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Layer Four: Internal Conflict Scenes

Internal Conflict scenes introduce and explore the personal dilemma your protagonist struggles with. The verbal camera is focused with a tight spotlight beaming on the protagonist in the background. Use these scenes to reveal the protagonist’s back-story and show him dealing with his guilt, pain, or need which leads up to - and is resolved by - his point of change.

These conflicts test the protagonist’s character and faith. They make him question who he is and what he does. These are the emotional complications or ties that bind that complicate the overall story problem. 

If the love interest has equal weight, you can explore her personal dilemma and point of change in these scenes as well.

Internal conflict scenes can be flashbacks, dreams, and revelations of back-story through memories or an encounter with a friend or foe.

You can show him exhibiting one type of behavior in the beginning and a complete reversal of behavior at the end to show the point of change.

These scenes reveal the event that happened in the past and how it changed him: he deals with the death of his partner, the loss of his wife, the child he didn’t save.

The internal conflict often culminates in the section after the climax, where we find out if the protagonist lives happily ever after. It can also culminate just prior to the climax.

That does not mean other characters cannot be in these scenes or that he is not doing anything. It means the verbal camera is zeroed in on his thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions to the underlying problem that drives him and complicates the overall story problem.


1) If you have a story idea, list ten ideas for events that will happen to reveal the protagonist’s personal dilemma. The first scene should introduce his personal dilemma. The last scene should resolve it. If you are dividing the scenes between protagonist and love interest, list ideas for scenes that introduce and resolve her personal dilemma.

In our continuing Thriller plot, Dick’s personal dilemma focuses on his marriage. His marriage is on the rocks because he is a workaholic. He had planned to retire but this latest crisis forces him to keep working.

1. Dick and Sally make plans to go on a long-awaited vacation. He gets a call.

2. Dick informs Sally that he isn’t retiring after all. He can’t tell her why.

3. Dick and Sally fight about the vacation. Looks like we’ll have to cancel it.

4. Sally gives Dick an ultimatum. He asks for more time.

5. Sally accuses Dick of having an affair with Jane at work. Dick is called away.

6. Dick finds Sally packing her bags and asks her to stay.

7. Sally tells Dick that she received a call from Ted and that he said there was no reason for Dick to stay at work. That he is lying to her.

8. Dick tells Sally the truth about the meteor.

9. Dick and Sally spend the evening together knowing it may be their last.

10. Dick and Sally leave for the airport to go on their vacation.

2) If you already have a rough draft, save a copy of the draft as “Internal Conflict” and delete everything except the scenes that involve the protagonist’s internal dilemma. Are they in a logical cause and effect order? If not, can you revise them so that they are? Which order would best serve your plot?

3) How will the personal dilemma complicate the overall story problem? How is it resolved? 

The internal layer adds a personal touch to the story and allows the reader to gain sympathy for your protagonist.

Stay tuned for the summary on how all four layers work together.

For previous posts on the four layers, check out:

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. As always, helpful and scary for a non-plotter, who has to go back and make sure all this stuff is in there.

    Terry's Place

  2. I've been writing about this most of the afternoon for a client—shoot, I could have come here earlier and just cut-and-pasted your post!

    The problem my client had, which I've seen before, is not understanding the difference between two types of internal monologue: 1) commentary on actions others take that suggest she's trying to review her own book, and 2) internal thoughts that arise from reactions to external conflicts and story pressures that are slowly pushing her along the arc of change.

    Have you seen this problem in your editing, Diana? In addition to needing an education in story structure, I think it stems from a misperception that POV is simply a camera on the protagonist's shoulder, recording and commenting on events as if a sportscaster, instead of filtering every aspect of story through a perspective born of life experiences, personality, and story goals.

  3. I struggle with this in my own writing. When is the character telling the audience versus thinking it through in her own mind/voice? It comes back to the confusion over show versus tell. There is a difference between the character stating things and the author blatantly intruding with his/her thoughts and information dumps. I recognize when I'm critiquing other's work when the character is talking to the audience because there is no reason for her to be filling in this information otherwise. The question becomes is it okay, even essential sometimes, for the character to "tell" the reader things? Is it ever okay for the author to intrude? I certainly see both in published work from mysteries to literary. I think the important point, either way, is to keep it short and relevant and avoid massive info dumps that take the reader out of the story. It's like interrupting with a commercial break during an episode of your favorite television show. We're willing to forgive one or two, but every three minutes makes us switch over to streaming content. :)

  4. When my internal editor insists on coming along for the read, I am aware of how different authors handle this. Michael Connelly comes to mind. Harry Bosch "tells" the readers about the Parker Center, the layout of the building, why they use the term "table" but somehow, even though my logical brain says that since Harry Bosch clearly knows all this stuff and there's no real reason for him to be 'thinking' it now--it seems perfectly logical and acceptable that he IS thinking it, and while it's "telling," it works. Telling is a perfectly valid way to get information to the reader efficiently--IF you do it right.

    Terry's Place

  5. Diana, this problem afflicts so many writers/stories. Getting pertinent information to the reader challenges all of us, and the tendency of many authors leans strongly in the direction of the information dump, followed closely by "tell" rather than "show." Sometimes a bit of omniscience solves the problem, but that remedy distances the reader from the story.

    Great post! :-)

  6. Harlan Coben blatantly inserts comments and opinions into his stories and it works for him. You can break the rules if your story is strong enough. Maybe we should do a week of blogs about narrative intrusion. :)


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