Sign up to Ian's Newsletter. Free ebook, A Shadow on the Glass.    

33 Ways To Create Inner Conflict

Ian Irvine

Author of 32 novels including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds epic fantasy sequence – over a million print copies sold.

Book 1 of the long-awaited sequel to The View from the Mirror. Out May 17, 2016.
Book 1 of the long-awaited sequel to The View from the Mirror. Out May 17, 2016.



This is the fourth of five articles on what I consider to be the essentials of successful storytelling – for popular fiction, at least. The essentials are external conflict, inner conflict, compelling characters and sustained suspense. The other articles are:

You may also find this article useful: How to solve common story problems.

For this compilation I’ve read hundreds of articles on the topic, and many books. Key references are listed at the end.

This article will tell you:

  • Why inner conflict is a vital part of great storytelling;
  • What an inner conflict is and how it works to captivate your readers;
  • Key ways to create powerful inner conflicts, including use of a prior wound, and by finding compelling reasons for the hero to not pursue his story goal;
  • 31 other ways to create inner conflict;
  • How to heighten inner conflict;
  • How to satisfyingly resolve inner conflict; and
  • How best to show inner conflict on the page.

Why is inner conflict such a vital aspect of storytelling?

One of the best ways to create memorable and compelling characters, and an unputdownable story, is by giving them powerful inner conflicts.

Whenever a reader experiences profound empathy for a character, it is because the character is in the throes of intense inner conflict (Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel). Inner conflict bonds the reader to the hero because the torment arising from his conflict confirms that he has a lot to lose (Bell, Conflict and Suspense). For example, the hero knows a secret that could win the war for his country, but if he reveals it, enemy agents will kill his family. What does he do?

The basis of a great character is his or her striving to attain the impossible (Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel (and the Workbook)). It’s the underlying secret of great characters.

  • Scarlett O’Hara longs for the solid comfort of Ashley but the great love of her life is the rogue, Rhett Butler. Her unresolved conflict is one of the main qualities that makes her memorable.
  • So too in Sophie’s Choice, which portrays one of the greatest inner conflicts ever written – on entering a Nazi concentration camp, which of her children Sophie must choose to save, and which to be killed?
  • Hamlet’s conflict between his duty as a son to avenge his father (by killing the king) and his obligations as a prince (to act nobly, protect the king and ensure the stability of the kingdom), makes him one of the most memorable characters in all drama.
  • Taken to extremes, inner conflict can drive people mad, to suicide or murder.

John Vorhaus ( says that the easiest way to grasp inner conflict is to create an equation containing the word ‘but’ and assign opposing values to either side. I want to go home to Hobbiton but I vowed to try and destroy the ring. Or I want to find love but I’m an ugly, scary ogre. He also advises, ‘to raise your work to the highest level of storytelling, go ever deeper into your characters’ inner conflicts. The greater their war within, the richer and more emotionally satisfying your story will be.’

Captivate your readers by giving your characters strong inner conflicts.

According to Maass, every hero should have “a torturous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an inescapable ambition, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an unavoidable obligation, an irresistible plan, a noble ideal, an undying hope, or whatever it is that drives him beyond the boundaries that confine us, and brings about fulfilling change.” To raise personal stakes, ask How can this matter more?

A character is in inner conflict (i.e. torn in two directions at once) when he has two goals, needs, wants or desires that are mutually exclusive. He must choose between equally desirable (or undesirable) courses of action, each supported by its own inner voice (Frey, How to Write Damn Good Fiction, and Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact). If he chooses one, he can’t have the other (Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook). The conflicting forces don’t have to be world-shattering in themselves, but they do have to really matter to your hero.

Bring your readers to a state of total absorption by showing the storm raging inside the hero: the doubts, misgivings, second thoughts, apprehension, fear, guilt pangs, remorse, indecision, etc. Powerful conflict comes when the opposing emotions or courses of action are equally strong.

The reader now suffers the hero’s inner storm and takes sides in the painful decisions he is forced to make. It is this participation in the decision-making process, when the reader identifies with the hero’s conflicts and wants him to make one decision over another, that transports the reader – and makes the story memorable. The inner conflict creates powerful suspense because the stakes are high yet readers don’t know:

  • What the hero will do in the crisis;
  • Whether it will be a good choice or a disastrous one;
  • Either way, what the consequences will be, for him and for others.

To make the story even stronger and more compelling, give your hero multiple inner conflicts, then weave them together with the inner and external conflicts of the other key characters.

Common Behaviours Exhibited by People Suffering Inner Conflict

People suffering strong inner conflicts may (

  • Feel physical discomfort, stress or agitation, but suppress or deny it;
  • Do what they ought to do rather than what they really want or need;
  • Struggle to make decisions, and doubt the decisions they have made;
  • Be uncertain about what they want from life;
  • Be easily influenced by others;
  • Feel guilt or shame about past behaviour or natural drives or urges;
  • Attract or be attracted to dysfunctional relationships that are rife with conflict;
  • Be unstable or volatile, especially facing some challenge;
  • Constantly seek support from others due to a lack of self-conviction;
  • Suffer sudden mood or personality changes;
  • Seek distraction via entertainment, alcohol, drugs, sex or gambling, etc.

