Wednesday, June 17, 2020

5 Ways to Add Internal Conflict to Your Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Strengthening the internal conflict in a scene can lead to a deeper connection with your reader.

Back in my “still working out this writing thing” days, I didn’t even know what internal conflict was. I had a vague sense that conflict was the plot, and that it involved grand battles and exciting fight scenes (it didn’t, by the way). I thought that in order to write an exciting novel, I needed to pack it full of exciting action.

Since I’m a plot-focused writer, this misconception fit my writing style well and kept me struggling to understand conflict longer than I should have.

Eventually I figured it out and my novels improved. And once I knew what skill I lacked, I focused on developing that skill—in this case, conflict in general, internal conflict in particular. This “skill cycle” was also part of my process, where I’d hit a technical wall in my writing and then shift to learning how to handle it.

It’s been a very long time since those days, but my plot-first method of writing hasn’t changed. Sometimes when I’m drafting a new novel, I notice my protagonist is chugging along with the plot I created, diving into problems and struggling to solve them, but there's no sense that those problems are really all that difficult to resolve.

Sure, overcoming each one is hard, but all she has to do is fight through it to the next step. The problems are just “things in the way,” they’re not making it harder for her to solve her problem.

Scenes like this are the literary equivalent of a big action sequence in a movie. They’re fun to watch, but they’re often all surface problems.

This is when I know I need to add more conflict. Not the "put random obstacles in the way" conflict I’d been doing (common for me in a first draft), but the deeper, more interesting, "make the choices harder" type conflict.

The internal conflict.

The external conflicts are much easier to pile on, because obstacles apply to pretty much anyone. Bad guys can show up any time. Loved ones can meddle. Random flat tires or alarms that don’t go off can throw off an entire day and cascade to chaos. All those things are impersonal.

Plus, heroes tend to win. Readers know the protagonist isn't going to die. Even capture and imprisonment by the villain is temporary, because the protagonist will obviously break out and save they day.

But the heart-wrenching problems, the conflicts that keep readers glued to the pages, are usually the internal conflicts. Readers don't know what a character might do when faced with an impossible choice, but they know that choice is going to have a strong consequence.

Here are five ways you can add internal conflict to your scenes:

1. Force the protagonist to go against their morals or belief system

Look at what your protagonist feels strongly about and determine how those beliefs might be challenged. Where’s their moral line? What would they never do under any circumstance? What belief do they uphold without question? This isn’t just about faith or religion, but personal codes and values. For example, it might be forcing a Marine to leave an ally behind, making a parent put the needs of the child last, or getting an honest person to lie.

It also doesn’t have to be a huge betrayal of the belief either. If they need to do X to move the scene forward, look at ways X might ask them to do something they’re not comfortable doing.

Doing the wrong thing for the right reasons might seem like a good idea at the time, but it can eat at your character and make them regret it.

(Here’s more on Three Ways Moral Dilemmas Can Strengthen Your Novel)

2. Force the protagonist to make a choice they really don't want to make

Impossible choices are one of the easiest (and strongest) ways to create internal conflict. The protagonist knows what making that choice will cost, and they have to decide if they’re willing to pay that cost. The choice won’t be easy, and every option will have consequences as well as benefits.

Look at the outcome of your scene. Is it clear what has to be done? Is there any way you can add a difficult choice to it? You might even mix this with the belief option—do they have to choose between the more difficult option that doesn’t betray their beliefs, or pick the easy option that does?

(Here’s more on The Impossible Choice: A Surefire Way to Hook Your Readers)

3. Force the protagonist to make a bad choice

This is one of my favorites, since mistakes are great fodder for plot. Protagonists can act, and that action causes more trouble than they were trying to prevent in the first place. This works even better if they make the wrong choice because they're trying avoid violating one of their belief systems, or they choose not to make that impossible choice at all.

