Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Writing Internal Conflict in a Broken World



By Debby Giusti

A compelling story needs well-developed characters.

Writers often talk about their characters’ goals, motivation and conflict, or GMC. The goals refer to what the hero or heroine wants—something concrete, like saving Grandma’s Victorian home from foreclosure. The motivation is why he or she needs to achieve that goal. Perhaps her great-grandfather built the house for her grandmother as a wedding gift. The house is a central focal point for the small surrounding town that has fallen on hard times. If the Old Victorian can be refurbished and turned into a B&B, which was Grandma’s dream, the dying town might restore other buildings and find the wherewithal to be a viable community once again. The conflict is any external force attempting to stop the protagonist from achieving her goal. Perhaps the bank has a buyer ready to purchase the old home, and the hardhearted banker refuses to give the protagonist time to accrue the funds needed to pay off the mortgage. If the heroine is trying to save the house and the hero is the buyer interested in razing the property and building something else in its place, the story has conflict and seemingly the makings of a salable manuscript.



But one ingredient is missing from the mix…something that, in my opinion, makes or breaks a story…Internal Conflict. When a story is rejected for not being compelling (a rather abstract term, yet one editors and agents frequently use), chances are it’s because of the lack of internal conflict.

What’s keeping the protagonist from embracing life? What keeps him from falling in love? What makes her reclusive instead of free to fully accept love? Often our fictional characters, just as in real life, have buried a specific past pain and don’t realize the tremendous effect that wound plays in their lives.

Years ago in my pre-published days, I remember chatting with a fellow writer about character development. “Surely,” I bemoaned, “I can’t delve too deeply into my hero and heroine’s internal angst.” I feared piling on too much painful backstory when in reality, because of our broken world, the backstory – specifically the internal conflict – needs to be well-defined and significant.



Let’s consider some areas of dysfunction prevalent in today's broken world:

Divided families

So many issues split apart families. About 50% of all marriages end in divorce and that percentage increases among those who have married more than once. Many folks have severed relationships not only with their spouses but also with siblings and even their parents. The proverbial mother-in-law jokes ring all too true in many households where in-laws are excluded. One older couple moved to my local town to be close to their son, an only child. All too quickly, the daughter-in-law decided she didn’t like her in-laws so the older folks were never allowed access to the family. Another couple has been forbidden to see their only grandchildren who live just a few miles away. That pain of imposed separation is heartbreaking and all too common.

Within the Amish community, a baptized church member is shunned if he goes against the Ordnung, the rule by which the community lives. Shunning is not considered a punishment but, rather, is enacted for the good of the wayward member in hopes he will realize his error, ask forgiveness and return to the fold. While most of my Amish heroes and heroine are not yet baptized, I sometimes include parental disapproval and ostracism to increase the guilt the protagonist carries because of a mistake in his or her past.

Financial problems

Money issues can destroy a family. Living beyond a person’s means causes untold heartache and suffering. Overextended credit compounds the problem, and if not checked, financial struggles can lead to home foreclosure and homelessness and even bankruptcy.

My Amish Protectors series features three sisters raised in a dysfunctional home by a single-mom who struggled to make ends meet. The small family moved often as the mother searched for greener pastures and a better life that she never achieved due to her nomadic lifestyle and mishandling of money.

Addiction

Turn on the nightly news and you’re bound to hear a story about the opioid crisis or teen/young adult suicide often blamed on drugs. In addition to drug addiction, alcohol, pornography and gambling tear marriages and families apart. The person addicted finds his or her life spiraling out of control. Those around him – especially loved ones – feel caught in that spiral as well.

Methamphetamine is both easily accessible and destructive. It’s also prevalent in my part of the world. I’ve written about its ravages in a few of my books, including a November 2019 release I recently turned in to my editor. I’ve also used drug related deaths and possible suicide cases, involving secondary characters, to up the suspense in a number of my stories.

Illness and Debilitation

Chronic illness, debilitation, old age and dementia are part of life. Concern about an aging parent or a sick child play into our stories. I had an Amish woman whose father needed medical care and refused to go to Englisch doctors. Another woman had miscarried her first child and feared her second pregnancy would not go to term. In Protecting Her Child, my heroine had been given up for adoption as an infant. As the story opens, she is pregnant with her murdered husband’s baby and learns she may have transmitted a life-threatening illness to her unborn infant.


