Great Examples of Internal Conflict (And Why They Matter)
Stories are all about conflict. I’ve said it with much sass before and I’ll say it with just as much sass again: a story without conflict is a textbook.
But, as fiction writers, we don’t want to write textbooks. We want to write page-turning stories our readers can’t put down. To do that, we need to understand what makes great conflicts and, more specifically, what makes great internal conflict.
You’ve come to the right place for that. In this article, we’re not only going to figure out why internal conflict is so important (beyond a sassy introductory sentence), but we’re also going to look at examples of well-written internal conflict in movies, television, and—of course—novels.
The whole time you’re reading, think about what makes these internal conflicts so compelling and memorable. A big part of writing is taking inspiration, dissecting it, and beautifully Frankensteining it back together into your own tale.
If you can remember that, then you’re going to come away with some great internal conflict ideas by the time you’re done this article.
Why is Internal Conflict so Important?
Before we dive into the deep end, let’s establish a definition of internal conflict and figure out why it’s one of the most important elements of your story.
In every story, there are two types of conflict: external and internal. External conflict is easy to understand, because it’s the big war splitting the country apart, the rival at work vying for the same promotion, or an extradimensional deity threatening to consume our universe.
So the stakes can be pretty big.
Internal conflict, on the other hand, is the fight going on within a character. It’s your average, ordinary, everyday person fighting the urge to stay home when they need to go on an adventure to save the world. It’s someone struggling with substance abuse trying to stay sober.
These conflicts usually aren’t flashy or sexy, but they’re still essential. They are the driving forces behind the growth (or corruption) of your characters. Without internal conflict, your characters can’t have compelling arcs. And I don’t think anyone has ever said, “It’s my favorite book because of that flat character.”
The best internal conflict is interwoven with external conflict. Sure, the retired knight can go fight the tyrannical king, but that means leaving their family and coping with PTSD from the trauma that caused them to hang up their sword in the first place.
See how much more interesting that is compared to “a knight has to fight?”
Try to remember that when planning your own internal conflicts. If you want a deeper dive into internal conflicts, check out this article over at DabbleU.
Examples of Great Internal Conflict
Now let’s look at some examples of awesome internal conflict. These examples span different types of media and many years, proving just how enduring internal conflict can be.
While reading about them, look for:
- The characters involved
- The impact they have on the character experiencing the conflict
- The impact they have on those around the conflicted character
- How they tie into an external conflict.
First up, let’s look at some movies.
Internal Conflict in Movies
Movies force directors, writers, and actors to create incredibly effective internal conflict because they have comparatively little space to work with compared to television and novels. So those that do it well do it really well.
Here are five of the best internal conflicts in movies.
The Godfather (1972) - Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) struggles between loyalty to his family and his desire to break away from their criminal activities. This conflict bleeds into everything Corleone does. It drives the story of the film itself, meaning that The Godfather wouldn’t exist without such a powerful conflict. While it’s not a flashy gun fight, it shows the complexity of human nature and how difficult it can be to make choices that go against our own beliefs and values.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) - Still in the FBI Academy, Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster), is determined to prove herself in a contest of intellect against the formidable (and horrifying) Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins). Starling struggles to balance her need to prove herself and catch Buffalo Bill with the psychological torment that comes with interacting with Lecter, all while struggling with past trauma of her own. What makes this internal conflict so notable is how well it’s connected to the external conflict created by Lecter.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) - Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) struggles to maintain hope and dignity while serving a life sentence in prison. This conflict creates a powerful message of perseverance and resilience by showing us how, even in the darkest of situations, we can find a way to hold onto our humanity and stay true to our values.
Black Swan (2010) - Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers struggles to maintain her sanity while vying for the lead in a ballet production. As Sayers spirals out of control, her fears and anxieties make us, the viewer, question what is real while showing us how our own struggles can make us lose touch with reality. Plus, that whole scene where she peels the skin back from her fingernail bed still makes me queasy.
Inception (2010) - In Inception, we see the unique way Dom Cobb’s (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) internal conflict has external implications. As Cobb struggles to let go of the trauma in his past, his memories start to influence the dreams he and his team invade and create increased danger. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how this internal conflict shows how our own thoughts and emotions can be our biggest obstacles to success.
Internal Conflicts in TV Shows
While movies have a short timeframe to develop internal conflict, television shows can spend many episodes developing and showing the ramifications of a character’s inner turmoil. Here are some of the best examples.