The Hero’s Prior Wound – a Key Source of Inner Conflict

Inner conflicts often come from something in the hero’s past (the prior wound – see Lyon) which has left her psychologically or emotionally scarred. Such conflicts can be very powerful. For Harry Potter, it’s the murder of his parents by Lord Voldemort when Harry was a baby. He has to find out what happened to them, and defeat Voldemort, before he can move on.

The hero’s wound may arise from:

  • A traumatic event, eg a serious injury, an attack, abuse, bullying or neglect, a tragic loss or deep shame; or
  • A grim early life, eg a poverty-stricken existence, a hard, cold or unloving family, or a rigidly religious or intolerant community.

The prior wound creates a hole in the soul (see Lyon), which the hero is constantly trying to heal by fulfilling her need or yearning (for love, justice, revenge, respect, trust, faith, identity, etc. See also Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).

  • A yearning is something the character is aware of and wants badly, but is too afraid to go after.
  • A need is something missing in the character that she isn’t aware of, though she is unhappy.

Her quest to fill this hole creates the internal, psychological story, which often drives the hero’s actions in the external story. Thus the story has two sets of stakes: the outer stakes of her plot goal, and the inner stakes of her personal need or yearning. The hero is often unaware of this inner need at the beginning, and it will often be in conflict with her story goal.

The hero can’t meet this need because her wound has given her a blind spot – she can’t let the past go. The wound keeps fulfilment of her yearning just out of reach, and she suffers for it. The yearning consumes her, yet at the same time she is driven by her powerful outer goal, which creates strong conflict. This heightens the drama and makes the hero a more compelling character – and this is what the reader wants to experience.

Sometimes this need or yearning will actively impede the hero’s drive to achieve his outer goals (Lyon, Cron). In Die Hard, McClane’s goal, while he’s fighting the terrorists and Hans Gruber, is to win back his estranged wife, Holly. Everything that happens in the movie forces him to confront the reasons she left him, and overcome them.

This wound may be the reason why the hero is so driven to achieve her goal. It may also cause her to:

  • Live in a fantasy world; or
  • Fear intimacy or relationships; or
  • Avoid conflict or troubling areas of life; or
  • Be embittered and angry at the world; or
  • Become an attention seeker.

For instance an abused child, or a child growing up in an orphanage or succession of foster homes, may end up isolated and unable to trust or rely on anyone else, or unable to give emotionally (fall in love, for instance). The emotional wound drives the character’s arc as she struggles to overcome its legacy. Until she can deal with her past it must always control her, and this provides a powerful motivation for the hero’s actions.

Creating Inner Conflict Through Goal Opposition

Don Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, sets out another good way to create inner conflict. Ask:

  • What does your hero most want in the novel – her story goal?
  • What’s the opposite of that, or mutually exclusive to it? Give your hero an equally compelling reason to not pursue her goal.
  • Your hero wants both at once, but CAN’T have them both. Show how she pursues these conflicting desires until the conflict is resolved, one way or another.

31 More Ways to Create Inner Conflict

Many writing teachers, especially screenwriters, seem to think that inner conflict must come from the hero’s prior wound. In fact inner conflicts can come from a myriad of other sources that are not necessarily related to a prior wound (note that some of these sources overlap others):

  • A powerful fear. The most important question you can ask about a character is What are they afraid of? A strong inner conflict can be created by giving the hero a powerful fear, then working out how she always avoids confronting it, as discussed above.
    • All heroes should have at least one big fear, one that readers share, such as fear of failure or public humiliation, fear of heights or drowning or intimacy. The moment this fear is revealed, the story becomes more compelling because your readers know the hero will have to face her fear. They anticipate how this might occur and worry about how it will turn out.
    • The antagonist should force the hero to face her fear. If your hero is afraid of heights, trap her child on a cliff ledge. The hero’s inner torment as she tries to overcome her fear and save her child will create intense reader interest.
  • A secret fear. To make the story more compelling, you can also give the hero a secret fear, one that isn’t revealed until later. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling’s initial fear is that she’s not up to the job of being an FBI agent, while her secret fear is that her poverty-stricken background will be revealed. Her secret fear influences her behaviour because she’s constantly trying to protect this secret – and Lecter uses it against her.
  • A character flaw. A flaw is a weakness in the character that is his fault, stands in the way of him achieving his goal, and must be overcome if he’s to succeed. Readers identify with characters who have flaws, because a flaw makes them seem more human. The flaw may be derived from the character’s prior wound (as discussed above), in which case the flaw must be overcome before the wound can be healed and his inner need fulfilled. Flaws can also arise in many ways unrelated to a wound.

