Writer's Workbook: Internal Conflict

July 3, 2015



 As a writer, you need to know your strengths and weaknesses.  Critique partners, mentors, even friends who are familiar with your genre are all good sources of feedback, but I've found that the most helpful feedback for me comes from rejections.

Groan.  Rejections. Yeah, I know. 

Now, I'm not talking about form rejection letters, those auto-reponses or semi-tailored-auto-responses that employ lovely stock phrases such as "it's just not the right fit for us at this time" or "I just didn't love it" or my absolute favorite of all time, "I just wasn't excited enough by your plot to request more material."

Even better than form rejection letters is when this load of mierda apestosa occurs:

  • 1. You get a form rejection letter.
  • 2. Because you are a classy professional person, you send a response to the agent or editor thanking him or her for the opportunity.
  • 3. Two seconds later, you receive another form letter saying something like, "Thank you for your submission.  Due to the volume of horny bonobos procreating in our email boxes, please expect a response time of 4-6 weeks."

I concede that form rejection letters are a necessary tool considering how many queries publishing professionals receive in any given week.  And for most writers they are unavoidable, par for the course and a sign that we are out among the land of the living.  But Jesus Christ Awwmighty, it sucks to get them, doesn't it?

Anyway, I digress!  We're talking about internal conflict here.  

So on the flip side of auto-rejections are personalized rejection letters.  If you must receive a rejection, a personalized rejection letter is what you want.  Why?  Because these letters show that the agent or editor not only read your work, he or she found it compelling enough to take the time to give you meaningful feedback.  These kinds of emails are worth their pixels in gold bouillon.  Make sure to say thanks.  Print them out.  Keep them in mind.

It was after reading a few of my own personalized rejection letters that I began to form a clearer picture of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer.  Characterization, external conflict and sex scenes appear to be things that come more naturally to me.  But a serious flaw, and something I've been working on frantically, is my underdeveloped sense of internal conflict.

In Romance Writing for Dummies, Leslie J. Wainer explains the difference between external and internal conflict.
Internal conflict comes from the characters themselves; it's whatever they bring to the story, both emotionally and intellectually.  External conflict comes from the plot and circumstances, or is created by other characters. 
This weekend, before getting star-spangled hammered in my friend's mom's backyard and watching all the illegal fireworks lighting up the skies over drought-ridden Los Angeles, I will be reading up on internal conflict and finding ways to strengthen my work with it.  

Here's my reading list.  Hope it helps you, too.  Happy July 4th!

1. How to Write a Romance Novel: The Keys to Conflict by Jennifer Lawler (Writer's Digest)
"As a romance acquisitions editor, I find that one of the biggest problems writers struggle with is creating a believable conflict, or series of conflicts, that will sustain the novel its entire length. Conflict is the core of any work of fiction—it’s what makes your readers care what will happen next."

2. What is Emotional Conflict? (Harlequin Presents)
"There are two types of conflict that will progress a romance: internal and external.
Internal conflict is the more important and can come about by two routes: Character: a conflict can grow out of the hero or heroine’s fundamental personality, and will include how their lives and backgrounds have shaped them, what their motivations and aspirations are. For example, your hero is now an international billionaire who is ruthless in business and love, having clawed his way out of an orphaned background in the slums of Naples.
Emotional conflict: this exists within the central relationship. For instance, an unexpected pregnancy or an arranged marriage can upset two colliding worlds!"

3. How to Escalate Conflict in Your Novel by C.J. Redwine (Romance University)
"We all know every story requires conflict. And most of us start writing our stories with a glorious, shining piece of conflict in mind. The problem is that most of our initial glorious, shining pieces of conflict are inadequate for sustaining the interest of a reader throughout the entire story. There’s a balance to writing good conflict. A way to pace it so that it steadily grows throughout the story, keeping your reader glued to the page..." 

4. Internal Conflict Tropes (TV Tropes)
Here is a list of internal conflict tropes, recurrent character types or situations you'll see in lots of books, T.V. shows, and movies.  For example, here's a fun one called Broken Ace: "He's tall, charming, strikingly good-looking, well-spoken in five different languages, and classically trained in even more instruments. He's the Big Man on Campus, former president of the Absurdly Powerful Student Council, valedictorian, and working on his doctorate in a scientific field that a peon like you can't even pronounce. He always wears a suit...until the eventual Shirtless Scene during his (strenuous) exercise routine, that is. He has a lovely smile. But inside, he's an ugly, writhing mass of self-hatred and possibly Parental Issues." An example of the Broken Ace is Batman's Harvey Dent/Two Face and Matt Damon's character in Interstellar.

5. The Major Dramatic Question by Daniel Noah (Gotham Writers' Workshop)
"Conflict comes in two forms—external and internal. External conflicts come from obstacles exterior to the protagonist. Internal conflicts refer to struggles within the protagonist’s own mind.  Movies need external conflicts because they are easier to portray on screen, but the richest characters have both external and internal conflicts. In addition to Clarice’s external obstacles to catching Buffalo Bill—discovering his identity, soliciting information from Hannibal Lecter, deciphering clues, tracking him down—Clarice must overcome her fears of the dark side of human nature, as well as her insecurities about being a woman in a man’s job and of being a “country rube.” These internal conflicts give the story more psychological depth."

6. The Difference Between Internal and External Conflict in Writing (Now Novel)
"Internal and external conflict are most effective when they buttress and reinforce one another, and conflicts should be of varying size as well. For example, in a crime novel, a couple on the verge of divorce might be kidnapped together. Now, they have an external conflict with a common enemy, but they also have an external conflict with one another. Meanwhile, they are likely to be struggling internally as well. The husband might be trying to deal with a recent revelation of his wife’s infidelity, or the wife could be upset by her husband’s reluctance to support her decision to return to school or the workplace."

7. Contemporary Conflicts by Sarah Wendell (Smart Bitches)
"Internal tension: “I’m not good enough for her,” “She’s out of my league,” “She matters so I must guard my tender, squishy insides – no, my OTHER tender squishy insides,” etc. I admit to being a total sucker for this type of conflict, particularly when it’s done right, and the character growth helps alleviate the feelings of unworthiness, but never the desire to demonstrate how much that character values the other."