Consider what might happen if the protagonist chooses wrong or takes the wrong path in a scene. Does it lead to a more interesting place? Would a bad decision now make the ultimate conflict and problem even worse later?

Facing a problem you created is much worse than facing one that wasn’t your fault.

(Here’s more on 7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions)

4. Force the protagonist to fail

Sometimes failing is an unexpected and compelling path to take, and it creates doubt and fear in the protagonist’s mind. It's not a setback, it's real failure with real consequences. If those consequences result from a bad decision, so much the better.

This is also a fun way to teach a protagonist the valuable lesson they need to learn for their character arc. They failed because they haven’t learned that lesson yet, and it’s a great example of what they’re doing wrong.

What might happen to the story is the protagonist fails instead of wins in a difficult moment? Start with your major turning points, then work backward, scene by scene—where might the protagonist fail? Can you crank up the conflict and the tension if they start losing and it snowballs to a disaster? This is a great path to take to slide into the Dark night of the Soul or All Is Lost moments at the end of Act Two.

This one can be dangerous, so be wary of putting your protagonist into a situation that stops the story and leaves you nowhere to go. If you smack them down hard, make sure it’s because they need to feel they’ve failed in order to see the actual way out.

(Here’s more on 5 Reasons Our Characters Need to Fail)

5. Force the protagonist to do something they'll regret

This works well if what they do early on affects the plot later. Perhaps they make a choice to avoid a problem (or a choice they don’t want to make?), that directly makes things impossible down the road. For example, they take the easy way out, and that turns hard into downright impossible at another point in the novel. Maybe they can even see this complication coming and have no choice but to do it anyway. Maybe they have no clue what problems they’re about to bring down on themselves. Or better still, they don't, but the reader does.

This requires thinking like the protagonist versus the author. You know where there story is going and what matters, and what choices or actions are the right ones versus the wrong ones. But the protagonist doesn’t. So they’ll see the situation from a different perspective. So maybe that extra clue you threw in there to point them in the right direction isn’t there anymore, and they have to make a bad decision, or a make a choice knowing they don’t have all the facts.

(Here’s more on Stuck on a Scene? Try This Trick)

Internal conflict taps into reader empathy, making readers wonder how they’d act or what choices they’d make in the same situation. It helps them connect to our characters and feel the same pain (and joy) they do. It can also make a tough situation harder, or turn an easy situation into an impossible one.

Don’t underestimate the value of making your protagonist struggle more to solve their problems and get what they want.

How many conflicts in your novel are tough obstacles vs hard choices? Which do you find more compelling?

*Originally published November 2011. Last update June 2020.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Ecellent post. I sometimes get the feeling that my characters are pushing through the hard stuff too easily. It makes perfect sense that inner conflict is what they may be missing. Thanks for the great suggestions.

  2. Great ideas for increasing the conflict. Sometimes I don't think I force my characters to have enough conflict. You've given me some great ideas for changing that. Thanks.

  3. Just the post I needed, right now :D I swear you're psychic, Janice! It really is about how tough we can make things for our characters, and your post perfectly illustrates some of the ways that we forget to include. Perfect!

  4. This. Is. Awesome. I love what you said about personal conflict, especially having to make a bad choice. On a related note, I did a crit the other day where the author skipped over a very obvious way to add more conflict/raise the stakes in the story. Writing it I was thinking of all the posts you've done about conflict - should have directed her to your blog. My bad. I'll send her an email and add a link to this one too!

    Have a great weekend. :)

  5. I really love the "bad choice" conflict for YA because that's so much of the YA experience. Teens will just act without thinking so much what the consequences will be.

  6. Hello Fellow Blogger! Wanted to show some love and say your blog is wonderful. I myself just started a new blog and could really use your support. Return the favor and become a follower?

  7. Cheryl & Natalie: Most welcome! I notice I do it the most when I get close to major set pieces in the story. I'm eager to get to the good stuff, and then tend to rush my way there. Good thing first drafts are allowed to be messy :)

    Wen: Glad I could help. There's so much to remember and think about. Doing these posts actually remind me on things to check, too.

