Monday, September 12, 2011


by Margaret Birth

Look in the mirror. What do you see? Okay, I’ll tell you what I see: a nice head of chestnut brown hair faded to silver in places (hey, I earned those grays!), blue-green eyes rimmed with laugh lines (blessedly, I’ve had much more to laugh about than to cry about in recent years!), a nose I used to think was too wide for my face, and a mouth I love to use for singing. When I look in the mirror, what I see is influenced not only by my outer appearance, but also by my inner impressions.

It’s those inner impressions, those feelings, and the background that brought them into being that form the basis of internal conflict for story characters too. But that’s only one kind of conflict our tales need in order to have the complexity and depth that will keep readers turning pages.

Stories also need external conflict. Thankfully, in some ways, external conflict is a lot easier to understand—and thus, to create—than internal conflict.

In my previous work as a freelance manuscript reader, I saw many manuscripts in which a hero or heroine was stand-offish or argumentative with their supposed love-interest, but it was never clear why: It was never related to a clear and compelling internal conflict.

In contrast, I saw several manuscripts in which complicated, confusing external conflicts overwhelmed the romance plot. However, I’ve seen few manuscripts in which there was absolutely no external conflict at all.

External conflict is easy to define: External conflict is any event, condition, person, group, or organization that keeps the hero and heroine apart—physically, emotionally, and/or spiritually.

The best external conflicts often relate to characters’ internal conflicts. Say our heroine is a prosecution lawyer—pursuing justice since she, herself, was an abused foster child. Now she can’t believe she’s falling for a defense attorney. Imagine that a man she’d once had convicted for child molestation is let out on parole. Suddenly someone starts stalking her and traumatizing kids in her neighborhood. She assumes he’s responsible for these latest heinous acts, but the hero insists that the guy is innocent until proven guilty. Zounds! What powerful external conflict! And that’s, in part, because it’s perfectly tied in with the heroine’s internal conflict.

Keep external conflicts simple and logical: she’s a born-again Christian, and he’s agnostic (here the opposing faiths are the conflict); she comes from a wealthy family, and he comes from a poor one (here the conflict is that they come from socially and economically different worlds); she keeps pursuing an investigation of a shady politician despite the fact that she keeps on having mysterious accidents, and he’s hell-bent on protecting her (a classic woman-in-jeopardy conflict).

A short romance novel doesn’t need more than one external conflict, a longer one maybe two or three.

External conflicts don’t need to have seemingly endless, convoluted ins-and-outs and extra characters in order to be interesting, though. After all, external conflict that’s too complex takes a reader’s focus away from the most important part of the story: the romance.♥

Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, both in the U.S. and abroad; in addition to working as a freelance writer, she's spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor.

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