Thinking of a Scene In Paragraphs

(yes, this blogpost is going up ahead of Tuesday morning, but that’s because Tuesday is a travel day for me, and I won’t have internet access for 15+ hours of it)

Last week I did a tweetstorm about treating sentences like cameras.  Today on the blog I want to go into more detail about that, and show you want it actually looks like.

Yes, I understand that our particular writing styles and choices are going to be (and should be) different, but I’m hoping the point comes through to you all the same. I believe very strongly in the idea that you have a responsibility to put the clearest broadcast of your art into the mind of the other person and that no matter what your art is, it will be filtered and affected by not only your biases and experiences as a creator, but by the biases and experiences of the audience. The best way to pierce this chain mail of expectation and perception is through clearly getting the idea out and across.

Don’t confuse clarity for simplicity or brevity. You don’t need to be simple or brief to be clear. And don’t mistake this for an argument about having more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, because it isn’t. Show and tell work together as concepts to help deliver the art into the person’s head. But that’s for another tweetstorm and another blogpost.

While today I’m using a scene from a movie, for your own work, I want you to picture it as visually and completely in your head, as if you’ve paused it and like some bad CSI CG scenes, you can fully walk around and through it.

To start off today, we need a scene. Let’s go grab a screenshot from whatever I’m watching on Netflix.

We’re gonna use this one. I like this scene.

This is a moment in Rogue One that I particularly like, though I chose it for the combination of dialogue, numerous things in the frame to describe, and its staging.

To get you thinking like a camera, here’s how I teach it.

  1. Make an inventory of things (not characters) you want to definitely write about in the scene.
  2. Make a list of all the characters you want to write about in the scene.
  3. Make a list of actions that happen in the scene, paying attention to both who does what, but also the order in which these actions happen.
  4. Make a list of stakes, goals, and things risked in the scene
  5. Make a list of all expectations each character in the scene.
  6. Write the scene.

Now if that sounds like I’m asking a lot of you for simple paragraphs, I don’t mean it to. But for those of you who have never done it like this, or you’re looking for a better road map so that you can better at it, I’m purposefully breaking the list out so you see how these things weave together to build something narratively sound.

Inventory of non-character things

This is objects in the scene that aren’t people. These can be the things held by people, but they’re also things like what’s in the background or furniture or the ground. Just so that there’s no confusion about my handwriting, here’s what that inventory would look like typed out.

Not a complete list, but it works for the example

Remember, these notes are just for me as the writer. No one’s going to check them out, and really I’m writing them down to keep myself on track as to what I definitely want to say either as components of a sentence or as a sentence entire.

No, the order I write this list in doesn’t matter, and no, the order I write them in doesn’t translate into the order I’ll write about them in the text. I’m just making a list, stop overthinking it.

List the characters

Again, just a list, no special order or attention. The paragraphs and the choices I make about how to write it will dictate where I put attention. Right now, I’m just corralling all the possible beings I could talk about.

I’m sure each trooper has a name, but this is my example. You go do your own.

It’s worth pointing out here that you can do this list before the item list. The order isn’t super critical, so long as by the time you get to the writing, you’ve got all the components organized. I tend to do the item list first, because I tend to skip over things in early drafts and don’t like having the “why did I leave this out” conversation with myself during later drafts.

Some of you are thinking, “Is it just a list of names?” and no, it doesn’t have to be. It can be whatever character associated information you need or want, but since this particular example scene happens well into the movie, let’s assume I’ve already covered the physical descriptions and traits elsewhere.

If this were the intro-to-the-characters scene (and you can argue that this moment in Rogue One is, but you’ve previously seen Chirrut one scene prior), then I’d attach to each item in the list a descriptor or two so that I can establish the details about the characters when they come up.

List the actions

Now that we have all the physical objects of the scene listed, we can figure out what’s going on with them. In a scene, nothing happens without affecting the time and space around it, and nothing happens that doesn’t somewhere have a documentable reaction.

I’ll break that down. If you’re going to have a character do something, the world around him and the characters around him will react in some way, even if that reaction is “nothing changes because of what’s happened.”

For instance, if the Hulk throws a building at you, presumably you’d be crushed by the building and the space where the building was would no longer have a building in it.

Actions are about what happens and what results because of the things that happen

I tend to write this inventory in the order I want the events to happen in the scene. This is the first time I start making decisions about the structure, since the later items on the six-part list will cover things like tone and atmosphere.