While all of these situations add conflict to our stories, they are not the Internal Conflict. The Internal Conflict is a wound the main character carries often from childhood that involves a misperceived negative self-worth that the hero or heroine accepts as truth. He lives life trying to compensate or cover up that which he has erroneously accepted as fact. For the writer, it’s important to tie that wound to a specific incident in the protagonist’s past. That moment needs to be revealed in the course of the story. Often the memory of the wound is buried deeply and its revelation involves great pain, yet the wound must be revealed in order to heal.

Mistakes the protagonist has made in the past are the fruit of that character’s brokenness and are directly related to the wound. If a child overhears her father saying she will never amount to much, that child might accept the statement as truth. As she grows, the daughter might overcompensate and try to win her father’s approval or she could live life in the wrong direction and never attempt to make anything of herself. Because love is the most important need, our character may think if her earthy father doesn’t love her, her heavenly Father cannot love her as well. Yet she yearns to be loved so, as the song by Johnny Lee says, she “searches for love in all the wrong places.”

When she finds her own true love, she recalls her past mistakes and fears Mr. Right could again turn into Mr. Wrong. If she can trust her heart and her love interest enough to reveal that moment in her childhood when she stumbled onto what she perceives is the truth about herself, she can see it through adult eyes and perhaps through the eyes of the man she truly loves. She might confront her father or learn about the pain he carried that kept him from truly loving anyone, even his young daughter. That realization coupled with a newfound or renewed faith in Christ and acceptance of the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy can heal her brokenness so she can accept love and embrace life to the full.

Similarly, a child might believe he is responsible for his parents’ divorce, especially if his parents called him a difficult or disruptive child. He grows up with that guilt, believing he doesn’t deserve nor could he maintain a happy marriage of his own. In the same way, a child who has been abandoned, could carry that wound into adulthood and be inhibited by a fear of being abandoned again if she enters into a relationship.



Story consultant Michael Hauge talks about the wound in his workshops. Others do as well. I find it plays out in real life. If you struggle with self-worth or a feeling of inadequacy, trace that feeling back as far as possible. Can you pinpoint a memory that is still painful? Healing prayer often involves bringing that memory to mind and then seeing Jesus standing in the mix. He embraces the wounded person and reveals the truth about who she is and how much she is truly loved. In our books, healing can occur rather quickly while in real life those issues often must be prayed over many times before healing can occur. Along the same lines, the person must forgive herself for mistakes made and see those mistakes in light of that brokenness. Once we understand why we acted in a certain way, we are more prone to forgive ourselves and ask forgiveness from the Lord – and then accept that forgiveness. Another facet of this is that we all struggle with one dominant issue throughout our lives. Smaller problems tie into that deep wound. The problems we face as a child, be they low self-esteem or a feeling of inadequacy, will continue to adversely affect us, no matter our age, until we deal with that initial wound.



A lot to think about, but I hope you’ll consider your character’s inner conflict when you write your stories. The wound should be alluded to early in the story but dealt with toward the end as part of the character’s transformation. Remember your protagonist must change and grow. She becomes a different person by the end of the story. Even if she returned to her ordinary world where she lived at the beginning of the story, she would react in a different way because of that change of heart, healed brokenness or realization of the new person she has become.

Those of us who are Christian writers understand the power of prayer and the need to seek forgiveness from God. When our characters find redemption, our readers—especially those dealing with similar issues—are given hope and turn to the Lord in their brokenness. That transformation can be therapeutic as well as spiritual.

Do you create wounded characters? Have your heroes and heroines struggled with past guilt and feelings of being unworthy of forgiveness? What type of characters do you find most relatable? Can you recall stories that deal with a hero or heroine’s internal conflict and wound from the past? What did you find most compelling about those stories?

Leave a comment to be entered in a drawing for a copy of AMISH SAFE HOUSE, the second book in the new Love Inspired Suspense Amish Witness Protection continuity!

Happy reading! Happy writing!

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti


AMISH SAFE HOUSE
By Debby Giusti

A Publishers Weekly Bestseller!

