A character who knows exactly what to do and is happy to do it makes for little in the way of tension and drama.
Giving a character emotional and ethical issues to wrestle with adds depth both to the character and the story.
When dealing with the struggle that goes on inside a character there are three main areas to consider:
1. The difference between inner conflict and plain old dithering.
2. Demonstrating to the reader what’s going on inside a character’s head without resorting to endless inner monologues.
3. How do you make internal conflict as interesting and entertaining as external conflict?
I’m going to look at each of these in turn, hopefully suggesting some useful techniques for making the most of this element of storytelling.
What Is Inner Conflict?
Just because someone isn’t sure about what to do in a situation doesn’t automatically make it the kind of inner conflict that readers will find dramatically engaging.
For example, if Terry goes into an ice cream parlour with enough money for one cone, but can’t make up his mind between the pistachio and the mint choc chip, that battle of the flavours that goes on in his head is not inner conflict.
Technically speaking you could argue that he is conflicted, in a dictionary definition kind of way, but the key difference is that whichever flavour he ends up choosing, what does he lose in the process? If he chooses pistachio, so what? Mint choc chip, and...?
It may be a difficult choice for him, but struggle is not the same as conflict (internally or externally).
If it doesn’t matter which he chooses, then it makes no difference how hard he finds the choice.
So in the case of Terry and his soft scoop dilemma, while you can have that kind of scene in a story if you feel it’s appropriate, you should be aware that it will have a limited appeal to the reader.
But things aren’t always that clear cut.
Let’s say Terry is putting on weight and decides he has to cut out all ice cream... only, he just can’t resist. We all know that feeling, right? You’re determined to say no to ice cream, no to chocolate, no to cakes. And then you see the most moist, succulent, choclatey ice cream cake you’ve ever seen in your life. You look away, but it calls out to you, “Hold me... kiss me... eat me...”
So that struggle, that’s inner conflict, right?
Nope. That’s just weakness, lack of will power, gluttony, call it what you will, but there’s very little real conflict here. If Terry doesn’t eat the stuff that’s bad for him, he will be happier. He doesn’t lose anything apart from some weight. If he carries on eating sugary treats his health will get worse.
When a problem is all good on one side and all bad on the other, it’s obvious which is the right choice. That doesn’t mean doing the right thing is easy—you still have to fight whatever issues you might have (apathy, lethargy, addiction, stupidity) to get the job done—but that isn’t the same thing as inner conflict.
That’s not to say you can’t write about these kinds of subjects, but a story about a guy who’s addicted to heroin and wants to quit and struggles and fails and tries again etc isn’t utilising inner conflict. You can add inner conflict by bringing in other elements, but on its own wanting something and not being able to easily achieve it is not the basis of conflict.
So then what is?
What you need for any kind of conflict is for both sides of the argument to have stakes. Something that means whatever choice the character makes there will be consequences that will have to be faced.
Showing Inner Conflict
The easiest way to do this is to hear the thoughts going through a character’s head.
Like most things, it can work when done well, but also like most things, the easiest way is usually the least impressive. If the writer is skilled, if the context is interesting, if there’s an audience for the subject matter, it’s possible to make a long, discursive passage about what the character’s thinking as interesting as any long speech in a movie or play.
But it can very easily slip into a longwinded, tedious diatribe. There are very few people in the world whose stream of consciousness is of interest to anyone except themselves, and fictional characters are no different.
To be able to capture the issues succinctly and with wit, emotion, tension, or whatever the situation calls for, in monologue form is incredibly difficult.
The most effective way to establish a dramatically interesting inner conflict is to let the situation occur in real time (i.e. see it unfold) rather than the character thinking back or looking forward to what might happen.
The consequences of various actions should either be self-evident or brought up in dialogue with other characters. Bear in mind that dialogue doesn’t have to be direct. The character doesn’t have to say what they feel. Often how things are said or what is left out indicates to the reader what’s really going through a character’s mind.