What this does not mean is that the first things listed will naturally take more focus or line-space than the later things. In every paragraph in a scene there’s at least one key piece of information that you want to get across to the reader. In this case it’s the Chirrut dialogue and the fact he just straight walks out among them.

The second item “no one shoots him” is a reaction to something else that happens in the scene. Reactions are actions too, so don’t exclude them. I’m sure someone will say they should go on their own list, and yes, I can see how that helps, but action and reaction will likely end up being their own blogpost, so for now, let’s stay on what we’re doing.

Stakes, goals, and things risked

For the next two items on the list, we have to get past the physical objects of the scene and look at the emotions and psychology of the moment. No one walks into a scene without having a goal and risking something to get that goal. No one gets out of a scene without some element(s) of the scene affecting them. Characters take their past forward, every time.

Every character or group of characters has a goal.

I know expectations are the next thing on the list, but don’t include the expectations into this list. Goals are objective, expectations aren’t. A goal of “I want a sandwich” is impacted by the expectation that I have the means to make a sandwich. Actions are bred more from expectations than goals, since they’re more immediate and more variable.

So why don’t expectations go first in our list? Because stakes are derived based on the situation and goal(s) colliding, which means expectations are the character’s assessment of how likely the goal is based on the situation.

What we choose as the goal is part of the overall character arc, since no arc is introduced and resolved in a single scene or beat. And yes, every character has a goal, even if they go unstated at a particular point in the story.

Expectations

Expectations are subjective because they’re the factor in character development where the skills and perceived risks come into play. I might be a fantastic golfer (skill) but I’m not sure I could play my best when my clubs are made of snakes (perceived risk), so my expectation might be that I won’t win the championship in this snake golf tournament.

Here in my Rogue One example, I’m going to make a clear decision as to what the scene is about based on what expectations I list and which ones I don’t.

Expectations shape actions because they’re the fluid influencers to achieve fixed goals

Write the Scene

Armed with all these pieces, we can write a scene.

The smoke and dust had barely settled when his voice filled the post-explosion silence. 

“I am one with the Force, and the Force is one with me. And I fear nothing.”

Odd, thought Stormtrooper C, that this blind man, this blind fool, could just walk into this moment, his moment, and start yapping. So he watched. 

Chirrut moved in a balletic way, The soft footfalls and the crunch of gravel and sand underscored the sort of grace that stood against the explosion. There were still the smells of burning concrete and flesh. But Chirrut seemed to not notice. Or if he did, he wasn’t letting on. 

And no one seemed to fire on him. It would make sense to, to flood the air with blaster fire and turn this blind fool into swiss cheese. But no one did. Not C with all his bravado. Not B with her itchy trigger finger. Not A with their eagerness to please. 

There was just this guy, standing there, talking at them.

It’s not a great moment when I write it out. It’s an example, and I could do a lot more visually with it. I could frame the explosion while slowing down time. I could take more space to talk about C and B and A individually.

There are loads of choices to make, and that’s one thing I want you to remember – the decisions you make matter.

Practice this. Watch things. Pause it and try to describe it in whatever way you’d rewrite it.

 

Happy writing

 

FiYoShiMo Day 23 – Worldbuilding and Characters

As we near our giftiest of holidays, let me give you a nice package with a bow on it.

theme-holidays-gifts-man-black-suit-holds-exclusive-gift-wrapped-black-box-gold-ribbon-bow-isolated-56344485

Don’t search “man with bow on package” recklessly.

Today on Day 23 of Fix Your Shit Month, our characters get put into the world. And our world gets put into our characters. It’s pretty exciting stuff.

We’re going to work today with the protagonist, but what we’re doing is going to apply to all the characters, and after you try this with the protag, run some other characters through this process and see if you like the results.

Start by taking your protagonist and putting them in their seat of power. A seat of power is the location where the character exists in the most comfort and agency. It’s where they feel their best. It’s their Batcave, their Sanctum Sanctorum. Whenever the character is in that location, then they’re at their most capable.

This is NOT the same as the character doing whatever they do best, this is about the location. So picture it. Detail the hell out of it. Even the parts or inches of it that the character doesn’t interact with. The ceiling of the Batcave, the crown molding in the Oval Office. Those non-interactive spaces help give the place a sense of realness.

