Internal Conflict

Nancy J. Cohen

When developing your characters, you’ll want to give them internal conflicts as well as external ones. What do we mean by this? The internal conflict is an emotional struggle that inhibits your protagonist from moving on. He could have trouble taking the next step to get a job promotion, making a commitment to his girlfriend, or deepening his relationship with his estranged father. Often something in his past has caused this crisis of confidence, and he can’t see his way past it. Adding these internal conflicts gives your characters added depth. It’s not only about fighting the bad guys. It’s also about fighting one’s inner demons. For examples, look at popular movies and TV shows that have captured your attention. Take notes on what bothers each of the characters. Here are some examples:

Outlander

Outlander3

Claire is forced to hide her knowledge in a land ruled by superstition.
Jamie is torn between his gentler instincts for Claire and his cultural expectations of a husband’s role in marriage.
Claire is torn between her love for two men.
Claire wants to go home but that means leaving Jamie.

Outlander1  Outlander2

Dig

Dig

The main character wrestles with guilt and grief over his daughter’s death while trying to prevent Armageddon. The bad guys exploit this weakness by luring him with a woman who resembles the dead girl.

Lord of the Rings

Lord Rings

Son seeks approval and recognition from father who favors his brother.
Man struggles against the pull of corruption.
Woman wants to fight in a world that belongs to man.
Woman loves man who loves another woman.
Woman must give up her station in life (or special power) to be with the man she loves.
Man fears he will succumb to the same weakness as his father. (This also applies to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He fears turning to the dark side like his father.)

Battlestar Galactica

Galactica

Man blames father for the death of his brother. He’s unable to forgive.
Female hero has had to work hard to prove herself. This means hiding her vulnerability.
A man who traded sex for secrets discovers he’s responsible for the world’s destruction.
A woman who is dying from cancer is forced to take charge.

It helps in determining a character’s internal conflict if you examine their past history. What happened to motivate their present behavior? What is inhibiting them from emotional growth? How will your character overcome this hang-up? Layer in your motivation, and you’ll have a richer story.

4+

A Key to Creating Conflict in Fiction

Today’s post is brought to you by Conflict & Suspense, two things every novel needs. Yes, every, no matter the genre.

I’m not just talking about plot here, but characterization, too. It’s this latter aspect that some writers fail to take full advantage of. To illustrate, let me talk about one of my favorite movies of all time.
12 Angry Menis the 1957 film directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Reginald Rose (based on his play). The plot is disarmingly simple. Twelve jurors deliberate in a capital murder case. The entire drama, save for a short prologue, takes place inside the jury room.

At first, the verdict seems like a done deal. All the early chatter is about how guilty the defendant is (he’s a slum kid, accused of stabbing his father). One of the jurors (Jack Warden) has tickets to the ballgame and would love to get out early. Others don’t see the point in spending a great deal of time actually deliberating.
They take an initial vote. And only one juror, Number 8 (Henry Fonda), votes Not Guilty. Everybody else grumbles.
And for the next hour and a half, we sit in on the deliberations.
The movie violates all the currently fashionable, postmodern, ADHD stylistic conventions. No quick cuts or explosions or overbearing music. It’s all talk. It’s even in black and white, for crying out loud!
Yet, no matter where I happen to come in on the film when it’s on TV, if I start to watch I have to finish.
Why? Because inter-character conflict works its magic. What Rose did was bring together twelve distinct characters, each with their own background, baggage and personality, and throw them into what is essentially a great, big argument.
Therein lies the real untapped secret of creating conflict: orchestration. That means you cast your characters so they have the potential of conflict with every other character.
In 12 Angry Men, for example, there’s a Madison Avenue ad man (Robert Webber) who spouts bromides and tosses out suggestions, just like he would at a brainstorming meeting at the office. “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.” He’s amiable, easy with a laugh. But he never makes a final decision. He vacillates. Finally another juror (Lee J. Cobb) gets fed up. “The boy in the gray flannel suit here is bouncing back and forth like a ping pong ball!”
There’s a mousy bank clerk (John Fiedler) who automatically draws satirical comment from the macho salesman (Warden). There’s a coldly rational stockbroker (E. G. Marshall) who arrogantly dismisses all reasonable doubt, until backed into a corner by Fonda. There’s a young man who grew up in the slums (Jack Klugman) who, at one point, turns to E. G. Marshall and asks, “Pardon me, don’t you sweat?”
“No, I don’t,” Marshall says. There is nothing more to that exchange, but the line is memorable because of Rose’s superb orchestration, knowing the personalities and quirks of all his characters.
Then there’s the bigot (Ed Begley) who in one unforgettable moment alienates everyoneelse on the jury.
But it is, finally, the main conflict between Cobb and Fonda that is the focus of the drama. Cobb wants to get this kid executed (for reasons that become heartbreakingly clear at the end). Fonda wants to give the kid his due under the Constitution––the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
And that’s another lesson about conflict: the stakes. They have to be high. In fact, I hold that death must be on the line. Not just physical death, mind you. There is also professional and psychological death. Unless you have one of these overhanging, your story is not going to be as gripping as it should be.
In 12 Angry Men, physical death is on the line for the kid, but more importantly it’s a matter of psychological death for each of the jurors. After all, they could be sending an innocent man to the chair. In addition, each of them has some inner baggage to deal with. Like the old man ignored by his family (Joseph Sweeney), and the newly naturalized citizen trying to make it in America (George Voskovec).
Orchestration for conflict is essential in any genre, including comedy. Especiallycomedy. Think of, say, City Slickers.You have three friends from the city going on a cattle drive out west. They are very different from each other – one is a joker, one is macho, one is just a loser. Then they come in contact with someone who is unlike any of them – Curly, the ramrod. The comedy flows naturally out of the conflict between the different personalities.
So as you’re getting ready to write, you would do well to create a chart of all your important characters, a grid like the one produced below (taken from my article “Vitamin C For Your Thriller” in the July/August 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest):

