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…