If you only describe the space they use, you’re limiting yourself in terms of what development you’re broadcasting. For instance, I’m in my office. I can describe the desk I’m sitting at, the chair I’m sitting in, maybe the window and shelves next to me. It’s easy for me to take for granted the carpet under my feet, or the small box that my computer’s subwoofer is sitting on, or the stack of DVDs that need to be filed but are now stacked on the floor. I don’t talk about them because they’re just … there, and although I love sitting in this space, and no other space (in the house or otherwise) feels as good as this space does when I’m working. We take things for granted, and when our writing highlights one of those things, we’re adding an additional splash of color to our mental pictures.

Alright, protagonist, seat of power. Now consider that seat. Is it common in the world of your story? Are there similar ones elsewhere (I don’t just mean Batman has spare Batcaves, I mean does Batman have one, does Tim have one, etc)? If these seats are common, what distinguishes your protagonist’s seat from the others? Think about it in terms of the aesthetic (maybe our protag’s office is painted blue), but also in terms of functionality (maybe it has an extra window).

A caution though about functionality: Giving a protagonist a place of super capability can really reduce the threat within a plot. Something like that can verge on deus ex machina, which cheapens the strength of your story. Don’t rely on the seat of power to be your character’s solution engine. The ability to solve the problem lies within the character, not wherever they’re hanging out.

Back to the seat – where is it in relation to the locations in the world where the plot is happening? The Batcave is outside Gotham City, so we need to give Batman a way to reach the City. The offices of Nelson and Murdock are in Hell’s Kitchen, but we still need to give Daredevil a way to reach the action. If we want the character to be able to interact with the plot, we don’t need to spend much time on how they get there – just get them there. (Unless the plot IS the journey somewhere…)

Let’s switch gears. Think about locations in addition to the seat of power that your character frequents. Can you split them into a list of locations where the character has positive experiences and negative experiences? Think about this both in terms of what’s plot-specific and relevant, but also globally (because we learned early on in FiYoShiMo that characters exist as larger than the plot, remember?).

Our protagonist feels best in her living room. She has a great experience every morning at the gym with her best friend and confidante. She has a miserable experience nightly at the local bar. She has a day job where she’s often at odds with her boss or her co-workers. The plot will take us through these locations.

If our plot is a bank robbery, we’ve got a scene of the crime. We’ve got offices or a precinct or something so our protagonist has a seat of power. We’ve got locations where the suspects are found. We’ve got a location for a tense climax. All these locations should be accessible at anytime, even if we don’t need to be there until a specific time. Sure, we can have a climax on the moon, so long as we have given ourselves a way to get there before the climax happens.

In order for a character to feel lived in, their experiences in the world need to be understood by the reader. We all have the moment of frustration when we’re in the bathroom and realize there’s no toilet paper. We’ve all gone into the kitchen, opened the fridge door, and then forgotten what we were looking for. We’ve all been hurt and wanted comfort. We’ve all really enjoyed dinner and wanted to take off our pants afterward.

To do that, we’ve given our characters places in the world where these moments can happen. Something’s relatability is proportional to its description combined with its narrative development.

You might mean “sofa” but if you describe it as a “long cushioned surface”, we’ll end up thinking different things. Yes, I get it, you want your character to feel futuristic in their futuristic world, but it’s just a future-sofa. Help the reader understand. Do all you can to give the character a world that feels like the reader’s world, even if we’re hurtling through hyperspace in a giant city-ship after narrowly escaping time traveling alien cockroaches with ray guns.

When a character feels connected to the world, the reader is more accepting of details. Yeah, the idyllic suburb house sure does have a picket fence. Of course it does. That fits with our mental picture of a suburb. And yes, our protagonist does rock a pearl necklace while vacuuming. These details help get the picture across because they reinforce our accepted ideas.

When we introduce conflicting information, like maybe while our protagonist vacuums, the automated babysitting murder robot (I’ve been playing Fallout 4), is telling our infant son that it’s totally okay to murder the vicious raider gang from the other neighborhood. That info, at face value, doesn’t fit our idyllic suburban view, so we need to alter our view — if we transplant our suburb to a wasteland full of raiders, radiation, destruction, and monsters, our pictures get tinted, shaded, expanded, and become more realized.

If a character feels out of place (example: picture Elmer Fudd in an episode of the West Wing), then no amount of world description is get that character into place. When in doubt, check the character. Adjusting the world is a much larger solution, but it has too many trickle-down ramifications. Don’t reach for the bazooka when you need a fly swatter.

