Competing wants

Here is another snippet of a narrator struggling with an internal conflict.

In what ways is it similar to the Catching Teller Crow snippet from the previous page, and in what ways is it different? (It's subtle, but significant!)

I chicken out.

I'm ashamed to admit it but after dinner I ring Simone and Eileen and tell them I can't make it because we have visitors. They believe me. And why wouldn't they? I'm supposed to be pious and God-fearing. Not a lying, hypocritical, pathetic coward. I'm lying on my bed listening to Craig David's "I'm walking away". On repeat.

What's happened to me? Haven't I decided to wear the hijab because I feel proud of who I am? Suddenly I'm too chicken to go to a café? I don't recognize myself. I'm the one who put her head out the school bus window last year and yelled at a group of boys who threw a can of Coke at our "wog" school bus. It was me who stood up during a Year Nine interschool debate and told the audience that my team didn't appreciate the other team's whispers about competing against "terrorists".

  • As with Catching Teller Crow, this snippet is a combination of thoughts, feelings, and self-talk.
  • It also shows a breakdown of a mental model: the narrator thought she was one type of person, but her actions have shown her otherwise.

In Catching Teller Crow, the conflict was in part based on ignorance: Beth Teller doesn't understand how her actions backfired.

In Does My Head Look Big in This, the narrator, Amal, is struggling with competing wants:

  • She wants to go out in public in her hijab.
  • She wants to avoid calling attention to herself.
  • Because she is in a school community in which nobody else wears a hijab, she can't have both of these at the same time, so she has to make a choice.

Sometimes competing wants can be superficial or low-stakes:

  • I want a new phone and a new camera, but I can only afford one.
  • I want to eat the tacos and also the pizza, but I'll be sick if I eat both.
  • I want to finish writing this story but I also want to watch TV, etc.

Sometimes these dilemmas can be profound or life-changing:

  • I want to take this job away from home, but I don't want to leave my family.
  • I want to save my friend's life, but I don't want to risk my own.
  • I want to confront this injustice, but I don't want to feel uncomfortable.
  • I want to be in love, but I don't want to be vulnerable.

Here are a couple of worked examples of characters struggling with competing wants.

In each example, the choice is simple (learn to ride a bike vs keep running as usual; move away for college or stay at home) but both characters care about their choices.

He kicked the bicycle and then walked all the way down the other end of the skybridge so that he could get away from the others and be alone with his shame.

It was so unfair. He'd never been taught to ride a bike. He'd never owned a skateboard. Come to think of it he'd never done anything that required more balance than walking. He wanted to be able to ride around with the others, but what was the point if all he was going to do was wobble and crash? He imagined trying to cycle away from a pack of zombies but then veering into a pile of bins because he was useless. He may as well stay on foot. In his mind he told himself to keep trying, but in his heart he knew he was going to be that lame kid jogging alongside the other kids on bikes.

I didn't tell Dad when I got the offer. Charlie and I talked on the phone, she was so excited. She was already full of plans and dreams. She texted me constantly over the next three days, telling me all about it, while I sat in the kitchen reading the notification online, and looking at that button saying Accept Offer but never clicking.

I spent a lot of time sitting with Dad in the den while he watched TV and ate dinner on his lap. I sat on Mom's old recliner and watched the light play on the glass eyes of the moose and deer and wolf that crowded the walls. A den alright. All these wild animals that felt like home. I tried to picture the dorm room we'd be in. I tried to picture living together and sharing a bathroom. I tried to picture standing on stage in front of all those kids and teachers. And when Dad dozed off, I'd go to my room and lie on my bed with the laptop and looking at that offer, and I'd move the mouse from Accept to Decline and back again, over and over, until I gave up and also went to sleep.

On one hand, writing about conflicting values is easy:

  • Think of an object or experience your character might want. 
  • Think of what they could risk, lose, sacrifice, or miss out on if they got what they wanted.
  • Then imagine them also wanting that thing you noticed they might lose.

Voila! You have a dilemma.

However, when you are writing, make sure you don't accidentally focus on the external elements of the choice and forget to capture the character's internal struggle.

Tip: If you're stuck, try a 'but also' pattern, as in, "They wanted this... but also that..."

Describe a character struggling internally with a choice between two equally-valued options.


We've spent a whole lesson talking about how conflict begins, but before we complete this lesson, we should talk about how conflict ends.