Ode to Internal Conflict

In real life, people have internal conflict all the time.  Sometimes it’s more apparent than others.  Sometimes it’s over a triviality, and other times it’s about something life-changing and complex.  But it’s there, and it affects our words, actions, moods, relationships, and worldviews.

If you want your characters and their problems to come alive for readers, you’ve got to give the people in your story some internal conflicts.  Of course, it’s most important to show in your main character(s), but secondary and “bit” characters can come through richer and stronger for a little dose of internal conflict, too.

How you go about showing that conflict will depend on a few factors:

  1. If you’re writing in first person, your readers get direct insight into the main character’s thoughts and feelings, even if he/she is an unreliable narrator.  Your other characters will be viewed through the lens of your narrator’s opinions and observations, but you, the writer, should know the real deal about your secondary characters – not just what your main character knows, thinks, and feels about them.  That includes knowing what makes them tick and what internal conflicts may be affecting them in any given scene.
  2. Third person can be done in a few different ways, but generally there’s some balance between omniscient narration and a sort of journalistic telling of the facts (just what is said and observed, with no direct insight into the characters’ minds or emotions).  If you go more for omniscient narration, you can reveal characters’ thoughts directly, and show inner conflicts that way.  If you stick with “just the facts, ma’am,” you’ll need to make sure to use facial expressions, hesitations, nervous habits, body language, tone of voice, etc. to communicate your characters’ thoughts and feelings, including their inner conflicts.
  3. If you have a character who just isn’t introspective, who doesn’t (or can’t) face his/her own flaws or mistakes, or who dislikes communicating his/her inner workings (even in his/her own thoughts), again, you’ll have to bring out internal conflict through responses to external factors:  other characters’ actions, dialogue, events, etc.

Now, about different kinds of inner conflicts.  There are inherent, long-term issues, such as the desire for freedom and independence battling with the desire for belonging and love (which could apply to a character’s family background or love life or both).  That kind of deep-rooted conflict is almost a character trait, and can be the foundation for the entire plot or can simply be a factor in your character’s behavior and attitude.  You can resolve it as a subplot, give your character new insight into the problem as the main story goes on, have your character come to terms with it by the end, or leave it hanging over his/her head.

There are also smaller, more specific inner conflicts (do the right thing, or the easy / profitable / fun thing?)  That kind of internal conflict is the spice of fiction, in my opinion.  When an author weaves together the events of the book and the conflicts and tough decisions of their characters, everything pulls together until you can’t separate THOSE characters from THAT plot.  It had to be [Character A] faced with [Event 1], because only he would’ve reacted by doing [this], which caused [Event 2], which set up [Character B] with [that] decision, and…so on and so forth.

So there are lots of reasons to give characters internal conflicts of various importance and scale.  It gives them depth, keeps them from being too predictable or stereotypical, lends tension to the story (because people don’t always make the right choices, or even know what the right choice is), plays characters off one another, and is an excellent catalyst for both main plot and subplot.

Even if you’re never going to mention a particular character’s hang-ups in the story, you should know what they are.  Your characters, dialogue, and story will all be the better for it.


So you finish your first draft of a novel, and you’re ready to edit.  It needs more work than just proofreading – there are things you need to work in, move around, combine, cut, rethink, etc.  In other words, it’s time to look at the overall structure and see where everything should go for clarity, effect, and pacing to be the best they can be.

Sometimes it’s easy to see where something can be plugged in, but when it isn’t so obvious, it can be daunting, to say the least, to start rearranging your manuscript, changing the tone of scenes and dialogue to make it all fit together cleanly, unsure what the domino effect of all that effort will be.  And if it doesn’t work, you have to undo everything you’ve worked on for weeks or months, and start trying to tackle the problems again.

It’s really hard to hold the entire structure of a book in your head (even your own book), so I decided early on in the editing process of my current novel that I was going to try a different approach to rewriting on a novel-length scale.  I made a plot layout for the whole book.  For each chapter, I did this:

  • Chapter # / Title
  • Characters’ Goals & Motivations:
  • Chapter Summary
  • Questions Raised:
  • Points of Conflict:
  • Larger Plot Movement:
  • Notes & Suggestions:

Goals and motivations are whatever your character(s) in that chapter are striving for, whether that’s “defeat the evil overlord” or “have a positive conversation with his son” or whatever.  If you have multiple characters, answer for each of them.

