Thursday, February 11, 2010

External Versus Internal.


Every now and again I'll get a comment here at the Blog that requires the kind of discussion that both reminds me what I should be doing and is worth dragging out of the comments section into the light. So hopefully Janet won't mind if I take her questions from the comments of the last Blog as my subject for this one...

For those of you who don't read the comments or may have missed it, Janet said:

My recent rejection letter said: "
concentrate on building up the motivation and conflict so that it is just about the hero and heroine, and external characters or impetuses are left out."

So in planning my new story I've been concentrating on the H and h's emotional goals, motivation and conflict, but I have hardly any external plot.

Trish, are external plots as necessary as they used to be? (In many of the published books in the Romance line, the characters often begin the story with external goals then these goals quickly fall by the wayside and the emotional stuff quickly takes over becomes the main story.)

I'm worried that if I don't have much external plot my story will be boring, but the editor's comment suggests I maybe rely on it too much so I'm not sure if I've gone to the other extreme with this one.

Should I aim for an equal balance between external and internal? Or am I on the right track in concentrating almost exclusively on the internal stuff?

Now you'll note I've bolded some parts. What I'm going to do is tackle them one by one starting with:

"concentrate on building up the motivation and conflict so that it is just about the hero and heroine, and external characters or impetuses are left out."

Okay, so what does that mean? It's something I've been guilty of in the past and still get caught out on (as was the case with the partial of the story I'm working on right now), so I can translate this with some personal experience under my belt. Writers will often talk about Internal and External conflicts/plots, think of it as Internal = Character Driven and External = Plot Driven (or anything that doesn't come directly from the characters themselves) and we have the basics of it. I talked a little about Internal versus External conflict in post three of my Common Romance Writing Mistakes series where I said:

Say in a romance novel the characters get stranded in a cabin together during (a) snowstorm. That’s not conflict. That’s circumstance. But say those two characters are on the verge of getting a divorce, or are two work-mates fighting a physical attraction, and then we have fodder for the INTERNAL CONFLICT we need. They have to face up to their feelings, react to them and take action, which moves our story forwards. The trap in romance writing is when we use a circumstance to up the conflict. It then becomes an EXTERNAL CONFLICT.

So let’s say your heroine is about to lose her home. She has to fight and do something to save it. That’s conflict isn’t it? Well, yes and no. It’s a circumstance first. Something external has led to the danger of her losing her home. It’s adversity. Something that may lead to our heroine being homeless. So where does the internal conflict we need in a romance novel come from? We make it that the only way she can save her home is to deal with the hero - possibly a man she had an affair with in the past, or one who broke her heart, or is the last man on the planet she could ever see herself ending up with - moving our story forwards and putting them both in the position where they have to begin an emotional journey. What fate or bad luck can add to a story in general fiction, it can also add to a romance novel; the difference is it absolutely MUST lead the characters into an INTERNAL CONFLICT of some kind or it’s pointless. It becomes EXTERNAL CONFLICT. It doesn’t add to the EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. So it shouldn’t be there. There isn’t room for it. Conflict adds to the story, conflict moves the story forwards. EXTERNAL CONFLICT should have an effect on the INTERNAL CONFLICT and we should see that and understand it when we read it on the page.


So when Janet asks: Trish, are external plots as necessary as they used to be?

My answer would be to look at what Janet is referring to as 'external plot' as a chain of events that throw our hero and heroine together: it's the VEHICLE for the love story. In a category romance novel, with its limited word-count, the external plot is secondary to the internal journey the characters are taking. The books are strongly character driven, so while an external plot is necessary to get the hero and heroine together on the page, once they ARE together it becomes less important than how the central characters' relationship changes as they act and react to each other while the external plot carries them along.

Let's look at an example:.

  • Hero opens a large chainstore next to heroine's smaller independent bookstore. Her livelihood is at stake, as are the jobs of the secondary characters who work for her. Heroine mounts a campaign to try and keep her business running but ultimately is unsuccessful and has to shut up shop and look for a new career.
This is an external plot. It leads to a chain of events. So what makes the difference and switches the focus to the internal/character driven plot we need to turn it into a love story? The obvious answer is that the hero and heroine are attracted to each other. But if the hero forcing the heroine's business to close is the only conflict, then can it still be considered character driven? Well, yes and no. No if it's the only thing standing in the way of them being together, yes if it leads to internal conflicts. So let's look at the story a little closer.

  • Hero, who comes from a dysfunctional family, has been communicating online with an anonymous woman who he feels a connection to, and through the anonymity of the Internet is able to open up and talk to her in a way he doesn't normally do. Through these conversations, and a meeting with the heroine whose bookstore he knows he will ultimately put out of business, he is forced to look at his life and re-evaluate what it is he wants from it. What he had told himself he wanted isn't what he needs. While having several confrontations with the bookstore woman, he starts thinking about what it would be like to meet the woman he has been talking to online. Then he discovers she IS the woman he is putting out of business.
Even without the additional external plot of the online communication with an anonymous woman, the chain of events involved with the hero and heroine being 'business rivals' throws them together. It's when they're thrown together that the focus of the story changes and becomes internal. The hero is attracted to the heroine; there's just something about her - that's step one. Then, keeping in mind the hero has been fooling himself when it comes to what he's told himself he wants compared to what he actually needs, we have to ask what can be added from the heroines POV to make him re-evaluate his life and take a chance on reaching out for what he needs.

  • Heroine's small bookstore was owned and run by her mother, who has died. She has fond memories of her time there as a child, who she is and what she believes in is a result of her time with her mother and she has formed a surrogate family with the people who work there. Losing the store will mean her world is shattered and she will have to step into the unknown. She doesn't know who she would be without the store; feels like she is letting everyone down and is being forced to let go of her mother all over again, re-living the grief of her loss. Without realizing the hero is the man whose large chainstore poses the threat to her business when she first meets him, she shares some of her memories with him and talks about how much she loves what she does. She talks about the chainstore owner in a far from complimentary manner and considers what he does to be soul-less and empty.
Here is where external plot leads to internal conflict. It's plain as day from the outside looking in that these two people need each other. We know the story is going to end with them together. What the external plot does is allow a chain of events that lead to scenes where the characters are forced to deal with their feelings. The events lead to action which in turn leads to reaction while conflict is created from within as there are misunderstandings, doubts and fears that stand in the way of a happily ever after.

So is an external plot as necessary as it used to be? ABSOLUTELY it is. We need something to bring our hero and heroine together on the page. But the statement that "In many of the published books in the Romance line, the characters often begin the story with external goals then these goals quickly fall by the wayside and the emotional stuff quickly takes over becomes the main story" is true too. Why? Because while the external plot is necessary, it is NOT the FOCUS of the story in the way it may have been in years gone by (not that a skilled author - certainly one more skilled than me - can't manage both the emotional journey and a complex external plot!). But it's all about getting the balance right. Which is why a complicated external plot like the one I originally had for the story I'm working on had to be simplified. Originally I had a 'Damages' like plot-line that had the heroine unwittingly working for a law firm which was manipulating her to get to the hero. But just as the example I've given here could have worked without the additional plot of the anonymous online relationship between the hero and heroine, my plot works without the additional complication of a 'great conspiracy'. The chain of events set in motion by the death of my hero's father and the unwanted legacy that both causes him to confront his past while at the same time placing the heroine directly in his line of sight is more than enough to work with (my heroines journey now totally being a result of her seeing her world through his eyes).

