns out the killer is a supernatural demon. The ambush has only made it angry. Now it’s cornered all the cops at the ambush, and it is killing them off one by one. Huddling in a corner, your hero has to think fast or be killed:
- The cop has just observed how the demon is immune to physical damage or restraints, but it seems to understand what people are saying. That means the only way to stop it is to convince it to stop. But convincing it is impossible without understanding it. Why would a demon kill humans?
- The cop looks over the bodies and sees that the demon hasn’t eaten the people it’s killed or taken anything from them. That makes it unlikely the demon is materially benefiting from these killings. However, the ambush has shown that the demon does get angry. It must be killing for emotional reasons. But that doesn’t make sense; an invulnerable demon has no reason to get angry at these parents.
- The cop remembers that the demon always strikes parents when they are in their children’s bedrooms. The ones most likely to be angry in that situation, besides the parents, are the children themselves. Maybe a child is somehow communing with or controlling the demon. But what child could control a demon, and why would they want so many parents dead?
If you are writing this in a short story, you can have several paragraphs of the character thinking through the problem in this manner. To keep up the tension, add in some tense action or description between steps. Someone can scream in the background, or the demon can come terrifyingly close to finding the protagonist. If you have a longer work, you can instead spread out each step into different scenes. Then, subdivide them into even smaller steps for an internal conflict in each scene.
For visual media, the steps to solving a problem usually play out in dialogue. Give your cop a partner, and let them work through it together. One can solve one step, and the other will bring up the new puzzle that creates.
4. Wrap Up With a Bright Idea
While it depends on the story, it’s often a good idea to include a dramatic reversal with problem-solving conflicts. This means that before your character finds their answer, the situation will be so dire that they’re ready to give up. Sometimes the process of giving up can lead their thoughts to the solution.
ExampleThe demon has found the cop and is closing in. Your cop thinks there must be a child nearby controlling the demon, so they start calling out to that potential child, trying to talk to them about their parents and begging them to stop the killings. The demon backs the protagonist against a wall, and the cop notices that the demon is reacting to the words meant for the child. They talk more to the demon and it flickers, showing a slightly human shape. It clicks that the demon itself is the child – a dead child, and that child is Clarissa. Using the child’s name, the cop promises her parents will be brought to justice, and the demon fades away.
Remember that internal conflicts don’t happen in an alternate dimension without time. The longer the conflict is, the more time that other characters have to speak or attack while your protagonist is thinking. Create room for a pause within tense moments, so everything else doesn’t just freeze while all that thinking takes place.
Depicting a Sad Resolution
If this isn’t the climax of your story, your character can be defeated before they find a solution. This works great if you want a side character to attempt the solution and fail, leaving it to your main character to tackle later.
ExampleEarlier in the story, the cop’s partner suspects the killer is supernatural and buys some items from an exorcist. Knowing the protagonist won’t believe it, they figure out where the demon is on their own and rashly confront it. The partner is still figuring out how to banish the demon when they are killed and left for the protagonist to find.
If this conflict features your main character at the climax of your story, your hero should find a solution they think is right, but it is actually wrong. They should choose the wrong solution because of a fatal flaw, one you established earlier.
ExampleThe cop cares greatly about Clarissa and her unsolved case. But the cop has a fatal flaw – a lack of compassion for all the troubled people they arrest on the beat. They think everyone who commits crimes is inherently bad, not that good people could do bad things. Because they can’t believe an innocent child like Clarissa would murder people, they wrongly conclude that the demon murdered Clarissa. Since the demon seems to be killing mostly adults, they try to convince the demon to stop by shaming the creature for killing a child. Then the demon reveals it’s Clarissa and kills the cop.
Dilemma conflicts apply when a character is faced with a difficult choice. It might be difficult because it forces the character to look past their ingrained beliefs and grow as a person, or it could be difficult simply because there is no right answer. The character needs to reach their choice while demonstrating how emotionally difficult it was. Once their choice is made, the conflict is resolved.
1. Demonstrate Their Outlook
Before the internal conflict begins, you’ll need to clearly show a personality flaw or belief that will be challenged by the events of the story. It should affect the decisions they make, which will in turn steer the plot. If it’s a flaw, their poor decisions should escalate the conflicts in the story overall.
ExampleThe main character is the commander of a faction in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Their weakness is always assuming the worst about the enemy, when really both sides are equally at fault. This causes them to make preemptive attacks that only escalate the situation.
2. Challenge That Outlook
Show your protagonist that only by deviating from their outlook can they save the day. Start by giving them clues that they are wrong. They’ll notice these things but still dismiss them. Finally you’ll want to dangle a big carrot in front of their nose, something they can’t ignore.
ExampleThe commander has a lieutenant that is their voice of reason, who explains that those enemy combatants might not be reaching for their weapons. When they engage the enemy, it’s clear the enemy leader thinks the protagonist is a tyrant and a murderer. The protagonist ignores these hints until their own son is injured in battle. The only person who can save him is the captured enemy leader, who it turns out is a doctor by trade.
