How to Write Internal Conflict in a Screenplay

Every good story needs conflict. It needs good guys versus bad guys.

A good story requires compelling goals and obstacles for the hero. It needs character development.

It needs good ‘ol conflict.

Without conflict, the audience would have no reason to continue watching.

One of the most powerful ways to inject a screenplay with tension and drama is to use internal conflict.

👉 As a writer, you need to know how to write internal conflict in a screenplay to build compelling characters.

Internal conflict spruces up the recipe of good storytelling by making the character relatable to the audience.

Without opposition as well, it would be a straight line from start to finish. 

Your character, and story, won’t be very exciting. Internal conflict is a great way to not only make viewers sympathetic but also create urgency and suspense. It keeps the reader going, building tension and funneling character development. 

So what is internal conflict?

In typical screenwriting, a story involves the protagonist going up against an opposing force. That is usually a villain or opposition of some sort.

That’s an external conflict.

It comes from outside the character.

However, internal conflict refers to the struggles that occur within the character himself. 

It could be emotional or mental distress stemming from some regret or inner struggle.

Internal conflict makes your character realistic, allowing the audience to take an adventure in his shoes. 

A great example would be the hero in the movie Pi. The hero is obsessed with math. He lives and breathes it and becomes this festering paranoia that infects his day-to-day thinking.

You really get a feeling of this character just from the official trailer:

When done right, a writer can create a unique world vision from a well-developed character, dealing with internal conflict.

In the case of Pi, you feel sad for the hero’s paranoia, yet you feel drawn to the unique way he sees math in everything.

In your next screenplay, try these —

3 Ways to Build Internal Conflict With Your Characters.

Creating an identity crisis

Writers can execute internal conflict in several ways, and we’ll take Toy Story as an example of one method.

Here, the writer achieves the purpose of internal conflict through the lead character’s identity crisis.

The plot follows a group of toys on their secret adventures. Buzz Lightyear, one of the toys, is plagued by internal conflict throughout the movie.

While all the other toys around him are aware that they are toys, Buzz is in denial. He doesn’t believe himself a toy, no matter how many times the other characters tell him so.

This fuels the story which is molded around how Buzz perceives himself.

He tends to stay away from the other toys, genuinely believing that he is an “astronaut.” As the story unravels, Buzz accepts his reality and becomes a part of the toy community.

He is no longer a lonely figure walking around with delusions of who he is.

He becomes happier with this “new” realization.

😔 Here’s Buzz’s sad moment of realization:

Internal conflict is a powerful way to deliver subtext. In this example, Buzz is representative of people who are struggling with who they are.

People who live life through the lens of what they imagine to be. It goes a long way to show that people find peace once they accept who they are.

It illustrates the pain of pretending to be and the satisfaction of embracing your true self.

Internal Conflict through a character’s deepest fears

💭 What are you most afraid of?

Perhaps you can’t stand the sight of snakes or are weirded out by sea creatures. Maybe it could be a fear of heights or loneliness.

A character’s deepest fears can be sharpened and wielded as a weapon for the internal conflict in a screenplay. This emotion can be the engine that drives the entire plot and every scene. Synecdoche, New York is a great example of this.

It offers internal conflict that you probably battle with every other day. You think about it occasionally, especially when it happens to someone you know.

You have never-ending questions about when and what happens thereafter.

For theater director Caden in the above movie, it’s all he thinks about night and day. He is terrified of death.

Here’s the trailer in case you are interested:

Stalled between living and dying, the character’s actions throughout the film are driven by his fear. Ironically, this fear and his actions because of it is what builds up and leads to his death.

He never takes too many risks because he believes, in the end, it’s all for nothing.

Does that sound familiar?

That once again emphasizes the power of internal conflict in creating realism and relatability.

Fear can also be packed in a way that the character is afraid of living up to his role. His expectations are constantly weighed down by his doubts.

Creating internal conflict by a character’s mountainous goals or strenuous duty

A character’s endless goal can make for a good storyline. His consistent failure in achieving his objective draws sympathy.

It triggers the genuine desire for the audience to see the character succeed as he continually fails. Internal conflict can be wrapped into an authoritative storytelling tool.

Through it, we see the frustration unravel from within and the character battling his demons.

The hit anime One Punch Man follows the adventures of an overpowered superhero, Saitama. He can end fights with a single punch, hence the title.

Fight after fight, it always ends the same way no matter the growing immensity of his adversaries.

Saitama grows frustrated because he is unable to find a worthy opponent.

This conflict unravels throughout the two seasons of the show, and the plot constantly revolves around it.

Here’s the trailer to this awesome anime:

While as the audience we can only dream of such power, there’s relatable subtext.

Saitama is stuck in a “boring” life and his goal is to find thrill in danger. It doesn’t always have to be so dramatic though.

Internal conflict can be as simple as two characters getting together, or trying to, despite conflicting backgrounds or beliefs.

For instance, a devote Christian falling in love with a seemingly unreachable Muslim girl, and having to compromise his values.

The point is the character is in a constant battle with himself. Achieving his goals means going against who he truly is. 

“Do I have what it takes to join the army? I can’t kill someone!”

Here, the protagonist is embarking on a job that puts him in between a hard place and a rock. He has to make a difficult decision that comes back to haunt him.

Use Internal Conflict When Stuck On a Screenplay

We’ve all been there. You go on a writing frenzy and then you are stuck in the dreaded mid-point of Act 2 on your screenplay. Where to go from here? What new baddies can I add to the script?

If you find yourself in this situation, turn inwards not outwards. In other words, review what internal conflicts you’ve built into your hero.

❓❓❓ What are his fears? What are his doubts? ❓❓❓

While there is no exact, one-size-fits-all formula to internal conflict, there are a few things that almost always work when considered.

That entails the characters’ values, desires, expectations, and fears, etc. Internal conflict basically presents a raft of choices for what happens in a screenplay, none of which is straightforward. 

Obstacle after obstacle is thrust at the character that challenges him to face his struggles.

It makes unclear what a character will choose to do in consecutive scenes, adding compelling suspense. 

Internal conflict is a vital part of screenwriting.

✅ It can turn the ordinary into extraordinary. Protection Status