Monday, April 11, 2011

Finish the Darned Book: What's the Deal with Conflict?

Conflict drives story. Characters drive conflict. Ever may it be so.

One of the most common reasons that editors reject submissions is the story's lack of conflict strong enough to sustain a story from beginning to end. So let's look conflict.

Conflict is what keeps a character from getting what he or she wants.

Too many writers mistake conflict for bickering between their characters. Or they think conflict is a misunderstanding between the characters that puts them at odds. Or that getting stuck in a monsoon is conflict enough to keep a story going.

But that's not conflict. Conflict is about struggling against something specific to get something specific. Dorothy gets sucked into a tornado and ends up in the land of Oz. She wants to get home, but a series of problems arise that keep her from being able to reach her goal of going home, and she and her gang of motley allies must figure their way through those obstacles to reach her goal. That's conflict.

But is that enough to sustain a story? Not really. Because there's something else we need to know about conflict.

Conflict is both internal and external.

For example, in the Wizard of Oz example (which I'll admit, I'm borrowing from the fabulous Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation and Conflict example), Dorothy's desire to get back home is the external goal. But her internal goal is to find a way to be happy with her life. Her unhappiness, the trouble she always seems to get into in her life, motivates her to want to find a place she belongs. But there's a conflict--she doesn't know what will make her happy. So that's the conflict she has to work through to reach her goal.

So how do we bring our internal and external conflicts into play?

The best way to keep your characters' internal conflicts in the forefront is to fashion your external conflicts so that they play on the characters' worst fears. I had a character whose horrific childhood had given her a near phobia about children. She didn't like to be around them, didn't want to have to deal with them. So what kind of external conflict did I give her? She was called to investigate an assault and attempted kidnapping of a four-year-old girl. And then the little girl formed an instant crush on my heroine, which inspired her boss (and former foster father) to assign her to protective detail for the child, who was the only one who could identify the assailant. So her internal conflicts were top of mind immediately.

What about the hero? Well, his big internal conflict was that he'd married a woman who didn't want to be married when she got pregnant with his child--and it had ended about as you might expect. The woman who didn't want to be married and certainly didn't want to be a mother, leaving the hero to raise his daughter by himself. So the last thing he needs in his life is a woman with a kid-phobia who seems to break out in hives whenever his daughter is around. But at the same time, she's a cop who can help him protect his daughter, who seems to find the heroine irresistible. So it's a constant push pull between the attraction they feel for each other and the myriad reasons they shouldn't be together.

But it's also the threat to the child that allows the heroine to work through her fears and her past torment to move forward with her life and allow herself to love not only the child but also her father. And the hero's love for his daughter helps him find the patience to look past the heroine's protective walls to see the woman inside that his daughter so clearly adores. And the heroine's bravery and determination to protect his child helps him trust her enough to also share his heart.

To sum it up, your external conflict should constantly be putting pressure on the internal conflict. It should also be part of the means by which the characters resolve their internal conflicts and come together in the end.

And remember, in a romance, the internal conflict is extremely important. In many stories, it's the most important conflict. Don't give it short shrift.

So, here's the assignment for today. Think about the conflicts in your current WIP. What external conflict is keeping your hero/heroine from reaching their goals? What internal conflicts are complicating things? How do those internal and external conflicts apply pressure to each other?


M.V.Freeman said...

Oooh, I love your questions Paula.

Ok, I'm paraphrasing my story..trying to make it short and sweet:

In my current wip: External: heroine, has an ability greatly desired by the hero who has no qualms about jerking her out of her life and forcing her to work for him. (Heroine doesn't like this at all.) Hero is desperately trying to get his freedom from others and will use anyone.
Internal: Heroine: Doesnt' want to take responsibility for her abilities, doesn't want to make the tough decisions. She needs to grow up. Hero: Must realize he can't force everyone to his will, and must allow others to make decisions. Both are lonely people looking for someone they can be themselves with, but it takes working together to figure that out.

