Romance Plotting 101: External and Internal Conflict

External And Internal Conflict

This month at All The Kissing we’ve been talking plot basics (and in this piece, we’ll continue on with that trend and discuss external and internal conflict). If you’ve read Kelli Newby’s “Plotting a Romance Novel: 7 Lessons Learned the Hard Way by a Total Noob and Inveterate Pantser” and Alexa Martin’s “What is a Romance Arc?” you’re probably fairly well saturated in the terminology of the romance plot arc. There’s no need to cover the pinch points, midpoint, black moment and inciting incidents again here.

Except that this little voice in the back of my mind reminds me that when I first tried my hand at writing romance, it wasn’t as easy as simply understanding all that. See, we come up with these characters, and our characters tend to take on lives of their own. We feel their joy and their pain, their heartache and their thrill. As writers we have to—if we don’t, our readers certainly won’t. That can also mean we get a little bit protective of these creations of ours.

But we dutifully soldier on and march to the drums of the beat sheet or of our outline or of that nebulous end scene we thought of a long time ago back when we were pantsers and decided we didn’t need to follow a script. Inevitably we reach a point where we dig in our heels, refuse to move forward, and say those magic words: but I don’t want to.

External And Internal Conflict Sitting

Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

For me, that moment first reared its head during my Pitch Wars manuscript revision. I followed my mentor’s rules. I dutifully wrote out my scene maps and cut out the bits that were just there because I thought they were endearing. I threw bad things at my characters. Very bad things, in fact. I made them fall in love, found a way to tear them apart that I felt was in character, and brought them back together for their happily ever after. That’s what happens in romance, isn’t it?

Yes and no.

External and Internal Conflict

What I didn’t realize as a first-timer is that I was playing a game with myself, with my manuscript, and potentially with my readers. You see, I didn’t want to break my characters before I put them back together. Now that I have more experience with romance writing, I understand that the big emotional crisis I gave my hero and heroine amounted to not much more than the equivalent of going for a bag of groceries and—horror of horrors—forgetting the milk. It wasn’t a big deal. They were able to resolve it in about three seconds before they were happy again.

“Forgetting the milk” is not a good enough crisis.

Why? Because the store is still in the same place and going back is easy. But really, why? Because it’s all external conflict. What I needed was internal conflict: something so devastating that my readers would wonder if this was the one romance that was mislabeled. That they would never get their happy times after all. (We can ignore the fact that in fixing this terrible faux pas I went completely overboard and tragedy struck far too hard, because that version never even made it to my mentor.) So I sat down, worked, reworked, and came up with a plausible scenario that made me cry real tears as I was writing. Once I’d found that path, I knew I was on to something.

It’s easy enough to think, Hey, I’m making my mark, meeting my beats. I’ve got my inciting incident. My pinch point No. 1, my midpoint, my pinch point No. 2, my crisis, my resolution. At least it’s easy enough for me to think that. Inevitably, though, when my critique partners read what I’m working on, I hear things like, “nice start” or, “that’s heading in the right direction, but …”

So what’s the key? How do we provide enough external and internal conflict? (Sorry, characters in my work in progress, I love you so just go hide your heads in the sand for a moment and don’t listen. Turn the music up loud. What you don’t know won’t hurt you … yet).

We must break our characters before putting them back together.

I’m not talking “honey, you didn’t stop and bring me flowers for Valentine’s Day” level breakage. I’m talking Humpty Dumpty cracked into pieces, his yellow yolky heart oozing out at the bottom of that wall. I’m talking things that seem irreparable. I’m talking damage you don’t think anyone could possibly recover from in the 15–20 percent of the book that’s left. I’m talking not just external conflict, but deep, gut-wrenching internal conflict.

My big stumbling block was rationalization. These were two characters who’d already fought for their love. They were in a new relationship. They were ecstatic. Their significant other could do no wrong! I didn’t want some trite misunderstanding to break them apart—they were stronger than that. So it had to be something purely external.

Wrong, Gwynne.

You can use something external to incite the conflict, but that only works if your characters also internalize the conflict.

If we can, let’s take a look at the movie Casablanca. Technically it doesn’t qualify as a true romance because there’s no happily ever after. (Actually, there is, but it’s not between Rick and Ilsa.) Certainly, though, the bulk of the movie is a romance. It’s got all the elements. There’s the exhilaration of young lovers torn apart by war. There are months and years of silence, where neither the hero or heroine knows if the other is still alive … until she walks into a bar one day and the violins (okay, the piano) starts playing. It’s the second-chance-at-romance trope, in all its glory!

You might think that being torn apart by war might be enough of a conflict. But then Rick and Ilsa found each other again. The End. Not very satisfying, is it? When we layer internal conflict into the story, however, things get much more interesting: what? Ilsa never told Rick she was married? To a world-famous resistance fighter? And now that she and Rick are reunited in Casablanca, still holding a torch for each other, Ilsa’s husband—to whom she’s duty bound but not sure she loves—is added to the mix?

That makes things interesting. It also gives them both plenty of reason to mistrust and dislike one another, while still carrying their original torch the whole time. (Go, watch the movie if you haven’t seen it lately. It’s still a thing of beauty.)

So what did I do with my own story? I broke my FMC character by giving her a combination of external and internal conflict that devastated not only her, but her love interest when she acted on those conflicts. I broke her into little tiny pieces that seemed irrevocable and in the process, broke the MMC along with her. Of course, they’re not called heroine and hero without reason—they managed to overcome the insurmountable odds and find their happily ever after.

And in my case, they got on the figurative plane together. Actually, it was a real plane. It worked.

Break the eggshell

So when you think you’ve got the plot arc down, go ahead and break your characters a little more, and a little more after that, and then for good measure give them one final blow until they’re egg yolk oozing out of the shell. These external and internal conflicts will make their reunion so much sweeter, and you’re much less likely to hear “well, that’s a good start, but…”

Feature image: biloud43 on Visual Hunt / CC BY

G. L. Jackson
G.L. Jackson lives in the Seattle area with her family and pets. Although born in New York City and raised in New England, she prefers the west coast.

She's been writing since childhood. While some things never change, she hopes the quality of those stories has increased at least a little over time. These days her focus is primarily on contemporary rock & roll romance featuring strong, sassy heroines who know what they want and aren't afraid to reach for it. She does her best to bust at least a few tropes per book. Banter is her guilty pleasure.
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