How We Write Wednesday: External Conflict–Lock and Load

Jenni’s going to explain the Conflict Box over on her blog today. HoWW is all about plot this month, and it’s time to get serious about the external conflict that drives story and our critiques. And unless you lock and load your protagonist’s central goal and what stops him/her from achieving that goal, your plot won’t believably propel the protagonist or the reader through the story.

lock and load

You can tell from Jenni’s and my last two posts, that plot isn’t my drafting happy place. Character is. But, as I’ll be teaching once again this weekend with the Central New York Romance Writers Mini-Con, character IS plot. Your two lead characters (the protagonist and antagonist) must have external goals that are in conflict with each other, in every scene/chapter/act of the story, or you’re not crafting characters that will drive each other to grow and change on the page. And, the part I like best, those external goals and conflicts must derive from who these people are as characters BEFORE you create the on-the-page situations and obstacles that get in the characters way.

A hard and fast rule: the protagonist’s goal must drive the antagonist’s conflict in your story, and vice versa. Think of it in revers–if the antagonist of your novel isn’t complicating your protagonist’s race to achieve his goal, you don’t have much of a story, right? No matter how beautifully drawn your characters are, you won’t have the core external conflict that will keep a reader turning pages to see what happens next.

Let me give you a quick example of what “locked and loaded” external conflict can look like, then I’m sending you over to Jenni’s blog for today’s full-on how-to stuff.

Here’s the conflict lock in a contemporary romance proposal I’m currently wrapping up for my agent (keep in mind that in a romance, the hero and heroine are each other’s antagonist–in the romance arc itself, they must drive the external conflict in the other’s world, or the spine of your novel falls apart):

  • The hero’s goal is to quickly take care of the situation that’s brought him back his hometown after 10 years, so he can leave again before he gets too attached and once more hurts the people he cares about. His conflict: the situation at home quickly escalates, complicating his plans. Leaving town quickly becomes the fastest way to hurt those he cares about.
  • The heroine’s goal is to be independent and self-reliant, so she can secure the future her daughter deserves.  Her conflict: her obsession with self-reliance (and her ex-husband’s manipulations) cause complications that put her and her daughter’s future together at risk.

Sounds pretty simple, right? The protagonist and antagonists (hero and heroine, in this example) can’t have what they want, the way the want it, without getting in their own way. Things are getting complicated. But that’s not necessarily conflict lock for the story–unless they’re getting in EACH OTHER’s way. So, let’s see:

  • Is the heroine getting in the way of the hero achieving his goal? He can’t take charge of things and get the heck out of dodge quickly, not solving her problems at least, because she’s obsessed with being independent and self-reliant and fighting him every step of the way. Sounds like a lock to me. Check!
  • Is the hero getting in the way of the heroine achieving her goal? She keeps trying to do for herself and her child, but he keeps adding to the mess her ex is causing, because the hero refuses to sit on the sidelines and watch her go down swinging, and he won’t stop and listen to her long enough to understand what she really needs. Another excellent source of escalating, external story conflict. Check. Check!!

Exactly what does all this really mean, and how do you do it for your current/next story? I’m leaving those juicy details to Jenni today. She’ll show you a snazzy “conflict box” and use super fun examples from Miss Congeniality. So go on over and tell her how brilliant she is.

Then come back next week, and listen to me whine about what happens when you  DON’T lock and load your external goals and conflict before you start drafting a story. Most likely, I’ll get around to talking about how all this helps you draw more deeply defined and realistic charactes, too…

Just to recap our March HoWW plot journey lessons:

And February’s character (and critique/brainstorming) posts:

Remember, How We Write is a series where we spotlight the complexity of writing a novel and the value of quality critiquing, planning and revision. Read between the lines of these and other HoWW posts and see that while this whole novel thing might be harder than you first thought, you CAN do this. Don’t give up on your own projects. Don’t be disappointed if what you’ve learned already isn’t enough and you need to dig deeper into your process and your story and characters to make your WIP work. Don’t forget that we’re all learning and trying to make that next story better.

We love to hear your thoughts! Hundreds of you are stopping by each week. When you see something interesting or have a question, leave us a comment and we’ll do our best to get you an answer ;o)

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4 Responses to “How We Write Wednesday: External Conflict–Lock and Load”

  1. s. bascon says:

    Got an opportunity to hear you speak at the DFW Writers’ Conference and chat with you at the evening reception. Awesome presentation! And love to be able to follow on your blog for more writing advice. You really helped me crystallize ides for my completed MS and my next novel. Thanks. I look forward to getting more advice as I follow your blog!

    • Anna says:

      I’m so glad! I’m up again tomorrow on the HoWW rotation. I’m the test case for how conflict lock (or lack there-of) can go very, VERY wrong. Don’t miss my misery ;o)

  2. Kristen Lamb says:

    I was blessed enough to get to see Jenni speak at the DFW Con and she was AMAZING. I wish I would have taped her session. I heard you were too, but, sadly, I have to rely on hearsay of said awesomeness.

    I am really glad you guys are writing these posts to help us get better with our craft. Writing fiction is like trying to juggle fire and watch a three-year-old (our imagination). Thanks for the practical advice to do things better and better.


  3. Mary Preston says:

    Writing is complicated. Good thing I am a reader.

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