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.
- 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.
- 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.
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...)