Waiting for "The Call"

“Honey, it’s always crap. Every book I write is crap. It’s my job to fix the crap afterwards,” according to Nora Roberts. Well, I've got it half right. Still working on the "fixing it" part. "Trust your characters to be complex enough and to have enough emotional baggage. Force them to make hard choices." Advice from Michelle Styles that might help!

Digging deeper into conflict July 12, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 8:20 pm
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I’ve been thinking some more about conflict today. Specifically, the lack of good internal conflict in my stories!

It’s been a sticking point for me ever since I started on this story. I’ve just known that Luk’s conflict was off, not quite strong enough, not quite convincing enough, too darned cliched. I’ve reached the point where I am fed up with this story, and I need a break from it.

Not to mention that talking about the new HMB Presents/Modern contest has me thinking more about my next story.

I think it’s time I gave Luk and Emma’s story a rest. I want to start over with a new story, see if I can get the conflict built in right from the start. I’m not abandoning them, not giving up when I’ve put so much work in.  I just feel that if I have a break, spend time really digging into conflict with new characters, I can come back to their story with fresh awareness of what it needs.  The problem right now, is that Luk and Emma’s needs just aren’t opposed enough to create a strong believable conflict. Hmm, interestingly, I’ve thought all along the problem was Luk. Now I’m wondering if it’s Emma. The blocks to their relationship are all too external, too circumstantial, not flowing enough from their core self-beliefs and needs.

For the new story, I want to start off with the characters. Who are these people, what do they need and want more than anything? What is the thing or belief it would kill them (metaphorically) to confront or have to give up? How does the relationship with the other person force them to need to do just that?

The key question is- What is it, on both their parts, that stops these two people, who are wildly attracted to each other and may feel an emotional connection they’ve never felt with anyone else, from being together in a committed loving relationship?

To be emotionally satisfying, it can’t be just external circumstances. The characters must work to achieve their love, by learning and growing, overcoming whatever it is within them that gets in the way of this relationship. It’s got to be important, it’s got to go deep, and it has to go deep for both of them. One-sided facile change is not going to do it.

I’ve got some questions I’m planning on asking my new characters.

  • What is going wrong in their life right now? Why is that important to them emotionally? What core need does that link into?


  • What does this person needs in their relationships and their life to feel safe/ whole/happy. Why is it so important to them? What happens if they don’t have it?  (I need to think up as many reasons as possible, to come up with something fresh. My first thoughts on these questions are nearly always cliches.)


  • What is this person’s core relationship need?  What caused this, and why is it important to this character?  (The answer to this must be believeable, meaningful to the character, consistent with their personality and behaviour, and important- the stakes must be high, it means death to their soul or self-image to lose this. The character should be unaware of the core need and the real reason underlying this need- ‘cos if they know it at the start, why haven’t they done anything to change it?)


  • How does the other character have opposing needs?  (For the strongest conflict, the hero and heroine’s deepest relationship needs must be in direct opposition.)


  • How do they try to resolve the conflict initially?  (This may be an external strategy such as avoidance, setting rules and limits, making compromises they will not be able to maintain long term- something that does not address their real internal issues.)


  • How does this make things worse? (Because the real issues aren’t being addressed, it may seem that what they try works for a while. But something will always challenge it. It can not be a long term solution. A lasting relationship is impossible if  things stay as they are.)


  • How does this character grow and change to make the relationship possible? (Resolution occurs when both characters realise their core need that is getting in the way of the relationship, and make a change on a deep emotional level, or willingly give up something very important to them.)

Well, that’s it. I hope it works! I can’t help but feel it will work better than what I’ve done so far, which is make it up as I go along.

I’m going to test it on my new story people tonight and see how it goes. I figure once I’ve done this, I have a synopsis.


Any comments welcomed!


10 Responses to “Digging deeper into conflict”

  1. Eileen Says:

    I’m going to comment on your bullet points tomorrow (b/c I’m stalking everything romance at the moment which makes it seem like I’m constantly on your blog!), but the first part of your post made me realize why I ultimately found the Kate Hardy novel I read unsatisfying: the internal conflict was there, but the external conflict wasn’t proportionate. The heroine’s mother actually says to the heroine at one point “do you know his family has rejected you? Have you talked to them? Did his mother rail and rant at you? Did she threaten to disown him if you ever saw him again?” and the heroine bashfully said ‘no.’ Which is a shame. Because if all that had ACTUALLY happened it would have been a much more interesting novel.

    Screenplay structure involves three “surprises” which can be applied to novels: the hook, the first plot twist (which takes us down a path we never saw) and the second plot twist (which leads to the climax. Now, I haven’t studied the romance novel structure like you have, but I’m feeling like the first plot twist is often an internal challenge and the second one is an external challenge … and if it happens in the reverse order then one still needs to be external and the other internal, they can’t BOTH be internal or BOTH be external or else the plot isn’t even. So surrendering to the playboy is the first and then tabloid scandal is the second. Or kidnapping by the boss is the first and admitting to him that you’ve loved him since you were 17 is the second.

  2. waitingforthecall Says:

    I hadn’t come across that concept of two plots twists stated so simply and elegantly before! It works for me. My feeling is that in a romance, the firs

  3. waitingforthecall Says:

    Ack, pushed send by mistake! What I was trying to say was that in a romance, the emotional satisfaction and payoff for the reader comes from the resolution of the internal conflict. So IMO the story is stronger when the first twist is external and the second twist is internal. Interesting to see that in the new guidelines the M&B editors say pregnancy and marriage of convenience are internal relationship conflicts. I see them as external, but highly likely to trigger internal issues. Its all in how the characters react to things. Your two twist model fits the story I’m planning nicely. First twist about one third in is when they find they are business rivals. Second twist will be the deep emotional one. I think it will have to do with family and how we get our sense of identity and value. My heroine has spent her life trying to win her father’s approval by conforming to his expectations, while the hero broke free of his family early and has independence and individuality as his main values. Hmm, I think what you’ve identified with the conflict in the Kate Hardy is typical of Modern Heats. They are more Presents Lite, or Sexy Sweet. The conflicts don’t tend to run as deep in any of the MHs I’ve read. They are designed to be more of a fun read. Maybe Presents is more your line? I can see you really getting into a dark Alpha hero and deep complex conflict!

  4. Eileen Says:

    I think you’re right: I am more of a Presents/Modern girl than MH. Although I originally got turned off by the description “Readers are whisked away to exclusive jet-set locations” simply b/c I didn’t want to include travel in my plot. Although I started writing down notes for a different couple’s story and that one would fit perfectly. Ack, too many characters, not enough time!

  5. waitingforthecall Says:

    Isn’t that always the way! I’m amazed when I hear people say they don’t have enough ideas to write, or see those books on finding things to write about. Sheesh! Too many peopleand events all fighting to get in the same story is my problem. Just have fun with it! Someone on the M&B forum was saying how liberating it was writing in a different line than she normally would think about targetting. No pressure, no expectations, just playing with ideas and seeing what happened.

  6. waitingforthecall Says:

    Had the answer to the question about whether Karim, the hero of the latest Kate Hardy story was pre or post guideline change- before! I’m not half way through yet, but I do think he is a gorgeous hero! I love the sensuality and the sexual tension between him and Lily. My two get together much much earlier, so a lot of the sexual tension will come later, when they know how good it can be between them and are having to see each other but are kept apart by their conflicts.

  7. Eileen Says:

    These questions are great for putting together a synopsis! But how helpful are you finding them for the story itself?

    Author Lynn Viehl has a bunch of stuff up on her blog about conflict: http://pbackwriter.blogspot.com/ (she did a little on yesterday’s post as well but there’s others if you look back through the archives). She’s also holding a “Left Behind and Loving It” series in celebration of how much she hates going to the RWA conference, lol.

    Basically she talks about creating that in/external conflict by coming up with the absolutely worst situation possible for a character. Which I think might have been what won Lynn Raye Harris the Presents contest last time. She took a Hotel Heiress/CEO who was (just barely) holding together her dead father’s legacy and shredded it. The shredding destroyed the company, her memory of her father, her career AND it was done by someone she had once loved. Oh and he’s going to bulldoze the one hotel that has sentimental value to her because it reminds her of her dead parents. That “worst possible case scenario” creates all the internal and external tension necessary. External: business, career, reputation. Internal: trust, love, deception, the fact that she’s still attracted to a man who’s ruined her life.

    I think my main issue with conflict is getting over the impulse to play matchmaker — I just know this girl who’d be great for you! — and start playing the cruelest of Fates — and your hot lover is really your arch enemy’s only daughter, whahaha!

  8. waitingforthecall Says:

    Thanks for that Lynn Viehl link- I always get a good laugh and learn more about writing too from her blog, and I haven’t been there for ages (last time I followed a link from your blog!). I’ll go check on it.

    That’s it exactly about conflict- and it’s hard to do because we like our characters and don’t want to put them through that kind of hell. I’m sure that’s why my conflicts are always kinda wimpy and wishywashy.

    I need to unleash my inner bitch and let those poor characters really suffer! Bwah hahaha does not come naturally to me, but I’m sure with practice…

    Maybe that’s something else to add to those questions.
    What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen to you? What’s your deepest fear, the thing you think you just couldn’t survive? What’s your deepest secret, the one think you would hate someone else to know? How can this person make all that happen to you?

  9. Eileen Says:

    >>>”I need to unleash my inner bitch”
    LOL! Love it!

    So I started toying with another idea that I think might be more Presents and less MH because I am, indeed, head over heels for the Presents-Alpha. Only now I’m completely confused as to what his conflict is!

    I’ve got their parents as friends when they’re little [they’re parents jokes about how they’d be in-laws someday] and both kids grew up with power and privileged and now they’re business rivals [no elevator involved, hehe] When I started typing this comment I had him acting the way he did simply b/c he was hot for her … but that’s not a conflict!

    Unless it’s that he really is intentionally malicious at the beginning … hmm.

    Writing this comment has been very helpful for me. I’ve cut and pasted most of what I typed back into my “manuscript” document so as to not bother you with it but it’s really helped me figure things out … it’s also explained why I thought I was gonna have a kitchen scene end in bed and it ended up in an argument instead!

  10. waitingforthecall Says:

    I love how often writing a blog comment helps me figure something out for my stories! It’s a form of journalling, really. Glad I could help, even if inadvertently!

    Sounds like you are getting a good handle on your couple’s conflict!

    Simply not wanting to go along with their parents’ expectations could be a relationship block in itself, especially if one of them had a very strong value around establishing their own identity separate from their family.

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