Friday, September 19, 2008

Conflict ~ Gotta Love How They Hate Each Other

Mary Connealy Conflict - Gotta Love How They Hate Each Other
The Formula
What would Gone with the Wind be like if Scarlett and Rhett had gotten along beautifully from the very beginning?

What if Romeo and Juliet had been fixed up by their parents who were close friends?

What if Ariel hadn’t been a mermaid wearing a girl suit?
Would we even remember them, would we have kept turning the pages?
I don't think so.
Conflict is what hooks a reader and makes the story interesting. If everyone gets along fine, there’s no book. A romance novel needs each character to have two conflicts, an external conflict and an internal conflict. Yes, you can have a ‘it’s us against the world’ theme. Yes, you can write a book where the h/h are compatible and work for a common goal, but that’s not Formula. If you want to write within the romance formula, get yourself an external and internal conflict. External conflict is the easy one for me. External really is only one because it’s the story – the plot – the mess you make that you have to clean up. It’s what is obviously keeping the two characters apart. It’s only one thing, not two. All you’ve got to remember is; make it insurmountable - the worse the better.
Whatever he has to have - has to destroy her. They can’t both get what they want. It’s impossible. There, that’s conflict. Easy. The classic conflict is - If he’s a fireman, she’d better darn well be an arsonist.
It’s easy to muddle internal and external conflict.
The external conflict bleeds into the internal conflict and before you know it, it’s hard to say which is which. Here are some examples of external conflict from my own books External Conflict
A stalker torments an idealistic college professor who writes best sellers about responding to everything with love. A cynical cop assigned to protect her says, “If I adopt your theories I’ll be dead by the weekend.” In “A Soft Answer” I’ve created one of my favorite external conflicts. She is absolutely right that Jesus calls us to love and to return good for evil. But a man who arrests people for a li ving can’t try and sweet talk a violent stalker. He’s right. She’s right.

He destroys years of work in her rose garden and offers her a check. She throws him off her property only to find out he’s living a hundred yards from her and planning to build a house that will tear the heart out of her Ozark Mountain home.
This novel, “Scent of Heaven” is a neat little ‘he’s city, she’s country” story. When his plans to build a house destroy the rose garden that has supported her all her life, he’s real sorry. But sorry doesn’t bring her roses back to life. How’s she supposed to ‘Love Thy Neighbor” when he’s this dense?
For the perfect external conflict just remember, whatever he has to have - has to destroy her. They can’t both get what they want. It’s impossible. Easy.

Internal Conflict Internal is more complex(to me).
It’s what shapes your characters into a person who won’t take a chance on love. There needs to be two of these because each character has his or her own, that those conflicts have nothing to do with each other, except it influences how they deal with each other. It has to do with emotions, fears, old memories, things you can’t see that go on inside a person. In Christian fiction, that internal conflict can often be a spiritual struggle one or both of them is going through.
A classic example of internal conflict is:
For Her: Her parents died when she was very young. Her fiancĂ© died on their wedding day. Everyone she loves dies, she’ll never risk her heart again.
For Him: His first love announced in front of the whole congregation - at their wedding - that she was in love with the best man – no, make it his brother - no, let’s make her pregnant by his brother. He’ll never risk his heart again. (the wimp!)
She was married at fifteen to the older man who had become her guardian when her mother died. He has dominated, cruelly, every aspect of her life for three years. Now he’s dead and, in the old west, she’s forced to remarry. She’s carefully submissive, trying everything to please her new husband. This is the internal conflict from my novel Montana Rose, coming next year from Barbour. She can’t express an opinion and, when he begins to realize what the problem is, he realizes he can’t trust anything she says, including ‘I love you.’ Because she only tells him what he wants to hear.
Her new husband’s conflict is; he married a non-believer. He had to do it to save her, but in his heart, he believes he’s committed a terrible sin. Even when she begins to share his faith, he can’t decide if it’s real, or is she just being obedient. It takes time for him to step back and see that God was in control all along.
He’s a burned out engineer who specializes in disaster sites. He’s hiding because he can’t say no when he’s needed, but the ugly things he’s seen are destroying him. When his new neighbor begins to interest him, he can’t make a commitment to her without facing his old life.
In The Clueless Cowboy, coming in November from Heartsong Presents, she likes the new neighbor very much, but she knows he’s going to leave. Having been abandoned, through death, by her parents, she is raising her little sister. If the new guy did love her, he’d drag her away from the farm and that could destroy her fragile sister. Note that each example of internal conflict I’ve given is personal. It’s all her pain or his pain. Their shared pain comes from the external conflict.
It’s not enough to say, “She’s untrusting and he’s a loner.” Why is she untrusting? Did a mere six broken engagements destroy her trust in men so profoundly that she will never risk her heart again? Why is he a loner? Did his years as an assassin warp him to the point he will never risk his heart again, even though the people he killed were all ‘bad?’
Defining your conflict is Step One in writing your novel.
The external defines the plot the events that put them at war with each other
The internal defines the character, their reaction on the battlefield.

