Friday, July 18, 2014

Crafting Pathways in Your Book: Internal Conflict, External Conflict, and How They Form a Story

Some of the nicest moments in my life happen when nothing happens.  I think of kitchen conversations with friends, sitting in my garden, watching a sunset, taking a walk in the country with my sweetheart.  Peace is the reigning atmosphere, and it nourishes me.  It's what I most crave in my life.

But not in my writing.

A writing teacher once told me:  "If your story is too peaceful, if nothing happens to force change, it's not a story."  The definition of story is something happening and someone changing because of that event. 



Good story answers two questions: 
(1) What does this person (your narrator or character) want?  (2) What's preventing them from getting it?
Story structure gurus like John Truby say that if you know the answers to these two questions, you have the basis for a good story.  If you are still searching, you don't quite.

Answering These Questions Creates a Pathway
Each of these questions starts a journey.  The book's story answers the questions, but not all at once.  It takes time, a series of events in scenes and chapters, of course.  The sequencing of these scenes and chapters make a kind of pathway through the book, which your reader will walk along.

The pathway must be both easy to follow, with expected twists and turns, and it must present surprises.  We read on to find out what happens.  We hope to be surprised.  So part of the art of structuring a book is to plan the surprises.  When will they happen along the pathway?

A trick that makes this easier to understand and work with:

1.  What does the person want--this question creates a pathway of internal conflict.  The desire for something that is not easily achieved makes the person work harder, become more creative, change his or her desire, or give it up.  Conflict builds inside:  Why can't I have what I want!?  What else can I have?  It's a pathway of searching, inner discovery, and internal change.  Sometimes this is called the narrative arc or inner story.

2.  What prevents them from getting what they want--these are usually external forces.  An event, such as a death or move or breakup, changes the outer scenario.  It's no longer the world the person thought it was.  Not only that, but few books have only one crisis, or outer event, to trigger change.  There's usually a series of events, small and large, that continually batter the character.  This can be called the external conflict pathway.  Sometimes this is called the plot or outer story.

I find it easiest to think of these separately, to chart them separately at first, then see how and where they intersect in the book.  When does an external conflict trigger more internal conflict?  Or vice versa?

When I'm starting a new book, I begin with the pathway that calls out to me.  Maybe I first get a sense of character, so I'd start with the internal conflict pathway.  Or maybe I'm writing about an event that changed my life.  I'd start with the external conflict pathway. 

Using a storyboard's five turning points (see my video for more on this), I asked myself different questions for each point in each pathway. 

For the external conflict pathway:
1. What triggering event (outer event) could cause loss and a reaction?
2.  What changes in the plan because of this loss?
3.  What's the new plan, mid-story, that gives new hope but won't work out?
4.  What's the riskiest edge the person can face, where all is lost?
5.  What's the new reality?

You can see that this outer story structure is dependent on having a strong opening event that triggers a reaction, that shakes the status quo.  Points 2 and 4 are called "turning points" because they require a change in plans.  All that has been solid ground is now lost.  Point 4 is usually the worst moment in the story, the riskiest edge the person can face.  By point 5, the final chapters, there's a new reality, a new status quo.

For the internal conflict pathway:
1.  What does this person believe to be true?  What do they have to give up about this belief when the triggering event happens?  What do they have to become?
2.  What new reality do they face as the plan changes?
3.  What new hope do they have?  (Often at this point, the person believes things can go back to where they were before.) 
4.  What would make them the absolutely most vulnerable?  What do they learn?  What will they now fight for?
5.  What's the new reality?

You can see that the two pathways have intersections, similar questions being asked at similar points in the story.

If you're working with more than one narrative voice, multiple point-of-view characters, for instance, you'd create a list of questions for each.  Their external conflict pathways might be the same, but their internal conflict pathways will always be different because this makes them individual and unique in your story.

If you want to try this, start with the big questions:  What does this person want, and what is preventing them from getting it.  Then chart your external conflict pathway and internal conflict pathway, and see what you know so far. 

Likely, unless you've written and revised your manuscript, there will be holes.  This is normal.  Don't let it throw you.  Keep the question on simmer in your mind and let ideas begin to come.

I find that even asking these good questions start a creative spark inside. 

We can try to live calm, pleasant lives, not seek out conflict when we're not writing.  But good story is born of conflict.  If there's no conflict, if we all just sit around drinking coffee and talking, it's not a story.