Hiding in Plain Sight
The second thrilling Amish Witness Protection novel

After Julia Bradford’s son witnesses a gang shooting, hiding in witness protection on Abraham King’s Amish farm is the only hope the Englischer and her children have. Even as danger closes in, Julia is drawn to the community’s peaceful ways—and the ex-cop turned Amish protector. But when their location is discovered, can Abraham protect her family…and possibly have a future by her side?

Order HERE!




54 comments:

  1. Hi Debby:

    Wow! That was a whole seminar on conflict. It seems like there is conflict everywhere we look. This makes me think of storyteller Neil Giaman's three word advice on being a successful storyteller. And that is always having the listener/reader wondering

    "What happens next?"

    Conflict is a great way to do this as well as many other writing techniques.

    This is a perfect topic for the book I am now reading, "Her Valentine Reunion" by Missy. I am finding the conflict to be somewhat paradoxical in that in the same scene where the heroine is making every external effort to tell the hero she wants nothing more to ever do with him, as he greatly wronged her in the past, she is at the same time, internally, feeling herself crumbling and worried that she'll weaken and take him back.

    This is like sabotaging your external conflict from the very start. I find this highly interesting. It makes me think this story will have a 'gray moment'.

    The conflict in Mary's, "The Bossy Bridegroom", is almost too painful to contemplate. The heroine is a much abused wife finally on her own while the hero has 'found Jesus' and wants just one more chance to make things work. He has as many other chances and always fell back to his old ways.

    Just about everyone in town, except the minister, tells her not to be fool and take him back given his past history. I think readers are also screaming at her not to take him back. That book may have the hardest conflict problems I've seen in a novel.

    Well, you can tell, I'm interested in this subject. Can't wait to read what other readers have experienced with fictional conflicts.

    Thanks for this very comprehensive post.

    Vince

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    1. Thanks, Vince! I always enjoy your comments. I need to get Missy and Mary's new releases. You're so supportive of Seekerville. Thank you for reading our books!

      Internal Conflict is my passion. I do believe it makes or breaks a story. And yes, I did throw seemingly everything into today's blog. :)

      I, too, am interested in seeing the comments today. We'll read them together!

      Hugs!

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  2. Wounded characters are not only very interesting, there is room for growth.

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    1. So true, Mary Preston! Usually we can relate to them because of our own brokenness. No one wants to read about perfect people...although I created perfect characters when I first started writing. They could do everything! Boring! And not compelling. Of course, those stories were quickly rejected. Thankfully over time, I learned more about character development.

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  3. Debby, what a great post. Good lessons here and things we need to keep before us, especially as Christian writers. In my contemporary Christian Christmas romance (THERE'S a mouthful), Jane grew up a nomad with her irresponsible mother, so as an adult she tries to control as much of her life as possible; but the defining moment was when a mother's boyfriend briefly abused her. So she feels she can never be good enough, she's damaged, and she works all the harder to keep people at bay and to become "successful." She tells herself she has no use for a God Who allowed these things to happen to her, and to other little girls, but at bedrock she doesn't think she's good enough for God. Noah, the book's hero, had a distant and demanding father and he now deals with the runoff from that, especially as he tries to pastor a congregation. They both have to see their worth in God's eyes. It's especially important to have these wounded characters in Christian fiction, so we can watch God deliver them.
    I had to tap some things in myself for Jane's and Noah's story. I wasn't sexually abused, but I think there are moments in everyone's childhood where they think they're not good enough. It's so great to surrender that to God and just be the person He has called you to be.
    Kathy Bailey
    Surrendered in NH

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    1. Beautiful, Kathy! You have two wounded characters who have to see the past through God's loving eyes of forgiveness! You've got it!!! Congrats! Your story sounds very compelling!

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  4. As always, Debby, an excellent post. LOTS of "good stuff" to reflect on.

    By the way CONGRATULATIONS on hitting a bestseller list. AGAIN! :)

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    1. Thank you, Glynna! I was thrilled that Amish Safe House made the Publishers Weekly Bestseller List. That's thanks to my wonderful readers. I'm so blessed!

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  5. Thank you, Debby! Printing this one out to refer to again. I'm working on the second book in my historical series about siblings (lawmen) who discover each other in adulthood. So many layers, so much potential for conflict. Thanks for the information and advice. And congratulation on making the PW bestseller list!!