If your hero is strong, powerful, or a heroic type, it’s even more important to give him a flaw that brings him down to the level of ordinary people. Demonstrate this flaw soon after the character is introduced (Maass, The Fire in Fiction).

We like to read about flawed characters in the hope that they will overcome their flaws during the journey and become better people. The hero’s flaw should constantly get him in trouble and may even drive the story. Walter White’s flaw in Breaking Bad is pride, and it’s behind many of the choices he makes, including the choice to become a criminal at the beginning.

There are many lists of character flaws on the net, eg, Knowing your hero’s flaw (whether physical, mental, social or moral) also shows you how best to test him to his limits (Truby, The Anatomy of Story):

    • What temptations will he find hardest to resist?
    • What weaknesses can be used to try and break him?
    • What weaknesses must he overcome in order to succeed?
    • Some flaws are beyond the pale, but others are relative. A character can be dishonest, a liar, a criminal or even a killer if the bad behaviour is necessary for his own survival, to protect someone else, to gain justice in an unjust world, or for some other generally good or noble reason.
  • A secret that the character will do anything to protect creates a powerful inner conflict between the face he shows to the world and the inner person he knows himself to be. This could be:
    • A history of (or disposition to) some kind of criminal activity;
    • A drink or drugs or gambling addiction;
    • An affair, sexual excess, betrayal, or some other shameful incident in the hero’s past.

Such a secret could greatly damage your hero in the eyes of others, or even send him to prison or the gallows, and must be protected at all costs.

  • The hero’s fear that the secret will be revealed, and the lengths he goes to protect it, changes the way he behaves and relates to others.
  • A hero who eventually finds the courage to reveal his secret and accept the consequences will be memorable and compelling.

Secrets may also be kept because of their value, or danger.