In some cases, the external plot that brings the hero and heroine together may not even - *gasp* - be resolved by the end of the story. How do I know this? Well, because I've done it. In Bride Of The Emerald Isle, the external plot that brought my hero and heroine together was my heroine's search for the father she had never known after the death of her mother. She finds old love letters in her mother's belongings and follows the trail to Valentia Island where she thinks she will meet her father. Instead she meets the hero and falls in love; the question being will she repeat the mistakes her mother made, or will she take a chance on happily ever after? Obviously, the answer is she takes a chance, but fairly early on in the story *SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE WHO HASN'T READ IT* she knows the man she was looking for wasn't her father. And she STILL doesn't know who her father is by the end of the book. *END OF SPOILER* From that POV, the external plot was never resolved. But it did what it needed to do: It brought the hero and heroine together on the page and then their internal journey began...

Having said that, when Janet says: I'm worried that if I don't have much external plot my story will be boring, but the editor's comment suggests I maybe rely on it too much so I'm not sure if I've gone to the other extreme with this one.


I know EXACTLY what she's talking about. I think it's a dilemma all writers have at one time or another. And one they'll wrestle with on more than one occasion! For me, with Bride Of The Emerald Isle, I had to do exactly what I've done now; pare back the external plot. It was oh-so-tempting to follow through on the love letters in that story. At one point I can even remember thinking about having quotes from them scattered throughout the story. What I had to ask myself then (and apparently forgot to ask myself this time) was IS IT NECESSARY and/or CAN I DO WHAT I NEED TO DO WITHOUT IT? Bottom line is, the key word to remember is SECONDARY. In the same way there isn't room in a category romance to eat up chunks of the word-count on secondary characters, there isn't room for an external plot that is secondary to the characters emotional journey.

So in answer to: Should I aim for an equal balance between external and internal? Or am I on the right track in concentrating almost exclusively on the internal stuff?

My answer would be to use the external plot to bring your hero and heroine together from the get-go (and to force them together when the emotional stakes get higher), but as the story progresses, allow the characters actions and reactions to take the lead. The reader comes to a romance for the romance. I know that sounds simplistic, but it's true. What attracts them to the book is the relationship between the hero and heroine and how they get past the emotional barriers they have in place to take that leap of faith towards a happily ever after. Think of the external plot as the vehicle that carries them on their emotional journey with the final destination being happily ever after and it's not the CAR that interests us; it's what the two people inside the car say to each other, learn about each other and themselves and do before they get to the end of the journey that's most interesting. Inanimate object versus living, breathing people with the same hopes, fears, doubts and needs we all have. It's no contest when you think about it that way. Even in a longer, more heavily plot driven romance, it's the characters who interest us most. For a short while we 'live' the story through them.

GREAT QUESTION Janet, and THANK YOU for reminding me to keep the focus on my characters! My gut told me the whole farmer's market thing might be running away with me in this scene I've been working on between being bitten in the face by a pony, dealing with the life that still gets in the way of my writing time and the 'quirks' of a new computer which have had me close to tearing my hair out these last few days...

Hope it helps! And if anyone has any similar questions or worries they want to ask about PLEASE DO! Been a while since I've had a Dear Trish day actually. That was fun last time, I should do it again! As for my word-count... well... it's still climbing in the right direction, but since Donna Alward is giving me a run for my money in that department, I'm gonna try and get ahead of her again before I post it ;)

(And I'll toss a signed book of your choice from my back catalogue list in the post - so long as I have it ;) - to a random anyone who can name the movie my example came from, k? You've got till I post again...)

23 comments:

Janet said...

'You've got mail'

Janet said...

Wow! what a detailed answer! Thank you so much for that Trish. About to copy and paste and then carefully study each paragrpah of your great answer.

"while an external plot is necessary to get the heroine and heroine together on the page, once they ARE together it becomes less important than how the central characters' relationship changes as they act and react to each other while the external plot carries them along."

This is exactly what I needed to know and will help enormously with my new story (still at the planning stage so I am busy sorting out all that external/internal stuff --determined not to make the same mistake this time :) Even though I was sure the external in my last partial served mainly to bring the internal to the fore.

Thanks again, Trish.

Jill said...

