Writers in the Storm

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August 10, 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?

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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

Janice Hardy RGB 72
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 www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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81 comments on “Using Internal Conflict to Create Plot”

  1. Had to laugh. In the WIP, I have a character deathly afraid of spiders (but it's not what drives him - his internal conflict goes back to his being a sniper.) Good post!

    1. Terry, how funny! Those fears are good, too. I bet he has a funny story about why. I imagine him lying in the jungle somewhere in a gilly suit, unable to move or it'll give away his position, and a spider appears...

  2. I'm just kicking into a new project and having fun brainstorming plot points. This post gave me an idea that made me jump up to write it on the whiteboard (I may have scared a cat in the process - oops). Thank you for blogging with us, Janice! Always love your posts!!

  3. So helpful, I struggle with my protagonists greatest fear which is whether it is her otherworldly antagonist responsible for the death and violence, or if he is simply her alter-ego. I don't want to go too far with it or she will become an untrustworthy narrator... have to find that balance or simply an action that proves that he's real

    1. That sounds challenging. You might look for subtle examples that have the antagonist acting in ways the protagonist could not to hint to she couldn't be him.

  4. This is such a helpful post! It gave my so many ideas for my current story. Thank you!

    1. Thanks. Arcs of any type can work very well with plotting. They provide forward drive and momentum.

  5. Janice, this post wraps up so many classes-and more!- in one place. Thank you! You've almost converted me to a plotter with this.

    1. Thanks! A little plotting can be very helpful, even for pantsers. Two or three points can be enough to keep you focused and not affect your process.

    1. Sometimes you can wait until the first draft is done before deciding. I like to figure out who my characters are by putting them through the plot problems. After that, I know how they'd behave and who they are. Maybe you're more of a character-pantser like me and need to see them in action before you fully develop them.

  6. Great questions to add to my character sheet, or maybe I won't need one if I answer these first! Great post, Janice. I'm always learning from them.

    1. Often, these go hand in hand with your premise, so you'll probably have times when you work it all out together.

  7. My character definitely has an internal conflict and it meets most of the criteria you covered. My issue has been trying to blend it into the external plot at the right points with the appropriate intensity. Your post helps pin that down - in your usual to-the-point, concise way.

  8. Great post to succinctly break down the importance of fear for a protagonist. This is very helpful to make me think about as I embark on a new story very soon. Thank you!

  9. I always start from here! My problem is, finding things for that character to do (aka: plot).

    Thanks for another great blog, Janice.

    GUYS! If you haven't bought her book - do it! Great for everyone, but I'm a pantser, and there aren't many craft books out there that work for me.

    My blog will be on that, later this month....

  10. I must confess. I use your blogs like worksheets. I c/p to a blank doc then read and underline items I need help with. The questions and suggestions generate ideas that I add in and highlight. Too anal? Maybe, but it helps me flesh out my story. I'm doing layering now so I open my mss and the 'worksheet' side-by-side (in Scrivener) and work the best of the ideas generated into the mss.

    1. Christy, you should buy her book! These blogs just skim the surface - the book pulls them all together!

      And no, no one pays us for endorsements. Anything we rave about here, is because we're truly raving . . .

    2. Christy, that's why I write the posts, so nope, not too anal at all. I'm glad they're helping you. I have worksheets I've made from them (and other great articles I've found) as well.

  11. Your explanation of internal and external conflict helped me expand my plot when I really wasn't sure if the story had stalled or not. 🙂

  12. Janice, you have just helped me work out my whole middle! My entire story is about an internal conflict. I had some idea of where I can going, but now I have a road map. Thank you.

  13. Just finished a story. The plot falls perfectly into what you say about fear. Will use this to strengthen the internal conflict, since she made a terrible decision and spends months struggling to undo the damage.

  14. Great post! I'm currently revising my WIP and will check to see if I have a point in the middle where my MC's fear messes up a choice she makes. Thanks!

    1. It doesn't have to be that exactly, but it's a good turning point to have in some fashion. A change in the middle that affects both the external and internal arcs.

  15. This is great info that I plan to use. As always, Janice, your posts are the best!

  16. Thanks Janice! Good info, although I think there can be more that drives inner conflict than just a fear. There could also be a strong desire (major internal goal) to do something or to get something basic like a parent's love, acceptance, validation. There are so many wonderful ways to drive an internal conflict, I don't know that fear (while extremely strong) has to be at the heart of it.
    I'm grappling right now with trying to make a short story into a novel (hell, I'd be happy for a novella) and doing exactly this -- looking at how to deepen the characters in order to make the story longer and more complicated. But I'm looking at how to build on the fact that hero wants to make his mark on the world in order to win parental approval--no fears involved. 🙂

    1. Oh absolutely, and I could write a book on it 🙂 I just took one aspect of the character arc for this post.

      As for your story, why does he want to win parental approval? I'd bet some fear is involved there somewhere (grin). Is he afraid he won't be loved? Won't be seen as the man he wants to be? Won't be able to do what he wants with his life? "Fear" can be many things, even a fear of failure.

      We act because we want something, or we're afraid of the consequences if we don't act.

  17. This is exactly the point I am working on outlining my WIP. I will be sure to ask my character all of these questions.

  18. You've put into words exactly what we mean when we say a character 'takes over' the story, or goes in a direction we don't want or expect. For my part, whenever I'm stumped by the plot I go back and look at the character involved. Eventually I'll see the 'obvious' - i.e. that that particular character cannot do something the plot requires. So the plot must change.:D

    1. Yeppers. In a way it's good, because that usually means we have a solid character building, but it does have its share of frustrations 🙂

  19. Awesome post! As I read I began to think about one of the main characters in my novel. I realized to my horror that I don't know what she's afraid of! She hates what's happening to her, but I haven't explained to myself exactly WHY she hates it. Nothing in her past (in my conception of her youthful years) explains why she reacts as she does. Oh no! But also, thank you! I am printing out the full MS on Monday, with plans to edit back to front. I now think I'll spend some mental writing time thinking about her fears. As I edit, I'll ponder how her fears embedded by her past, shape the future playing out on the page.

    1. Good luck! I hope you find the perfect fear to deepen her motivations and character 🙂

  20. Always love your article, Janice. I've been recommending Fiction U to the PitchWars community.

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