  • In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo keeps the ring secret because it’s so powerful and perilous.
  • A character might also keep secret that they have a weakness or vulnerability, for fear that it will be exploited against them.
  • A mistaken want – a conflict between what the hero really wants (eg, love or respect or belonging) and what he thinks he wants (eg, money or power or success). Because he misunderstands what he really wants, his choices and actions have always been unsatisfying (see;
  • An emotional dilemma – a conflict arising from feelings. Unlike an intellectual conflict, an emotional one can’t be argued away. There are an endless number of emotional dilemmas, arising when any two of a myriad of human emotions are pitted against one another in a variety of ways (see Lyon, Maass, and Ackerman and Puglisi, The Emotion Thesaurus). Emotional dilemmas can be internal (i.e., directed at the protagonist himself), or arise out of mixed feelings about someone else:
    • Two emotions in conflict e.g. a man’s rage at his helplessness to save his son from an addiction, warring with the bitter realisation of his own failure as a parent.
      • Find the place where the hero feels the most intense physical emotion.
      • What’s an emotion in conflict with what he’s feeling?
      • Write a paragraph where he feels the two emotions in conflict, and demonstrate his conflict with some physical action.
    • The hero’s ambiguous or conflicting feelings for another person, such as love versus anger or friendship versus lust;
  • An intellectual dilemma or conflict of ideas, for instance the right to own and profit from slaves versus their right to freedom. Think of any idea, then find a way to logically oppose it;
  • A moral dilemma. The only way the hero can get what she needs is by breaking the laws or accepted moral codes of the society he lives in. This will come at great cost and will have long-term consequences. If your stuck for a strong moral dilemma, the many examples on the net may give you inspiration, eg Also see the lists of moral dilemmas in the references.
    • Eg a good priest who doesn’t want to break his vows, but has fallen in love and wants to marry;
    • An honest cop who uncovers police corruption and is torn between his sworn oath to uphold the law and his loyalty to the team.
    • Being forced to do something bad for a good cause. Does the end justify the means?
  • A dilemma of values, standards or ideals. Because values and beliefs are strongly held, there must be a very strong reason for changing them, and it won’t occur often or without a fight. If the hero can only achieve his goal by going against his passionately held beliefs, this will create a profound inner conflict (see There are many lists of values on the net, eg, Think of an ideal, then find its opposite and put them in conflict:
    • A truthful man forced to lie to someone who matters to him;
    • A brave man forced into an act of cowardice;
    • A pacifist who must kill to save a friend’s life … or refuse to kill and allow her to be killed;
    • A law-abiding citizen who must either cover up the crime of a family member, friend or colleague … or betray them;
    • A kind woman forced to act cruelly or harshly, etc.
  • An ethical dilemma. The hero may not be breaking any laws or moral codes, but is he acting unethically according to the rules of his profession? There are many lists on the net, eg,
  • Being overprotective: for instance, a conflict between continuing to bale out a grown-up child, relative or friend and leaving them to their own devices, possibly disastrously;
  • Opposing desires, such as sexual desire for a friend’s spouse or lover versus a desire to maintain the friendship versus guilt;
  • A choice of two undesirable options, one of which must be chosen. E.g., a timid wife trying to make up her mind to leave her violent husband (a PI who has the skills to track her down). As she weighs the pros and cons, and agonises about the choice, it heightens her inner conflict and the suspense.
  • An impossible choice that must be made. A powerful dilemma or Sophie’s Choice moment – a choice that has monumental consequences – can profoundly engage your readers because they suffer the agony of the hero’s choice.
  • Secrets and desires. Linking the hero’s darkest secret to her greatest desire.
  • Inner conflict over:
    • Class or culture, eg a working class man who rises high in a noble profession but struggles internally because of his humble origins, feeling that he doesn’t belong;
    • Wealth – a woman from an impoverished background becomes rich but still acts like a miser;
    • Religious, ethnic or racial issues;
    • Style of upbringing, etc. Eg, he revolts against his laid-back upbringing by bringing up his children in a rigid and disciplined way.
  • An unbearable temptation. This can be about anything that means a great deal to the character, for example, sex, money, power, success, winning, etc.
  • Conflict with or between a myriad of other human attributes, qualities or situations, eg duty, patriotism, loyalty, laziness, being a workaholic, etc.
  • Breaking a promise. Being forced to break a sacred promise, or to let down someone who is relying on the hero;
  • Life issues. A character can have any number of inner conflicts about aspects of ordinary life, such as:
    • Which spouse’s parents to live near;
    • Whether to move to another city for a job (leaving friends and family behind), etc;
    • The character’s choice of friends or lovers;
    • The character’s pursuits or habits, etc. He’s conflicted because his passionate pursuit (of sailing, say), takes him away from the family he loves.
  • A time conflict. The hero badly wants or needs two things but they occur at the same time in different places. She must choose between them.
  • Guilt or remorse about some past failing, warring with a current need;
  • Old ways of thinking. A situation where old attitudes, habits or approaches hinder or block the hero’s need to change in order to achieve his goal;
  • The hero’s dilemma about which course of action to take to achieve his goal, when each option has high stakes and risks. His dilemma will be strengthened if there’s external conflict with characters who argue against his proposed choice, or for a different option.
  • Self-doubt, an inability to decide, or second thoughts about a choice made. Am I doing the right thing or have I made a disastrous blunder? In the case of self-doubt the character might:
    • Take on a great challenge to prove herself to herself; or
    • Deny the inner conflict altogether;
  • Characters who are contradictions (eg Batman: playboy and fighter for justice; Dracula: erotic monster) are often inwardly conflicted, and are compelling because they’re unpredictable and surprising – readers are constantly wondering how they’ll react, and what they’ll do next (see Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact).
    • Their contradictions may come to the fore in times of great stress, when the image or self presented to the world breaks down, eg, the shy character who becomes aggressive when pushed too far.
    • Or a conventional character who suddenly begins to act in a highly unconventional way: eg Walter White in Breaking Bad, a high school teacher who discovers he has a terminal illness, begins manufacturing amphetamines and turns to a life of crime.
  • Comedy and comic characters. Inner conflict isn’t only used in drama and tragedy. It’s also the basis of many humorous stories and comic characters, for instance (Vorhaus, The Comic Toolbox):
    • Clash of context or the forced union of incompatibles. This works by moving something from where it belongs to where it doesn’t. A good example is the fish-out-of-water character. He’s either:
      • A normal character in a comic world (the Back to the Future movies);
      • Or a comic character in a normal world (Crocodile Dundee in New York).
    • A normal character becomes a comic character and the comedy comes from the character’s change of state, eg in Tootsie, Michael is a normal character as a man and a comic character as a woman, and comedy turns on the inner and external conflict between the two selves. Also, the kid in Big, who becomes a comic character when he’s transformed to a kid in an adult’s body.
    • In Calvin & Hobbes, Calvin is in constant inner conflict between his normal existence and his uncontrollable flights of fancy.

How to Create a Satisfying Inner Conflict Emotional Arc

According to screenwriter Michael Hauge (in,, character development comes from the tension between the wounded hero’s desire to maintain a false identity and his need (because of the events of the story) to abandon it and reveal his true self (see Hero’s Prior Wound, above). A satisfying outer conflict is created when the hero can only reach his goal (and fulfil his inner need) if he abandons his false identity, which then gives him the courage to face and defeat his opponent in the climax.

Hauge has set out a basic inner conflict arc for the hero, using examples from Shrek:

  • Wound. A trauma in the hero’s past has affected him profoundly and he’s never dealt with it. The trauma doesn’t have to be shown directly, but should be hinted at. In Shrek, his wound is that people run in terror from him because he’s an ugly ogre.
  • Yearning or Need. Identify your hero’s emotional need or yearning and show it, strongly or subtly, in every scene, on every page, in both action and reflection. The ogre Shrek wants the love of a good woman but is afraid to pursue this yearning because of the ongoing pain or fear arising from the need.

