Saturday, October 2, 2010

Infernal Conflict

No, that’s not a typo. That’s how I think of it—hellish. Infernal (or internal) conflict is the kind that arises from within as opposed to external conflict, which is imposed from the outside. External conflict isn’t too difficult—it can be anything from a violent storm to a sick toddler to an ax murderer. It’s the internal stuff that’s hard to come up with. It has to be believable, and the reason or motive behind it must be strong. The stronger the motive, the stronger (and more sustainable) the conflict.

All stories need conflict. Without it, a plot is merely a series of related events. It’s the struggle we like to read about. We want our heart to pound with the protagonist's and to feel the emotions she feels. But the conflict should be appropriate to the story. If you’re writing romantic comedy, you don’t want the heroine claustrophobic because she was trapped in a well when she was four.


The character must be in conflict with herself. Logically she knows the cliffside path is safe, but she can’t make herself walk it. For this struggle with herself to be believable, she needs a strong reason for her fear. If she dropped her favorite doll into a ravine and lost it when she was a child, it’s not much of a reason and shouldn’t cause such paralyzing fear. But if she fell into the ravine as a child (how bad do you want it to be? You can always raise the stakes—maybe she landed in a nest of snakes), the reason is much more believable. The stronger the reason, the stronger and more believable her inner conflict will be. So at the climax, when she needs to go out on that path to save the injured man, she has to overcome her own terrible fear. And we want to experience her struggle, feel what she feels, and empathize.

Internal conflict comes from backstory. It has to be there when the story begins. Usually it stems from something that happened when the character was an impressionable child. Otherwise, the reader may think she should just get over it. She may feel a little trepidation, but it shouldn’t stop her from going along the path. It can be a hard sell, making the reader sympathize and share the emotion. Irrational fears don’t cut it in fiction.

How do you handle infernal conflict? Have any examples?

7 comments:

E. B. Davis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
E. B. Davis said...

Your just described my protagonist's conflict in TOASTING FEAR, my WIP. Molested by her father as a child, she must face him once more when her returns from the dead as a demon. Internal conflict is a great way to build empathy with the reader because everyone has fears, rational or irrational. I hope the reader will want my protagonist to succeed.

Ellis Vidler said...

I can't imagine that they won't. Amazing how nice people like us can torture our characters--and we love them!

Polly said...

I'm afraid I torture my characters with internal conflict to the extreme. I like them f***ed up and damaged, otherwise they don't interest me. Maybe that says more about me than my characters. Great post, as always, Ellis, and very timely for anyone writing.

Pauline Alldred said...

Maybe I'm a little like Polly but I love tortured souls, especially if they appear to others to be in control. It's the external events that tear away their defenses until they face their fears and do what they have to. I root for such characters and empathize with them.

Ellis Vidler said...

Maybe we're all closet sadists. :-) Give them terrible secrets and backgrounds, put them in awful situations, kick them when they're down, and expect them to find the strength to overcome . . . us.

Peg Brantley said...

NIce post. I was trying to show a new author how important internal goals were the other day, and wish I'd thought to express to her the idea of internal conflict coming from backstory.

Well done!