Then figure out points of conflict between the characters, as in this example:
You will be pleased and amazed at all the natural plot tension, subtext and foreshadowing that will emerge from this simple exercise.

Trouble is your business, writer friend. Go make some.
What are some of your favorite ways to increase conflict, tension and suspense in your work?

1+

First Page Critique: The Table

By: Kathleen Pickering

It’s my turn to post the first page of a work and offer my opinion—of which, I will stress is merely that. One of my fantasies about reading new, anonymous work is that I would come to discover that I critiqued the next block-busting novelist. Could this one be he/she?

The Table

When Noa Torson woke up, the first thing she noticed was that her feet were cold. Odd, since she always wore socks to bed. It was bright, too—and she hated sleeping in a bright room, had even installed blackout curtains over her apartment’s sole window so that morning light never penetrated the gloom. She squinted against the glare, trying to make sense of her surroundings as her eyes adjusted. Her head felt like it had been inflated a few sizes and stuffed with felt. She had no idea how she’d ended up here, wherever here was.

Was she back in juvie? Probably not, it was too quiet. Juvie always sounded like a carnival midway, the constant din of guards’ boots pounding against metal staircases, high-pitched posturing chatter, the squeak of cots and clanking of metal doors. Noa had spent enough time there to be able to identify it with her eyes closed. She could usually even tell which cell block she’d been dumped in by echoes alone.

Voices intruded on the perimeter of her consciousness—two people from the sound of it, speaking quietly. She tried to sit up, and that was when the pain hit. Noa winced. It felt like her chest had been split in half. Her hand ached, too. Slowly, she turned her head.
An IV drip, taped to her right wrist. The line led to a bag hanging from a metal stand. And the bed she was lying on was cold metal—an operating table, a spotlight suspended above it. So was she in a hospital? There wasn’t that hospital smell, though, blood and sweat and vomit battling against the stench of ammonia.

Noa lifted her left hand: her jade bracelet, the one she never took off, was gone.
That realization snatched the final cobwebs from her mind.

Cautiously, Noa raised up on her elbows, then frowned. This wasn’t like any hospital she’d ever seen. She was in the center of a glass chamber, a twelve-by-twelve foot box, the windows frosted so she couldn’t see out. The floor was bare concrete. Aside from the operating table and the IV stand, rolling trays of medical implements and machines were scattered about like an archipelago of islands marooned in a grey sea. In the corner stood a red trash bin, “MEDICAL WASTE” blaring from the lid.

***

Wow. Now that’s a nightmare to which I NEVER want to awaken. Am I hooked? Hell, yeah! This catapults “The Perils of Pauline” to the stratosphere–and, she’s not even tied down.

First off, the first three paragraphs delivered so much information so incredibly (what seems) effortlessly, while ratcheting up the tension, that this writer is no amateur. We learn Noa is tough, opinionated, world-weary and intelligent. Noa gives us insight into a world (Juvie) with so much detail, that you can taste the coppery resentment she holds against society. And now, as if she hasn’t been “processed” enough through life, she is stretched out on an operating table for the final dissection.

Is she in danger, or was she hurt and being aided? Holy smokes. I WANNA KNOW!

A poet at heart, I’m hugely into symbolism. This page is loaded with it. For example:

1. The “sole” window apartment and sleeping in the “gloom”—As if living in a rabbit hole, Noa has seen enough. When she’s most vulnerable she wants safety from the world.

2. Her jade bracelet missing –Jade symbolizes justice, renewal, contentment and courage. She never took it off. It’s gone. Now she has to go it alone.

