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!

Conflict March 21, 2010


One of my biggest problems, I think. Getting enough of it, getting the right sort of it, making it all hang together right to build an emotionally satisfying story.

The main reason I feel I need to leave Third Time for the time being is that I don’t have a solid enough grip on the internal conflict. It’s there, but it’s tricky, because rather than being in direct opposition, their goals and motivations are kind of tangential to each other. And most of Nick’s internal conflict comes from the situation with her, which could make him too passive, as resolving his conflict as things are relies on HER changing, not on HIM changing.

It could be said I am overthinking, just get in and write the thing, but this has been the problem with every story I’ve written. I would quite literally be wasting my time writing their story now. I’d just end up in another tangle of excessive external conflict thrown in to cover up the weak ineffective internal conflict.The key thing could be to be sure that the external issues all tie in together, as do the internal issues. Where I seem to go wrong is to keep throwing in new things instead of digging deeper into what’s already there in the characters and their situation.

I know that for me the solution is to mine for another level of emotion in the characters, rather than create more issues. Michelle Styles wrote it in a comment last time I was stuck-

Trust your characters to be complex enough and to have enough emotional baggage. Force them to make hard choices.

Now this is a big long ramble, I’m trying to work out what all this means!

 The problem with external conflict is that it makes the characters passive puppets. They don’t make decisions proactively, something happens, and then they react. It’s got to be all about the characters making decisions, rather than being pushed and pulled around by external stuff. Otherwise, it’s not emotionally real or satisfying. The story has got to be driven solidly by the character’s deepest needs, which they express by having an external goal. Everything they do in the story will be directed towards either reaching their goal or fulfuling their need.

The goals are always something external,that the character wants, something solid and tangible like a house, or a job, or a business. The motivation is internal, the real reason why they need the goal, always something emotional, like acceptance, belonging, self-worth, control. So though the character makes the decisions they do based on striving for their goal, the driver is their motivation. And the decisions always need to be expressed in action, that moves the story forward.

The conflict comes because the hero and heroine’s issues need to be in direct opposition. Whatver actions she takles to meet her goal triggers his internal issues, and vice versa. So there’s escalating conflict until change occurs, internal emotional change in both characters, that make the lasting relationship possible. While both of them keep doing what they do to reach their goal and fulfil their internal need, holding on to their old way of beliveing and behaving, this couple have no chance of a lasting relationship.

It’s the internal need that is key. Often there’s a shift part way through anyway- they get the goal, but it makes things even worse. Whatever decisions the character makes has to be true to their internal need, the deepest thing in them that they are usually not even aware of. Two people may have an identical goal, but because the reasons they really want and need that thing are different, the actions they take may be different too. Two people may have an identical internal need, but look for very different ways of achieving it.

For example the hero and hero may both have massive self-worth issues because of  lousy childhoods. One seeks to meet that unspoken need by becoming CEO of a multi-million dollar business. The other seeks to meet that need by becoming a doctor working for next to no pay in a clinic in the poorest part of town. They both want the same thing in their hearts, but there’s going to be instant conflict if these two collide, because they’ve chosen such different ways to get there. Every decision these characters make and every action they take will be determined by that internal driving need and the way they’ve chosen to fulfil it. So when the CEO decides he wants the land the clinic is on to build a new development, the doctor is going to fight back tooth and nail. It’s not just the external goal that’s at stake, it’s the very core of who she is, the rock her entire sense of self-worth is based on. And the same for him, he cannot lose the land, because that makes him the pathetic loser his step-dad always told him he was. He might decide to let her keep her clinic, but to be able to do so, he needs to have something else to make him feel he’s in control, he’s won. So if this was Presents, he might agree she can keep the clinic on condition she becomes his mistress for a month. That’s when the internal issues should take over. The action has to be driven by the heroine and hero making decisions, acting on them, and reacting to each other.