Trish,
Do you have a critique partner or a critique group? If you don't have one, how do you re-read your work and critique your own work? Sorry if this is something you've covered before!
I know a lot of my writing needs work and I have a good friend who is an excellent writer and she wants to critique my work. The problem is she doesn't read category romance or much romance at all! She keeps telling me she can critique my work b/c "a story is a story" but I'm not so sure it's that simple. Part of me wants to go it alone, but another part of me is worried I'm being stubborn and just don't want to listen to a friend that's trying to be helpful.
Sorry, I didn't mean to turn this into an advice column! Thanks you for everything you've been covering.

Becca J. Heath said...

Thanks Trish. Really helpful!
You've Got Mail (The shop around the corner) was the movie. A great example to see how to make sure it's all weaved in.
=)
Bec
(can u belive the security word is karma!)

Nicola Marsh said...

You've Got Mail!

But someone else can have the book, I already have all yours lined up on my shelf, hun :)

Donna Alward said...

Fab post Trish! And You've Got Mail is so lovely and sweet and sighworthy. I love it and hate it when I watch a show that is so beautifully done - it's so satisfying but inevitably makes me feel very inadequate!

I'm heading into the black moment(s) so hope to knock out this first draft by the end of next week. But I just wanted to say that I'm fighting with a wee bit of external vs internal as I'm writing something slightly different than normal, and so reading your post today was great!

Monique DeVere said...

Hi, Trish!

Fantastic advice. Thanks for taking the time to explain this so in depth. I'll be printing this off and blue-tacking it to the wall next to my desk!

You were talking about "You've Got Mail" with Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, right?

I love that movie."I go online, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words: You've got mail."

Hugs,
Monique

Nina in Ohio said...

You've got mail!!

Thanks for the reminder to stay focused on characters Trish! And so sorry about the cranky pony :-(

I sent in my first chapter and synopsis to the recent Presents contest and got the standard reject. I'm not sure whether it's the concept they didn't like, the writing, or both. Not sure whether to continue with this story and rework or start afresh. Ah well....

Donna Alward said...

Jill - I have known Trish a long time and as I see it she has developed a very keen way of listening to some of the voices in her head (the good gut instincts) and telling the other voices in her head (the bad ones) to shut up.

It is hard to trust yourself, isn't it!

Trish Wylie said...

You're most very welcome Janet! It was a great question - and one I think everyone struggles with from time to time. Writing, like everything else, can have a kind of 'secret code' when it comes to some phrases. Those who work with those phrases every day know what they mean but those who are newer to the business may find some of them confusing. I know that's certainly the case with horses too. We'll talk about outlines and riding from leg to hand and creating impulsion, etcetera, etcetera and 'horse people' will know exactly what that means but it can seem like a foreign language to some ;)

So I LOVE questions like these. Not just because other people might find an explanation useful (*fingers crossed*!) but also because they're often - as was the case here - the kind of timely reminder I need when I'm up to my neck in a MS and the crows of doubt are circling...

Trish Wylie said...

Oooohhh Jill, another GREAT QUESTION! I'll blog about this one in my next post if that's okay?

The more of these the merrier, my friends! As to the advice column comment - lol! - I think a lot of writers/editors/agents blogs are exactly that. aren't they? I know that's how it feels reading many of them and - to be honest - why I visit many of them! I love hearing how people approach the same dilemmas we all have. The truth lies in the commonalities, right?

Trish Wylie said...

Glad to have helped Becca! It was a timely reminder for me considering where I am in this WIP. There aren't enough post it notes in the world for all the things I should remember but always seem to forget...

And LOL to the security word!

Trish Wylie said...

As yours are on my shelf, Nic! I'm keeping your latest as my treat for when I finish this MS ;) CAN'T. WAIT. It's like having you *here*.

Trish Wylie said...

