Layering Conflict Like a Jawbreaker
Welcome back to Firsts in Fiction, loyal listeners! This week, Steve and Heather take a look at internal conflict. This is, in many ways, a continuation of the cast we did on conflict a couple weeks ago. And again, we did a live cast on Google Hangouts. The video is available on YouTube here. If you prefer, you can watch below the show notes. As always, you can listen above or download the episode here. Find Steve and Heather and Aaron on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Stitcher. Remember, tell your friends using the #firstsinfiction and/or @firstsinfiction to help us get a good social media buzz. Appreciate your listenership!
Two weeks ago, we looked at the different types of external conflict. This week, we look at internal conflict and how to layer the two together. Like a good jawbreaker, the key to successful conflict in fiction is layering. Here’s how:
As opposed to external conflict, internal conflict is one that occurs within the character. It can feature any number or combination of things like values, beliefs, morals, or it can be about overcoming their fear or their past. Regardless, the struggle is not from an outside force, but an inside force. Consider a simple set-up: your protagonist facing down their fear of heights. By making them face this fear, you create internal conflict.
The best books combine internal and external conflict. While the character faces down exploding buses, they’re also concerned with whether or not their crush will ask them to the dance (or vice versa). Literary novels will generally feature the internal conflict as the driving force layered together with a secondary external conflict. Commercial novels generally feature external conflict as the driving force with the internal conflict taking a secondary role.
Consider The Hunger Games. While Katnis is in a life-or-death situation, she is forced into a position where she must kill or be killed. Not only does she have to survive in a hostile environment, she also has people chasing her down to kill her. At the same time, she’s worried about how she feels about Peeta and Gale. She wrestles with the moral dilemma of killing someone who has done her no wrong.
When it comes to internal conflict, it’s important that readers care about your character. If not, the conflict won’t seem important to them. When they care about your protagonist, they care about the choices your characters make; they care about your character finding inner peace.
An effective way to create internal conflict is to draw from your personal experience, or the experiences of your own. But remember, you’re writing fiction, so don’t use real names or situations. Instead, try to tap into the emotions you’ve felt in tense situations. If you’ve not been in a situation like your character is facing, you can practice something Bret Anthony Johnston calls “deep imagining.” As yourself how your character would feel, how they would react. Put yourself in their shoes. Draw on the emotional knowledge you already possess and translate that to the page. This will give your readers something to relate to, something to hold on to. At the same time, it will make your characters more believable and understandable. This is why it’s so important to be in tune to your character’s motivation.
When working with conflict, remember to weave some of these tensions, some of these conflicts, together. Take a look at your plot points. You may want to outline a few of the major turning points in terms of external conflict and internal conflict. When these turning points happen close together, there’s a huge emotional payout for your reader. This approach may make discovery writers cringe, but it’s worth looking at in terms of a very large-scale, broad, sweeping view of the course your novel takes. You don’t have to outline every individual scene, but the primary turning points are helpful. This will help you better understand the pacing of your novel.
For Heather’s novel, she outlined her entire plot on 3×5 cards (blue for external conflict, red for internal). This color coding process helped her identify when she was too focused on the external, and conversely too focused on the internal conflict at other points. This type of visual cues helped her find the appropriate pacing for the novel.
With conflict, we want to make sure that the stakes are high. One way we “up the stakes” is to make sure that the outcome matters. What happens if our character fails? Do they die? Do they lose their loved ones? Do they go crazy? To keep the stakes high, James Scott Bell encourages us to think in worst-case-scenario style. The best conflict is about death. This might be physical death, spiritual death, the death of a relationship or marriage, the death of sanity.
While an addict seeking help may not have immediate life-or-death consequences, his admitting of his problem may cost him all he loves. However, if he withholds the information and continues using, it may cost him his life. Or think of a character with a morbid fear of public speaking. His boss tells him he needs to deliver a speech to the staff. If he doesn’t, he’ll lose his job, and his insurance, which may cost his daughter, who suffers from leukemia, her very life. There are several “deaths” on the line here: his job, his daughter’s life, his well-being, his psychological well-being. This kind of layering makes for very intense novels.
For conflict to work well, your character has to face potential failure. Our readers need to believe that, despite his or her best efforts, your protagonist may not succeed. Of course, as readers, we’re trained to expect success and happy endings in our novels, but we wouldn’t read if we didn’t truly believe the character may not make it. Think of Bane breaking Batman’s back, or Vader defeating Luke in their first encounter. These were dark moments in cinematography, but they made the ending that much sweeter.
Thanks again for listening (and reading). Until next week, good writing.