Bruce Willis as John McClane: You can tell how conflicted he is by the state of his vest
When I presented my recent pocket novel workshop, one topic that seemed to cause the most confusion was conflict. I blame myself for that. I had obviously not explained it very well, and when I tried to put it into words, I realised that conflict in my novellas is something I do without thinking too much about, so I floundered a little. I’m not sure if I made it seem too complicated, when it isn’t, or whether it is a complicated subject. So, having had a few days to think of how I can explain it better, I’m hoping this article will clear the fog.
Let’s begin by defining ‘conflict’, because it does rather give the impression of two people at each other’s throats until the last chapter when they decide they loved each other all along. One of the points I made during the workshop is that I wouldn’t fall in love with someone I argued with all the time, so why should my heroine? My hero and heroine tend to like each other from the beginning, even if they’re not romantically involved, but other things keep them apart.
It might be better to think of conflict as a problem that has to be overcome, rather than a highly dramatic series of events. One of Mills and Boon author Kate Walker’s tips is to ask: ‘Who is the worst person that the heroine (or hero) could fall in love with?’ Then make them fall in love with that person. This will help to create the conflict needed between your hero and heroine.
I’ll start with the two kinds of conflict. Through the magic of copy and paste this is exactly how I explained it on the handout:
Internal conflict, as it suggests, comes from within the characters. It can be the result of a character flaw, a fear or phobia, or a misunderstanding. But remember the conflict must always be a natural part of the character’s emotional make up, and not something thrown in just to add extra conflict if your story is flagging.
External conflict is something over which the characters have no control. Could be the weather, a crime, or some family or work issue. The external conflict in a story should never get in the way of character development, and should inform the characters’ internal conflicts rather than detract from it.
When writing any novel, whether romantic or not, it is important to fuse the internal conflict with the external conflict, so that they complement each other. In the workshop I used the example of Pip in Dickens’s Great Expectations.
Though there are lots of conflicts (in Great Expectations), the young hero, Pip has two major conflicts. One is internal, in that he longs to be a gentleman, but this is at odds with his upbringing, and later informs his treatment of his friend, Joe. Pip’s internal conflict is brought about by the external conflict of being taken to Miss Haversham’s and meeting the proud and haughty Estella, who mocks him. It is for her he wishes to become a gentleman, so Estella’s mocking treatment of Pip (due to her own internal conflicts) is what leads to much of his behaviour in the story.
Getting away from romance for a while, in an attempt to simplify the topic even more, I’ll use an example from popular culture. I’m assuming (hoping) that most of the readers of this blog will have seen the film Die Hard. I know what you’re thinking, there she goes with Bruce Willis in his vest again!
When the film begins, Bruce Willis, as John McClane, is already shown to have an internal conflict. He is a regular Joe type; a New York cop, whose estranged wife, Holly, has become a high-flying businesswoman. He feels challenged by this, to the point it has all but broken up his marriage, and whilst this may not make much sense to a younger generation, to those of us of an older generation, it is very much the way men felt at the time the film was made. They were threatened by the fact that women were becoming the breadwinners. So even if the film is outrageous in many ways, John McClane’s internal conflict would probably ring a lot of bells with men and women watching when it was released.
Then comes the external conflict, in the form of a terrorist/criminal group. Whilst McClane is in the bathroom, having had an uncomfortable meeting with his wife (in which it’s made clear the feelings between them are still strong), good old Alan Rickman comes along with his group of goons and takes everyone in the building hostage. So now McClane is even more conflicted. Because his wife’s life is in danger. This gives him a vested (groan) interest in the outcome of the siege, so that his internal conflict is linked to the external conflict.
Anyone who has watched all the Die Hard films will know that this trope is carried on through all of them. In Die Hard 2, the hapless Holly is on a plane that’s about to crash, and only McClane can save her. In Die Hard 3, the villain, Simon, makes McClane the focal point of his plot to set off bombs all over New York, and in Die Hard 4, McClane’s daughter, with whom he has a fractious relationship, is kidnapped during the course of the plot. In three of the films McClane’s internal conflict of being a man who cares about family life and wants to keep his loved ones safe, is somehow linked to the external conflict of terrorists laying siege to wherever he happens to be (this is why he and his family are never invited to Buckingham Palace Garden Parties). Thereby McClane always has a vested (you may groan again) interest in how things turn out.
