Conflicted By Conflict

- by Lynn Michaels

In fiction there are two types of conflict, external and internal.

External conflict is the plot of your story,  the mystery or problem that your characters must solve by the end of the book.  Internal conflict is your characters’ inner struggles.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. At least it wasn’t for me at the beginning of my career. I struggled with conflict — I was conflicted by conflict.

I understood external conflict just fine, but internal conflict baffled me. For some reason  I thought that the hero and heroine had to have the same internal conflict. What can I say? I was new,  plus I was born blond.

I didn’t have a good solid handle on internal conflict until I wrote Mother of the Bride,  which won a Romantic Times Magazine Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Contemporary Romance in 2002. Better late than never, huh?

Mother of the Bride basically has no plot. I defy anyone to find a plot in the book.  What I had to work with was a situation, a set up.  Beyond that, all I had was Cydney and Gus falling in love in the course of planning this wacko wedding.

Cydney and Gus didn’t  have conflicts — they had issues. No crippling neuroses or  paralyzing fears, just common, everyday stuff to deal with like the rest of us. Their personal issues were very similar, but because they were on opposite sides of Bebe and Aldo getting married they kept clashing.

In a romance novel, the things that attract your hero and heroine to each other must be stronger than the things that keep them apart. Otherwise readers are left wondering how in heck these two ever stopped fighting long enough to fall in love.

Ideally, the external conflict of your story should mirror the internal conflicts of your characters, and give them an opportunity, through dealing with the problems of the plot, to work out and come to terms with their inner issues.

Cydney Parrish has built her life around her niece, Bebe.  That doesn’t hit Cydney until Bebe announces that she’s marrying Aldo. Then Cydney realizes that she’s looking at a future with only a cat for company.

Aldo’s uncle Gus Munroe has done the same thing, built his life around caring for Aldo, who was orphaned when his parents were killed in a plane crash. Gus wonders what he’s supposed to do with his life once Aldo is gone. Get a dog?

Gus opposes the marriage. He thinks Aldo and Bebe, both college students, aren’t old enough. Cydney is all for it.  This is their point of opposition. Gus hatches a plan to derail the wedding, to prove to Cydney that Aldo and Bebe aren’t mature enough for marriage.

What draws Cydney and Gus together, besides sexual attraction, is empty nest syndrome and their mutual interest in writing. Gus is a best-selling mystery author. Cydney is his biggest fan, and wants to be a writer herself.

Gus tells Cydney to stop waiting hand and foot on her family, especially Bebe, put her fanny in the chair and write. Easy for you to say, Cydney retorts, but she discovers over the course of the book that Gus is right. By the end of the story Gus realizes what Cydney knew all along, that Aldo and Bebe are perfect for each other.

Other writers may define external and internal conflict differently. If they do, by all means listen to them and take notes.

And if you pick up any good tips, please come find me and share them.

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