Friday, March 7, 2008

What do you mean, there has to be a conflict?

Maven Jacqueline BarbourWhen I wrote my first manuscript the first time (and the second, third, and even fouth times), one of the comments I persistently got from my critique partners and from contest judges was that there "wasn't enough conflict to sustain a full 100K-word novel." But since I'd actually written more than 100K to get to The End (the first completed first draft was a whopping 136K and that was after I chopped some stuff), I have admit, I kinda scratched my head over that.

I mean, I'd sustained a 100K novel with the conflict I had. What in the world were they talking about? Obviously, they didn't know what they were talking about and should be shanked with Erica's machete.

It took me two long, excruciating years to "get it." Oh, I talked a good game. I could say I knew what conflict was and admit that my story needed more of it, but the truth is, I wasn't sure what they meant. I mean, the hero's an Irish race horse trainer and the heroine is the daughter of duke with a very stuck-up brother and a complicated trust. That's conflict aplenty--right?

Except, it wasn't. Oh, it was plenty of conflict for a plot! But it wasn't enough conflict for a romance.

One day, it just kinda hit me: plot conflict <> romantic conflict. Um, duh?

See, I wanted my hero and heroine to get along and work together and be happy in one another's presence, because...well...that's how I thought I'd show they were falling in love with each other. And in real life, that's the way it usually happens.

Problem is, real life doesn't make a very good romance. The reader has no emotional investment in the characters achieving their HEA so long as it's obvious they soon as they defeat the bad guys or stupid societal prejudice or whatever external factor is keeping them apart. But if the characters have to change something within themselves to achieve that HEA and that internal change is big and difficult and painful to make...whammo! Now, you have romance!

I know I'm not saying anything we all haven't heard a thousand times before. I know I have. I even pretended to understand and believe it. But until I actually wrote a few stories with next to no external plot problem, I didn't fully understand how to do it.

Now, I have a new dilemma. I've started a story that has quite a bit of external plot (in a short format--about 22,500 words). There's plenty of internal conflict, too, but I'm struggling to keep focused on it. Because, while the external plot is essential to getting the hero and heroine together, it's not the most important element of the story. It's the romance and how they overcome the internal barriers that are keeping them from their HEA that really matter.

YOUR TURN: Do you ever struggle to balance romantic/internal conflict with plot/external conflict? How do you know when you've got "enough" of each?


Kelly Krysten said...

Wow, you're way a head of me in this area. I'm still struggling to figure out that balance. Great blog though!

Erica Ridley said...

Great post, Jackie! You gave me lots of food for thought.

Carrie Ryan said...

It's such a hard balance!! My first book was about secrets keeping the H/h apart (yipes!) and I thought that romances were supposed to be the H/h at each other's throats until in one blessed moment they came together and the end. Then I read a bunch of Jenny Crusie and I realized that she has her H/h working together a lot. Tons of great sexual tension, but there's still a reason they can't be together and she does a great job with making it unsurmountable.

With my second romance, I approached it that way and I really liked the way it worked. I liked having the H/h essentially get along and come together to overcome an obstacle... but there was still conflict keeping them apart.

So I think it can work either way -- there just has to be a reason that it's not easy for them to end up together when all is said and done.

Anonymous said...

Jackie, great post. I think it's a struggle with every book because every book is different and has different needs. And some books will arrive in your brain with more internal conflict and a weak plot and others will arrive plot-heavy waiting for some characters to show up and have conflict with each other.

lacey kaye said...

My first draft of my first novel was ultimately all external conflict. My first draft of my second novel was all internal conflict.

Hm, wonder what's behind door number three?

Darcy Burke said...

Conflict is an ever-changing thing. Well, for me it is. I start writing with a conflict and then it changes as we move through each turning point. Sometimes that's good and sometimes it's not. Next book I should really think about posting stickies with the conflict(s) on my computer.

Harris Channing said...

This is a wonder resource, wish I had found you sooner.

I appreciate how you explained the different 'forms of conflict'. It's something I struggle with too. The paranormal romance I started for NANO has been fun to write but I feel the romantic conflict taking a backseat to the outer elements. It was a distant voice in the back of my head that I'd better rethink that...and after reading your post, it's in the forefront giving me a stern talking to!


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