Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Inner Conflict: Nuts and Bolts

It's Writing Wednesday.
Nikki Trionfo is guest blogging today on a subject many writer's struggle with...inner conflict. And as always, Nikki makes it fun and interesting.

Inner Conflict: Nuts and Bolts
What makes a series of plot events become a story? There are so many ways to correctly string plot events together that it almost seems like there’s no wrong way. Don’t be fooled. There are many, many wrong ways. Look, I’ll show you an example. To save on space, I’ll even obey a few basic rules. I’ll give the main character a goal or desire, I’ll make each plot event be the cause for subsequent happenings and I’ll even put in a climactic end.

George wants to travel to faraway places but his dad dies, leaving no one to support the family. In getting a job, George shouts at an old man. The old man steals money and blames George. As he is about to be arrest for theft, friends give George money and the police are so happy in seeing this, they start singing.

Boy, oh boy, I bet you weren’t expecting the singing there at the end. Unless you recognized it as the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Good for you if you did. If you didn’t, however, you probably had a few issues with these plot events. Why did the police sing? Why didn’t George ever get to travel? Anyway, who even cares about George? I mean, what kind of guy shouts at an old man?

What’s missing in this example (but not with the movie or you’d have never heard of it) is inner conflict and the subsequent resolution. I stated that George had a goal, that of traveling the world. But I neglected to mention that he has a deeper second goal. He wants to do what is right for his family and community. The struggle between these goals drives the whole story. It also completes the story.

George wants to travel. When his dad dies, George has many options to support his family but knows that his small community cannot afford to lose his father’s business. Sacrificing his childhood dream, George shouts at an old man for oppressive business practices and by that action takes over his father’s trade. George helps many people. The old man steals money and blames George, who thinks he is a failure. Through a miracle, he gets a chance to see what life would have been like if he had never touched the townspeople. He finally understands that nothing is more important than the love of his family and friends. At peace, he goes home to be arrested. But love saves the day, as the community gathers to help the man who helped so many. Even the police join in the singing.

Let’s look at George’s inner conflict. He wants two things, 1) to travel, and 2) to help others. Now, the story wouldn’t hold together if George could do both simultaneously. This is where outer conflict comes in. The writers of this story gave George a carefully controlled set of circumstances wherein he’s forced to choose between the two goals over and over again.
Another critical point is that George’s inner conflict is inherently moral. If George has to choose between traveling and golfing, this story would be lame. Choose moral dilemmas that resonate deep within you personally. Then you’ll have interesting, conflicted, poignant ideas to put into your character’s words and thoughts.

Now, let’s talk about what one of my writing teachers calls the who-cares factor. Who cares about your characters and what they do? Well, the author, of course! She loves and cherishes them! She probably talks to them in her sleep! She neglects her own children to imagine clothes and shoes and hairstyles for them! She has a daily planner dedicated only to their activities! She . . . !

Ahem. Sorry about that. Yes, authors care about their characters. But how do you convince a reader to care? Another job for inner conflict. No matter their outside choices and circumstances, if your characters, specifically your main character, have a noble goal that they are pursuing, readers will cheer for them almost no matter how badly those characters mess up in actually achieving the goal. One caution about noble goals. Don’t go preachy on us readers. We hate that. George, I don’t believe, ever stated his noble goal to help his community. Let your characters’ actions speak much louder than their thoughts and words on this one.

For a story to feel complete, plot events have to allow the main character to resolve his inner conflict. That means George needs to either get his stated goal (travel) or learn that he doesn’t value it as much as something else (love). Be careful here, too. You cannot end a story with a realization. George cannot simply make a speech. He has to act. Remember the movie? George first faces the crisis of the missing money by running away from friends and family. Then he has his breakthrough realization. But the story’s not over. George acts. He runs, literally, in exactly the opposite direction as before, going toward his friends and family. He shows by his actions how he’s overcome the conflict of the story (and his life).

I’d like to make one more point on the actions of characters. They always speak louder than words or thoughts. It doesn’t matter how clearly you tell the reader that your character has a good inner desire, if his actions don’t say it, your character is hypocritical. This can be okay as long as your character eventually has a genuine noble goal. Even Scarlett O’Hara and Catherine Earnshaw, infamous for their questionable morals, put self-interest aside to act on occasional bursts of brotherly love, Scarlett more particularly so because she acted to help people she disliked. But neither character put self-interest aside enough to have the classic happy ending. Wouldn’t you have just thrown Wuthering Heights right onto the floor if Heathcliff and Catherine got to be happy at the end? I would have ripped it apart, page by page. Maybe fed it to my dog.

To end, I’d like to state my opinion about resolutions. The happiness you give your character at the end of the story should be directly linked to the degree to which they sacrificed for their noble goal. I’m often dissatisfied with Hollywood because happy endings come too cheaply. If you study great literature, you know the joy of the morning is only as bright as the darkest hour of the night.

Now that you know how inner conflict works, I’m giving you a challenge. Give your characters some gut-wrenching conflicts. Go ahead. Throw rocks at the best of them. Make them suffer. You’ll deepen them in the process and when the joy finally comes, they’ll be mature enough to recognize the wonder of it. And you’ll have a story that’s worth remembering.

Don’t miss Nikki’s next blog entry coming next week: Inner Conflict: A Practical Example.

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