Take what we did here and put all your major characters through their paces. Give them seats of power, connect them to the story locations. Adjust as needed.

Tomorrow, in our last day of Worldbuilding, we’re going to look at World Tone. See you then.

FiYoShiMo Day 9 – Character Weaknesses

Welcome to FiYoShiMo Day 9. We’re still working with characters, and whereas yesterday we talked about their skills, today we’re looking at their weaknesses.

Not every character is supposed to be, or even can be, good at everything. Are you good at everything? I’m not either.

When we talk about weaknesses in people, it’s easy to become judgmental or critical, assigning some power dynamic or superiority to one person or the other, so that the weakness is some shackle or proof of the not-fun-kind of bondage.

As my many therapists and caregivers point out to me on the regular, weaknesses are only limitations if you let them be so. They are not the bars on your prison cell, they are just activities you do where you don’t do them as well as other things you do. I like that definition, even when I struggle with any associated inadequacy.

So let’s be objective about weaknesses. Let’s not fall into the spiral of whose weaknesses are worse or which weaknesses aren’t really weak, and let’s break down the types of weaknesses characters have.

Yes, there are types of weaknesses. When I first heard about it, I never really thought about it, I thought weaknesses were just one group of sucky things. But in finding out there are classifications, I also found that weaknesses in fiction characters need to be there, so that the good parts of characters can stand out in contrast. Contrast is critical in building relatable characters.

Should we define what a weakness is? A character weakness is a reduced capacity or inability to perform or function due to belief, skill, existence, or environment. This definition is clinical, but it also sets up the classifications for weaknesses.

Wait, let’s pause here to talk about why flaws aren’t weaknesses. A character flaw is a defect of some size that may or may not impact the rest of the character. A character might be blind, but they can still be a spouse. A character might fear aging, but they can still be a bus driver. Flaws are not weaknesses because flaws don’t stop a character from taking action. Weaknesses are where there’s a reason a character can’t do something. Flaws are the things that keep a character from doing something perfectly.

A weakness of belief is where a character thinks they can’t do a thing, so they can’t do it. It’s Neo unable to jump across the rooftop. These weaknesses are all about perceptions, how the character views the moment and views themselves in that moment. These are often the most emotional of weaknesses, and they’re great fodder for emotional beats.

A weakness of skill is where a character can’t do a thing because they don’t know how. It’s the character on the first day of a new job, it’s Crocodile Dundee not understanding bidets. When you use this for comedy, this is where we get fish out of water situations. When you use this for drama, you’re often highlighting how serious the action needs to be, and you’re showing the character as brave or gritty or strong for trying to do it.

A weakness of existence is where a character can’t do a thing because they’re physically unable. Like a toddler can’t slam dunk or reach the gas pedal in the car while sitting behind the wheel. Sure, some people are going to get all screamy about privilege here, or that any character should be able to do whatever they want, because they’re not defined by what they can’t do … and yes, that’s true, but we need the character to not do these things, so that when they try and succeed, we celebrate. Their inability (not their disability) is why we invest in their story.

A weakness of environment is where a character can’t do a thing because of something external. This is Superman and Kryptonite, or Indiana Jones and snakes. Some element of the story, often an object, is inhibiting the character’s success. When the element is a thing, it’s an “object of weakness”, when the element is a circumstance (like the guy who books two dates at the same restaurant at the same time, and tries to keep the two people from catching on), it’s a “situation of weakness”, because it affects the power dynamic and control of a scene (we’re going to talk more about that starting on Day 13, when we talk plots).

The above list isn’t comprehensive, there are other classifications for weaknesses or other names for the classifications, but there’s enough here to get you started.

Write out your character’s weaknesses. Then see if you can apply these types to them. No, a character doesn’t need one from each type, and chances are your character is only going to have one or two of these weaknesses at best, when we talk about their best skills or strongest personality traits.

So far, we’ve mapped out a character’s motivations, philosophies, skills, and now their weaknesses. We’ve looked at what they do, how they do it, how well they do it, and how they don’t do it. So what’s next?

Tomorrow, we talk about why they do it, when we talk about character goals. See you then.

Thoughts on Metatopia, part 2 & The Conflict Engine

Two blog posts for the price of one, you lucky reader you.

First, I want to conclude my thoughts on Metatopia. I’m not really happy with Monday’s post, but it’s easier here to go forward than go back.