Some common wounds, with associated needs or yearnings (Lyon):

  • A recent death – grief and a need for healing.
  • A death long ago – a need for understanding.
  • Murder of a loved one – a need for justice … or revenge.
  • A terrible mistake – guilt or shame and a need for redemption or self-forgiveness.
  • Belief. The wound creates a belief or filter (often mistaken) through which the hero sees the world and his current life, such as:
    • I’m worthless (Will in Good Will Hunting);
    • I can’t survive without a rich man to take care of me (Rose in Titanic);
    • If I show people my true (ugly and scary) self, I’ll be hated, feared and rejected (Shrek).
  • Fear. What terrifies the hero emotionally (the hero’s inner stakes, which often aren’t obvious) and he therefore avoids. Ask yourself what’s at stake for him, and what risks he’s desperate to avoid. The hero’s fear provides strong motivation for his actions – initially to avoid what he fears, ultimately to try and overcome it.

Shrek is afraid of rejection (especially by someone he cares about) so he isolates himself and chases people away. What’s at stake is proving that his fear is true (that he’s an ogre unworthy of love) if he opens himself up and people still run away.

  • Identity. The false identity, emotional armour or façade the hero presents to the world to protect himself from the pain of the wound and the fear he’s desperate to avoid, but which is making him miserable. Shrek constantly acts like a scary ogre – that’s his false identity.
  • Essence. The true self that is revealed once the emotional armour is abandoned (the good, kind and loving Shrek). It’s who the hero is once his identity (job, title, money, status, family etc) is stripped away.

As a writer you need to shape the plot events so as to force the hero to face his fear, over and again, until he defeats it (or, if the story is a tragedy, it defeats and destroys him):

  • He runs from his fear at the inciting incident, and on several other important occasions in the story (see Resolving Inner Conflict, below);
  • But finally he overcomes it at the climax;
  • And this gives him the strength, courage and new insights he needs to beat his adversary and obtain his story goal.

In Shrek, key plot events that force Shrek to face his fear include his quest to rescue Princess Fiona, losing her, finding her again and finally breaking the curse on her.

Heightening Inner Conflict

Inner conflict can be heightened in the following ways (Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook), by:

  1. Progressively raising personal stakes. This makes the reader care more, because inner motives drive a character powerfully. Ask:
  • What’s the hero’s main goal, conflict, problem, need, desire or yearning that drives her through the story?
  • What could make this problem matter much, much more? Your hero must have a really good reason to go through all the agony in the story.
  • Find ways to incorporate these raised stakes in your novel.

As a conflict rises, your character changes and goes through several emotional stages. There should be a step-by-step change in the character in every scene, eg cool to fearful, spiteful to forgiving, cruel to compassionate.

  1. Heightening inner turning points. Take a turning point (whether major or minor), and heighten it to make the action bigger, your hero’s inner change more powerful, his realisation deeper (how did it happen?), or the dialogue sharper or more cutting.
  • Take the same moment and underplay it. Which works better for the story at this point?
  • Do this at another ten to twenty places in the story.

Work out how your characters feel and think at critical times – i.e., what it’s really like to be those characters. One way to do this is by imagining your hero’s most emotional moments (see writer’ article) via such moments in your own life. This allows you to see his feelings more clearly, and portray them more vividly. Some powerful emotional moments in a person’s life include the times of:

  • Greatest fear or worry;
  • Greatest courage;
  • Greatest sorrow;
  • Greatest hope;
  • Greatest joy;
  • Deepest shame;
  • Most profound guilt;
  • Darkest despair;
  • Most redemptive forgiveness.

Taking any turning point except the climax:

  • How does your hero feel about himself ten minutes earlier?
  • How does he feel about himself ten minutes after the turning point?
  • Write a paragraph describing his inner change in that time. Show powerfully and vividly how his life, or his view of the world or himself, has irrevocably changed.
  • Do the same at a handful of other places in the book.
  1. Strengthening inner change. Look at your characters from several points of view and show how events have affected them, and how they’ve grown and changed over the story.
  • Pick a moment when your hero is talking to another important character. Write a paragraph where the hero assesses the other character (qualities, mood, situation in life etc).
  • Alternately, have the secondary character look at the hero using the same criteria.
  • Show how differently these characters see each other in a later scene.
  • At several points in the story, show the antagonist’s view of the hero.

It can be useful to contrast the hero with another character who has a very different way of solving problems. This introduces uncertainty, and therefore suspense, about which approach is the better one. The more strongly the other character argues for his own approach, the greater the pressure on the hero to abandon his method.