Ok. So. I may have to work on things.

Paula said...

Actually, your internal conflicts sound pretty good. You just have to make sure your external conflicts continue putting pressure on your characters, poking them in their sore spots, to keep the conflicts from being too easily resolved.

It's also a good thing, over the course of a story, to have the characters think they've resolved the internal conflict--or, at least, think they're close--only to have something bigger and badder from the outside happen that stirs up the conflict all over again. This will often happen shortly before the climax, leading the character to the fabled "black moment." But you have have lesser versions of that big blow up happen earlier in the book, too, to keep the conflict moving.

M.V.Freeman said...

Thanks Paula!
This helps so much! The "black moment" was the hardest thing for me to write...but I did it.

The black moment: The hero can no longer force the heroine to do what he wants...and she walks away and his dreams of freedom crumble. Heroine realizes she can deal with her abilities and has choices.

Ah, but this is an HEA after all....They realize they need each other. :-)

This was fun.

Lisa Dunick said...

Great post Paula! I've got to get started on a new WIP, but I'm having trouble deciding on a conflict. I think the problem is that I actually have too many stories rattling around and don't know which one to pick. So, back to work for me.

Heather said...

Great post! I am making a final pass at revisions on my Urban Fantasy, and conflict is what I am trying to focus. So here is my shot at the conflict in the story:

External: My heroine must find who killed her ex-fiance because the murder also infected my heroine with a deadly curse that will claim her soul in four days. The problem - the killer used magic, so the police aren't too much help seeing as how they think magic doesn't exist. That pretty much leaves her on her own to find the big baddie.

Internal: My heroine is a magical mutt (mom human/father not). Due to a REALLY bad experience when she was a teenager where an she lost control over her magical abilities and almost died, she has totally shunned anything magical and denied that part of herself. To find the killer, she has to embrace the side of herself that scares her the most.

Paula said...

I want to read that book, Heather! The conflict sounds great--a past trauma is a pretty good choice of motivations in this circumstance.

Does the story have romantic elements? The reason I ask is, if it contains romantic elements, I was curious how the love interest fits in and what his conflicts and motivations are.

Heather said...

It does have romantic elements - there are two men the heroine is torn between (hey, no Twilight hate here) - one is a member of a group dedicated to exterminating all supernatural creatures, the other is the boss of the supernatural underworld. My hope is that the romantic subplot can be the storyline that continues through the series.

Paula said...

That sounds really good, Heather. Even though I don't much like triangles ('cause I usually pick the wrong guy to root for--Team Jacob!).

I like that there's obvious conflict between the two guys, as it gives her a pretty interesting set of choices.

Louisa Cornell said...

Great post, Paula and great questions. Let me see if I have a handle on this.

External conflict : The hero (a marquis) wakes up in bed with the stepsister of his former mistress (Stepsister is our heroine.) to the news said former mistress was murdered just down the hall while he and heroine slept (or rather didn't sleep, but you get the picture.)They are both now suspects in the murder. She is being threatened by the murderer and they need to find the murderer before he kills her and so that they can get on with their lives.

Our hero was actually being paid to sleep with the former mistress and so our heroine decides to hire him both as a gigolo and in order to solicit his help in finding the murderer.

Her internal conflict is she has always wanted control of her own destiny, but her dependence on the stepsister had her trapped. Now she has control she doesn't want to cede any to anyone. She believes by paying the hero to sleep with her he is an employee and employees can be dismissed. Everyone in her life has let her down, violated her trust and made her feel the only reason they care for her is for money.

His internal conflict is he has always traded on his looks to survive. As a result he believes that is all any woman sees in him. He has also inherited a bankrupt estate and responsibility for his mother and he resents the things he has had to do to support them. And because he has had to take responsibility for so much he doesn't know how to trust anyone else to help.

Man, I suck at this. It always sounds so much better in my head!

Paula said...

It's a really good start, but I do have a question, based on what you've written here. (And if I have a question, so will editors and readers).