The chapter summary is just a brief account of the events, like an episode guide.

Questions raised means anything that either the characters themselves are asking, or that the reader may be wondering during/after the chapter.  “Who is the evil emperor?” or “How did that cheerleader learn black magic?” or “Why did the zombie cross the road?”  Anything hinted, foreshadowed, unexplained, etc. that you mean to follow up on later.

Points of conflict should include inner conflict as well as external conflict.  It will really help you pinpoint character development over the storyline arc, as well as helping you pace the action and the lead-up to the climactic scenes of the book.  If a chapter seems to have no conflict, either (a) cut the chapter or (b) dig deeper for some inner conflict or character dynamic conflicts, and make sure the rewrite brings those to the forefront.  People don’t have to fight or even argue to be in conflict – they don’t even have to be upset with each other.  They just have to have some goal or need that’s at odds with one another.

Larger plot movement – what, in this chapter, pushed the story arc forward?  It’s fine to have a chapter here or there dedicated to subplot, or to deepen the characters, but if you find you have multiple chapters in a row that don’t move the story forward, it’s time to rewrite or rearrange.  Also, if you have a high ratio of chapters that don’t move the story forward, you probably want to re-think some of the material.  And yes, character development that affects the action in the larger story does count as plot movement!

Notes and suggestions is for anything you realize as you’re reading, like, “I never answered this question in the whole book!” or “Oops, 3 chapters in a row with no forward movement.”  “This chapter is kinda short, not much happens…might be a good place to plug in [this scene].”

I found that this really helped my focus with multiple elements of rewriting.  It really helped me pinpoint pacing problems, troubleshoot boring chapters, keep the characters’ interactions true even as the characters and their relationships changed and developed, and figure out where I had room to maneuver new material into the book.

I hope it can be likewise helpful to you.

10 Ideas About Ideas

10 ways to come up with ideas for stories (when you aren’t feeling inspired):

1.  Writing exercises.  There are many excellent books and websites full of them.  Keep some on hand!

2.  Listen to the conversations of strangers.  People say some crazy stuff!  Even when they say “normal” stuff, it’s interesting sometimes to “pretend” more about them than you actually know – basing it off of the way one talks to the other and vice versa.  Are they relatives, friends, co-workers, romantically involved…?  Make up a context for their dialogue, imagine a conflict or dilemma they could be facing.

3.  Research something.  Have you always been interested in learning more about the RAF’s role in WWII?  Or the history of the police force in your city?  Or the new developments in neuroscience?  Or how a bourbon distillery works?  What a day in the life of a timber wolf entails?  Read up on it.  Go on a tour appropriate to your subject.  Check out websites and forums.  Learn how to do something new.  You never know what new information will spark an idea for a story or a character.  Museums of all kinds can be stellar places to find unexpected inspiration.

4.  Brainstorm with another writer (or two, or three).  Just throw ideas out, have fun, and write down notes when anything exciting comes up.

5.  Think of things that bug you in movies and books – specific types of plot holes, stereotypes, or character inconsistencies…pet peeves you have about how OTHER people write.  Write something better!  Did the movie in question have a great idea for a bad guy, but the storyline left him falling so short of his potential as a character that you wanted to throw the DVD case across the room?  (*cough*  Nothing specific in mind there, noooo….)  Write your own bad-ass, and give him a story he can really shine in.

6.  Read some mythology or fairy tales (not the Disney versions, folks, I’m talking about the old, dark, disturbing stuff here – Hans Christian Andersen and prior).  Public domain plots, themes, and characters you can use to get ideas for your own, original stories.  I’m not saying “write fairy tales”; it’s just interesting to play around with the ideas, and some of the themes are powerful and deep-rooted in the human psyche.

