Thursday, October 2, 2014

Internal vs. External Conflict in Romance

Our theme for this round of Prosering is kissing. Problem is, I don't write kissing stories, usually. I write dark fantasy and horror the vast majority of the time. And sure, there can be kissing in those stories, but as of yet it's happened so rarely that I don't feel like I have any sort of authority to speak on that subject. Not that lack of knowledge on a subject usually keeps me from blogging about it, but I decided instead to take a step back and look at the part of the stories that gets you to the best kinds of kisses: Conflict! (#2 on Sheena's list for writing kissing scenes that rock). 

My favorite fictional kisses are those that have been well-earned. In a lot of discussions about romance in fiction, I've seen conflict divided into two categories: internal and external.

External conflict is any force (parents, wars, strict social class rules, zombies, evil sorcerers, evil fianc├ęs, rabid beavers, etc.) are keeping the couple from Being Together. This obstacle is the only thing standing in the way of the characters living happily ever after. Examples of movies and books with external conflict in romance: The Princess Bride, Cold Mountain, The Mummy, most YA dystopian romances that aren't love triangles (and some that are), and Romeo and Juliet.

That actually looks like a really uncomfortable position to be kissed in for Juliet.
Photo from sofi01's Flicker; shared under a Creative Commons license

Internal conflict is when any emotion, thought pattern, or belief is keeping the couple from being together. There's no physical person or thing standing in the way of the couple; rather, the couple is standing in their own way. A prime example of a story with an internal conflict is everyone's favorite, Pride and Prejudice. When you get down to it, there's nothing really keeping Lizzie and Mr. Darcy apart except their perceptions of each other. Another way of saying it, and one that makes it sound less boring, is that the characters' love for each other has to become stronger than any prejudices or previous bad experiences in their lives.

Other examples of love stories with internal conflict include Much Ado About Nothing (Beatrice and Benedict), Lord of Scoundrels (by Loretta Chase; the all-time favorite romance novel of many a reader), and North & South (the Elizabeth Gaskill one).

Types of conflict split by genre more than I'd realized before starting this post. For example, the romance writing/reading community tends to favor internal conflict in their stories. Which I think is fair; for a genre that revolves around the examination and exploration of love, I think that's fair. You can only examine cruel parents so many times. But it seems that external conflict is much more common in YA and fantasy - perhaps because there is so much going on plot-wise, and other sorts of conflict with good and evil, that external conflict is also the simpler way to go (and rightfully so, in many cases).

Whichever way you decide to go for your story, maintaining the perfect balance in your conflict isn't easy. Love stories are absolutely awash with excessive conflict, where the writer feels the need to draw out the love story as long as possible. For example, you know that scene, where the bride is standing at the altar with the wrong man, and she suddenly has this massive epiphany that she really should be with the hero, and so she goes running through the streets in her wedding dress? (I'm looking at you, Spider-man 2). And they never show the bride's parents sobbing about the tens of thousands of dollars that were just wasted, or all the wedding guests that flew in from Oklahoma  and took time off from work that are now seriously irritated? That is internal conflict going too far. Big dramatic moments rarely feel like anything but contrivances.

External conflict can definitely be pulled to far as well, to the point where you the viewer are thinking, really? More rabid beavers? Didn't they take out their whole dam with laser cannons?

 Why is his mouth so red? That's creepy.
Photo by Roland zh; shared under a Creative Commons license

Of course, you don't have to just have one or the other. Most of the advice I found online talked about layering conflicts, which is something I hadn't thought about but really makes so much sense. I liked this article, and this one too (though it's more about m/m romance, the tips at the beginning are applicable to all romance). 

When I was searching around the internets for further info on this, I was fascinated to find these guidelines at the Harlequin Presents website for how they want internal or external conflict in submissions:

Here are the Harlequin Presents editors' top tips:
-Choose internal conflicts as the main drivers of your story
-Use external conflicts as added twists
-Make sure your chosen conflict is well developed, well motivated and consistent with the characters and their situations
-Check that your conflict is believable, relevant for the reader and sustainable over the course of a whole book
-Ideally, construct two or three emotional conflicts that can be played out and resolved through your story
-Conflict isn't a continual argument between the hero and heroine!
-Layer your conflict with highs and lows, advancements and retreats, passion and withdrawal.

 What are your favorite examples of internal and external conflict in romance?


  1. Great advice, Sabrina. And we're totally going to have to write a book where the villain is a rabid beaver. :)

    1. There is nothing more terrifying... except possibly FLYING rabid beavers!


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