Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Inner Conflict: Nuts and Bolts


Here is the second part of Nikki's guest blog on inner conflict.

Last week’s blog was on the nuts and bolts of inner conflict. Now that you have those, how do you weave inner conflict in to your own story? By constantly repeating yourself, right? No! Do not think of yet another way for your character to mentally catalog their dilemma. Okay, how else? Oh, oh! Give characters moral choices and always have them do the right thing! So that they’re completely boring and inhuman and no reader can stomach them! Absolutely not.

What you want to do is set up circumstances for your characters to have to choose between what they value and what they value most. Let’s look at an example of this. I’m writing a young adult romance novel about a girl, Trix, who wants three things: to graduate, to emotionally support her friends and family, and to appear to be in control. She’s completely aware of the first, somewhat conscious of the second and not at all clued in to the third. In the following scene, she is studying for a math test she must pass in order to graduate. This should be helping her move directly toward her stated goal but watch as another goal gets in the way:

In frustration, Dad broke the tip of the mechanical pencil pointing to the equation he'd written on binder paper. “Start solving the problem!"

I looked at it and hesitated. "I don’t know how." The question was unbelievably easy. I could do it in my sleep except somehow I’d be wrong because Dad was here. Why did he have to prove that even when I tried I was still stupid? With a trembling hand, I scratched some numbers on my paper and tried to calm my nerves. Maybe I’d do it right and things wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe K-mart would start paying me millions of dollars and I wouldn’t need to graduate. Maybe—

Dad scribbled while he talked. "Look! Pick a number—three. Write it. Plug it in. You get fifteen."

I covered my paper with my hands. I’d written a two and a ten.

The meanness I felt wasn’t real. It covered something much greater that I wasn’t ready to handle. “Mr. Golding doesn’t even think I should study with you!” I shouted it right in Dad’s face. “You make everything worse!”

Angry, he winced like he’d been hit. “What are you—?”

“Trix!” Across the room, Mom's surprised face was as stiff as the dirty plate she held dripping into the kitchen sink. The radio sang, Jesus, oh, my Friend.

“I’m paying a tutor with my own money! Anything’s better than this!” I shoved the notebook across the table until it hit Dad’s gut. The pain in my side intensified. “You’re a terrible teacher! Everyone says so!”

Wait!, you might be thinking. Doesn’t Trix want to graduate? Doesn’t she want to emotionally support her friends and family? Yes, and she’s messing up those two grandly because she wants something else even more. She suffered her first panic attack just the day before and the terror of a repeat attack has her desperate to be even more in control than ever. As she feels her command of self slip, she scribbles answers on a paper instead of volunteering them, tells herself she’s stupid to avoid the reality that she’s frightened, and lashes out at her dad to prevent him from seeing the truth.

Notice that Trix’s inner conflict is much more intense at the end of the scene than at the beginning. She starts with anxiety about getting the wrong answer. She leaves aching that she has hurt her dad and feeling like a terrible person but too afraid to apologize. Studying is now road-blocked even though graduation is as desirable as ever.

It takes Trix the entire story but she does finally realizes that, though she can accurately catalogue her loved one’s troubles and even tries to help out all she can, her determination to hide her own difficulties isolates her from the very people she wants to help. In seeking help for her panic disorder, she breaks through the isolation and learns in the process that true friendship is always a two-way street.

That’s it. That’s all I have to say about inner conflict. By the way, if you think that the resolution of Trix’s inner conflict sounds like the theme of my book, you’re right. And NOW! A bonus feature included in this blog at ABSOLUTELY no cost to you! If you don’t have your own theme you now have the tools to build one (sorry, you can’t use mine). Choose a limited set of inner conflicts that drive every scene of your plot and then have your main character discover a truth at the end that, when acted on, allows him to solve all of the outer conflicts that your inner conflict created and leaves his soul at peace. Whew, that was a long sentence. But really, there’s nothing to it! Start today! If you act fast, I’ll include this handsome five-piece leather luggage set FREE! Just kidding.

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