The big takeaway for me was that I’m more okay with not-knowing things, though I’m still navigating the idea that rather than just not knowing a few things (like graphic design and layout), there are times when it feels like I don’t know anything. My inbox now is fat with a combination of praise, criticism, and suggestions that seem to be both actual suggestions as well as insinuations that what I’m doing isn’t helpful or that I’m doing “it” (whatever it is) wrong. So, mixed bag.

I think next year I want to run a panel on “How to be a good panel attendee”, because my panels this year were packed with GREAT attendees, from the people who asked wonderful questions, to the people who did a lot of nodding and asked only one question while furiously taking notes. I got lucky this year, there was only one panel where I felt completely lost. I don’t think it was done maliciously, I don’t think the “make John feel inadequate” was intentional, and it was likely due to exhaustion and nerves as much as the fact that I had less to contribute than others. I’ll get over it.

The hardest part for me isn’t even the activities I’m doing. It’s the physicality involved in doing all the things. I get tired (yes I know everyone gets tired, but very few people get tired enough to fall asleep just by sitting down, you know what I mean?) I see my friends so rarely, and I feel bad that I can’t spend more time on my feet with them. The FOMO (fear of missing out) is strong, and I don’t always have the willpower to remind myself that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m doing my best. But that’s a tough salve for the creeping paranoia that because I’m not out and about that I won’t get hired, or that secretly many people hate me and they’re just waiting for me to keel over. Maybe that thought is just from today’s exhaustion, I’m dictating this part of the post before taking a hot bath. I’m very worn out.

——————————————

Now, let’s talk storycraft. I had a conversation earlier with a client, and it got me thinking about a fundamental story mechanic and its relevant axis.

A story mechanic is a fundamental part of storytelling (like plot or characters), that you can’t omit without adversely affecting the MS in a significant way. Today I want to talk about conflict. It’s important. Like really important. Without conflict there’s not a lot of interesting material in your story for your reader to engage.

Conflict isn’t just physically fighting. Conflict is a difference between multiple possibilities that oppose each other. It’s Us versus Them (we’ll talk about that one later in November) or smooth versus chunky, or great taste, less filling. Those are binary conflicts, and they’ll comprise the majority of the conflicts a character faces.

Everything from doing what’s right to not doing it, to showing mercy or vengeance can be mapped in an either-or fashion. It’s not wrong or bad to frame things that way, it can help make for really clear decisions. The problem is that not everything can be split down the middle, and it doesn’t account for mitigating factors or nuance. Not everything is so polarized, nor should it be.

Along with this binary decision making process, there’s a corresponding binary axis, which is a fancy way of saying “which is affected more by this decision: the person or the world around the person?” That’s what we look at when we talk about goals from conflict within characters.

An external goal is between the person and the world. We see this most often as the goal the character has in the real world – to complete their quest, to go somewhere, to prove something to someone, all that jazz.. The external goal is what the rest of the world sees the character trying to achieve, and the goal often has to do with the character finding their place among the rest of the world.

Contrast that with the internal goal, which is what’s going on in the character’s head. The internal goal is the what the character pursues to bring them to a state of improved emotional or psychological balance.A character who wants to reconcile their taboo pursuits with their stuffed shirt dayjob, or the knight’s thirst for vengeance while she tirelessly stalks across the land stabbing fools … these are the internal goals. We don’t see a person’s internal efforts, they go on in the mind, and they get expressed as actions we undertake, so the outside world is left to infer what they’re thinking based on what they’re doing. Because the world can guess at motives, they can be wrong, and if they’re wrong, then they can react in ways that cause (you guessed it) more conflict.

Pitting the external conflict against the internal conflict puts a character in a state where they have to change, because that unbalanced state will tear them apart while simultaneously paralyzing them. If this is unclear at all, let’s end this post with some examples:

A guy who needs to get promoted at work (external) so that he can show his wife/partner that he’s not a loser and worthy of their love (internal).
A woman who has to abandon her career focus (external) to discover what love’s all about (internal).

Now let’s reverse the order, just to show you what that looks like.

An anxious kid who wants to be accepted (internal) has to ask the most popular other kid to the school dance because of a playground dare (external).
A mother grapples with her grief (internal) as she murders the men who hurt her daughter (external).

When you set one conflict against each other, when you put them at odds with one another, or even when you make one progress into the other, you’re creating the idea that the character needs to take action (read: do stuff) in order to accomplish at least one of those goals. Action yields momentum, which leads to more action, like a snowball downhill.