Why does she want him to sleep with her? This is a historical, right? What benefit is it to her for him to sleep with her, besides pleasure? And if it's pleasure, what is it that has made the heroine go against the social mores of the day to look for a lover outside of a profitable marriage?

You may have answered those questions already, but it's definitely different enough a choice that I think you should address it in any synopsis you write.

Also, it's really intriguing to have the hero be the one who feels like a piece of meat (which does figure into the heroine's choice to purchase his favors). But why, if that's how he's always felt, doesn't he embrace the new responsibilities laid on him? Wouldn't they offer the chance to prove he's more than just a pretty face?

I'm not saying these are wrong choices, mind you. I'm just asking questions to help you think through the motivations for your characters.

Louisa Cornell said...

She slept with him the first time because she wanted to. She's always been attracted to him and he makes her feel beautiful. She has lived in her stepsister's house as a servant, no on knows they are even related until after the murder. Our heroine is a nobody. She is the illegitimate daughter of a barmaid and a clerk. Her ultimate goal is to leave London and use the money she inherits from her stepsister to get herself and the stepsister's daughter as far away from society as possible so they can live their lives out in peace and comfort. Her desire to have an affair with our hero is her fantasy to remember as she lives her life out in anonymity and takes care of her niece, the only person who has ever cared for her.

Cain is one of these men who says he doesn't want to be responsible but cannot help himself. He sees himself as a failure, but he doesn't realize he's always been responsible. It's who he is. He stays with our heroine to keep her safe. He was half in love with her as the mistress's hired help, but when she offers to pay him he wonders if she is just like all the other women, but he can't walk away.

Does that make sense?

Paula said...

Yes, that makes much more sense now. I figured I just needed more context. :)

Christine said...

Hi Paula: This post reflects my current revision issues so clearly. I had the R&R and the first thing the editors wanted was to cut the iffy external plot and to focus on the internal conflicts that drove the characters apart and together and apart. This was so counterintuitive to how I'd been dealing with plot. I had the external markers in place, but the internal markers weren't all there. Now I've got the internal markers in place and am noodling through the external turning points to make sure they create the characters' internal conflict and drive the story forward to its conclusion. I tried explaining this to another writer, and I just couldn't. You did it so well!!

I copied your post and printed it out. This is going in my files.

Thanks so much for your amazing lessons :-)

Gwen Hernandez said...

Paula: You have the best way of explaining things. You should consider writing a book! On writing, I mean. ;-) You could be the next James Scott Bell!

Kat Jones said...

Great post Paula! I think this is definitely something I'm struggling with right now, particularly with me hero. I love your advice that external conflicts should help force your characters to face their internal conflicts/struggles.

You've definitely got me reexamining my characters & their conflicts in a different light.

Paula said...

Gwen, I don't think any of these ideas presented here are original to me. ;) I'm borrowing liberally from Debra Dixon and various writers whose worksheets and presentations I've seen over the years. But I'm glad if they're helpful.

Paula said...

Oops, missed Christine. I'm so glad you're finding this helpful. Conflict was something I really struggled with in my early career. (I probably still have a letter from Mary-Theresa Hussey telling me that while she liked my writing, the story lacked the necessary conflict to sustain a whole book).

Carla Swafford said...

Good advice as usual.

Here's one of mine.

Heroine's internal conflict: She wants to be loved and feel like a normal girl and not a killer (The Pinocchio Effect you could call it - she wants to be a real girl.)

Hero's internal conflict: He feels that whenever he shows his emotions, he's not being a successful leader like his late father.

This conflict clashes when the hero orders the heroine to kill someone close to her. (Part of the black moment.)

Heroine's external conflict: She wants to escape the clutches of the man who trained her.

Hero's external conflict: He wants to stop the man who had ordered the deaths of his operatives.

In the external, the H/H come to realize they can help each other after they overcome their initial distrust.

In the mini black moments, the hero betrays the heroine by sending her back to man she hates. Then later the heroine appears to leave the hero to die.