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Conflict theory

What is conflict?

An actress being stalked by one of her fans.

A man wants to climb Mt. Everest but is afraid of heights.

A woman wants a big family but her husband hates kids.

With my latest WIP, I came to the realization that my conflict isn’t strong enough, neither internal nor external, despite the fact that I thought I had it all worked out ahead of time. Because of that, I’ve been struggling with where to take the storyline.

Even BLIND FURY, which I think has pretty good internal and external conflicts, has been dinged for carrying a single conflict for too long. Clearly, I needed to get help. Happily, I found some.

Maybe these are brilliant, or maybe they were in the right place when I needed them. You know that rule that I have to be exposed to an idea or concept a number of different times and in multiple ways before it clicks for me? (Not that I think I’ve mastered it…) Conflict wasn’t any different.

First, I found a helpful blog post by Holly Lisle that helps you brainstorm three types of conflict: internal, external, and (what I’d consider a subcategory of external) interpersonal.

The internal is the character against himself. That mountain climber afraid of heights.

The external is some outside force or event that he must deal with. The killer weather he encounters half way up the mountain.

Interpersonal conflict is about people standing in the way of the hero’s goal. His wife who sabotages his plans because she’s afraid he’ll die on the mountain.

I especially liked the addition of interpersonal conflict because it crystallized the notion that not all antagonists are evil villains. Often, they are well-meaning or have understandable reasons for the things they do.

The second source of conflict gold came from a presentation Susan Meier gave at my RWA chapter’s retreat last year (I listened to the archived recording), called Let the Conflict Tell the Story. It was especially helpful for me because it focused on conflict in romantic fiction.

According to Meier, internal conflict is what’s keeping the hero and heroine apart, despite the attraction between them. It stems from incorrect core beliefs each of them has that prevents them from thinking this person is “the one”, or that has them convinced that they’ll never marry anyone.

It could be as simple as “she’s rich and I’m a blue collar guy”, or “all men cheat so there’s no point in marrying one”, or “office romances never work out”.

Meier defines the external conflict as what’s keeping them together. For example, they inherited a house together, or they’re both assigned to the same murder investigation, or she’s being stalked and he’s her bodyguard.

In order to make the change from can’t be together to happy ever after, the characters must grow (character arc!) and change their core belief. The story then, is taking them through the changes step by step from slowly realizing what they believed was wrong to deciding that this person is the love of their life.

With a few bumps and a black moment along the way. 😉

Okay, let me stop here and say that, yes, this is obvious and simple. But to me, that’s what makes it so valuable. We can get so bogged down in the fine details of writing craft that sometimes it’s hard to break it down into it’s most basic concepts.

Like Robert McKee's +/- idea I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Meier had much more to say on the subject of conflict, all illuminating, so if you write romance/romantic elements and you ever get a chance to take her workshop, do it!!

And above all, never stop reading, listening, or learning. You just never know which book, seminar, or class is going to provide the missing puzzle piece in your writing. Good luck!

Photo Credit: BLACK-FACED IMPALAS © Nico Smit |