3. A 12 by 12 frosted glass box and concrete floor—a reflection of her view of the world: cold, confusing, hard, unwelcome.

4. Two people whispering –nothing is ever clear. She always has to be on guard.

5. The Medical Waste trash bin –Is that what her life has been reduced to?

Next, every action verb (installed, pounded, dumped, scattered, split, battling), every description (blackout, clanking, squeaking, metal, cold) was perfectly chosen to create mood and move the plot forward. Not a feat for the unfocused writer. This author knows exactly what she/he is doing with word choice to make the reader empathize and act with the character.

Now, I know when given the chance to read on, I will learn her age (though I suspect she’s either still a juvie or a recent graduate), occupation, where she lives, why her bracelet is so important, why her chest hurts and what she was doing before awakening on this Table. But, let me point out, this page was so expertly crafted with concrete (not vague) impressions in this woman’s mind, that these questions created a need to know more; hence, a page turner.

Excellent writing. When can I read the book?

0

Relationship Driven

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After last week’s mini-discussion about character-driven versus plot-driven novels (and the difficulty involved in distinguishing one from t’other) I started thinking about what really gets me hooked in a good book. Sure I like characters that I can care about and plots that keep me turning the page, but what I most often find keeps me glued to the page is the evolving relationships in a book.

I admit, I’m a hopeless romantic, but when I speak of relationships I don’t necessarily mean the lovey-dovey kind. For me, I want to see the sparks fly on all kinds of levels – because (as far as I’m concerned) it’s conflict and thwarted objectives that make relationships between characters come to life. I just finished a very light regency era mystery/romance which disappointed on the relationship level precisely because the conflict was never really evident between the two main protagonists (that and the fact that I had to wade through pages and pages of the most ‘awesome sex ever’ escapades which defied belief). This got me thinking about what I look for in a novel when it comes to the critical relationships in the story.

One of the key relationships we often look for in a good thriller is between the antagonist and the protagonist – whether it’s a serial killer and an FBI agent or a police officer and his suspect, I want to become invested in a real ‘cat and mouse game’. I want to see a relationship develop between these two opposites that intrigues as well as satisfied. If only one of these characters is sufficiently interesting to hold my attention then no matter how much this character might drive the plot, I will probably still feel let down.

Of course, many times I am looking for a good romance to develop alongside the mystery, and this is where (in my humble opinion) many mysteries and thrillers fall down. The relationship is either way too obvious and heavy-handed or so underplayed as to be totally underwhelming. I want chemistry (!) and both the promise of a romantic relationship as well as the seeds of doubt. In a mystery series the evolution of key relationships are often the most enjoyable things to watch – though as ever writer knows, once those relationships become ‘consummated’ all too often the fizz and the thrill of it all can die.

So what do you look for in terms of relationships in a thriller or a mystery? Are you like me hooked by relationships in a story? Do you enjoy seeing these evolve over a series or do you to see character relationships as ‘second fiddle’ as long as there’s a ripping yarn to be told?

0

The secret to writing a thriller

By Joe Moore

In a recent writer’s forum, the question was asked: What is the most important element in a story? Plot, character development, pacing, voice, etc. Of course, they’re all important. But in my opinion, there’s one element that will always get an agent or editor’s attention in a query letter. It’s the one thing that that must be in your book to make the story work? I think it’s the secret to writing a page-turning thriller.

Conflict.

Conflict deals with how your characters must act and react to reach their goals.

It’s the key ingredient that turns a stranger into a fan or causes an agent to request your full manuscript or an editor to drop everything and read your submission: a clear understanding and statement of conflict.

Is your hero in a race against the clock to solve the puzzle and find the treasure before all hell breaks loose? Is your heroine on the run to prove her innocence before the police track her down? That’s the plot. But what makes it interesting and compelling is what stands in their way. What’s tripping them up, causing them to falter or doubt or take a detour?

Conflict.

Conflict makes a thriller more thrilling. It’s the single element that keeps readers up at night. It forces the reader to continue to ask, “How is he going to get out of this one?”

There are two kinds of conflict—external and internal.

External Conflict is the struggle between a character and an outside force. The external conflict can be from another character or even a force of nature such as battling the elements—a hurricane or the extreme cold of the Arctic. External conflict usually takes place between the hero and another person or nature, or both.

Internal conflict is a struggle taking place in the hero’s mind. Mental conflict can be much more devastating that external because your character usually has to decide between right and wrong or between life and death. Internal conflict is the hero battling against himself.

Conflict causes the excitement to build to a climax, and the climax is the turning point of the story leading to a resolution. Without conflict, a story lacks life, energy and drive.

How do you approach conflict? Do you insert it into each scene? Do you use internal or external, or a combination of both? Have you ever read a story that didn’t have conflict? Was it worth reading?

0