Inner Conflict: The Absolute Only Way To Write it For The Screen

99 times out of 100, spec writers focusing on inner conflict will suffer the kiss of death. Frankly, you might as well of performed screenplay seppuku. We'll get into why, as well as discussing unique (see: 1%) instances where inner conflict can add that missing layer that takes a movie from good to great. Ready to dig in?
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John August gets a little handsy with Richard Zucker

The grandfather of internet screenplay advice with his actual grandfather. And/or Richard Zanuck.

To start, let's go over an interesting question and answer from the Godfather of screenplay advice on the web, John August. He fielded a fascinating question, and gave an ever more fascinating response:

It seems a lot of my scripts revolve around a character’s inner struggle and their inner demons creating destructive physical reactions (acting out). My question is: What if the main character’s motivation is finding their way because they are lost? Isn’t this a purely mental obstacle?

I know you say to make these obstacles physical and simple but this is the complete opposite. Any help would be appreciated.

– Dallas
Staten Island, NY

August: Write a book. Or a song. Or a poem.

Sure, many great movies feature characters struggling against their demons, or attempting to find themselves. But it’s invariably played as subtext against a more external conflict — the one that actually drives the plot. You need to be able to point the camera at something.

There’s nothing wrong with internal struggle. Just pick a medium that can handle it.

I wish every screenwriter in the world would paste this above their work space.

First, I can't tell you how many scripts I've read that have passive protagonists (already a big no-no) struggling somewhat numbly toward finding themselves or attempting to connect to their with own humanity. As some of the old guard are fond of saying "where's the beef?". These scripts invariably also suffer from another common syndrome: the subtext is the text. I could write reams on just this one issue, but for today, let's focus on inner conflict.

Now, invariably when I point this out, people retort this about THE VERDICT:

"That was about Paul Newman finding himself, and he admitted it, out loud, in dialogue!"

And I'll say: Yep, you're right.

But he didn't do it in every scene. And he had an external concrete goal that drove the movie - winning the case - which he believed could save him/help him find himself again. And every step along the way of reconnecting with the great man he once was was shown externally, in a way the audience could immediately understand. It wasn't all voice overs and moody bullsh*t posturing (I'm looking at you TWILIGHT).

Now, I'm not against inner conflict or having inner conflict be a major part of your script. But you better know HOW it's supposed to be used, or you'll fall into all the same traps I've already mentioned (lack of subtext, passive protagonist, etc.). Inner conflict cannot be the driving force of the plot, it cannot be the focal point of the dialogue, and it most certainly cannot be the only element to your protagonist's character arc. That is where you get into trouble.

Where you don't get into trouble using inner conflict is by having it be a part of your protagonist's arc, or a part of the theme, or a driving force behind WHY your protagonist does certain things (but not WHAT he does).

To see an absolutely masterful synthesis of brilliant writing, directing, and acting, check out this clip from THE VERDICT.

It's the opening 4:00 odd minutes, and the inner conflict Paul Newman experiences is realized without dialogue, yet in a purely external, visual way. The drinking, the smoking, the expressions on his face, the shaking hand (see: alchoholism). Pay particular attention to the first 2:40. Notice, for instance, how disgusted he is in himself and the things he does (the second scene, where we see him exchange money to meet a widow, and the self-hating expression on his face after spraying binaca). This clip shows so many examples of how to use subtext, visuals, and the economy of words and story - it's worth studying over and over.

Oh, and the producer of THE VERDICT? Grandpappy Zanuck.