There are SO MANY FILMS that do that to me, Donna. Books too! Or a line that simply makes me stop and go 'DAMN I wish I'd thought of that!'. Having said that, there are several films I would have done differently given the choice... YGM however, isn't one of them. It leaves me with the necessary warm and fluffies required at least one week out of every four ;)

I hear ya on the external versus internal, hence why Janet's question was so timely for me. And you're at the black moment already? DANG GIRL! *must knuckle down and catch up*

Trish Wylie said...

Hi Monica and you're most very welcome! Glad it could help! I could talk books and writing all day long, and when someone asks a question I've asked myself along the way I'm always glad of the reminder and the topic for a blog ;)

That's one of my favorite lines from the movie! Isn't it lovely?

Trish Wylie said...

You're very welcome Nina! We ALL need that reminder from time to time, TRUST ME. As to the cranky pony - well, unfortunately she's cranky A LOT - I just got in the way this time. Let's just say she'll know not to do it again... we had a *talk* on the subject...

Do you want to brainstorm/chat about your story? If you want to share let me know, ask whatever you want or are worried about and we'll have a blog on it ;)

Trish Wylie said...

I tell the bad voices in my head to shut up, Donna? Really?! TBH they can be pretty darn LOUD sometimes. I find smothering them with cake helps muffle the sound some but they can be persistent little buggers!

I'm SO blogging on this one!

Donna Alward said...

Maybe you can do one on POV because I have a feeling I frakked up the beginning of chapter ten. LOL

Janet said...

"I find smothering them with cake helps muffle the sound some but they can be persistent little buggers! "

ROFL!

mindmap1 said...

'You've got mail'!!!

You certainly have today Trish!
Great post. And I can recommend the sixteen point workshop Trish wrote about in August.

Re internal conflict/external conflict. External can be there, because your protagonists live in the 'real' world. We all have something to work-out don't we?
Internal doesn't mean just ONE internal conflict, there can be up to three (I read this on an HQ editor's e-page) because it's hard to make ONE internal conflict last for a whole book. We need to build up to the 'dark moment' by giving them have a couple of 'almost' dark moments to work through.
Does that make sense?
It did to me as a newbie, and made me feel better because I knew I could make my protagonist's lives more challenging and keep my reader wondering how on earth they were going to get out of this!

I'm working hard on my WIP with the help of a small (five) wonderful critique group made up of two editors and writers at various stages in their careers. I can't tell you how far I've travelled since meeting them.

Studying Trish's workshop gave me the confidence to open up and take a chance on these brilliant individuals who live all over the world. But a group does not mean you lose your own instinct and gut reaction to your work. A good group is a two way street. I learn so much from reading another's work and helping them, as I do from writing myself.

And hi Donna! Thanks again for running your annual competition. These HQ writers are simply wonderful by the way they share their expertise and knowledge. If I ever get published it will be because of their help and support.

Go for it Janet and make the internal conflicts the key. I'm sure you'll do it this time.

Good Luck

Christine xx

Jude said...

You've got mail - which is one of my favourite films.

Thanks for the car and journey analogy, it finally made this whole inner vs external conflict thing make sense to me. Hurrah!

Anonymous said...

You've Got Mail ... which I love though I have to admit not quite as much as Sleepless in Seattle - same cast as ye all know -

Wonderful post Trish. And such detail. I did tell you I enjoyed YOUR workshop didn''t I? And 'tis no wonder, you're a great teacher. And yes, you do have a highly intelligent approach to your craft. And you are so generous with your skills.

Many thanks from pp in the ROI ...

Anonymous said...

Of course it is You've got mail movie with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. It is one of her better films. There is also When Sally met Harry or Sleepless in Seattle. All good romantic movies where both partners get to know each other at a distance at first. When they meet it clicks for them.
I have read your site. Writing isn't as easy as it seems. I don't know how authors like Stephen King writes best-seller after best-seller. He must have a formula that works.
Donna Johnston-Durand (Quebec,Canada)
Trisha Wylie we may be related. My grandmother was Mary Graham Wylie (Johnston) from Ballymena, Northern Ireland.