3. Show Wavering
Now we’re in the struggle itself. Two combatants sit on the protagonist’s shoulders, whispering in either ear. The combatants are armed with reasons for the protagonist to choose them. Those reasons could be logical arguments, or they could be emotional motivations like jealousy. While depicting the conflict, you don’t want to just alternate one reason for this side and then one reason for that side. Doing so will make your conflict feel confusing or disorganized. Instead, you need to group the punches into a big volley. If your story is short, one side will throw all their punches, and then the other will. With a longer conflict, there can be some back and forth.
ExampleThe commander must decide whether to meet the enemy doctor’s demands to cease hostilities in exchange for treating the commander’s injured son. In the moment of indecision, the commander first thinks about all the horrible things they’ve seen the enemy do. Then they think about how the enemy could use the cease in hostilities to finish everyone off. After thinking that through, they think about their son and the urging of their lieutenant, who is the son’s lover. They wonder why the enemy leader is a doctor instead of a career solider or military officer.
If you are writing this in a short story, you can narrate their thoughts using one paragraph for each side of the conflict. In a longer story, you’ll want other characters to be involved in the protagonist’s decision. Your protagonist can have important relationships with two characters that represent either side of their choice. Build up to the decision by having those characters put pressure on the protagonist to see things their way.
For visual media, those representative characters are even more important. You’ll want at least one present during the struggle. They’ll make their case, and then the protagonist can respond with doubts. Use body language to make the protagonist’s indecision clear. They can hesitate, point a gun with shaky hands, start saying something then stop, tell another character to go, then tell them to wait.
4. Wrap Up With a Decision
Your main character will take decisive action based on the side they choose, demonstrating their commitment to their decision. During or immediately after that decisive action, they can make a statement about why their choice is the right one. This resolves the story with a memorable one-liner and helps make the end feel final.
ExampleThe commander asks the captive leader whether she still believes in the vow to save lives that she made as a doctor. The captive says she wants to, but she’s violated it so many times. The commander then takes off her restraints, explaining that they were once just a gardener, and they wish they had a chance to go back to that. The commander then holds out their hand for a shake, and the enemy doctor takes it.
Solutions for subjective, internal conflicts can be fuzzy. Make sure the reasoning you use to convince your protagonist to make the right decision actually addresses any false beliefs or emotional issues they have. In this case, the commander needed evidence that the enemy wasn’t evil. Just learning that they are starving, for instance, wouldn’t truly address that.
Depicting a Sad Resolution
Dilemma conflicts are good choices for bittersweet results, but they can also lead to tragedies. If this conflict is in backstory, you may want to inflict senseless tragedy on your protagonist. In that case, reveal that one option is the wrong one, but only after the protagonist has irrevocably chosen it.
ExampleThe commander’s backstory shows a moment years ago when they had to choose whether to accept a peace offering by the enemy. They lowered their weapon, and then the enemy drew their guns and murdered the commander’s fellows.
On the other hand, if this conflict is the climax of a story, generally it’s better if the protagonist is at fault. In that case, their beginning outlook should be a fatal flaw, and you’ll need to show how that flaw finally overcomes their better judgement.
ExampleThe commander has an opportunity to make peace and let the doctor treat their son, but instead they decide the doctor is only looking for an opportunity to hurt more people. They draw their gun to kill the doctor, only to be shot dead by the lieutenant, who sees it as the only way to save the son.
Combining Problem Solving With Dilemmas
These two types of internal conflicts go great together, resulting in an even more epic battle. To do that, insert one of these conflicts as a sub-part of the other. Here’s some different formats for doing that.
A Realization Causes a Personal Crisis
Your protagonist solves a difficult problem or mystery, but they are not prepared for what they find. Their new knowledge contradicts their current outlook, causing a crisis of belief, ending in an internal dilemma.
ExampleThe partner tells the cop that the killer is a demon and offers some holy water, but the cop doesn’t believe in the supernatural. After the partner dies, the cop puts the pieces together and realizes that a supernatural explanation is the only explanation. The cop has to decide whether to stick with what they know or embrace supernatural methods.
Personal Growth Leads to a Realization
Your protagonist has failed solve a problem because a personality flaw has compromised their reasoning. They struggle separately with that flaw, face a great dilemma, and finally choose to leave their flaw behind. Soon after, they are rewarded with a sudden realization.
ExampleThe commander has been seeing more and more drones fly through the sky, sending down missiles that damage settlements. Because they assume the enemy is responsible for these drones, they don’t understand the real cause. After they make peace with the enemy faction, the commander realizes both factions have a common enemy.
A Realization Allows Them to Solve Their Dilemma
Your protagonist is struggling between two options in a difficult dilemma. While they waver between them, they solve a mystery that gives them critical, new information. With that information, they know which option they should choose.
ExampleThe cop has to decide whether to trust the guidance of Clarissa’s father, a man that knows way too much about the demon. At the moment of their decision, the cop sees a last clue that identifies the demon as Clarissa. The cop then knows her father is a murderer and not to trust him.
Together, external and internal conflicts provide a story that is both riveting and deep. Don’t write one without the other.
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