7.  If you have ANY ideas for a story or character you want to start working on, but don’t know where to start, make a list.  10 things you know about your character.  10 things you know about your setting.  10 things you know will happen in your story.

8.  Free write.  Sit down and just start writing whatever you’re thinking, and keep writing without stopping for 10 to 15 minutes.  Stream of consciousness, without worrying about punctuation, spelling, or any kind of correction.  After your time’s up, if there are any phrases or ideas or even word combinations you like, highlight ’em or underline ’em.  Keep free writes together in a folder, and flip through when you’re looking for ideas.

9.  Brainstorm using Tarot cards or I Ching wands.  Facade.com has various types of divination readings available online.  You can use the readings to come up with characters and character interactions, conflicts and obstacles for your protagonist, strengths and weaknesses of characters, and story events.  Like reading mythology and fairy tales, this has the benefit of bringing strong symbolism into your work.  Just be sure not to be too heavy-handed with it.

10.  Do something else creative.  Doodle, color, listen to music, finger-paint, play with Lego, cook, do a craft project, improv on the piano for a while, whatever.  Whatever other creative outlets you have, pick one and do that for a while.  Don’t STRESS about coming up with an idea for a story.  Relax and let it come to you.  Sometimes, like a cat or a kid, all it takes is you ignoring it to do something else, and your story suddenly wants your attention.

Cut It, But Don’t Toss It

A harsh reality of being a writer is that, sometimes, you have to cut characters, scenes, descriptions, and sometimes great swaths of those words you spent hours getting out of your head and into your story.  It’s especially hard if you LIKE the material you’re cutting out, but if the story is stronger for it, it’s gotta be done.

Yesterday, I was talking with some other writers about the editing process, and in particular about what happens to the material I remove from my stories.  I never get rid of the material I cut, unless it’s just a sentence or a rephrase.  Years and years ago, my mother, who is an author herself, told me (in relation to writing), “Never throw anything away.”  I didn’t understand the full importance of that advice until I’d made the mistake a few times over of deleting something and then realizing I was going to need it, after all.

Other reasons not to throw away cut material:  You never know when you may be able to use it in a different story altogether, such as the beautiful description it broke your heart to remove, but later realize would fit perfectly in your next book’s setting.  Or the character you longed to keep in that short story you wrote last year, but he/she just didn’t fit – and now you’ve thought of a perfect storyline for him/her to have a story of his/her own.  You may be able to turn a cut scene into its own short story.  You may end up combining the things you cut from one project into a whole new project.  Bottom line:  you’ve already done the work for this stuff, and you never know when you might want it for something.  Call it a pack-rat mentality or call it stocking up for hard times, whichever you want, but so often I’ve sighed with relief when I realized I still had this or that scene saved to my “parts” file.  It doesn’t hurt to have a few extra Word docs lying around, but that panic-stricken, “AAAAAAAAARGH!!!  I’ve lost that scene forever, and now I need it back!!!” is something I’d prefer to avoid whenever possible.

As to how to keep your “parts” organized….  For short stories, I have one collective file for the pieces I cut.  All my short stories are saved as separate files in one folder together, along with a file called “spare parts”.  Anytime I hack a section out of a short story I’m working on, I open up the spare parts file, cut and paste from the story file to the parts file, save, close “spare parts”, and keep writing.  With novels, I have a folder for the novel, within which are the files for the book itself (with revision numbers, since there will be multiple drafts, and I DO keep back copies of old drafts, in case I don’t like the direction my editing has taken things), and a file called “[working title] parts.doc”.   That way, I don’t get any of my parts files confused.

And yes, I even keep scenes that I really, really hate, and hope will never see the light of day.  So if, in years and years, I’m ever clenching at my chest, wheezing for breath, and trying desperately to delete things from my computer, you will know that I’m trying to get rid of those really bad parts of my writing so that posterity will never see it – LOL!

The Obligatory “Outline” Discussion

One of the topics that’s bandied about most often among writers is outlining.  Should you do it or not, how detailed do you get with it if you do, how far should you let things stray from your original outline (if at all), is outlining the death of a story from the outset…?  Many a debate is had about outlining at writer’s workshops.

