Quickie with Alicia Rasley

(November 1, 1997)

Alicia Rasley wrote me some time ago about the various types of conflict to be found in romances. Since I’ve been struggling with just how to present a new Special Title Listing on Not Your Usual Conflict for several months, her comments, as well as those by some insightful readers, really helped me along. Here is what Alicia had to say:

I was reading through your archives and found a discussion of conflict, internal vs. external. As a writer and a reader, I think most books should have both. (I even divide “internal” into two types– internal, meaning the obstacles the character must overcome within him/herself, and interactional, meaning the tensions and issues between this character and others – the lover especially.)

I’ve written books with mostly internal conflict. . . and had editors politely request that I put “a bit of plot in there along with the character study”. (Yeah, that stung a bit.) As I see it, the external conflict (the murder he has to solve, the student she’s trying to save from the gangs) can often force the character to face an internal conflict that hasn’t been recognized or addressed yet (his continuing anger at his dead father, her guilt about her own criminal past). The external conflict also, ideally, can bring the hero and heroine together in the plot – that is, as he investigates the murder, he comes to her school and wants to take her student out for questioning, but she refuses to let him. The external conflict can cause or exacerbate the interactional conflict (he’s so cynical after years trying to deal with gangs, that he scoffs at her idealistic attempts to save middle-school students with campouts and basketball games).

That is, the books that involve us emotionally, intellectually, and romantically are likely to have all three of these conflicts weaving together, each complicating the others, and the resolution of each aiding in the resolution of the others. It’s a tough job, no doubt, and some books necessarily emphasize one conflict (an adventure book might be externally driven; a coming-of-age story is likely to be internally driven). But this is similar to the answer to the question, “Do you prefer character or plot books?” We ought to be striving to provide both, integrated in one story.

I’m slowly learning to use the external conflict to manifest or magnify the internal conflict. I think what I find hardest of all: In a romance, everything is doubled. You might have two external conflicts (hero’s, heroine’s), two internal. . . . That’s a lot of conflict for a nice little love story! It’s like trying to French braid your own hair. :)

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