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    1. Thank you, Laura! My last series featured three sisters, as I mentioned in the blog. They all had to come to terms with their dysfunctional mother and their nomadic life...but each came away with a different wound that needed to be healed. I hope this blog post helps you as you write your second story in the series. Thanks for the congrats!

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  6. Powerful post! I usually have the opposite problem. I have too much internal conflict and not enough external.:D

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    1. How interesting, LeAnne! My only tip...make the goal concrete. It's not that he/she has to find love. It's that she has to save her grandmother's Victorian (as I mentioned in the blog) or land a job at the local TV station or discover why women are being murdered in her small town. Then include opposing forces, think antagonists, who try to stop that effort. In the last case, the antagonist is the killer. He comes after the heroine and is the external conflict. The internal conflict is why she doesn't feel adequate to bring him to justice or to save her partner or to save, perhaps, her own daughter who's in his cross hairs. That feeling of inadequacy stems from her inner wound.

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  7. Great post, Debby! I think it's true that we all struggle with these deep wounds from childhood and they go through different phases of how the affect us later in life. This post is a keeper!

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    1. Thanks, Larissa! I always enjoy your stories!!! You're an amazing author.

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  8. CONGRATULATIONS on hitting a bestseller list. AGAIN! I am thrilled for your success in writing great books. Love this post and would love to read your book...thanks for the giveaway.
    Have a good day in rainy, foggy GA!



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    1. Thank you, Jackie! Stay warm and dry. Georgia is having such nasty weather, although at least it's not snow!

      Prayers for safety for all our Seeker friends in the eye of this latest snowstorm!

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  9. Wonderful post, Debby! The internal conflicts to keep the hero and heroine apart in a romance can be the most difficult part of the story for me. I really have to dig deep for them. I love using the Emotions Thesaurus and the Emotional Wounds Thesaurus as starting points to develop my characters. And I agree with Kaybee, as children we've all felt times of abandonment or hardship to varying degrees even if we haven't been abused in the strict sense of the word. Drawing on those feelings helps us to create character wounds even if we don't always want to "go there".

    I'm also struck by this cover - this is the first LI cover where the heroine is what I'd consider "average" looking instead of the traditionally romantic "gorgeous" looking heroine. When I first saw it, I thought "Well done!" I don't know if it was a conscious thing or not, but I think it's wonderful. And I hope that doesn't offend you, but I think it's a real step forward on the part of Harlequin.

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  10. Hi Laurie. I wasn't sure about the cover when I first saw it. But the Art Dept did capture my heroine to a T, and her stance and facial expression reveal her fear of what could happen to her children. Once I started to see some of the stats, I wondered if the cover sold the book. Thanks for providing your take. BTW, it didn't take me long to realize I loved the cover and found it unique and appealing! Hugs!

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    1. I'd say the cover did sell the book! That's what I meant, it's appealing because she's like an "every day" woman, not your typical gorgeous woman normally on romance covers. I thought it was wonderful. :) Just like it would be nice to see more heroines with glasses, lol.

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  11. Thanks for a chance to win! This looks like a really good book. Thanks for sharing what you as a writer have to deal with to get these books out for us readers. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by the blog, dear reader! Make sure to include your name or how I can get in touch with you, in case you win the drawing!

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  12. Hi Debby:

    You've had me thinking about conflict all morning and even doing a philosophical analysis on the concept just for fun. Below are some thoughts:

    Conflict is like a Swiss Army Knife.

    While conflict can create tension, it can also be a very quick way to make a character, who is subject to an injustice, extremely sympathetic in the eyes of the reader. If the reader loves your characters, they will worry about what happens to them. "What's next?" Turn the page.

    Conflict can actually spark a romantic interest. "We fight because it is so pleasurable to kiss and makeup." And how many times in romance novels do the hero and heroine kiss for the first time as they are engaged in conflict? I just love it when they are in each other's face, having a heated argument, when they suddenly kiss, and the heroine says, "Why did you do that?" Lots of internal conflict can follow that unexpected but welcome? kiss.

    Conflict is a great way to spark humor. Slapstick is almost all conflict initiated!