So what’s my take on it?  Do it, if it helps.  If it impedes you, don’t.  Personally, I tend not to write an outline, but I do make copious notes for myself on things I want to include in the storyline.  Sometimes it ends up looking a lot like an outline, because I try to keep it in a rough chronological order.

Generally, how I decide whether to outline or not is based entirely on whether or not I can hold all the vital plot information in my head while I’m writing.  If I can’t, I’ll stop and make reminder notes to myself, or put the book itself aside for a few days to write an outline.

The down side to having an outline is, sometimes you feel obligated to follow it to the letter, and get yourself bogged down into writer’s block.  The down side to NOT having an outline is, sometimes you write yourself into a corner–and can’t untangle the story without completely dismantling it and starting over.  Either way, the trick is to balance flexibility with clear direction.  You’ve got to be going somewhere with your story, even if you don’t know quite where until you’re done writing it.  On the other hand, you can’t make something work if it just doesn’t fit with the actual, fleshed-out story.  It may look great in the outline, but when you’re working with your characters, you may realize that they aren’t responding quite the way you expected.  That means that either (a) you need to go with what your characters are telling you or (b) you need to tweak the circumstances or add another layer to the events that WILL get your characters to react the way you need them to.  How do you know which one of those is the right solution?  Easy.  Whichever makes the story and the characters stronger and more interesting.

Now, for someone who doesn’t usually outline, it’s kind of hard for me to do it when I need to.  My husband (also a writer) passed on a method of his own to me a couple of years ago (and he’ll be very pleased to know he’s made his first “appearance” on this blog), which I’ve found very helpful.  It’s easiest done on the computer, where you can rearrange things easily and without having to use an eraser.  I use Word for it, because I can use bullet-points to organize everything.

If you have a definite beginning, middle, and end in mind, write those down as three separate points.  Anything you know for sure you want to have happen, put in semi-chronologically between those points.  Then expand on each of those points or break them down into individual events or scenes.  I’ll use, for my example, the guy from my post about One Damn Thing After Another–the guy who saved his dog from being eaten by zombies.

So let’s say that’s part of a novel.  The overall story is that this guy and his dog have to survive an outbreak of zombie football player attacks in a small Midwestern town, and you’ve decided that the source of this particular set of zombies is a spurned cheerleader who’s an expert in black magic, which she’s used to bring all these football players back from the dead.  You have an overarching plot, there.  In the most general terms, then, you have:  Beginning – main character and dog living in small town.  Middle – angry cheerleader uses black magic to raise zombies from dead, main character and dog fight off zombies.  End – main character and dog survive.

Okay, so if you know anything about your characters, that’s the first way to expand things.  Is this the main guy’s hometown?  If not, why did he move there?  Why does he live alone with his dog?  Is he divorced, not married yet, reclusive, or just happy to be a bachelor with his best pal the dog as his only responsibility?  Does he know the football players or the cheerleader?  (It’s better if he does.  In fact, I might make him the coach of the football team or something.  Get him really involved!)  Why’s the cheerleader so pissed?  And how the $&#* does she know black magic???  This is stuff you’d answer in “plot points” in between your beginning and middle.  Once you answer that stuff, I’d bet anything that more ideas for things to have happen will occur to you.  Now the middle will be easier, because you’ve got things set up and the characters are probably clearer in your mind.  You can flesh out the middle of the outline, or start working on the beginning and see what direction your characters go with your setup.  Either way, your characters should be directing the action once you’ve set things up for them.  And the end?  Well, of course, we said the main guy and his dog survive.  Whether they survive and are traumatized for life, survive and live happily ever after (vowing never to trust cheerleaders again), survive and the man marries the cheerleader’s cute algebra teacher who worked out where the zombies were coming from and saved man and dog from certain death, etc., will all come down to how you fleshed out the middle of the story.  And if you knew from the start that you wanted, say, the ending with the algebra teacher, then you’d have planned the middle accordingly.  Sometimes working backward is an excellent plotting strategy.