So, for example, if Terry gets into an altercation at school with Bully Joe (with a name like that you’d think Terry would know to avoid him...) who promises to beat the crap out of Terry the next time he sees him, and then at the mall Terry convinces the girl he likes to let him buy her an ice cream but as he approaches the ice cream parlour he sees Bully Joe in there, then those colliding goals (get girl/don’t get dead) will create an inner conflict within Terry that can push the story forward without having to take time to think things through.
The important thing is to show the scene with the bully and show the scene with the girl and then show the scene at the parlour.
You can, of course, still use inner monologue to heighten and intensify terry’s emotions, but you don’t need to explain why he’s feeling that way.
Drama That Entertains
Once you’re aware of the basic requirements for inner conflict it’s actually quite straightforward to come up with scenarios that fulfil those requirements. What is a lot less straightforward is how to resolve that conflict.
This is because if you manage to create a genuinely problematic situation that your main character has no easy way of sorting out, the likelihood is that it’s the sort of problem there isn’t a good answer to.
Only, there is. There always is. You may not be able to see it immediately. You may not ever see it and have to come up with something else entirely. But fiction is built on the ability of writers to come up with ways out of impossible situations, whether it’s in the physical world or the mental one.
Easier said than done, of course.
In most cases, with your character facing a difficult choice, the turmoil through which they put themselves and those around them by choosing one of the paths available can be enough to keep the reader turning pages. We want to see how things are resolved.
The paradox, though, is that for powerful inner conflict you need a problem with no winning solution. But in order to have a satisfying ending you need exactly that.
But sometimes the most satisfying course of action is the third way no one’s even considered. Just because you’ve written it so that the character is facing a specific set of options doesn’t mean there isn’t another way not yet considered, or not available until later events make it available.
As you get wrapped up in events it can be hard to remember that you, as the writer, have a lot more options at your disposal than those on the page, you just have to figure out what they are.
Let’s take a fairly standard source of inner conflict, the one where the main character discovers the infidelity of a good friend’s spouse.
Miriam accidentally stumbles across Darren’s cheating. Darren is June’s husband. June is Miriam’s good friend.
Miriam can go and tell June what she’s discovered, but the bearer of bad news is rarely thanked. In fact in Miriam’s experience they get treated like somehow it’s their fault. Miriam doesn’t want to be front and centre for June’s meltdown. That’s fairly standard stuff, so let’s also up the ante.
Maybe the way Miriam discovered Darren’s infidelity was something she isn’t too proud of. Perhaps she was at the motel cheating on her own husband. Perhaps she was working as a chamber maid to make ends meet and wouldn’t want her well to-do friends to know. Or perhaps she’s a sexual deviant who spies on people having sex. Whatever it is, telling her friend will come with some backlash for her.
On the other hand, not telling her isn’t going to end well either. What kind of a friend is she to let that bastard get away with it? What kind of a woman is she? Wouldn’t she want to know if her husband was bringing home all sorts of unsavoury diseases?
And not only that, but she’s almost certain she heard them plotting to do away with June and live it large on her fortune. Or at least she thinks that’s what was said, motel walls not being as thin as you might imagine. Can she risk her friend being murdered?
With that kind of a set up there’s plenty of room for her to take either course and for something dramatic to result from it. But bear in mind that just because two options have been presented doesn’t mean there are only two options.
Miriam could decide the best way forward is to make sure June finds out, just not from her. If she can get their other friend, who’s an unrepentant blabbermouth, to become aware of the husband’s infidelity she’s bound to let the cat out of the bag.
June learns the truth, husband’s out on his ear, Miriam is an innocent bystander. Now she just has to engineer a way for Blabbermouth to be in the right place at the right time...
It should also be noted that the point of a third way isn’t necessarily to wrap things up in a neat bow. Plenty can still go wrong, leading to yet more complications.
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