Balancing Internal and External in Category

July 17th, 2012

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!


14 Responses to “Balancing Internal and External in Category”

  1. Ruchita says:

    Hi Maisey,
    Fabulous advice. Thanks! Looking forward to hearing from you at the forum :)

  2. Fabulous post, Maisey. I tend to drop my external conflict entirely in favour of internal. Which means the pace then drags and the characters have nothing driving them. I like the idea of the external conflict being the framework that the internal conflict hangs on.

  3. AmalieB says:

    Excellent post! I tend to focus way too much on external. The internal is there, it just does not get the spotlight. It’s something I’m trying to work on, so all advice on how to wrestle this particular bear is very much appreciated.

  4. THanks Maisey. As usual very pertinent and practical. Now if only it was easy to implement.

  5. Caroline Storer says:

    Fab advice – as always Maisey! Thanks. It sounds easy but….we all know it isn’t! ;o) Caroline x

  6. Alice says:

    Great advice.

    I often wonder if the standard writing advice we’re given in how-to books and articles just doesn’t apply to writing for the main Harlequin M&B lines (Presents, Romance)

    We are constantly told that our characters must have clear external goals, that are urgent and absolutely vital to the characters– that these external goals will drive the characters through the story and that the readers read to find out if the protagonist will get his/her external goal or not.

    But in Harlequin M&B romances , the characters external goals are either vague or quickly fall by the wayside and the internal takes over.

    How important are the characters’ external goals in a Presents romance?
    Do they have to be urgent and vital and compelling tangible, or could they be something a bit more abstract/ internal like the heroine simply wants to provide a secure life for her child?

    In the past, in Presents, the characters external exteranl goals tended to be more concrete and compelling with a clear end point eg she wanted to preserve the building she was living in–he wanted to tear it down. But we don’t see stories like that anymore

    I can see that the characters need some sort of external goals to bring them together and keep them together fro a while, but I’m wondering how big these goals need to be. (Not many how-to books explain how to write a story based on internal turning points–they all seem to focus on external plot. If we play down external goals will our stories lose all forward momentum?

    I’d love to see some blog posts on writing an excellent plotless wonder :)

    • Maisey Yates says:

      Alice, writing for a shorter format really is different. And not easier! :) I think it is important that they have external goals, as you said, to bring them together. I don’t think the external goals have to remain strongly in the forefront of the story. (really they can’t! You have to get down to character.)

      A category romance is all about character. The plot serves them. It’s there to reveal more of them, it’s there to advance their journey. When the plot becomes stronger than character to the point where they act like a different person in order to advance it, then you have a problem.

      I think with category that external goal is the top layer. In my first book, Elaine wanted to buy her father’s company. Beneath that though, she wanted to prove herself. That she was just as good as a man, that she was capable. That she was worthy. And it was because she felt like she might not be. And her journey was to find out that she was, helped along by our hero. So her external goal was only the surface, and it wasn’t what truly mattered. And that is, I think, how it often works in category.

  7. Alice says:

    Thanks Maisey. So I definitely need a strong external goal but it’s what that goal represents that’s really important. and that will give us the start of the character arc

    One more question

    …his mommy didn’t hug him and now he doesn’t trust emotion. But please not that. Something better than that.

    That got me worried! I tend to use the character’s awful childhood to explain his/her present day attitudes. How original should I be aiming to be with backstory? Should we be trying for something not seen before? (Not sure I can do that) Could anyone gve me an example of an original character backstory ?

  8. Alexa Bourne says:

    Great information and a great reminder for me as I work on revisions for a Harlequin line!

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