Now if I was writing this story I would feel obliged to throw in an earthquake or kidnapping or something to keep the plot moving after that. But this is where the digging deep comes in. If the story seems to be slow, losing momentum, sagging in the middle, it could be that the characters have stopped acting, and are waiting for something to happen, instead of making things happen. In the battle over the land in this example, one will win and one will lose. But they are BOTH losers, either way. He’s lost the chance of a good relationship with the heroine because he’s still stuck in getting his self-worth from being a ruthless money making machine, always in control, always holding the power. He believes emotions and especially love make him weak and pathetic. She’s lost the chance of a good relationship because her sense of self-worth is totally tied up with a life of dedication and giving out to others, not believing she is worth receiving anything back in return, especially love.

They will keep making decisions based on meeting that need, which should make things worse and worse because everything they do triggers the other character’s internal issues even more. Like in this story, she could deal with the issue of having lost control through agreeing to his deal by putting in longer and longer hours at the clinic, which would really hook into the hero’s own control issues. He would respond by becoming even more controlling, and there’s an escalating spiral that culminates in the black moment. The black moment is inevitable, because even though one or both of them may have changed their external goal, what neither has changed is the way they go about getting their internal need met.To find the truest way to meet their deepest need, they both need to change. They both need to realise that the way they have been trying to meet their needs isn’t working, is actually getting in the way of them getting what they really  want. This is the ONLY way these two can ever be happy, and can ever make a future together.

Now I just made that fairly rubbish example up, that’s not the story I’m planning to write!

Already, with a new story that’s only a few pages old, I’m falling into the same old pattern. I want to throw in every possible conflict, but I HAVE to learn to keep it simple. I’m wanting to give my hero some dark painful thing in his past that gives him trust issues, but actually, he does not need it at all. Neither does she, besides what I’ve already given her. No-one has a perfect childhood, we all have some emotional issues. I don’t need to give these characters an OMG awful upbringinging for the story to work.

This was the beartrap I fell into with Meg- not only is she disabled, she has guilt that her parent’s marriage broke up over her health problems as a child, her mother turned to alcohol and abusive relationships, then one of her mother’s boyfriends came on sexually to her when she was sixteen so she ran away from home. That poor girl! I cried when I realised the bit about the sexual abuse- I saw the whole scene and she was sooooo brave and resourceful in how she coped with it! You can see why I am shying away from writing her story just yet, it’s just too much. It could work perfectly, but I don’t have the hero’s conflict solid yet, I can’t see how the two mesh together. It’s possible Nick needs to change, that I haven’t given her the best hero to bring out all her issues. And I can’t get Meg quite right in the present either, she needs to be kind of coltish, skittish, wanting to explore the possibilities of an adult romantic relationship yet terrified too.

Which is why, for now, when the new story jumped into my head I decided to go with it!

But again, I want to overcomplicate. I need to keep the external stuff very simple. Golden girl of Haven Bay, Cady needs to be perfect. She’s almost achieved it.  She has the perfect job, with the twentieth floor office overlooking Sydney Harbour. She has the perfect flat, again with harbour views. She has the perfect housekeeper, so she can work out and keep herself a perfect ten. She has no time for a relationship. That’s okay, she doesn’t want one messing up her perfect life.. She’s the girl who made good. But her seven year old son is acting out, getting in trouble at school, and now her mother is ill and needs looking after. She has to go back to Haven Bay. She has to face Mitch, her childhood sweetheart. The man who believes she two-timed him then dumped him cruelly back when they were uni students together, destroying their dreams of a life together.  She made him think that rather than tell him the truth about the date rape she blames herself for and feels so desperately ashamed of.  No hope of avoiding him. As Mitch is the head and teacher at the small school in the community, he and Cady are going to be thrown together a lot, as he gets involved with her son.

