Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Fiona Harper on writing: get out your sniper rifle...

Today, Fiona Harper talks about the must-have ingredient of romantic fiction – internal conflict – and why you need to put your shotgun away and get your sniper rifle out when it comes to delivering it to your characters’ doorstep.

Two types of conflict
If you’ve been writing romance for more than five minutes you’ll know that a good romance needs conflict. Not fighting and bickering (please, no!), but obstacles that stop your hero and heroine getting together. And conflict can come from two different sources: external conflict, obstacles that come from outside the characters, or internal conflict, where the obstacles come from within the characters themselves.

As romance writers, we want to use strong external conflict to drive the story, but the main focus should really be on the internal conflict. But how do we inject that into our stories? What is it and where does it come from? How can we maximise it to create a really gripping story?

From the inside out…
The clue is in the title. Internal conflict needs to come from inside your characters, which means you need to know what they’re emotional ‘hot buttons’ are – you know what I mean, that issue or situation that just drives them crazy, causes them the deepest pain or makes them the most afraid. This might seem obvious, but many aspiring romance writers don't delve deep enough when it comes to internal conflict and keep everything on the surface.

The sore spot in your character’s soul
I think of these emotional triggers as being like a bruise – the skin is tender and painful when you touch it, but it’s not just the surface that’s the problem. The damage goes deeper than that. You know what it’s like if you’ve got a nasty bruise… If someone accidentally touches it, you flinch away, launching into self-protection mode. And so it should be with our characters. It’s your heroine’s job to find that sore spot of your hero’s and prod it hard (even if she’s not aware she’s doing it at the time) and vice versa.

Conflict = emotion
Conflict causes emotion – both in the reader and in the character. When your protagonists are experiencing powerful emotion, your readers will too. And the source of their conflict often stems from a painful event in their past. As I mentioned last month, I’ve been reading Understanding Emotion by Paul Ekman, and he says something very interesting about emotional triggers and past experience. It’s not new information – a lot of us will recognise the truth in what he says, in both our own lives and in our writing – but I’m finding looking at it from a scientific perspective rather than an artistic one both useful and enlightening.

The emotion that lingers too long
Ekman says that emotional responses are often only supposed to last for a short time, like the pounding of your heart when you miss your footing at the top of the stairs. Adrenaline shoots through your system, making you grab for the hand rail before you even think about it, and you are saved from plunging down the stairs. Within a minute your heart rate subsides and your breathing returns to normal. That reflex fear response has done its job.

However, sometimes we stay in an emotional state much longer than we should do, and even if we logically know we should calm down, we can’t seem to switch the emotion off. Ekman says this usually happens with learned emotional triggers, rather than the universal ones (like the fear spike at the top of the stairs). We get an elongated emotional reaction because the current emotional situation reminds us of a similar one in the past. The closer the relation of this incident to that other traumatic incident, the stronger and more long lasting the emotional response will be, and the interesting bit is that even if you understand you are being emotional when you have no need to be, you still may not be able to curtail that emotion.

For example, let’s think up a scenario:
Sarah is out shopping with a small child she is looking after for someone else. She pauses to look at a pair of shoes in the department store, and when she looks round the child is gone. The normal response would be a flash of panic. This helps, getting the adrenalin flowing, making Sarah alert. She quickly searches around and finds the child hiding behind a display stand a few feet away. The fear quickly subsides, and they carry on with their shopping trip. Sarah was able to deal with her fear and handle the situation calmly and rationally.

But what if Sarah had looked after a niece or a nephew on a previous occasion and that time the child had run away, fallen over and had concussion, resulting in hospital treatment? What if it has caused a big ugly scene and her sister still hasn’t fully forgiven her? Let’s look at the same situation again…

This time Sarah might have a much stronger emotional reaction the moment she couldn’t see the child. If the fear was too intense, she might not be able to get her emotions under control, meaning she panics instead of hunting calmly for the child who is only a few feet away. Even once the child is spotted it might take much longer for her to calm down. She might even feel shaky and out of sorts for the rest of the day. The similarity of this incident to a previous highly-charged emotional situation has meant the fear was exaggerated and way out of proportion to the present day event, and Sarah couldn’t get a grip on herself, even though she tried to.

Why is this important knowledge for a writer? Let me ask you this: which scenario was more interesting to read about, even in my dry recap of events? Which situation engaged you more emotionally? Also, in the second scenario, Sarah was well and truly out of her comfort zone. This is exactly what we want as writers. When our protagonists feel comfortable they don’t want to move, they don’t want to act, they see no need to change. A character happily in their comfort zone creates very little conflict. There’s no sense of emotion and danger for the reader if we know Sarah can calmly handle the situation and keep on shopping.  

Match your characters’ backstory to the present-day conflict
This is why we need to know our characters well, and why we need to build their backstories so they relate to the present-day conflicts they are facing, especially when it comes to the romance. I know this seems obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many manuscripts I’ve critiqued by aspiring writers who don’t make this connection.
If your hero has been betrayed by a woman in the past and now has trust issues, don’t pair him up with Miss Reliable who is never going to be disloyal. Give him a heroine who has the power to push that sore spot of his, and push it hard! Or give him someone who he believes he can count on, but when the crucial moment comes she lets him down (and make sure you give her good motivation, if you’re going to redeem her later).

Aim for the heart
When you know your characters’ hot emotional buttons, when you know their heart issues, you can do away with what I call the ‘shotgun’ approach to conflict – throwing all sorts of little issues at them in an effort to keep the tension up. When you know where their weak spots are, what’s really going to wound them to the core, you can pick up your sniper rifle. One penetrating bullet is all it’s going to take, and it’s going to do far more damage than those pesky little pellets.

So dig deep and tailor-make your characters’ past so it feeds into the present-day conflict. Once you’ve done that, all you need to do is get your character in your crosshairs, then aim for the heart!

Fiona's latest book, The Guy To Be Seen With, is part of Harlequin's brand new line, KISS, and is out now

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