I like using this style of outlining, because it’s as much brainstorming as organizing–and I love brainstorming.  You also don’t have to fill in every blank, which leaves a feeling of flexibility to the process of the actual writing.  There, Luchian, you have your debut on my blog, and you have my thanks for your plotting methods, O Plotting Wizard.

Haiku as an Exercise For Prose Writers

I am much more of a prose writer than a poet.  It’s pretty rare for me to write a poem these days, and historically my poetry has generally been more for myself than for an audience.  Still, I think it’s good for prose writers to dabble in poetry from time to time – it encourages precision in word choice, concise description, and, often, getting across a mood or emotion without ever directly stating what the mood or emotion is.  That’s excellent practise for a prose writer, because it’s so much more powerful and evocative to show something shifting within a character than to tell us it’s happened.  Everywhere you turn, you hear the phrase, “Show, don’t tell,” and, although I’ve seen instances where breaking that rule works beautifully, for the most part, it is excellent advice. 

With poetry, if you tell, the whole experience is over.  You might as well write down the words, “Trees are pretty and they make me happy,” and get on with doing something else, because you’re not writing poetry at that point.  Journaling, maybe, but not writing poetry.  Again, I’m not really a poet, so I won’t try to define what IS poetry, but I know what isn’t when I see it.  😉 

Occasionally requiring myself to use a limited number of words to try and paint a powerful mental image, preferably while also evoking some sense of mood or tone, is a great exercise for my prose writing muscles.  So, although sometimes I’ll write free verse just for self-expression, I turn to haiku when I want to challenge my brain to be more on the ball with making every word count. 

The rules for haiku are simple:  three lines long, the first line has five syllables (not words, syllables), the second has seven syllables, and the third has five syllables.  Traditionally, it’s supposed to describe a moment in nature, but I don’t always follow that rule with mine.  Sometimes I have titles for them, and sometimes I don’t. 

So there is a writing exercise for you – write some haiku.  See how much you can get across with such a small “word allowance”.  Here are a few of mine, with, I think, varying levels of success at doing more than just describing: 

Jungle Past  

Breathe–thick, wet, and green 

A smooth white twist of a tree 

Stretched in pagan prayer.


Slate-blue, the angry 

Sky opens and lets loose sheets 

Of silver bullets.



Broken feathers, blood; 

A small, still bird–believed there 

Were no barriers. 

Morning light through blinds
Paints me with stripes as I wake
Wrapped in potential. 

Green races to fill
The tips of the trees’ fingers,
Settles, and unfurls.

One Damn Thing After Another

One of the things that seems to happen a lot with action-packed books and movies is this barrage of events that become increasingly tedious to sit through, when they should be exciting, edge-of-your-seat scenes.  My mom and I call that phenomenon “one damn thing after another”.

This is something I’ve had to work to avoid in my own current novel, so it’s been on my mind lately.  The thing is, the individual events may be interesting and gripping, but they can still become boring when you stick them all together into a giant blob of action without substance.  Throwing peril on top of peril followed up by peril can be just as lousy to read as description after description after description in tedious detail.  But you’ve got to have conflict, right?  And some stories require a lot of action, right?  And lots of peril for the characters should make for a great climax, right?

Here’s what separates a well-built increase in action-based tension from One Damn Thing After Another:  consequences and revealations.  Okay, so your main character just had to fight off a zombie football player to save his dog from having its legs eaten by said zombie.  (Totally random example, there.)  In the next scene, you want your character to have to face multiple zombies and you want to raise the stakes for everyone involved.  But BEFORE you jump into another wave of zombie attacks, wait a second–let’s go back to your character saving his dog.  Wow, so he really loves his dog, because he was willing to risk himself for it.  That reveals something about the character.  It also makes the reader worried that something bad will happen to the dog at some point, because that’s an extra vulnerability for your character.  Explore that fear within your character a little in the scene where he saves his dog.  It doesn’t have to be stated outright or take a whole paragraph to do.  Word choice and/or a sentence or two will do it.  And how does your character feel afterward?  Relieved that his dog is okay, but scared about what will happen next?  What are the emotional consequences for him?  How is his dog acting after its brush with zombification?  Is it traumatized?  Is it too doofy to know what almost happened to it?  Did it get wounded and it’s going to be a zombie soon itself?  How awful would THAT be for your character???  And when the next scene happens, what if it turns out the zombies aren’t just brain-sucking corpses, but maybe they have attachments to one another–what if the rest of the zombie football team is horribly upset about this guy killing one of their friends, and they want revenge?  Now your character is in for it!  Always keeping your characters’ personalities in mind, using their quirks and traits and aversions to drive the way the action plays out, makes it a lot more interesting than say, Man Saves Dog From Zombie.  More Zombies Attack.  Man Kills Zombies.

