Ahem…so…I wrote this article today and it turned out that wasn’t exactly what I was supposed to do. I’ll be taking part in a discussion on harlequin from July 23-27 for their book in three months course, and this is the topic I’ll be involved in! So here’s a little primer on balancing the internal conflict with the external plot:
I have to laugh when people say that writing category romance seems ‘easy’ because the books are so short. I try not to laugh in front of the people, because that’s rude, but it does make me laugh. The challenge of category romance is to deliver a read that’s as emotionally satisfying as a 100K words novel, and to do it in 50K.
A huge part of doing that successfully, is the find the balance between the external plot and conflict, and the romantic plot and internal conflict.
Now, different categories have a different ratio of internal to external. If you’re writing an Intrigue, a more complex external plot is essential to delivering on the promise of that line.
A line like Presents is based on the promise of delivering intense emotion, and in order to accomplish that in the tight word count, you need a tighter focus on the hero and heroine, and on the internal conflict.
The external conflict is typically what bring the hero and heroine together. The heroine wants her father’s business, but her father has sold it to the hero. The only way for her to get her hands on it again is to marry the hero. That external problem is what got her into the hero’s office to propose marriage, it’s the thing that will hold them together through the book.
The internal conflict is what keeps them apart. In a category romance the internal conflict is essential to building a relationship betwen the reader and the characters. A strong internal conflict, one that is based on real issues, will make us root for your hero and heroine to overcome it, and fine happiness and love.
Big misunderstandings, conflicts based on half-heard conversations or easily cleared up lies, can quickly just become a frustration. An abbreviated word count does NOT mean going light on the conflict, or choosing one that’s easily resolved.
Some lines, like Harlequin Romantic Suspense, run a bit longer (70-75K) and the line allows for more external. I asked HRS author Natalie Charles how she finds the balane in a line that clearly requires more from the external plot. Natalie said, “I try to use external suspense to drive internal conflict.”
Which, I think is fabulous advice to matter what you’re trying to write. To use the two different strands of conflict to advance each other.
Presents is one of the shorter lines, at 50K, and the balance between internal and external is heavily weighted toward the internal.
With my Presents, I tend to open with the external, since it’s what the entire set-up hinges on. Then as I go forward, the external starts to fall back and the internal conflict comes forward. I like to make sure the black moment is triggered by the internal conflict, and not external forces. This reinforces the fact that it was the internal keeping them apart all the time, and that the issue was real and an impediment to their happiness. (Ex: his mommy didn’t hug him and now he doesn’t trust emotion. But please not that. Something better than that.)
I have some quick tips for you on minding the internal/external balance in your MS. (This is like the pirate code. More like guidelines. There are times when drinking rum and twisting the ‘rules’ is the best option!)
1. Read the books in the line you’re aiming for. Get a sense for how established authors balance the two. Make an effort ot define which parts of the conflict are related to the external plot and which come from within the characters and effect the romance and happily ever after.
2. In the shorter categories you don’t need a subplot or a secondary story. You’ll just make your life hard.
3. Secondary characters will also make your life hard. Don’t fall back on using secondaries to resolve your hero and heroine’s problems. In category it typically works best to keep your h and H on the page together actively resolving issues between the two of them.
4. Keep your hero and heorine together, make sure you’re always advancing the romance. Even if it’s a scene focused on external plot, it should have an effect on the romantic relationship. Words are tight, and the romance needs to be the focus of the book because…it’s a romance!
5. The external plot should serve the romance, not the other way around. This goes along the lines of what Natalie said. Your characters and their romance are the most important thing. Don’t let them get lost in a plot, or in a haze of secondary characters, no matter how brilliant or entertaining.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments!