Some interesting posts around today about internal conflict in our stories- what it is, why we need it, and how to get it! And the importance of never stopping asking “Why?”
It’s a lightbulb moment to suddenly realise this is the factor that has been missing from so many of my stories. I am the queen of external conflict. My characters get so much thrown at them, from kidnaps to bushfires to car accidents. It certainly makes for a busy plot, but all that stuff from “out there” is NOT internal conflict.
Internal conflict is what keeps the characters apart, what is blocking them from moving on forward with a full relationship. It’s the stuff that’s there inside the characters, their beliefs about themselves and relationships, their goals, their deepest fears and anxieties. The things that may come from their family background, upbringing, past experiences. Often it’s the things that they don’t want anyone to know, might not even talk about with their best friend, are certainly not going to reveal to this scarily attractive stranger. It’s all the reasons that would get in the way of this man and this woman getting together even if they were in a room by themselves and nothing outside could affect them. External events in the story may trigger internal conflict, but it doesn’t cause it. A good analogy is that the external conflict is what pushes two very different people together, whether it’s the snowstorm that strands them both in a remote cottage, the business takeover they are on opposing sides of, the fake engagement to swing a deal, the forced marriage because a one-night stand resulted in a pregnancy. The internal conflict is then what pushes them apart, her fear that a relationship will destroy her, his decision at an early age never to allow himself to love, her belief that she is unlovable, his belief that he is unworthy of love. This should be what drives the black moment, what seems to make it impossible for this couple to ever stay together. That’s my understanding, anyway, for what it’s worth as an unpubbed writer!
And I’ve just discovered that though I thought I already understood this, it’s been the big missing component of my stories. Ther’s been a lot happening, but it’s not coming from deep enough within the characters. The black moments have been driven by external events, by other people’s actions, rather than something deep inside the hero or heroine. Or if it was, I haven’t made that clear enough at the critical moments when they’ve made decisions about the relationship. One of my stories, I can see, had NO internal conflict at all. It was purely external circumstances that kept them apart. And I can see how to tweak the story when I rewrite it. There is actually a huge possibility of built in internal conflict in who the characters are. Anyway, that’s another story.
I’m now at the stage in my current story where even though what’s happening is all the external stuff throwing them together, I need to be making sure the seeds for the internal conflicts are there, the hints are being dropped, the issues foreshadowed. That comes from the characters themselves, who they are, why they are as they are, why they have made the choices they have made.
Jackie Ashenden and Lucy King , the runner -up and winner of Mills and Boon’s Feel the Heat competition for new Modern Heat writers, emphasise never taking characters at face value but digging deeper by always asking them “Why?” Lucy’s post talks about how this can create the plot- start with two very different characters, and keep asking them “Why?”. Find out what their deepest fears are, then create a situation where they will be forced to face them.
At first thoughts, I didn’t think I’d done that with my current story. But actually, maybe I have. She’s a shy country girl with limited social experience, suddenly forced into the spotlight; he’s a workaholic loner forced back to his birth country where he has to deal with the events that turned him into the emotionless moneymaking machine he is today. Except he does have one emotion- the desire for revenge on the man who destroyed his first relationship. Pursuing that is what pushes him back to the home he left twelve years before. Would a man like him still seek revenge, or would his desire to avoid his past mean he would bury it? I need to give him some damn good motivation to be willing to risk facing his past.
Better get asking- “Why?” and dig a bit deeper, before I write any more story. There’s clearly another layer here to peel off yet before I get to the truth. So glad I realised that now and not in Chapter Ten!