Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Demons without, demons within: the conflict in our stories

Author Jaye Wells didn’t mince words on her visit to a recent Writers Guild of Texas meeting. “All stories need conflict!” she proclaimed, noting that the reason editors report rejecting 90 percent of the manuscripts they receive is because “nothing happens!” 

Were we starting to get smug, each of us telling ourselves, “but lots of stuff happens in my stories. My characters run around like Energizer bunnies on meth?” 

But do those plot bunnies ever learn, do they ever grow, do they ever change? Or are they doomed to run endlessly around a track?

As Wells said, “External conflicts are common in genre, i.e., plot-driven fiction. Internal conflict relates to a hero’s mores, doubts and fears. The best stories, the most memorable stories,” balance both external action and the characters’ internal conflict – the metaphorical demons a hero/heroine must battle in order to grow.

Think back to the character building worksheets from last week’s post, which list not only characters physical descriptions, but the main qualities that define those characters, their beliefs and values. How have they been embarrassed, how have they failed, how have they been humiliated?

In Wells’ terms, what psychic and emotional wounds have they suffered that make them long for healing?
image: pixabay

Then consider the moral crisis that defines the book, and what challenges those defining characteristics, what makes those wounds ache unbearably?

Now, we’ve got internal conflict, which, Wells said, should give the characters, good or bad, a chance to become “authentically themselves. . . Even a terrible character, a villain, will have deep wounds and longings.”

Although literary fiction tends to be more character-driven, genre fiction more plot-driven, not even genre writers can slight character development. “It’s what makes your character memorable, even if readers can’t remember all the plot points. The more shallow your understanding of your character, the more shallow your story will be.”

Her term for the character’s emotional/psychic arc: “an internal plot.”

Fictional characters (like living human beings) are notoriously prone to believe that if they only have some external good – if they get rich, if they win the race, get the promotion, become famous – just name it – their inner longings will be healed. 

Wells terms these, “self-limiting beliefs – the lies you tell yourself, that if you receive something external, your ‘wound’ will be healed.” These external goals that drive the external plot of a story are often, in fact usually, at odds with what the character most needs. 

“Know your character’s lie,” Well told her audience. “Most characters should be lying to themselves at the beginning of the story.”

The “dark night of the soul” – a term possibly coined by the late screenwriter Blake Snyder of Save the Cat! fame – is the point in a story arc at which a character realizes that pursuit of the external goal will not assuage the inner wound. Although the internal and external plots may have been interwoven throughout the book, the one point at which the two must mesh is the “dark night of the soul” moment immediately before the climax.

Now the hero must either renounce the external goal – in Wells’ words, “face up to the lie in order to win,” or continue the pursuit despite the increasingly-obvious tragedy of its consequences.

The writer’s job, Wells said, is to ask herself, “What can I do to my characters to make the grow?”


  1. Hi Melissa, I'm glad you enjoyed my talk. Just wanted to clarify the origins of "dark night of the soul." Blake Snyder didn't coin the phrase. It actually goes way back to St. John of the Cross from the 16th century. He wasn't talking about writing, but that's where the idea originated.

  2. Thanks, Jaye! That pedigree gives the phrase a lot more gravitas. My personal term is "hour of the wolf," but other than hearing that on (I think) some sci-fi movie, have no idea where it came from.