One of my writing mentors, SF writer A.C. Crispin, tells the students in her writing workshops that the secret to storytelling is to give your characters problems. Problems are the basis of conflict and conflict is at the heart of, well, pretty much everything. The more those problems pile up, the better the conflict is and the faster the reader wants to turn those pages.
It’s easy to identify the conflict when the problems are all “external”, that is, when the manure that keeps hitting the fan seems to come from outside the character himself. James Bond has his hands full dealing with S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Dr. No’s fiendish plans without worrying about self-doubt or guilt over how he treats his women. The pace is kept up by putting the character into one tight spot after another and letting him work his way out of it. That’s the fun of a good spy thriller or military SF plot, after all. The conflict revolves around the problems the external universe creates for the character to overcome.
“Internal” conflicts are more subtle, having to do with the character herself, or her relationships with others in the story. Some internal change must occur—growth must be achieved or an old pain resolved or a mystery solved—so the character can move on in her life. Often, as with romance novels, love must be gained. This has its own “arc” within the story, quite separate from the personal conflicts of both the hero and the heroine.
In fact, if the story is a romance, the problems caused by the “external” world (be it demons or vampires, aliens, the people next door, the ranch owners, or the bad guys of whatever world you choose), and those caused by the “internal” world (the relationship) have their own separate tracks which must wind their way through the story and find their own satisfactory solutions in the end. If the writer is doing her job well, the tracks intertwine, leapfrog and maintain a pace that leads the reader ever onward until by the last few pages it’s impossible to put the book down.
So easy to talk about; so very hard to accomplish! Even when the underlying elements of conflict exist in the story, some romance writers have a hard time sharpening those points of contention. It’s hard to figure out what the couple is fighting about. Or an author will have the couple waste energy in fruitless squabbling in the belief that “conflict” equals “dislike” (until suddenly the hero and heroine discover they love each other). Or, perhaps there is little external conflict to move the plot along at all.
Real conflict happens when both sides are RIGHT, when both the hero and the heroine have an equally valid point of view. Figuring out how to actually SEE it from both sides, then find a way to RESOLVE it, is truly difficult. The more convoluted and hopeless the problem seems, the more involved—emotionally and intellectually--your reader will be.
Madeline Hunter’s latest Regency novel, The Surrender of Miss Fairbourne, provides an excellent example of conflict done right in a romance novel. Hunter gives her hero and heroine conflicting interests from the first page and piles on the problems for her heroine until it seems there is truly no way out for her. With an external plot that involves the heroine’s kidnapped brother, smugglers along Britain’s Southeast coast, and the hero’s clandestine network of watchers set to intercept spies infiltrating England from revolutionary France all revolving around an auction house in London in which the hero and heroine find themselves unlikely partners, the tension between the lovers’ feelings and their natural conflicts builds almost unbearably throughout the book. There is almost no need for a “black moment” (although there is one), because things look so bleak toward the last third of the story simply as a result of “piling on”.
But what better way to keep us reading? When the book reaches its inevitable “happy ending”, we’re cheering—and looking for the next one!That is the best possible manipulation of conflict, and one I can’t say I’ve mastered yet. I’m a conflict avoider. But I’m getting better at it. When I put my characters in a bad spot, I don’t just look for a way out. I look for a way to get them deeper into trouble. No easy way out. That’s my new motto.
As Laurie says, our 2012 RWA® Golden Heart® loop is a busy bunch so I’ve had to use all my social networking skills to keep up with them. I’ve also sent out the first of my new queries based on the GH finals, with one request for partials in return! The Golden Heart does open doors, but I don’t expect it to serve as a door stop. My work still has to speak for itself, and SFR still has its own drawbacks in the marketplace. So I’ll go forward with cautious optimism and see what happens!
Thanks to JC Cassells for being our guest blogger. Sovran’s Pawn looks exciting, and I wish you all the best with it! (Love Errol Flynn, too, so that’s a sales pitch for me!)
I know you must have been through the roof to find info on H.O.P.E., Laurie! So many ideas, so few funds, though, huh? Still, we can always dream, and the website was a gold mine for your book, I’m sure.