Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 29, 2022

Using Impossible Choices to Empower Your Conflict

By Shirley Jump

two fists showing empowered conflict

You want to know how to make a book that is so incredibly compelling, the reader can’t put it down, and must stay up until two in the morning to see how it ends? It’s simple, if you understand what drives connection between the reader and the character. They want to see your character overcome Deep Emotional Wounds and achieve their greatest dreams.

The problem? Most people (and our characters) don’t want to overcome those Deep Emotional Wounds. They’re quite happy stuck in the status quo, thankyouverymuch. They run into issues when their external goal puts them in opposition with the very thing they don’t want to do. And that’s what gives the character Impossible Choices.

Impossible Choices are fantastic for raising the conflict and tension in your book because the reader is dying to know how it works out. As an author, I write by the seat of my pants a lot of times, and frankly, I’m dying to see how I work it out, too. I’m writing as fast as I can because I can’t wait to get to the end and see if everyone ends up happy.

What’s an example of an impossible choice? Sophie’s Choice—she must choose a child to send to the gas chamber and one to save. It’s a horrible, nightmare choice that drives everything Sophie does when she is working for the Nazis.

However, most of us don’t write Sophie’s Choice books. We don’t have stakes that are that high, but that’s okay. We can have stakes that are perceived to be that high, and that is what will keep the reader reading. To do that, you need to start with one major concept:

Your External Goal, Motivation and Conflict should be in direct opposition to the Internal Goal, Motivation and Conflict.

Wait, what? How does that work? Let’s dissect Edward from Pretty Woman (one of my all-time favorite movies).

text analysis of pretty woman explained in following text

Do you see how his External Goal (to have few complications and zero relationships) and his Internal Goal (to be loved as he is) are in direct opposition to each other? (If you don’t, I did some highlighting and a giant arrow 😉) All Edward knows to do is be cold, untouchable, wealthy, and successful. That’s how he has gotten through life and dealt with being “very angry with his father.” He hires a hooker, because she is the epitome of no strings attached.

Then he starts to care about her—and you know what he sees in Vivian? Himself, only in a different form. A woman who has been unloved and rejected. A woman who uses what she has to be successful. A woman who does everything she can to avoid getting close to people (“I do everything. But I don’t kiss on the mouth.”)

She is a kindred soul. She also doesn’t want to get close to him, to believe that this fairy tale could come true. But she sees his vulnerabilities and sees the man he is, literally and figuratively, under his suit. She sees his heart. And she falls in love with him.


Over and over again, Edward is forced to decide—go for the jugular or go for love. He blows off work at her insistence, and literally takes off his shoes and tie and sets his briefcase and phone aside (being a normal man). He holds her at night, which opens his heart. He soothes her when she is treated badly. He rushes in as the hero when people are mean to her.

At the critical climax of the movie, Edward has to choose—relationships or money/success. He astounds his team when he chooses to work with the owner of the company he is buying, instead of destroying it. But he lets Vivian go, because he isn’t ready to open his heart yet. What happens then?

He achieves his External Goal. He got through the trip to LA, was successful (in a different way than he thought), and is making money off the deal.

But at what cost?

He has lost the one thing that truly matters to him—a woman who loves him as he is. He realizes what that has cost him, and in a show of love and freedom from his old buttoned-up, straight and narrow persona, he makes a grand, public gesture of love and conquers (sort of) his fear of heights to go get her.

In Pretty Woman, virtually every scene with Edward shows him being forced to choose between his external goal and his deep internal fears and needs. It’s the same with Vivian, but I only dissected Edward here. In your book, try to create a plot that has that same structure of conflicting inner and outer goals.

My advice for learning how to do this? Analyze everything you read and watch. List the external and internal GMC.

Are they in opposition? How did that impact the plot? Your engagement as a reader/viewer? The story overall?

Now go back and do that to your book 😊

* * * * * *

About Shirley

Shirley Jump, author of Writing Compelling Fiction, is an award-winning, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Amazon, and USA Today bestselling author who has published more than 80 books in 24 countries. Her most recent books hit #1 in two categories on Amazon, and her Christmas novella hit the USA Today list in November. Her books have received multiple awards and kudos from authors such as Jayne Ann Krentz, who called her books “real romance,” Virginia Kantra, who said, “Shirley Jump packs lots of sweet and plenty of heat in this heartwarming first book of her promising new series,” and Jill Shalvis, who called The Sweetheart Bargain “a fun, heartwarming small town romance that you'll fall in love with."

As the owner of JumpStart Creative Solutions, Shirley also does book building, content editing, ghostwriting, and author coaching. She has spoken all over the world about the power of narrative and how to create compelling books. A former reporter, she has a background in all aspects of writing, from hard news to publicity to fiction. Visit her website at www.ShirleyJump.com or see her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn @ShirleyJump.

20 comments on “Using Impossible Choices to Empower Your Conflict”

  1. A most helpful post. Thank you. I'll take your points to heart in my next book. Consciously, that is.
    I realise that in my historical novel, Jealousy of a Viking, I have done this without really being aware. (It's currently being turned into an audio book, so I've been listening to it and realise that, now.)

  2. Hi Shirley,
    Thanks for the insights on how to use my binge-worthy watch time to enhance my writing. Thanks for sharing your writing knowledge here. Great suggestions!

  3. Nice breakdown, Shirley. Clear and quite useful. I've never framed it quite this way, so I'll be giving this a try. Thanks. Love getting more tools in my writing toolbox.

  4. Shirley, thanks for a great post. I like the idea of analyzing everything in terms of internal and external goals, motivation & conflict, and Pretty Woman is an excellent example. Hmmm, something to think about with regard to my current WIP.

  5. I absolutely love how clear this summary is, and Pretty Woman is one of my favorite romantic movies of all time. Thanks bunches for this post, Shirley!

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