Sunday, February 12, 2012

Conflict: Is it internal?

A few days ago, I mentioned I had started reading Barbara Dunlop's A Cowboy Comes Home (Harlequin Desire), but I got busy doing stuff around the house later that day and misplaced the book. After an exhaustive search, I gave up looking for it, figuring the book would show up once I forgot about it. Instead of further driving myself bonkers, I picked out a different book to read.

Out of my TBR stack, (which is finally shrinking, I'm happy to report) I chose Janice Maynard's The Billionaire's Borrowed Baby. I read this book with my internal editor on high alert, and my writing student cap on. I thought I'd share what I learned from this book...which seems to be my current blogging trend. There are spoilers, so read ahead with that in mind. The goal isn't to evaluate the author's style, but to pick apart the book to understand how it's written. If you want to read the book before you know the minute details, it would be a good idea to stop reading now.

Onward we go... The Billionaire's Borrowed Baby is about a woman whose sister dies in a car accident. The heroine has no job and no prospects, and is left with a baby that she can't afford to care for. But, she is worried that her sister's alcoholic, lout of an ex will gain custody if she doesn't provide a stable home life for her infant niece. She decides to create a family by proposing to her wealthy ex-boyfriend. She broke the hero's heart years ago, and has a major hang up with the fact the hero has money.

This hangup (internal value/belief according to Randy Ingermanson in the book Writing Fiction For Dummies) stems from the fact she has been ingrained since childhood not to trust men with power. The heroine's mother was dumped by her lover/boss (the heroine's biological father). He dumped her when she told him she was pregnant with the heroine. Because of her mother's personal convictions and experiences, the heroine has all kinds of fears of a man having control over her, or using money and position to have control of her life.

The hero was very hurt when the heroine refused his marriage proposal when they were younger. I'm led to believe he was never turned down by a woman before. It didn't sit well with him, too, that he had fallen helplessly in lust/love with her when they were younger.

When the heroine comes to him after a long absence from his life and asks him to marry her, he agrees believing this will be his one chance to get her out of his system, to get revenge for her dumping him, to show her what she has been missing, and to make her hurt the way he was once hurt. Of course, this is a romance, and he is still in love with her, although he won't admit it to himself, his brother, or the woman he's in love least, he won't until it's almost too late.

I feel like this is a really good book to look at concerning conflict, particularly the difference between internal and external conflict. Marriage of convenience is the set up (some would say hook) of the book, and the baby in jeopardy is the device that gets the characters together to handle the situation they find themselves in.

The major external conflict in this book stems from the heroine's sister's ex-husband who claims he wants the baby, but in truth, he wants to use the baby to stay out of jail. (his motivation) It's his family that says they want the baby to keep and raise, but it's not a sincere effort on their part. They're kind of a mafia type family with little emotion. They're not really described in depth. Anyway, as important as this element is to the creation of the story - the setup - they are not the focus of the book. You won't find a long drawn out battle between the heroine and her sister's ex, or his family.

In this type of romance, the internal conflict takes center stage. The mafia family has only one scene in the first 25% of the book. It's mostly narrative, and only a few paragraphs long. They don't crop up throughout the book in short appearances. They are mentioned in the beginning strictly to setup the external conflict, setup a time frame for the situation to play out (urgency), and deliver the context of the situation that led the heroine to seek out the hero. That's it.

There is an internalized lingering fear of the ex and his family that the heroine feels throughout the book. But, this adds to her internal emotional conflict. This fear is linked to the family, so why isn't it considered external conflict?  Because, the family is not there physically, tangibly. They're an afterthought. The heroine's lingering fear is a feeling.

If you aren't sure if something qualifies as internal or external conflict, ask yourself a very simple question: Is it an internalized emotion? Is {fill in the blank} a feeling? If you answer, YES, it's part of the internal/ emotional conflict.

Keeping that question in mind can help you when you're faced with identifying a difficult story element. Such as an inheritance, or an arrest. An event is not a tangible thing. But it's also not something internalized.

In the past, I have struggled with figuring out whether, say, the birth of a baby qualifies as internal or external conflict, because intense emotions are tied to the event itself. However, giving birth isn't a feeling, no matter how emotional we might become at or during the event. Therefore, it would be part of the external conflict. This is the same for an arrest, or an inheritance. Neither of those things are feelings, so they are considered part of your external conflict.

These events may be important to your book, but it seems to me, in a book such as a Harlequin Desire, it's the internal conflict that takes center stage. So, you would have to base your book around the feelings the characters are struggling with during the reading of the will (inheritance), or because the heroine is about to give birth. Not because of the event itself.

Now, back to The Billionaire's Borrowed Baby... The actual external conflict (the ex) shows up the first time in the first 25% of the book - during the setup. It doesn't show up again until about 85-90% through the book, when it is finally diffused, in this case, by a communication from the hero's older brother.

Everything between those two points, even the sections where the heroine is worried about the ex and his family, is internal conflict. This can be as twisty and turny as you want it to be. Every article and blog post I've read, every podcast I've listened to, has encouraged writers to really turn up those emotions. Flesh them out. Make them real. Ground them in emotions that are familiar so that your reader feels them too.

The Billionaire's Borrowed Baby illustrates this internal/external conflict balance perfectly. If you read the book, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the structure. Do you agree? Disagree? Feel free to share your opinion and/or expertise in the comments.

I read the final chapters of The Billionaire's Borrowed Baby this morning, jotted down a few notes, and as I was putting the book back on the shelf, I found the Barbara Dunlop book I'd misplaced. So that's what I'm currently reading. Just like I thought, if I stopped looking for it, I'd find it again. So, it's Round 2 with A Cowboy Comes Home. I'll blog about the book once I've read it. That's all for today. Happy reading!


  1. I have never seen a book review broken down in such a writerly way. How very cool and inexplicably intriguing! I'll admit, it is very hard to read now without that internal editor/writer's cap ticking away page by page, paragraph after paragraph, line to line to line. By the end, especially if the book is good, I stop and think, "What made this novel work? Or what didn't? And if something didn't, are there any possible weak similarities in my own WIP?"

    Glad to see you doing this with Harlequins, as well, Cora, because I'm always so torn on whether to purchase them.

  2. Hi Nikki! It's more or less a dissection rather than a review. I want to try writing for Desire, so I've been reading the books. The ones that I like, I've been setting aside to pull apart and study on my blog. :)


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