    Angie: Thanks! I love when I find great moments like that, in my work or others. Kinda like finding treasure. Enjoy your weekend!

    Monica: That's actually one of the things I enjoy about YA. It's a time when you make tons of mistakes, and it makes for some great stories.

    Vampgirl: Welcome to the blog :)

  8. I think, out of all the blogs I read, I bookmark things from yours the most. This post is excellent, and that first paragraph you've got basically mirrors a rather dreary 3K-word trek my characters go on halfway through SPITFIRE--tough, but doable.

    But it needs some spice, you know?


  9. Also, by first, I mean second. Math was never my strong suit.

  10. I just found your site via some convoluted process that I don't remember. Anyway, I found this post very good and I love the cover of your books.

    I've subscribed so I'll be back.
    I'm presently re editing my YA fantasy ms for my agent.

  11. Shayda: Aw, thanks! (Math isn't my strong suit either)

    Tahlianewland: Welcome to the blog :) And thanks! Good luck with your edits.

  12. I found this post so helpful--I bookmarked it when I first found it and I've just discussed it on my own blog. These questions are proving so helpful in my revision, so thank you!

  13. I have yet to come upon a post of yours that I did not immediately boomark, retweet, shared on FB, or otherwise found invaluable. Seriously, this is my favorite writing blog.

  14. Very helpful article. I always wonder if I've created enough conflict for my characters or if they're skating free.

  15. Another post I will revisit often while revising. Thanks for all your wonderful insights. I don't know where my WIP would be without your helpful posts. Oh wait, yes I do, it would be flailing by the roadside with weak internal conflict.

  16. Oh my gosh, Janice, this is such a huge help! I'm plotting my next book, and I've made a sheet of paper for each of your items. I'll start making lists! Thanks so much.

  17. I love your writing advice, it always makes me think and is just what I need.
    I am currently editing a story I have written and was thinking my characters had it too easy. Will go back and have another look and maybe add in some more conflict.

    Love your blog, posts and books. ;D

  18. Again, just brilliant! I have a scene plotted in which my hero fails spectacularly, but internal conflict never crossed my mind. This, I will be rereading...

  19. Janice, another post I'll be keeping.

  20. interesting post, gotta feel sorry for the protags with all this internal conflict ;)

  21. I love internal conflicts, which turn up more by good luck than good management in my writing. I will definately be looking for opportunities to manipulate in the future - my poor characters...

    Thanks again for another great post!

  22. Great advice! I need this for my WIP!

  23. Amie, glad to help!

    Jennifer, aw, thanks :) I do try.

    Suzanne, so do I. I'm not sure that ever changes, lol.

    Traci, most welcome :) Always makes my day to hear the blog is helping my fellow writers.

    Julie, good luck! Hope it makes it easier (and better!)

    Barmybex, thanks! Good luck with your editing.

    Rachel, hope you find a great conflict for him then :)

    Tracy, thanks!

    SJP, lol I know! A friend of mine says she wants to adopt mine so I'll stop being so mean to them.

    Raewyn, they really do add a lot of interest to a story. And they're fun!

    Lin, good luck!

  24. Sorry you aren't feeling well, but thanks for reposting this. Excellent and to be saved!

    1. Thanks and thanks :) The whole house is fighting something. Husband, me, and one of the cats.

  25. This was thought provoking. The temptation is to make things too easy for the characters we love because we are galloping to the ending. Putting psychological conflict on top of external conflict can be quite painful to write as we put ourselves through the mill too. However, in Fiction as in life, sometimes the experience of suffering makes the successful resolution even sweeter.

    1. It does indeed. We just need to keep a sweet treat ready and waiting for after we write those hard scenes. :)

  26. This post is so helpful! I'm printing it out. :-)