The above is, I hope, pretty easy to understand. After all, the Die Hard films aren’t meant to make people think too much. They’re just rollicking adventures.
In romance it gets a little more complicated, because you have two people who may have differing internal conflicts, and they somehow have to deal with that, and whatever is going on externally, so that all is resolved by the end and usually at about the same time.
So we’ll move on to a more modern romance and discuss how the internal and external conflicts in that work together; Bridget Jones’ Diary. Bridget’s internal conflict is, amongst other things (and let’s face it, Bridget has a lot of issues), her crushing lack of self-esteem. She’s a woman who defines herself by whether or not she has a boyfriend and her self-worth is tied up in this. (Whilst feminists may have complained about this, I bet every one of us knows a woman who is like just that). Mark Darcy’s internal conflict (we learn later in the story) is that his one-time best friend, Daniel Cleaver, has already slept with Mark’s wife, destroying the marriage. So it’s Daniel who brings the external conflict into the romance, because he’s also sleeping with Bridget and this doesn’t bode well for Bridget and Mark. Especially as Daniel has lied and said it was Mark who stole his girlfriend.
This external conflict has to be dealt with before Bridget and Mark can be together. Bridget has to learn that Daniel is a swine and that he lied to her, and she also partly learns to stand on her own two feet, whilst Mark has to learn to let the past go so that he and Bridget can be together. By the end of the story all conflicts are resolved, leaving Mark and Bridget to kiss in the snow.
One of the questions I was asked was whether the hero and heroine have to have equally compelling conflicts, and the answer is no they don’t. In fact the hero’s conflict might be that he desperately wants the heroine to trust him and for some reason she doesn’t, perhaps because of something that happened in her past. On the other hand, he may be the one with the deep internal conflict, whilst the heroine is trying to reach out to him.
And going back to my original point, don’t think that conflict has to be something highly dramatic. It does, however, have to be something that will keep them apart until the end, when they can declare their love for each other and go and live happily ever after.
Another question I was asked was how on earth you keep the conflict going until the happy ever after. There is no easy answer to that. I often find myself revealing too much too soon, then I have to go back and pad it out a little so that it isn’t all over at 38,000 words (and that has happened). There are ways of doing it. You can physically part your hero and heroine for a while (but not for too long) so that they can’t speak to each other about the conflicts. You can put them amongst other people so they can’t talk privately or keep being interrupted (perhaps a meddling relative or well-meaning friend). You can also throw in a few more obstacles, as long as it doesn’t get too silly and that it’s always linked to the main conflict.
I suppose I find it easier because I mostly write romantic intrigue, and then mostly historical romantic intrigue. In romantic intrigue, if the heroine suspects the hero may be involved in the wrongdoing, or vice versa, that’s a very good way of keeping them apart (emotionally rather than physically) until the truth comes out. In historical fiction, the morals and social restrictions of the time prevent the hero and heroine from revealing their feelings too soon.
In modern fiction it’s harder to make conflicts last, because we’re able to be more honest about our feelings nowadays. It’s alright to admit you fancy someone. But that can also be used to good effect, because it’s easier to admit you fancy someone than to admit you’ve fallen in love with them. Falling in love suggests the next crucial step in a relationship and some people are afraid of taking that step.
The conflicts, both external and internal, in a story do have to mean something. I read a story recently in which the heroine was still obsessing over something very trivial that had happened ten years previously and because of this she showed animosity towards the hero. It wasn’t even as if he’d been unkind to her. Far from it. It just suggested to me that the heroine had problems that were not going to be resolved in a novella.
There are also conflicts in romance which simply don’t work anymore. For example, if a modern heroine sees her hero with another woman, it is inconceivable that she would immediately assume he was being unfaithful, rather than asking him outright about the woman only to find she was his sister/cousin/aunt. Then again, the Vicar of Dibley got away with that one so who am I to argue?
Being conflicted does not mean that your characters have to be weeping and wailing all the time. As Bridget Jones shows, internal conflicts can also lead to humorous situations.
The important thing to remember is that internal conflict is what will make your characters the people they are. It is probably more important than the external conflict, because your characters should always be the most important aspect of your story. The external conflict should inform the internal conflicts of your characters, so that like good old John McClane, they have a vested interest in the outcome of the external conflict.
This is only one way of looking at conflict, and one which works for me. I’m sure we all have different methods. Do feel free to add your own thoughts and tips on using conflict in romance.