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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Writing internal and external conflict

Today, we're happy to have author Christie Kelley with us to talk a bit about how she approaches writing conflict, both internal and external. It seems Christie is like many of us -- while we hate conflict in real life, we don't mind giving our characters some big conflicts to overcome because we know it makes the story stronger and a more satisfying read.

I hate conflict. Really, just ask my husband and he’ll tell you it’s true. Conflict drives me crazy, stresses me out and makes me want to hide under the covers for days.

And yet, I love writing conflict.

There is nothing more fun than taking two people and turning their lives upside down with just a little conflict. I know—I have a serious problem.

For me, writing conflict is easy. While I’m more of a pantser than a plotter, I always plot out my major conflicts for my hero and heroine and my antagonist.

I’m a big believer in Deb Dixon’s, Goal, Motivation and Conflict theory. For those of you who might not have heard of it, I’ll briefly describe it. You think about what your character wants more than anything (goal), and why it’s so important to them (motivation) and, here’s the fun part, why they can’t have it (conflict).

In my current release, Every Night I’m Yours, my hero’s goal is to take the heroine away for two weeks and convince her to marry him. Why? Because he’s decided it’s time to marry and she fits his needs. So what’s holding him back? Ahh, the conflict…my heroine is fine with the going away part, but she saw the abuse her father gave her mother and wants no part of marriage.

So that’s conflict, right? Well, not completely. There’s internal and external conflict. What I described above is external conflict. It’s what moves the plot along at a good pace. The internal conflict is the root of the emotional impact of a story.

In the same story, I told you my heroine is afraid of marriage because of her parents' marriage. But the truth of the matter is, she’s terrified she has her father’s anger problem. So her internal goal is to never marry because she might abuse her husband or child. But the conflict comes in because the more time she spends with the hero, the more she comes to love him. Her fear is holding her back.

For true conflict, the reader has to know what’s at risk for both parties. Why it’s so important that the conflict be resolved, and what the consequences are if it’s not.

I’d love to hear what you all think about writing conflict. Is it fun? Easy? Or does writing conflict stress you out completely? I’m giving away a copy of Every Night I’m Yours for the best comments.



At 7:14 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Hi Christie! Great post. Hearing about Dixon's GMC at the WNP is like an aversion therapy program--each time it's mentioned, I am a little less afraid of the methodology. :)

Deeply emotional conflict is fun to do, but I was surprised at how emotional I was writing it! (My husband wasn't; I do cry at the drop of a hat.) I enjoyed my h/h's initial emotional and sexual journey, as they learned to begin to trust each other, only to bring it crashing down about their ears after the first big love scene.

Their black moment brings all the external and internal conflicts together, I think. They must push past that final, deepest internal conflict in order to find their HEA. Yeah, it is fun to write! :)

At 8:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Christie! I'm also extremely conflict-adverse in real life (not sure how I ended up a lawyer, LOL) but know it's necessary for my books. I can't say I love it, though. I have to really work to keep making things harder for my characters -- torturing them, as some might say. ;-)

Conflict to me is inextricably linked with goals -- once you know the goal, you can understand how to build the conflict to keep the character from reaching that goal. I suppose the same thing works in reverse. Hmm. Interesting...must muse on that...

I think I typically start with the character's goals, and maybe the big external conflict, but it takes me a long time to understand the nuances of my character's internal conflicts. Why can't they open themselves to love completely? Why are they so set on making themselves miserable? Until I've got a really well-developed character, I don't necessarily understand all the answers to these questions.

Which is half of the fun of writing the book! :-)

At 8:44 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Hi Christie. Welcome!

For me, sometimes conflict comes easily with the characters and then other times it's soooo dang difficult to keep it coming.

Many times I find my characters saying enough already, we're ready to be together and I start wrapping things up too early. That's not a good thing. I'm still learning to make small conflicts into bigger add layers of conflict.

I wish I could say writing conflict was easy for me, but I can't. It's hard. :)

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Gillian, sounds as if you're doing the conflict right if it's making you cry.

When I first started writing romance, I struggled with having enough conflict. Someone commented that I needed to torture my characters more, but it took time for me to learn how to do that. I think my aversion to conflict in real life was making itself known on the page. I had to keep reminding myself that it would all work out in the end.

Theresa, I've had that same problem with wrapping things up too early. Then you have to figure out how to sustain the conflict without it seeming to be just manufactured to get to the end of the book. It's a lot of work but worth it for a good, solid story.

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Christie Kelley said...


You're right about deeply emotional conflict. I love that in a story. And if you're crying, you're reading probably is too.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Christie Kelley said...

Hi Kirsten,

Starting with the goal is the only way I can do it. I've never thought of trying it in reverse. Very interesting idea. I'll let you try it and let me know if it works.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Christie Kelley said...

Thanks for the warm welcome, Theresa. I hate it when the characters want to wrap things up too quickly (or easily). That's when I know I don't have a strong enough conflict.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Christie Kelley said...

Trish, my problem area wasn't conflict but motivation. I still struggle with it.

At 12:05 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Welcome to the WNP, Christie!

I love the GMC paradigm even if I cant' use it elegantly. My GMC always seems rambling....but no doubt it helps in figuring out the characters and the plot.