A powerful way to use inner conflict to draw readers into the story is to show your hero making a disastrous choice for good reasons, then following this path without realising how bad it is. This is particularly effective when readers know that the choice is a bad one and can see the disaster coming (dramatic irony).

Resolving Inner Conflict

The outer conflicts (the events of the story) should force the hero to choose between his conflicting inner goals, over and over again (Vorhaus,, until he finally overcomes his inner conflict at the climax – either by obtaining his goal (eg gaining high office), or realising that it wasn’t what he really wanted after all, and achieving his true goal (eg, finding love). But don’t let the resolution come easily or cheaply – great happiness at the end can only come after great suffering or sacrifice.

People deal with conflicts in different ways. Impulsive people may choose very quickly to get rid of the conflict, while indecisive folk may procrastinate in their anxiety to make the right decision (Maass, The Plot Thickens). An inwardly conflicted person may even crave or create external conflict to ease the inner burden. Some such people can only relax in the middle of a crisis and may go to great lengths to create one.

Consider your novel’s climactic moment (Maass). Is it a moment of outward change, a plot turning point? Ideally it’s also an inner turning point. When things are darkest and most dire is when a character’s fortitude and inner convictions are most sorely tested. How can you make that decision more difficult?

List some such difficulties (eg your character is rewarded for giving up, while saving the day means sacrificing something important of himself, something hard won and of high importance).

Every conflict introduced in the story (unless it’s a tragedy) should be resolved by the end. This can be shown in a number of ways:

  • Via the character’s sequence of thoughts as she attacks the problem. This is easy to do, but hard to do well.
  • By showing the conflict unfold in real time, as it happens (see Showing Inner Conflict on the Page and Deep Point of View, below).
  • To build warring emotions within your hero, identify his strong motives for reaching his goal – then find an equally strong motivation for not pursuing it, and pit the two against each other.
  • Since the essence of an inner conflict is that the hero’s options and choices are difficult, the conflict can’t be resolved easily – the author has to find a surprising yet satisfying solution to the dilemma. Or a solution that seems good … but leads to an even greater inner conflict. In many, if not most scenes, the conflict should be greater at the end of the scene than at the beginning.
  • The first stage in resolving the conflict is the hero’s recognition of the obstacles within himself, such as indecision, or painful and unproductive inner dialogue (see the Inner Conflict Arc, above).
  • The next is observing himself in action and recognising what he’s doing, and why.
  • Then, identification of the inner needs relating to both sides of the conflict;
  • Then, both sides of his conflicted mind working together to try and find a new way to meet these needs; and
  • Finally, overcoming the problem and resolving the inner conflict.

Showing Inner Conflict on the Page

Stories become unputdownable when the reader strongly empathises with the hero’s troubles, feelings and emotions, shares her inner torment and takes sides in the choices she’s forced to make. To create such stories, you have to show how your hero feels about everything that happens. Stephen King is a master of inner conflict and his novel The Shining is a brilliant example. Also Hemingway, and John LeCarre. And Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.

Your readers must be able to relate to the hero at every moment of the story. The way you make this happen is by showing them how she feels at each point, eg, frustrated, guilt-ridden, terrified, anxious, embarrassed, ashamed, delighted, resentful, triumphant or loving, and how her emotions are changing from minute to minute. Sometimes the hero will be overcome by these feelings; at other times she may fight them, for instance by refusing to express her fear, which may be more engaging than giving in to it.

To deepen flat characters, make sure they react to every event. Show their feelings through their thoughts, what they say and how they say it, what they do, and their body language. Show their reactions to being challenged, disbelieved, threatened, bullied, misunderstood, thwarted, etc; reveal their suffering.

Always follow the rule of stimulus and response (Bickham). The hero’s response in any situation can’t come from his background, motivation, thoughts or feelings. Every response must be caused by an external stimulus. Imagine that the story is occurring on stage – the audience must be able to see or hear the stimulus. If they can’t, the story won’t make sense to the reader.

Dialogue can be used in many ways to make your story more dramatic and engaging. Iglesias (Writing for Emotional Impact) gives examples of 25 common techniques.

Writers are constantly told, Show, don’t tell, but this advice is misleading. Most of a novel should be told, because showing it would make the story unnecessarily detailed and long-winded. However the most intense and dramatic moments in the story, particularly times of powerful inner conflict, do need to be shown because:

  1. Showing creates clear mental pictures for your readers (Sawyer), and modern readers are so used to the storytelling style of TV, movies and games that visual storytelling works best for them. It’s what they expect. Telling just lists generic actions and emotions. It doesn’t create clear mental pictures;
  2. Showing brings your readers into the story because they need to draw conclusions from the pictures you’ve shown them. Telling allows readers to be passive; therefore it’s much less involving.