It also helps break up the action a little, so you have beats of reflection and/or emotion and character development to break the action up AND increase the reader’s attachment to what’s going on.

As an excellent example of One Damn Thing After Another vs. awesome, well-done action, I give you the movie The Two Towers.  I’ve read the LOTR books a few times over, and I watched the cut versions of the movies when they came out in the theater.  I hated the theater-cut of The Two Towers.  It was one long string of battle sequences that felt like it went on forever and ever and I couldn’t have cared less about what was going on.  When the extended cut box set of all three movies came out on DVD, I bought the set.  The extended cut of The Two Towers is almost twice as long, but felt SO MUCH SHORTER to watch than the short version.  It is excellently paced, interesting from start to finish, and the battle scenes are actually gripping.  Now, they’re the same scenes, right?  YES, but the context is changed.  Stuff happens between battle scenes.  The viewer sees the cause-and-effect interplay between one action sequence and another.  There is emotional impact and storyline impact that results from what happens in those battle sequences.  There are revealations about the characters that impact the action, or that result from the action.  And suddenly, the action is interesting to watch.  Suddenly, I cared how things were going to play out.

Now, a lot of what is gripping or not is a matter of personal taste, so what’s One Damn Thing After Another to you may not be the same as what’s One Damn Thing After Another to me.  In light of that, I say, pay attention to the things you watch and read.  What bores you about one action scene, when another has your heart pounding?  What makes that difference for you?  Did one throw in an unexpected quirk (Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes), and the other didn’t?  Or did one lead to unexpected complications that ramped the action up AS A RESULT of a character’s own decision?  The more you can pinpoint what you like and dislike in the things you read and watch, the easier it is to troubleshoot things you want to avoid in your own writing.

How To Write A Novel While Working Full Time (Without Going Crazy)

…or at least, without going crazier than you were to begin with.

At the time I was writing my current novel, I had a full-time job with a “flexible” schedule (flexible, in this case, meaning, “You will never be able to maintain any kind of regular sleep schedule while you have this job.”)  I wrote the first and second drafts (65,000-ish words) with said full-time flexible schedule.  Most writers have to have so-called “real jobs” to pay the bills, and it can be really frustrating when you feel like earning money is holding you back from progressing with your art.  The Sara D method for getting around that is:

1.  Pick a storyline that has a lot of potential for fun, excitement, and escapism from real life.

2.  Come up with characters you ENJOY spending time with.  They don’t have to be nice people, but they should be fun for you, the writer, to spend time with.  You want them to be interesting enough for readers to want to spend time with them, right?

3.  Set a nice, low word-count goal for yourself.  My daily goal was 250 words, because even on an insanely hectic day, I could almost always get that much writing done.  Why a small goal?  Because (a) it feels good to get it done on busy days, (b) it feels even better to surpass it on days when you’ve got more time and/or are on a roll, and (c) if you’re so tuckered out that what you’ve written on a particular day completely stinks, it isn’t a huge setback to scrap 250 words and write a new 250 words in its place.

4.  Do your word count as often as you possibly can, don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, and enjoy the escapism of spending time away from real life WHILE doing something productive.

5.  DO NOT EDIT WHILE WRITING YOUR FIRST DRAFT.  That’s what the second draft is for.  Get the story down first.  Clean it up and flesh it out later.  Your inner editor will inhibit your creativity if you unleash it on the rough draft.

At least, this is what worked for me, and I don’t THINK I’m any crazier than I was before I wrote this book.  I was already pretty far gone to begin with.  😉