Do I really need to give him any other reason to have trust issues and be wary of trusting her now when she comes home after seven years, isn’t her betraying him so badly in the past enough? And do I need to give her any other reason to feel shame and no self-worth when she blames herself for her rape, and feels a failure over her relationship with her son, the product of the rape? There’s enough emotion there to mine for a thousand page story, let alone a two hundred page one. Maybe they do need underlying reasons that what happened seven years ago affected them so strongly, drove them deeper into dysfunctional choices? But it really was a life destroying event. Maybe Mitch had abandonment issues already, because his Dad had affairs and left his Mum when he was in his early teens; maybe Cady had issues of needing to be perfect because her parents had very high expectations that she would excel, and withdrew their approval if she didn’t measure up. I guess that would make sense. But it doesn’t have to be something really big and really dark in their childhood, like I did with Meg. They just have to have good enough reasons to drive the decisions they made and are still making, to explain the way they behaved in the past and the way they are still choosing to behave now. Cady choosing to keep up her facade of perfection no matter what the cost to herself and others, Mitch choosing not to trust, not to let anyone get inside his shell again.

Now, this may not be quite there yet. They don’t have goals that are in opposition. Her surface goal is to do her duty to her Mum and get back to her life in Sydney ASAP, avoiding contact with Mitch. But her deep goal is to solve her relationship issues with her son Josh, and even deeper under that to resolve her issues with Mitch. Mitch’s surface goal is to help Josh with his behaviour problems. Not only is Josh disrupting his classroom, he feels an instant bond with the kid. It’s just possible Josh could be his son, despite the fact Cady told him she’d slept with another man. He sees the best way to help Josh is by giving him a strong male role model- spending as much time as he can with Josh. His deep goal is to resolve his issue with Cady- he is still angry with her over the way she betrayed him.

I may still not have it right of course, and getting it into my writing is a whole other thing…


12 Responses to “Conflict”

  1. I suffer from so many of the same issues in my writing as you do. Overthinking, trying to get it perfect the first time, starting something else when I don’t. But what I’ve learned in the past year is that learning and fixing is in the actual writing not the thinking – at least for me. And that writing an imperfect book and trying to fix it teaches me more than trying to get it all perfect the first time.

  2. waitingforthecall Says:

    Fair point. I think a lot of this stuff, especially how the characters express their need, can only come out in the writing.

    And the real story happens in the editing, not the first draft.

    I feel I do need some sort of basic idea of what their conflicts are and how they bounce off each other before I start.

    I tend to be a pantser, I just see a couple of characters and a situation, and I’m off. And then I find it’s just not working so I throw in more and more and more…

    It’s like I’m putting more and more flesh on a story when I don’t have a solid backbone, so I just end up with a big amorphous blob.

    So what I’m looking for is a good idea of what the backbone is before I start, so that everything then can hang off it.

  3. Jane Holland Says:

    Sounds like you have a substantial amount of material here already – no need for earthquakes or kidnappings, lol.

    I’ve never seen an example of your writing, but it sounds to me like you don’t get your characters together on the page enough and TALKING. When that happens, you quickly run out of space for your plot and wonder how you’ll squeeze it all in. so if that isn’t happening, and things are sagging in the middle, I’d say you need to manufacture reasons to put these two people repeatedly together in a situation where they have to TALK through their issues, and learn to forgive the past even if they can’t forget it, and – hopefully – make a little whoopee!

    Which line is this for? Superromance?

    Backstory is vital for internal conflict, so I shouldn’t worry about having too much of it. But it doesn’t need to be hugely over-complicated, or at least, what you tell the reader doesn’t need to be complicated. Hinting at past problems through dialogue every now and then may be all you need to do if the backstory is desperately tricky to convey. As long as YOU know what’s motivating them, that will help you swing into the story. You can always return and insert vital facts. But getting it written is the important thing.

    So I wouldn’t get too hung up on backstory right now. If it’s a Super, you’ve got a huge amount of mileage to cover. To do that quickly and efficiently, you need a dialogue-heavy story. Which means forcing Hh together as much as possible. Forget the horrors of the past, and just get some He said/She said down. Let the backstory come out through that in fits and starts. Surprise yourself.