    Conflict can often act as a very good way to get the hero and heroine together in the same scene. Getting the hero and heroine in the same scene for most of the book can be very hard to do with verisimilitude -- especially, without using a cliché setup like a single father having to deal with his child's teacher or having the heroine move in next door to the hero.

    Conflict can be a great stimulus to creativity. Yes, author paints herself in a conflict corner and then has to find a way out. Some of the best and most original ideas can spring from such predicaments.

    Conflict can also help make maximum use of the setting. "Man against nature" theme.

    Conflict can create seemingly unlikely alliances as in the saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend".

    Come to think of it, conflict may be the writer's best friend. Don't be so reluctant to whip some conflict on your beloved characters!

    Nothing demonstrates true character more than being tested in battle.

    Just something to think about while I am getting adjusted to being retired!!!

    Help!

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    1. Vince, you've added more depth to this blog post on conflict. I like the way your mind works...you're so creative and productive!

      Thank you! Yes to all you said. Conflict produces emotion and both drive the story, as you pointed out!

      Keep thinking and let me know what else pops into your very fertile mind!

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    2. Vince, thanks so much for this. I teach my students about the different types of conflict, but I've never actually stopped to think of my own work in those terms. *slaps face*

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  13. Debby, this is a great post! I love to have a lot of internal conflict in my stories. I find it easier than coming up with external conflict (a struggle for me). I love how you tie this in to the struggles we all face in the world. And I love how Christian fiction can deal with those issues and show God healing and redeeming.

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    1. Missy, you're the second person to mention struggling with external conflict. Maybe because you can't shoot anyone in a Love Inspired Romance! LOL! Just kidding! See my response to LeAnne above!

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    2. LOL! Yeah, we can't have such a villain! :)

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  14. Vince is right, this is a seminar in a blog post. So well done, and you got me thinking.... thank you for that! The stretch of external and internal conflict and how one can play off the other is a sharp weapon in an author's tool kit. It's crucial to presenting the story in an organic fashion.

    And echoing so many, huge congrats for making the Publisher's Weekly Bestseller list again! I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!!!!

    Happy dancing!

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    1. Thank you, Ruthy! I agree! When the external and internal conflict intersect, the story is even more compelling. Hard to achieve, but it can be done! Hugs!

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  15. Debby, how did you know this was exactly what I needed today? Have you been hanging out in my office, peering over my shoulder? Thank you! And mega congrats on making the PWB list again!

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    1. Glad to help, Mindy! Thanks for your congrats!

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  16. Hi Debby,

    Thanks for a great post! I'll be saving it for reference also!

    Creating internal wounding isn't too difficult for me, it's creating progressive situations for hero/heroine that help in the healing process without making it too obvious. Not sure if I've expressed this clearly.

    I'm intrigued by the look of fear on your heroine's face. It sure speaks to the story's subject. Great artist! Fabulous storyteller!

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    1. Kathryn, glad the cover caught your eye. I like what the Art Dept did.

      Are you talking about the dreaded middle? Always a challenge. Look at your goals. Can you build in more external conflict, as in two dogs, one bone, so you have more opportunities to have them butt heads at first and then hopefully come together as they start to see the other one in a new light?

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  17. Hi Debby! What a wonderful, thoughtful post.

    I was rereading my book, Christmas in Hiding, the other day to check on some info I needed for the current WIP, so this is fresh in my mind. In that story, the hero is a U.S. Marshal and the heroine is in WITSEC. The hero's wound stems from the fact that his family was murdered by criminals who were never brought to justice because people were afraid to testify. Helping other families is his reason for becoming a Marshal. But he doesn't trust the heroine he is charged with protecting. He doesn't believe she's innocent. So his internal conflict drives their conflict as well. He is bound to protect someone who may have committed a crime because she can bear witness agains those who committed the bigger crimes. Of course she was innocent, but his internal conflict made it harder for him to believe in her also.

    Now you've got me thinking of how I can deepen my current heroine's inner conflict. Thanks!

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    1. PS: No need to include me in the drawing. I have the book beside me now. :) Loving it. And congratulations on making the Publisher's Weekly list.

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    2. I loved Christmas in Hiding! I know you'll nail the conflict in this next story! Thanks, Cate, for your kind words about my story! Hugs!

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  18. Hi Debby,
    Such good info, as always! This post goes in my "save" file. Congrats on making the Publisher's Weekly list! Well-deserved!