Once you have the internal conflict the characters begin to take shape. Because the internal conflict is often rooted in their past, you’ve got to develop three dimensional characters. As you do that, you start to know how the h/h will react, what drives them, how they speak and move. What sets them off, and what gets past their defenses. The book I’ve written with my favorite conflict digs a chasm between them so deep that I really thought for a while I’d have to bag the story. I just couldn’t solve their problem – they w ere both right – neither of them had any reason to give, each of them would actually be wrong to give in, and it didn’t even make sense for them to give. You know you’re on to something when the conflict is this juicy, this much of a stumbling block, the only thing that will get them past this conflict is True Love.
The thing about conflict is, it’s the basis of your book. You need to put conflict into words before you type out that first word of your story. Even people who say they’re seat of the pants writers know the basic plot before they start. Some might just have an idea for a great character, now what trouble can I get her into? Some might say, I want to do something with a southern belle falling in love with a Yankee soldier. You have to have something before you start typing away.
A lot of the readers of this blog are Christians.
No doubt we spend a great deal of our time being loving and nice – let’s hope! So take some suppressed aggression out on our defenseless characters and give them some of the conflict we strive daily to avoid in our own life. Good luck making them hate each other enough to make it interesting. Then really good luck making them get along after all the trouble you’ve caused.
If someone wants to put this in better words I'd love to here it. And tell me...define for me...the conflict in your current Work In Progress.


  1. Eek, I love this post! And you gave such great examples. I really want to read your books!

  2. This was an awesome post.

    Now I understand you. Why you MUST keep killing characters.

    Actually I agree, the hardest thing for a nice Italian American girl to learn was how to stop writing nice, sweet boring characters.

  3. Hi Mary, I'm with Jessica. What a tease to get us all excited about those conflicts in your new books. Now I can hardly wait to read them.

    Donald Maas does a great job in getting you to be "mean" to your characters in his book "Writing the Breakout Novel" If you ever get a chance to go to one of his workshops he has you actually do that with your wip

    Thanks Mary

  4. Great post, Mary! You helped clarify a few things that I was confused about. It's so much easier to have our characters 'live happily ever after' right from the beginning of the story instead of torturing them until the end, but it makes for a big yawn.

  5. Good article, Mary. Thanks for the reminder to give our hero and heroine trouble, conflict, hardship, both internally and externally. I'm thinking too about antagonists. So many novels I've read lately have either no antagonists at all, or an antagonist that is so weakly portrayed that the story is boring. I want to know what motivates a antagonist to do the things they do, and why they are bent on destroying the hero or heroine's life. The antagonist can be the source of the hero/heroine's internal and external conflict, and that makes for a very interesting read.

  6. What a great post on conflict. I think most writers have a good handle on the external conflict, but get stumped by the internal one. Internal is slippery. It generally can't be solved in one step, but requires a series of revelations and minor changes. I've started using this statement: I love you, but... and fill in the blank. It seems to help.

  7. Mary, great post with solid, concrete examples. And Cat, I know what you mean about internal conflict. It should bear some reflection of the external but be fed by other fires as well and that's not an easy row to hoe.

    And, like Cara and Tina, I've been over anxious in the past to 'fix' things for my characters. Sigh. It's not only nice Italian American girls that WHOOPS on that one. We Irish gals do it too. Or maybe we're just busy-bodies. Possible. ;)

    I don't know how often Mary will get to pop in today because she's at the conference getting smarter by the minute.

    And hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Or other Seekers.


    The rest of us will man the decks, so to speak.

    With coffee. Tea. Croissants.

    I'm making myself hungry.



  8. Great post, Mary. You really make the whole internal/external conflict aspects clear.

    I'm delighted to read about more books in the works. And I'm glad you write fast because I really love your writing. I powered my way though Calico Canyon and can't wait for Gingham Mountain. Thanks to this post, I've got others to be on the lookout for.

  9. Wow, now that is cool to think about.

  10. greetings from sunny Minneapolis (no I'm not kidding)
    Hiding in my room right now but I hear them coming to take me away.

    White coats.

    They've got a new


  11. I mean they've got a NET.





    One of our regulars here at Seekerville was offered a contract for Heartsong PResents today at noon.

    I'm so THRILLED for her. She's just glowing. Seriously, if I'm feeling chilly, I go stand by her and I can warm my hands. :)

  13. Inspire, a 3-dimentional antagonist is a gold mine as far as making a book fun. Give her realy, however twisted, motivation for his evil and suddenly that bad guy brings the book to life on a deeper level.

  14. The sad truth is I'm getting dumber by the minute. I'm so tired. My insomnia is at full rage
    asleep at 2 a.m. up by 7 a.m.

    I'm walking into walls.
    I lost my purse today and Erica found it...probably becasue we were sitting together and when I wondered off to play in traffic and accept candy from strangers, Erica claimed my purse and began a search for me.

    And speaking of taking candy from strangers, Susan Downs, my editor at HPM gave each of her authors a Ghiradelli candy bar.


    I did learn a few things today but mainly, I'm in a continuing ed session with James Scott Bell and I'm taking notes to steal all his best jokes, in the event of me doing public speaking again.

    He actually told a hilarious predestination joke...NOT THAT EASY!

  15. I wish I had the problem of making my characters too nice.
    Apparently my heroes are mean. My husband said, "Why are you making them mean?"
    I laughed and hugged him. "I guess I just like mean guys."
    Reminder to my self. No modeling heroes after my wonderful but sometimes inconsiderate husband.

  16. Late again! I would say drats, but I was exploring North Carolina's Bogue Bank. Great place.

    Mary, thank you very much for tackling this topic. The light bulb went off in regards to one of my ms.

    I'll pass the article to the gals if they haven't seen it yet. Thanks!

  17. Hi, Jessica and Kimberli. Near the end of another long and enlightening day.

    My brain officially overflowed somewhere around 3:15.

    Very messy. And quite embarrassing.

  18. Great blog post, Mary! Makes me re-think a few things in my finished book. . . Making me work harder, aren't you?

  19. I always lack the external! I'll be emailing you right away to ask for your help, Mary. :) (But you can't tell me to kill anyone off.)

    Great post, btw!! And yes, it was quite embarrassing when your brain overflowed. ;)