    And I know you’ve been trying to set smaller goals for your word count. But sometimes that can be counterproductive, as it makes you feel lazy and demotivated. Just see how much you can achieve in a session, and try to keep it over 500 words if possible. That’s only a couple of pages, and to see your ms growing faster than before may get the juices pumping again.

    Good luck!

  4. Jane Holland Says:

    Do you have a synopsis written for this one yet? That may be the key to your ‘sagging’ tendencies, just getting the bare structural bones down before you start.

  5. Jane H – perfect advice for me today – get my characters talking.

  6. waitingforthecall Says:

    LOL, I feel like my stories are nothing BUT the characters standing around talking, looking at each other and trying to hide that they are, wanting to touch the other but feeling they shouldn’t, regretting it if they do touch the other because of the feelings that stirs up in them.
    I need to have a stronger focus, and a good grasp of their goals and what their core emotional needs are will drive that.

  7. waitingforthecall Says:

    Jane, I’m a big believer in the value of reflective practice. I jumped straight into a new story, without really considering what went wrong with the last one.

    Some things we learn by doing. Some things we only learn by taking time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work the last time we did it. Otherwise we will keep repeating the same sorry mistakes over and over, never getting it.

    The trick is getting the balance right, and not letting refelection become an excuse for inactivity.

    I see writing my way in slowly as being the right thing to do for me right now. I have too much work stuff going on for a higher word count goal to succeed in anything but making me feel a failure. But mainly because I know I have ten days off over Easter when I will have a massive writeathon. When I did this last May, I got 45,000 story words in a week, which was my unworkable Presents, the contest entry.

    This time, I need to make sure I have a workable story first, before I switch to power mode with the writing. Which is exactly what you mean when you say write the synopsis first!

    I’ve only written a few story sentences most days. But I’ve written a lot more this week in planning notes, snippets of scenes I see, character issues, backstory, and turning points.

  8. Jane Holland Says:

    On that note, I think I’d better leave you to it!

    First, though, here’s the url of a recent blog post on my main writing blog, entitled (ironically) ‘Writing a novel is easy’.

    Tongue n cheek, yes. But it does have a point … you can’t write a novel without writing it.


  9. waitingforthecall Says:

    Thanks for that Jane, the quote is superb!

    One to read and re-read.

  10. Jane, inded, I have been doing the same thing, overcomplicating stuff. But you’ve got heaps of good emotion there. Why complicate it?
    Cady may want the perfect life because of the shame she feels after the rape. She may want SO much not to be a victim that her life is all about distancing herself. Making that perfect life to prove how strong she is. That’s why she protects that life. Because to admit she’s dying inside is to admit she’s a victim. No parent issues required.
    Maybe Mitch is the opposite. Maybe his life appears shambolic but it disguises a rock solid core of strength. Perhaps his sister was raped and he was so cut up about it, Cady could never tell him. Or burden him with her own problem. Perhaps the reason he was so cut up about it is that he felt he failed in his duty to protect his sister. And so his thing is all about protection. Cady would be a real issue for him because she’s another one he couldn’t protect.
    I guess what I’m saying, is link their conflict in some way. Or, if it’s easier, start with one of them and then give the other the opposite conflict.

  11. Janet Says:

    A great post on conflict–I’ve printed it out and saved it.

    I’m so wary of having too much external conflict I can’t seem to come up with any external stuff at all–apart from the inciting incident. I’ve done 2 great on-line courses with Laurie Campbell and understand how the need/motivation neeeds to drive the plot, but I’m still stuck. I sit down to write and nothing comes. I have my characters GMC and backstory stuff all worked out, too. But they are refusing to actually do anything. i plan to just write dialogue for now (taking Jane H’s great advice to you to get th characters talking instead of worrying about plot)

  12. waitingforthecall Says:

    Jane’s advice is excellent and I hope it does the trick for you, Janet.

    I finally managed to get my hero to make an appearance in my new story! Wooee, what an appearance!

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