I think describing the internal conflict is the hardest. I think I know it in my head, but it is hard to put in words.

At 12:15 PM, Blogger Christie Kelley said...

Diane, I agree that internal conflict is much harder than external. I think the internal is harder because it's so much more emotional than the external. It also relates more to the motivation of a character.

At 12:22 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

I think this is one reason I like historicals--one of my heroine's basic motivations is to live up to her mother's dreams and expectations, and I think that rings truer in the 1800's, when responsibility to your family wasn't questioned. Of course it's still really important now, but you also have the whole "you need to live for yourself" mentality that I would expect to see more of in a contemporary.

Kirsten, I like how you put the conflict linked to the goals. Which I think is all part of the GMC to begin with, but I'm constantly struggling to plug in my story to those components.

At 1:51 PM, Blogger Nancy said...

Hi, Christie--

I love your description of building conflict in ENIY. I also place a lot of faith in Deb Dixon's GMC method. If I had my way, the book would be required reading for every aspiring writer.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

Welcome to the WNP, Christie!

I'm like Diane, internal conflict is where I get stymied. I can think of tons of external conflict for my characters when I'm starting a new project or when my critique partners are being too nice to their heroes and heroines. To work out the internal conflict, however, I spend lots of time mulling over the possibilities during my morning walk in the park. The walk didn't work for me today, though. I'm blaming it on pollen. :)

At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

FWIW, the way I wrap my brain around conflict is as follows.

Conflict is the energy created when what a character wants comes into opposition with something or someone or some mindset stopping them. And the strength of that conflict-energy is proportional to both the desire (goal/want/need of the character) and the danger (societal rules/villain's machinations/emotional hang-ups).

To have good, strong, dynamic conflict, you need both a strong goal/desire on the part of the protag (that would be the stakes) and a strong opposing force (that hopefully doesn't rely to heavily on TSTL actions).

As Dwight Swain puts it, Conflict = Desire vs Danger, and - for me at least - thinking of the conflict in a story as that energy produced when Desire runs into Danger (rather than the Danger itself) helps me up the conflict. Because it's that struggle that happens when someone tries to attain or retain that desired thing-or-state-of-being in the face of opposition (internal or external) that makes for interesting stories, not just the opposition itself. It's the tension created on that rope, not just the tugging on one side or the other. If that makes any sense.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger jo robertson said...

Hi, Christie, popping over from the Romance Bandits to wave hello. What a great a timely topic for me. I'm currently trying to up the ante of the conflict in my WIP.

I agree that internal conflict is so much more difficult to write and I think it's because the really good writers know they walk that line between emotional and sentimental, gut-wrenching and overblown.

At 5:39 PM, Blogger Georgie said...

Conflict is fun and tough. Thanks for the great reminders on how to craft good conflict.

At 5:50 PM, Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Another Bandita popping over. You Noodlers will have to put aside drawers for us soon, we've become such regular visitors. Great post, Christie. And it's so interesting to hear a writer analyze her own work. I've tried to use GMC but I think it's too logical for me ;-) The weird thing is it always works absolutely perfectly for my villains, perhaps because they're less complex characters and generally what they want is SOOO clear!

At 6:01 PM, Blogger Caren Crane said...

Oh, Christie, I always want to pull my punches with my characters. I have to force myself to make things worse for them. It drives my writer friends crazy! "Torture them! Make them suffer!" they tell me.

I'm glad I have writer friends and awesome plotting partners to make me torture my characters. It always make the stories better!

At 7:21 PM, Blogger Christie Kelley said...

Sorry I haven't been around much this afternoon. My Wednesday's are pretty crazy and to top it off I had an awful migrane. So I'm feeling a little better now.

Thanks for all the comments!

At 7:59 PM, Blogger Marianne Harden said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:55 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Huge shout outs to my Passion's Slaves buddies, Marianne and Gillian - two of the best CPs on the planet!

Hey, Christy, fantastic post. I have to agree that Deb Dixon's book is a great way to check yourself for the big picture and then narrow it down to the little picture.

I think that may be the problem I have with writing conflict. I see it in the small increments but don't really have a plan for the big picture. I do it scene by scene and try to ratchet it up in each one.

I don't cry over my Hero and heroine's problems yet, but I do yell at them, especially him a lot!

At 9:43 PM, Blogger Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Great post Christie! I'm swinging over from the Bandit Lair too to say howdy and shudder at the necessity of having to actually analyse GMC. Urk. Like Caren, I just want everyone to get along! Ha! But, I've leared to torture my characters pretty well at this point, but I still have to remind myself to "Make it worse! Make it blacker! Make it pretty much impossible!" I don't have problems with that on the external conflict. (Bwah-ha-ha! Love torturing them THAT way....) but the internal stuff? Urk. Like Kirsten, I dislike conflict in my personal life. I've finally learned about standing up for myself...gosh isn't THAT a fun lesson...heehee.

Anyway, great post m'dear and great fun that the WNP has such wonderful guests. Grins. *waving at my WNP pals* *waving at the gals who are Bandita regulars!*

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Hi Christie, just coming in to say hello because I thought you were posting today! And folks, Christie has been my crit partner and she is the best plotter I have ever known!


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