If you’re unsure of the difference, Telling is in the language of the author, from the outside, (Cleaver, Immediate Fiction), whereas Showing is the experience as it is happening, in the language of the character, from the inside. Anton Chekhov: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Intense conflict is best shown exactly how the hero experiences it, i.e.:

  • In real time, as it happens (Cleaver). Don’t generalise, condense, or skip – that’s telling, not showing;
  • Use the five main senses to show what the character sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells at that moment (plus, as necessary, the other human senses: balance, heat and cold, pain, pressure, itch, muscle tension, thirst, hunger and time). Only describe things your hero can actually perceive from where she is at that time.
  • What are her expectations? Does she expect the best outcome, or the worst? Either way, constantly build her expectations up – only to dash them.
  • Show the specific details that make the things she perceives vivid, clear, fresh and original. But only show what’s needed; don’t bore your readers with excessive detail.
  • Filter everything she perceives through the goal she’s after in that particular scene, at that particular moment – does it help her reach her goal, or does it block her?
  • Your hero must have attitudes to, and make judgements (right or wrong) about everyone she meets, and everything that happens. In every scene, and on every page, she has to react to the encounters she has and the conflicts she faces in a way the reader can see and understand. Show her attitudes and judgements in her emotions, thought, dialogue and actions;
  • Her reactions must be specific, personal, and affect whether or not she achieves her goal. Readers don’t just see what she sees – they also see how she makes sense of it, and the personal spin her point of view, expectations and attitudes cause her to put on everything (see Cron).
  • In real life, we constantly react to what’s happening in front of us. Your hero might think, Why is she telling me this? What does she really want? Show your hero’s reactions to everyone she meets, and everything she sees and hears, in strong, active language that comes from her current emotion, eg, loving, hurt, angry, disappointed, enraged, sympathetic, afraid. He hates me – really hates me. But what did I ever do to him? The Emotion Thesaurus (Ackerman and Puglisi) is an excellent resource.
  • Where appropriate, show the hero’s emotions rapidly escalating, eg from irritation to annoyance to anger to fury to apoplectic rage. Or from unease to worry to fear to terror. This is far more effective and convincing than having her emotions jump from a low state straight to an extreme.
  • There should be an emotional change through every scene, eg if your hero begins the scene with positive feelings, she should end it feeling down in one way or another.
  • Don’t describe her emotions, eg, She was terrified. This doesn’t create any clear mental picture. Show the physical reactions and sensory details that evoke the emotion – Her knees shook so badly that she could barely stay upright. She choked back a scream. She had to get away, but how, how? If she moved, if she made a sound, he’d find her. And then, as he’d said yesterday, he would slowly, lovingly, cut her throat from ear to ear.
  • Where appropriate, show her emotions in dialogue, eg in this situation, in stumbling, high-pitched, gasping or staccato speech;
  • The hero doesn’t normally think about or name her feelings – I was so angry. She thinks about what caused those feelings – He forgot to pick up the kids again! Or shows it in what she says and how she says it.
  • Use the hero’s unique voice and bring out his point of view and attitudes in his thoughts, dialogue, reactions and the way he sees and interprets what’s in front of him – an uncouth street brawler will see things differently to a naïve girl, a hopeless drunk, a disillusioned priest, a forgotten ex-soldier or an lonely old lady.
  • A scene consists of a series of beats, each a stimulus followed a response, repeated over and over. In detail it goes like this: stimulus leads to emotion leads to thought leads to decision leads to action. This soon causes a reaction from the hero’s opponent, which is the stimulus that begins the next beat.
  • Show your hero’s sequential emotions, thought and decision processes, and actions, as she experiences an event (the stimulus) and responds, for example:


  • The hero realises that the killer is hunting her through the abandoned mine.

Emotional Reactions

  • She reacts emotionally (eg wild urge to flee, panic, graphic images of what could happen to her).
  • And viscerally – the inner physical signs of her emotional state (eg racing heart, stifling a scream, dizziness or faintness).
  • And externally – the visible physical signals that show her body’s reaction to the emotions she’s feeling (eg her face goes white, she freezes, sweats, trembles, stammers or screams or becomes inarticulate).

Analytical Responses

  • She gets control of herself and analyses her situation;
  • She thinks of various options to escape her predicament, or achieve her current goal.
  • She assesses the risks and benefits of each, and her ability to carry them out.
  • She makes a decision for reasons that seem good to her at the time.


  • She takes action (physically or verbally or both) which either succeeds, partly succeeds or, much of the time, makes things worse.

Review (sequel to the scene)

  • Most scenes should end with things getting worse for the hero, and again she should go through the process emotion-thought-decision, reacting to what happened, reviewing what she did and why it went wrong, and forming a new plan to try and reach her goal. This can occur very quickly in a fast-paced action story, but may take pages in a romance. The hero may do it in an instant if she’s a go-getter type, or take ages if she’s sensitive and introspective.

Opponent’s New Action

  • Her opponent takes action to block her, which begins a new stimulus-and-response sequence.

