A blogger and writer friend over on Twitter, Jessi aka @listentomuses, asked me a few weeks ago about writing a romance book with a highly internalized plot. She read Second Position and observed that while most romance books have external plots that push or pull the main characters together and apart, Second Position is different. The characters’ inner struggles push them together or apart, and everything that happens on the outside is internalized before it becomes a force in their relationship.
First things first: I really love internal ‘quiet’ books. I’m an introvert and someone who likes to spend a lot of time building, cultivating and examining her own self-awareness. I’ve always gravitated toward more quiet books. I’m not surprised at all that these are the types of romances I very much enjoy writing and reading.
Secondly, Second Position needed a lot of work in terms of plot and making sure there was some external conflict. My (very brilliant and lovely editor) Kerri Buckley was very patient and understanding with me as I worked on this in both Second Position and Finding Center.
Onto the fun stuff! Remember, this is just my experience and my opinion on writing romance.
(Wo)man vs Self is a genuine conflict. And to your writing professor (or mine) who says different, they’ve never been in a position where their mind, heart, and body were at war. And that must be nice, but for a lot of us, we struggle with one or all of the intersections of mind/heart/body and that’s a legitimate struggle. I’m telling you this on a personal level and a writing level.
Internal conflict does not happen in a vacuum. Mental illness, coping with past trauma, etc affect every part of a person’s life. They change the way someone loves, is loved, and with whom they seek love. Internal conflict drives the way we sit, the way we work, the way we sleep, the way we have sex, the way we dream of the future. Internal conflict inevitably drives external actions, even if it does not become externalized. Internal conflict makes Aly flee the coffee shop on the first pages of Second Position, instead of in another book where she might stay and talk to Zed. She has a panic attack. Internal conflict makes Zed unwilling, or unable to, listen to Aly when she explains why she wants to try ballet again. Internal conflict arc coming to a close, where Aly’s grappling with herself in a more constructive way, is why she comes back for their stairway chat at the end of the book.
So how do you do this?
Conflict is always the distance between what a character wants and what’s standing in the character’s way of that thing. There’s also a distance between what a character wants and what a character needs. Every time you hit a turning point in the book, you push and probe at the character. He’s deeply insecure: what about this might make him react in a way that creates external conflict? Oh, he might preemptively push her away because he perceives that she’s making a choice between him and what she wants because he’s insecure and a black/white thinker. The conflict is caused by internal struggles that become external struggles.
What are the dangers?
A story that doesn’t move at all. Second Position is admittedly a slowly paced story. I don’t mind, but some people do! And that’s okay. But it has to move a little bit. In Second Position, this happens because while their relationship progresses, they go in opposite directions for their internal conflict: Aly begins to heal with Dr. Ham; Zed actually gets worse as the book progresses—he analyzes Aly and compares it to past!Aly and his fears more as the book goes on, which leads to the crisis point.
Omg, I can’t do this.
Yes you can! Write the story you want to tell. I promise that you can elevate some external conflict and fix plot issues like that in revisions. The internal conflict is the hardest part to get down. If you get that down, you can tackle the rest. I deleted chapters and wrote brand new ones up until line edits for Second Position, and I’m pretty sure you can’t even tell what I snuck in there to make sure there was enough internal-turns-external conflict happening.
What if I have questions?
No problem! Leave them in the comments or ask me on Twitter. I’ll get to as many of them as I can before I disappear after the holidays for a little bit. Comments are moderated so don’t be surprised if it takes a little bit for your comment to post!