Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Getting to grips with internal conflict

For me, as all the minxes are painfully aware at this point, internal conflict is the most difficult element of creating a story. Maybe because I'm a private person, who tries to avoid looking at her own internal conflicts, maybe because it takes a lot out of me, or maybe because I know that its the heart of any romance, and I'm fearful of not getting it right.

I'm not very keen on therapy. My characters on the whole, tend not to be either. But I need to analyse them, empathise with them, and feel their inner pain in order to infuse my story with it. Its a struggle. But when I get it right nothing tops that feeling of achievement. Then a story has fulfilled its potential, and truly come to life.

So - in my eternal search to crack this most difficult of story elements, I read and constantly re-read the work of writers who HAVE got a handle on it. And one of the books I go back to again and again, is Hooked by Les Edgerton. I've blogged about this book before, and lauded Les's excellent writing blog. He somehow manages to elicit 'aha' moments from me every single pass that I take of Hooked. And his take on the 'story worthy problem' is both clear and concise. And a guaranteed aha.

On my most recent read, this is the kernel of truth that resonated. The difference between melodrama and drama. Now, I'm pretty good on melodrama. Mostly because I like plotting, and I like writing big, dramatic scenes. But the big dramatic scene can often be melodrama. The emotions it involkes are the true drama.
Take for example, the movie, Terminator.
The protagonist in Terminator is young Sarah Connor. She's 19, in college and working in a burger place in the evenings. She shares a flat with a girl called Ginger, and at the beginning we see her going out on a date with a guy she doesn't like very much. She's young, innocent, and we get the impression that not much has happened in her life, thus far.

As everyone knows, the two other main characters in Terminator are Terminator (played by Arnie) and Kyle Reese, sent from the future to save Sarah Connor, no matter what, because of the important role she will play in her future.

When her life is under threat, she can't believe her eyes as the Terminator relentlessly tracks her. Kyle explains that the Terminator is a Cyborg. Here's the section from James Cameron's treatment:

"I don't believe any of this," Sarah says. Frantic. She seems about to scream.
"Yeah, well that's OK. But that doesn't mean it isn't happening. You've got to accept and understand what this thing is. It can't be reasoned with, it can't be bargained with, it doesn't feel pity or remorse or fear...and it absolutely will not stop, ever, once it has been targeted. Unless it's destroyed."

Sarah is relentlessly pursued through the movie. She learns more about her future, and the importance of her as yet unconceived son, John Connor. She falls for Kyle. But she still doesn't fully comprehend the awful persistence of the Terminator.  Until the where the relentless cyborg is caught in the flames of an exploding oil tanker. I could certainly write that with bells on. All licking flame and twisted metal. But the truth behind the scene isn't the explosion, but rather the response of the protagonist, Sarah Connor.

Here's James's treatment again:

An unbelievable fireball erupts skyward. The dumpster is enveloped by flames and is hurled, rolling on its casters, down the alley. Sarah falls before the blast as the forward trailer explodes and an ocean of fire rolls forward, almost reaching her. The dumpster tips over and Kyle rolls out.
In the center of the inferno Terminator struggles violently. His flesh fries and sizzles. He tears loose from the twisted wreckage and collapses to the ground. He sinks into a charred mass and stops moving.

Sarah crawls away from the intense heat and lies watching the motionless figure in the blaze. She staggers to her feet and circles around the building to find Kyle. She finds him lying near the dumpster, sheltered from the heat by its mass, and drags him away.
His head lolls. He opens his eyes. "Sarah."
"We got it, Kyle."
They embrace, silhouetted by the fire.

At this point Sarah feels a whole bunch of emotions, and they reflect in her eyes. Joy, that the man she loves is alive. Relief, that the terminator is finally dead. Elation, in triumphing against all odds. Fatigue, at the end (she thinks) of this horrible nightmare. The audience knows this, feels it with her. The struggles have changed Sarah, given her depth.
And the Terminator staggers out of the blaze behind them.

Sarah's emotions morph into terror.
In the struggle that follows, the Terminator and Kyle are both destroyed forever.

Sarah closes her eyes, letting the cool water bathe her, washing away blood and the fear.
Now that it's finally over, she can't believe it. The destruction of the cyborg and the loss of Kyle
neutralize each other, leaving a vacuum.

Sarah has survived. And her internal wounds now define her. She will live, because she is the mother of John Connor. The final image we have of her is of a woman, no longer a girl. The melodrama that she's been through give way to the drama that is uniquely hers. She now battles with a new confict, whether or not to reveal to her son that Kyle is his father:

"I'll always wonder," she continues, "Whether you should know about your father... whether that will change your decision to send him. Did you already know when you sent Kyle that you were his son... that you were sending him to his death? What an awful burden that was, or rather will be. Kyle was right... you can go crazy thinking about this stuff. Well, I'll do more later. I'm a bit tired... think I'll take a nap."

Sarah shuts off the cassette recorder and crosses her hands peacefully on her belly. Over her loose dress she wears a leather shoulder holster. The butt of a .38 revolver presses against her breast.

She is strong. Determined. We see this in the final image of her:

A serious, dark-complected woman brings her some tea. On the beach below a boy runs by and yells something to the woman in Spanish.
"What did he say, Maria?"
"There's a storm coming in."
Sarah gazes at the thunderheads way out there, rolling in. Heat lightning pulses in their depths. She sips her tea.
"Yes, I guess there is."

So despite the huge budget, impressive animatronics, and great special effects, the core of the story is Sarah Connor's internal transformation from innocent student to battle-weary veteran. She's known love, known death, and these experiences and her response to them are the truths that the audience takes with them. Things will be different for her in the future, because of the emotional scars that she'll bear from her past. These are the seeds of her deeply felt internal conflicts.

So what does this mean to me, writing romance?
That whatever has happened to my character in their past has formed a scar within their inner being. One they don't want to pick at. One they've most likely suppressed, and one they keep hidden. At the story beginning, they're managing fine without navel gazing on their inner scar, but when the story bursts into life, they find their scar start to itch. They're challenged to look closer at themselves, confront their inner demons, and battle with them. They can't avoid it, any more than they can ignore the Terminator. Not if they want to reach their happy ever after. They have to climb the ladder of change, and its going to be damn painful. What they want is within reach, if they can only realise that they have to face their fears and cut away the scar tissue. Internal conflict is the heart of romance. It's hard. For everyone. But here's hoping its worth it.


  1. Great blog Sally. Internal conflict is just so hard to get right isn't it? But when you do it's that "cherching" moment. Caroline x

  2. You can definitely do it, Sally. I have every faith in you.

    Jo C xxx

  3. Happy New Year, Caroline and Jo. I love a challenge, and this element challenges me...here's to success and cherching in 2011 for all of us!

  4. Thanks, Suz. It won't be for want of trying!

  5. Great post, Sally. And just to say big hugs to you re for the comment on my blog. Internal conflict is - for want of a better word - a bugger. But I have to say - and I'm probably going to sound terribly smug - I love it. It's the internal conflict that provides the biggest dramas. And it's the ripping away the scab covering that wound that I just love writing about. It's also the hardest though because you have to do two things with your characters - both of them have to irritate each other's scars like no one else. And yet at the same time, they have to be able to heal like no one else as well. Hard! Especially when it's painful for our characters to have that scar prodded. Then again, that's where the drama and the pace comes from. They'll do anything they can to protect that wound, right up until the last moment. It's really difficult but I think you can do it! Being cruel to your characters is the first step. Resist the urge to throw in something external when it feels like nothing's happening, and see how their internal conflict can affect things instead.
    Okay, I'll shut up now and stop telling you how to suck eggs. :-)