To show your hero’s feelings and emotions even more powerfully, use Deep Point of View. Here the writer goes so deeply into the character’s head that the narrator’s voice disappears and readers only experience the character through her personal senses, thoughts, emotions, actions and reactions. It’s most useful where the hero’s feelings need to be shown at high intensity, for instance when she’s wracked by a strong inner conflict.

Don’t use deep point of view all the time, because long stretches can be exhausting or irritating for the reader. It may also be unreliable – the hero may have misunderstood or misjudged what she perceived. And it won’t be right for every story. Plot-driven books, where the main character only experiences part of the action, and epics with a lot of world-building or description of setting, and mysteries, may be better told using mainly third-person omniscient or limited viewpoint, with Deep Point of View reserved for moments of emotional intensity.

In Deep Point of View the hero is telling the story exactly how she experiences it, with no intrusion from or filtering by the author. Follow the outline presented in the dot points above, but also:

  • Get rid of tags like he felt, he saw, he heard, she thought, she noticed, she tasted, she remembered, he knew, he decided, he wondered;
  • Show what’s happening to your hero in real time – that is, as it happens. Don’t generalise, condense, or skip, as a narrator would;
  • Use all the senses to show what the character sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells at that moment. Only describe things she can actually perceive from where she is.
  • Filter everything she perceives through the goal she’s after in that particular scene, at that particular moment – does it help her reach her goal, or does it block her?

Deep Point of View

To show your hero’s feelings and emotions even more powerfully, use Deep Point of View. Here the writer goes so deeply into the character’s head that the narrator’s voice disappears and readers only experience the character through her personal senses, thoughts, emotions, actions and reactions. It’s most useful where the hero’s feelings need to be shown at high intensity, for instance when she’s wracked by a strong inner conflict.

Don’t use deep point of view all the time, because long stretches can be exhausting or irritating for the reader. It may also be unreliable – the hero may have misunderstood or misjudged what she perceived. And it won’t be right for every story. Plot-driven books, where the main character only experiences part of the action, and epics with a lot of world-building or description of setting, and mysteries, may be better told using mainly third-person omniscient or limited viewpoint, with Deep Point of View reserved for moments of emotional intensity.

In Deep Point of View the hero is telling the story exactly how she experiences it, with no intrusion from or filtering by the author. Follow the outline presented in the dot points above, but also:

  • Get rid of tags like he felt, he saw, he heard, she thought, she noticed, she tasted, she remembered, he knew, he decided, he wondered;
  • Show what’s happening to your hero in real time – that is, as it happens. Don’t generalise, condense, or skip, as a narrator would;
  • Use all the senses to show what the character sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells at that moment. Only describe things she can actually perceive from where she is.
  • Filter everything she perceives through the goal she’s after in that particular scene, at that particular moment – does it help her reach her goal, or does it block her?







Ackerman, A and Puglisi, B (2012). The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.

Bickham, Jack (1992). The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. Writer’s Digest.

Bell, James Scott (2004). Plot and Structure. Writer’s Digest. Probably the best book on the topic of plot and structure.

Bell, James Scott (2008). Revision and Self-Editing. Writer’s Digest. Also a great book; a wealth of practical info and examples.

Cleaver, Jerry (2002). Immediate Fiction. St Martin’s Griffin. No one has ever explained the craft of storytelling more clearly or simply.

Cron, Lisa (2012). Wired for Story. A fascinating insight into how fiction works in the reader’s mind.

Iglesias, Karl (2005). Writing for Emotional Impact. A fantastically useful book on the emotional impact of stories on the reader, by far the best I’ve ever read, though directed at screenwriters rather than novelists.

Kress, Nancy (2005). Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint. Writer’s Digest. Excellent book on these topics.

Lukeman, Noah (2002). The Plot Thickens. St Martin’s Griffin, New York. Terrific chapters on characterisation, suspense and conflict.

Lyon, Elizabeth (2008). Manuscript Makeover, Revision Techniques no Fiction Writer can Afford to Ignore. Perigee Trade. In my view, the best book on revision and self-editing.

Maass, Donald (2001). Writing the Breakout Novel. Writer’s Digest. A very useful book.

Maass, Donald (2004). Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Writer’s Digest. Great exercises.

Maass, Donald (2009). The Fire in Fiction. Writer’s Digest. He identifies the problems his agency sees over and over again in manuscripts and tells you how to fix them. A fantastic book.

Truby, John (2007). The Anatomy of Story – 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Faber and Faber. A fascinating and insightful book.

Vorhaus, John (1994). The Comic Toolbox. Silman James Press. Not just the best book on comic writing, but better than all the others put together.

Some lists of moral and other dilemmas

Other internet references

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.’s_hierarchy_of_needs—a-different-way-of-thinking-about-character-development/

Robert Sawyer (1995),