August 10th, 2016

Using Internal Conflict to Create Plot

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A lot of focus gets put on the core conflict of a novel–the main problem the protagonist has to solve to win. It’s no wonder since that’s the whole point of the book, but sometimes, when we look too hard at the external problems, we miss out on opportunities to let the internal problems muck things up. This is especially true in a character-driven novel, since that inner journey is what’s driving the entire book.

If you’ve been struggling with a plot, or you’re looking for ways to deepen an existing plot, try looking at how your protagonist’s internal conflict is driving her external actions.

At the heart of every good internal conflict is a fear created by trauma. Something bad happened to that character at some point to scar her for life, and this fear affects how she makes decisions. This is usually the fear she must overcome by the end of the book to finally grow as a character and overcome whatever obstacle has been in her path.

Look at your protagonist and ask:

What’s her greatest fear?

Look at the big stuff, the personality-shaping issues that color who she is and what she does. For example, being afraid of spiders won’t cut it unless the novel is about defeating a giant spider. What are the fears central to who she is and why she lives her life as she does?

How did she get this fear?

Explore her backstory and determine what happened to cause this fear. This information may not even appear in the novel, but knowing it will help you understand this character. For example, if she was trapped in an elevator as a child, she might avoid any situation that puts her in tight spaces or requires an elevator trip (so much for that dream job on the 45th floor).

How does this fear cause her to make bad decisions?

Anything this influential on a person’s life will have affected it before the book ever opens. What has she done to hurt herself because of this fear? What has she lost because she was too afraid to pursue it? For example, maybe a relationship went bad, or she didn’t take a job she wanted. Maybe she didn’t act when she should have and that mistake still haunts her.

Next, look at the core conflict of your novel and brainstorm how this fear might affect it.

What situations would cause her to face this fear?

Think about the situations that would cause the protagonist’s internal fear to prevent her from achieving her external goal. If she’s scared of elevators, force her to ride in one to get what she wants. If she doesn’t trust people, put her life in the hands of someone she has to trust to survive. Make a list of possibilities and look for any situations that could build off each other and create a fun plot. Also look for situations that would cause additional conflict to your existing plot events and problems.

What critical decisions can she screw up because of this fear?

The first opportunity she has to face this fear will go very, very badly (because that’s fun!). She’ll screw it up, make the wrong choice, maybe even make the worst choice possible because she’s afraid and not thinking clearly. This will get her into more trouble and the only way she’ll ever fix it is to face that fear. Other things can and will happen, but this fear will be at the core of why she’s in this mess. She did this to herself by her actions and choices, influenced by her fear.

Three is a magic plotting number, so create three choices her fear can mess up. Put one in the beginning of the novel, one in the middle, and one near the end. These will be your major character arc turning points, and they’ll coincide with your major external plot turning points.

Where would this fear make her want to give up and walk away?

At some point she’ll start overcoming her fear (usually after several mistakes made in the middle). By that third turning point, she’ll think she can handle it and face that fear. But she’s wrong. Oh so wrong, and she fails miserably. She’ll want to give up and walk away, but she can’t. The only way forward is to face that dang fear. This is commonly referred to at the Dark Night of the Soul or the All is Lost Moment.

How does overcoming this fear help her succeed?

Facing her fear is what will allow her to do whatever is needed to defeat the antagonist and resolve the main problem of the novel. It might be a small aspect of it, or it might be the single-most important aspect of the climax (it depends on the type of novel you’re writing). She faces the fear, overcomes it, and is victorious.

Why this works

Playing the internal and external conflicts off each other creates a strong plot because the mistakes made come from someplace real within the character–they aren’t just mistakes because plot said so. The internal conflict gives meaning to the external plot actions, and creates strong motivations for the protagonist to act. It also raises the stakes by making them more personal.

Understanding what a character fears also helps you narrow down the types of plot events to use, guiding your brainstorming sessions. Having a direction to go in makes it easier to find the right problems to throw at your protagonist.

When you use both the external and the internal conflicts to plot, you double your options and create more unpredictable outcomes. The more unpredictable a story is, the more likely it will hook your readers and keep them reading.

Do you use your internal conflict to plot with? Does your protagonist have an internal conflict?

Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy

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Looking for tips on writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.

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About Janice

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University.

For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at or @Janice_Hardy.

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