Breaking Bad (2008-2013) - Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) decides to cook meth to provide for his family before cancer takes his life. I mean, can an inner conflict get more wild than that? This decision drives the story and creates a complex, layered character who is both sympathetic and terrifying. And it resonates with the audience by showing us how easily our own values can be compromised when faced with extreme circumstances.
Fleabag (2016-2019) - The titular character, Fleabag (played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), navigates complicated relationships with family and friends in modern-day London while struggling to come to terms with the trauma and guilt of her past. Fleabag uses this central internal conflict to create external conflict in a witty, heartfelt comedy-drama that explores themes of grief, sexuality, and self-discovery.
The Americans (2013-2018) - A criminally underrated show, The Americans follows Elizabeth (played by Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys) who struggle to reconcile their loyalty to the Soviet Union with their growing attachment to their American way of life. This conflict creates a complex, nuanced spy thriller that explores themes of identity, patriotism, and betrayal. More importantly, it shows how a person's values and beliefs can be shaped by their environment and experiences, and how difficult it can be to reconcile conflicting loyalties.
BoJack Horseman (2014-2020) - In this series, BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) struggles to overcome his self-destructive tendencies and find true happiness. With a backdrop of a darkly humorous, emotionally resonant comedy-drama, this inner conflict is used to explore themes of addiction, mental health, and self-improvement. Not only that, but it shows the audience how our insecurities and self-destructive behavior can limit our potential.
The Handmaid's Tale (2017-) - June Osborne (played by Elisabeth Moss) is a woman in a dystopian society that has completely stripped her of her rights and freedoms. This horrifying setting perfectly ties together that external conflict with her own struggle to maintain her sense of self and agency. This conflict creates a powerful, emotionally charged drama that explores themes of oppression, resistance, and resilience, all while showing us how a person can hold onto their sense of identity and purpose even in the most dire of circumstances.
Internal Conflicts in Books
Last, but certainly not least for us writers, we’re going to look at some of the best examples of internal conflicts in books and novels.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - Atticus Finch, the father of the book’s narrator, must go against the racist attitudes and societal norms when he defends a Black man in court. While Finch seems like a stoic individual, we learn that his decision has emotional and physical ramifications for him and his family. This internal conflict explores themes of justice, morality, and compassion, and it gives a good look at the way a person's principles and values can be tested in the face of adversity.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger - Throughout the entire novel, Holden Caulfield struggles to come to terms with his own identity and place in the world. It’s through this need that he has run-ins with violence and loss, but it all comes together to create a classic, coming-of-age novel that explores themes of alienation, disillusionment, and self-discovery. And I love promoting banned books.
Beloved by Toni Morrison - In this prize-winning novel, Sethe flees slavery and settles down in Ohio, but still isn’t free from the memories and trauma of her enslavement eighteen years later. Not only that, but Sethe struggles with the loss of her baby, Beloved. The internal conflict Sethe faces is exceptionally painful, because it drags her away from a life that should be filled with joy and freedom, only to keep her trapped in a horrific past. It's a great example of the way we carry the weight of our past with us and how difficult it can be to find a way to heal and move forward.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy - How far would you go to protect a loved one? That’s what the unnamed father in The Road is forced to ask on every page in this classic post-apocalyptic novel. In a world where survival is uncertain, the father must make life-and-death decisions that include killing others, all while struggling with the dangers of the new world. The Road is dark and, in many parts, depressing, but the nameless father is a great example of what happens when our limits are pushed to their extremes and how our deepest fears and hopes can shape our choices.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - After his mother dies in a terrorist attack when he is just thirteen years old, Theodore Decker’s life is haunted by the love he lost that day. Years later, he steals the titular painting that reminds him of his mother in an attempt to keep that connection, and that event sends him down a spiraling path into the criminal underworld. I think we can all connect with some longing or past event that makes us do something stupid, right?
Wield Internal Conflicts Well
If you’ve been reading between the lines (or, sometimes, the explicit statements), you’ll see there are some common threads amongst these beloved internal conflicts. A great internal conflict:
- Ties into external conflicts
- Forces a character to make choices (usually ones that end up complicating things)
- Resonates with a theme the reader can understand
If you can get those three things right, you’ll create an inner conflict worthy of being included in a blog like this.
The best way to do that? Use a novel-writing platform that makes it easy to create conflicted characters and manage their struggles.
With Dabble, you have easy, one-click access to all your notes right from your manuscript, and you can use the invaluable, extremely flexible Plot Grid to make sure you’re tracking important conflicts throughout your story.
All that, plus automatic back-ups, writing on any device, and a host of other features specifically made for fiction writers. And you can try it all for free for fourteen days, no credit card required, by clicking right here.
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