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    1. Thank you so much, Edwina! Hope all is well with you!

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  19. I'm a middle school language arts teacher. Your post really helped me to think about how to express "conflict" in meaningful terms to my students. They don't have to differentiate between internal and external conflict in their own writing plans at this stage, but it really does make such a big difference in the depth of the story!

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    1. Thanks, Dianna, for your comments! And bless you for teaching middle school students. I'm glad my blog post helped you in some small way. Keep up the good work. You might have future bestselling authors in your classes!

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  20. Great post Debby, I always learn something even though I am in the reader community of Seekerville. A huge congratulations for the Publisher's Weekly recognition!

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    1. You know we LOVE readers, Connie! Always a joy to see your comments! Thanks for your congrats too!

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  21. Debby, I so appreciate how you show how important the wound is. As I've learned about writing, I've discovered how true-to-life certain aspects of craft are. God has used my wound to reveal more of Himself to me. And, He's also shown me how to "heal my characters' wounds" through the course of the story. Or, if not heal completely, speak truth to some of the lies that resulted from the wound.

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  22. I'm glad you can use your own "wound" for good, Jeanne! Think of all the readers who need to read your stories!!! Also glad God reveals himself to you. Drawing closer to him is the ultimate goal!

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  23. I can identify with characters that deal with PTSD as I deal with it myself. As a reader it's interesting to see who they characters deal with it and get through life on a daily basis.

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    1. Kim, I'm sorry about your PTSD. Praying for you...and for all who suffer. I included it in one of my Military Investigations stories. So many struggle with the condition. Sending hugs and love!

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  24. Wonderful post, Debby!

    I'm in the middle of writing a proposal for a new series. I've learned that even though my editor doesn't require more than a paragraph or two to give the idea for each story, I need to do much more before I send in my proposal.

    The paragraph or two I'll send in needs to have meat in it. Something the editorial board can relate to. In order to do that, I need to have my characters thought out fully, all the way to their wound and their internal conflicts. What I send to my editor will give a sketch of the external conflict, but I also need to give an idea of what drives my characters within that story line.

    So I will do hours of work in order to get a one-word description of my character to include in the proposal. But it's never wasted time. I build on that work once I start writing the story!

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    1. Jan, is that Revell? For LIS, I send in a very detailed synopsis. But every editor is different. Actually, the synopsis is my friend. It helps me ensure I have all the parts that will make up the story. I've got my white board out today and am brainstorming (with myself) my next story. I have lots of ideas swirling through my mind, but I need to put something down in black and white before I know if the story works. All part of the process...and we all have our own way of being creative!

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  25. Hi Debby:

    This conflict post with comments is very informative with usable information. I hope you can do more parts to the conflict subject in the future.

    I have a suggestion which I think could provide another path for conflict which can act like a multistage rocket that provides both a tension pause/relief (very important in music) while acting to increase the tension and conflict levels even higher in the following pages!

    Conflict Resolution as a way to provide temporary tension relief while at the same time initiating a new stream of conflict which then raises the stakes.

    I like this in novels when you get a feeling of releif after a period of exhausting tension only to find out the resolution to the conflict has given birth to even great conflict.

    I like conflict with breathers/resolutions along the way because if the conflict just endlessly keeps getting worse, then it begins to seem like a loud siren that just keeps getting louder by the minute. That is so annoying and predictable it makes me want to put the book down.

    The Jack Reacher books are full of very satisfying conflict resolutions which keep causing new and even more threatening dangers that were unpredictable! Love it.

    Just an idea.

    Vince

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    1. I agree with you, Vince! I loved when Patterson would have the story/crime resolved and the killer in cuffs. Everyone, including the reader, relaxes and awaits the happy ending. Then the real villain attacks. I've used that a few times...not as effectively as Patterson, of course! :) But, as you mentioned, ending one conflict provides a nice pause...and the perfect time for a bit of romance...only to have another conflict come into play!

      Thanks for adding more insightful input to this conflict blog!

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  26. Debby, thank you for this packed-full post. Some of these conflicts that work great in fiction can hit a little too close to home but I guess that's what gives readers hope - if s/he can find a happy ending with God's help, then so can I. Thanks for sharing.

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