What do character, theme, and tension have in common? They are all results of genuine internal conflict in a story.

What is internal conflict? As opposed to external conflict which involves characters battling antagonists, internal conflict ensues when a character wars against himself. Or, perhaps more usefully, it can be summed up as the process of making difficult decisions. Of course, not all decisions are interesting, nor will all interesting decisions generate tension or develop characters, but some will.

The Five Steps to Internal Conflict

I’ll pull an old writer’s adage out of the playbook and parade it around for a moment: show, don’t tell. Most writing students have repeatedly heard this mantra in their journey, and they’re going to hear it many more times. I don’t want to go off on a tangent and start expounding the importance of “show, don’t tell,” because that subject could (and has) filled many books. But I need to mention it because it’s the groundwork for the five-step strategy I’ll be describing.

If you read any amateur (or published) fiction, you’ve probably observed a snippet like this:

 “Emma shook her head. She couldn’t go back. That would mean quitting. But she couldn’t go forward. If she did… She didn’t want to think about that. Not now. No. But she couldn’t just stand there either. She had to move. Before they caught her. Emma stepped forward.”

This scene has some strong points—implied stakes, character voice, an intimate POV. But it still lacks reader involvement. Sure, we see Emma’s thought process here, but it’s told, not shown. We forfeit the opportunity to contemplate these thoughts ourselves, so they have less impact. Telling internal conflict can develop character and theme (though unsubtly.) However, if this is the only way the author explores the conflict, it won’t engage readers. Why? Because showing the conflict grabs readers by the collar and drags them through the pages at two in the morning.

The goal of showing readers the internal conflict is to bring the decision to life. To force them to weight the costs and make the tough choice your character is facing. Readers should feel as conflicted inwardly as your character. That’s the kind of internal conflict we need to create. Now I’ll help get you started.

1. Introduce Two Distressing Options

Set up the conflict so that readers and the character understand it’s bad. To achieve this, you need to avoid two situations: dramatic irony and unexpected disaster.

Dramatic irony is caused when readers have insight the characters don’t. Whether a narrator, different POV, or some other literary device relays the information, readers are more savvy than the story’s characters. Think about Rapunzel in Disney’s Tangled. She has no idea she’s a princess who has been kidnapped by an evil (and ancient) hag, but the audience does. That’s dramatic irony, and it’s a common and effective tactic to create suspense in a story. However, it doesn’t work for internal conflict. If the character is unaware of the danger she’s about to encounter, she probably won’t hesitate to walk into it.

The flip side of this coin is unexpected disaster, or poor foreshadowing. Your character is confronted with a choice, but readers don’t realize the consequences of it. For example, I recently put one of my characters into an uncomfortable political situation where she had to speak up, but whether she agreed or disagreed with another character, her words would incite a war. The scenario was great for inner conflict, but my readers missed it, because I hadn’t explained the repercussions of her words. Although surprising readers can prevent characters from being predictable, it can’t help you develop internal conflict. Readers need to sense trouble approaching to comprehend the gravity of the situation.

These distressing options need to meet a list of requirements:

  • Your character (and reader) mustn’t have an easy way out. Any movement except forward or backward should be impossible. Otherwise the situation will be melodramatic and unbelievable. (Capsicle, anyone?)
  • Your character’s options need to be clearly defined and independent. To dodge one catastrophe, he must embrace the other. If he can’t bypass part of the consequences, his choice will be painful. You have to promise escape to your character—at a price.
  • The options must be of two varieties. Maybe one is a morally unjustifiable action while the alternative will reap an unacceptable loss. It has to be serious and (for the moment) obviously evil. If he doesn’t kick the puppy, the big dog will bite his leg off. If he doesn’t steal the elderly lady’s cash, his own grandma won’t be able to pay her medical bills. If he doesn’t shoot his fellow trainee, the other guy will shoot him.

Usually, but not always, you’ll pick one distressing option from each category. Either your character behaves immorally or misfortune befalls him. Forcing your hero to make an impossible decision is the foundation of building internal conflict. But hold on, because circumstances are about to intensify…

2. Blur the Lines

Even after you’ve established the distressing options, the scenario is likely still too simple. As Christians, we know it’s wrong to make a sinful choice no matter the outcome. Your hero, in the midst of his emotional turmoil, might be on edge enough to act immorally and move on. Readers, however, probably are not. You need them confused for this to work.

What if the puppy needs kicked because it was biting another puppy’s ears? What if the old lady is so rich that she’d never miss her stolen money, or she owns the hospital the hero’s grandma is in debt to? What if the trainee you hero is squaring up against has already killed a couple other trainees?

The goal isn’t to present any sort of “morality is relative” statement, but to portray life as complicated and perplexing as it really is. Readers must be unsure what to do, or else your scene will flop and your theme won’t be taught.

3. Raise the Stakes

Once your scene is set and readers are conflicted, it’s time to turn up the heat. Raising the stakes is another topic which can (and has) filled books on writing. I can’t talk much about it here (this is already getting long), but here are some pointers.

The stakes need to be personal. We care about things we care about. To quote Sophie Devereaux (because quoting fictional characters is fun), “One death is a tragedy, a thousand deaths is a statistic.” Declaring “people will die” (for whatever sad reason) won’t render high stakes. Be precise: which people will die? How? Make sure readers have met them to fully feel the anguish.

As you raise the stakes on the situation, your character’s decision will become more and more important and hopefully he and readers will second guess themselves. Which means you’ve hooked them.

4. Force the Deadline

You can’t allow your hero to stay where he is. Whether it’s the villain applying pressure, or the situation itself (grandma in the hospital), you need to push your character to a decision. Your readers are in suspense, and they don’t want to wait forever.

5. Show the Aftereffects

Finally, don’t downplay your whole scenario by letting your hero off easy. No matter what he decides, he must endure the consequences. He kicks the puppy; the puppy dies. He doesn’t touch the puppy; another puppy loses his ears. He robs the old lady; he gets caught. He doesn’t steal the money; his grandma becomes deathly ill without the necessary medical care. He refuses to kill the other trainee; the other guy aims at him (and doesn’t miss). Following through on the consequences retains your authorial integrity. Otherwise readers won’t be as apprehensive about the results next time around. Eventually they won’t return to your stories at all.

Once you have the internal conflict train rolling, it will open doors to many different opportunities for your story. To wrap up this article though, I’d like to focus on the three items I began with.

Character

Readers will be watching, waiting, judging your characters by their choices. Whether they decide rightly or wrongly in the end, facing and overcoming internal conflict will deeply develop your characters. After all, actions speak louder than words.

Tension

Well-constructed, well-executed internal conflict will bring moral dilemmas to the forefront of your novel and stimulate movement, which will amp up the tension in your novel. That’s a win.

Theme

Internal conflict will demonstrate the theme of your novel. It is a natural, subtle method to display your theme in a dynamic, genuine scenario.

Internal conflict can be hard to generate if you don’t know how to proceed, and entangling readers is harder still. Hopefully these five principles will help you gain footing in one of the most ambiguous aspects of good writing, and from there it only gets better.