Conflict 101: Internal Conflict - article

What is Internal Conflict?

Conflict is a necessary ingredient to any good story. Without a struggle between two opposing forces, your main character won’t change and will easily reach their goal. Doesn’t sound like too exciting of a story, does it?

Every story on your bookshelf includes at least one—but probably multiple—forms of conflict. As you build your narrative structure, you’ll use conflict to build tension and keep your reader turning the page.

There are two main types of conflict: internal and external. External conflict refers to conflict between the main character and an external force such as a villain or nature. In contrast, internal conflict is a type of inner struggle that affects the main character’s mental and emotional state.

For example, a character may struggle with a fear of heights, a desire for power, or a need to live up to someone’s expectations.

Internal conflict is important because it develops your main character, making him or her feel more realistic and sympathetic to the reader.

Examples of Internal Conflict

Internal conflict usually falls into five main “triggers”:

1. Desire, or something the character wants
2. Need, or something the character requires for survival
3. Duty, or some obligation that character feels is right or necessary
4. Fear, or a strong worry that drives the character
5. Expectation, or something a character feels obligated to do because of someone else

When a character experiences two or more of these triggers at a time, you have internal conflict, causing your character to feel doubt, fear, confusion, or distress, among many other emotions.

For example, in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to compete in a fight-to-the-death match in order to save her sister from competing. Katniss doesn’t want to kill anyone, but she knows she must win in order to get back home and take care of her family.

Her duty to protect her sister, her desire to stay alive, and her need to kill others in order to win all conflict with Katniss’s reluctance to compete in the tournament. This causes an internal conflict within Katniss throughout the story.

Take a minute to think about your favorite novel. What sort of internal conflict is at play in the story? What do the characters desire, need, or fear? What do they feel is their duty? What expectations are they held to? And then, how do a combination of these triggers cause in internal conflict within them?

How to Add Internal Conflict to Your Story

In order to add internal conflict successfully into your story, you have to start with your characters. As an exercise, start with the main character of your novel and ask yourself the following questions about him/her:

1. What does he/she fear? What are his/her core values in life?
2. What does he/she desire throughout the story? Is there anything he/she desires that they don’t know they want? An expectation or duty they must fulfill?
3. What desire is so strong that it could cause your character to overcome his/her fears? Ignore his/her values or duties?

Once you answer these questions, try putting it into a sentence like this:

- “I don’t want to kill anyone, but I must win this tournament in order to get home and take care of my family.”
- “I want to be with Juliet, but my family would never allow it.”
- “I have a duty to be the King of Pride Rock, but I am afraid that I will not succeed.”

The key to a riveting internal conflict is consequences. You character should be stuck between two conflicting feelings—both of which could lead to a not-so-perfect outcome for him/her.

There shouldn’t be one obvious choice for your main character. If there is, you need to raise the stakes.

In order to create a more engaging story, you need to leave questions for your reader that keep them turning the page. It should not be immediately clear to the reader what the character will choose, how they’re going to get out of the situation, or what they will risk to get there. That’s what makes a story fun to read!

How External and Internal Conflict Work Together

You need both internal and external conflict to write a great story. Without one or the other, a story will likely fall flat. But how do you make the two work together to create a seamless plot?

The simplest answer is: make any conflict oppose your character’s main goal or motivation. If your character wants to get the girl, every conflict in your story should make it more difficult for him/her to do so.

The difference between the two is that the main character will likely overcome multiple external conflicts throughout the story, but the internal conflict tends to stick around until the end.

External conflict can also arise when two or more characters’ internal conflicts contrast each other. For example, in Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook, Allie’s need to live up to her parent’s expectations and Noah’s underprivileged background causes them to struggle to maintain a relationship.

As long as your character has a strong motivation and you create internal and external conflicts that make it more difficult for your character to reach that goal, you will likely write a great story.

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