The interesting bit, the part I encourage you to ponder, is what happens when failure crops up in the course of taking those actions. How do the characters react? Who or what did the failing? Does a setback mean full-stop on the efforts? Does the character redouble their efforts?

And that’s before we even talk about the idea if the failure was incited by another character’s reactions …

(this all leads into Friday’s blogpost) Happy writing.

Thoughts on Metatopia, part 2 & The Conflict Engine

Two blog posts for the price of one, you lucky reader you.

First, I want to conclude my thoughts on Metatopia. I’m not really happy with Monday’s post, but it’s easier here to go forward than go back.

The big takeaway for me was that I’m more okay with not-knowing things, though I’m still navigating the idea that rather than just not knowing a few things (like graphic design and layout), there are times when it feels like I don’t know anything. My inbox now is fat with a combination of praise, criticism, and suggestions that seem to be both actual suggestions as well as insinuations that what I’m doing isn’t helpful or that I’m doing “it” (whatever it is) wrong. So, mixed bag.

I think next year I want to run a panel on “How to be a good panel attendee”, because my panels this year were packed with GREAT attendees, from the people who asked wonderful questions, to the people who did a lot of nodding and asked only one question while furiously taking notes. I got lucky this year, there was only one panel where I felt completely lost. I don’t think it was done maliciously, I don’t think the “make John feel inadequate” was intentional, and it was likely due to exhaustion and nerves as much as the fact that I had less to contribute than others. I’ll get over it.

The hardest part for me isn’t even the activities I’m doing. It’s the physicality involved in doing all the things. I get tired (yes I know everyone gets tired, but very few people get tired enough to fall asleep just by sitting down, you know what I mean?) I see my friends so rarely, and I feel bad that I can’t spend more time on my feet with them. The FOMO (fear of missing out) is strong, and I don’t always have the willpower to remind myself that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m doing my best. But that’s a tough salve for the creeping paranoia that because I’m not out and about that I won’t get hired, or that secretly many people hate me and they’re just waiting for me to keel over. Maybe that thought is just from today’s exhaustion, I’m dictating this part of the post before taking a hot bath. I’m very worn out.

——————————————

Now, let’s talk storycraft. I had a conversation earlier with a client, and it got me thinking about a fundamental story mechanic and its relevant axis.

A story mechanic is a fundamental part of storytelling (like plot or characters), that you can’t omit without adversely affecting the MS in a significant way. Today I want to talk about conflict. It’s important. Like really important. Without conflict there’s not a lot of interesting material in your story for your reader to engage.

Conflict isn’t just physically fighting. Conflict is a difference between multiple possibilities that oppose each other. It’s Us versus Them (we’ll talk about that one later in November) or smooth versus chunky, or great taste, less filling. Those are binary conflicts, and they’ll comprise the majority of the conflicts a character faces.

Everything from doing what’s right to not doing it, to showing mercy or vengeance can be mapped in an either-or fashion. It’s not wrong or bad to frame things that way, it can help make for really clear decisions. The problem is that not everything can be split down the middle, and it doesn’t account for mitigating factors or nuance. Not everything is so polarized, nor should it be.

Along with this binary decision making process, there’s a corresponding binary axis, which is a fancy way of saying “which is affected more by this decision: the person or the world around the person?” That’s what we look at when we talk about goals from conflict within characters.

An external goal is between the person and the world. We see this most often as the goal the character has in the real world – to complete their quest, to go somewhere, to prove something to someone, all that jazz.. The external goal is what the rest of the world sees the character trying to achieve, and the goal often has to do with the character finding their place among the rest of the world.

Contrast that with the internal goal, which is what’s going on in the character’s head. The internal goal is the what the character pursues to bring them to a state of improved emotional or psychological balance.A character who wants to reconcile their taboo pursuits with their stuffed shirt dayjob, or the knight’s thirst for vengeance while she tirelessly stalks across the land stabbing fools … these are the internal goals. We don’t see a person’s internal efforts, they go on in the mind, and they get expressed as actions we undertake, so the outside world is left to infer what they’re thinking based on what they’re doing. Because the world can guess at motives, they can be wrong, and if they’re wrong, then they can react in ways that cause (you guessed it) more conflict.

Pitting the external conflict against the internal conflict puts a character in a state where they have to change, because that unbalanced state will tear them apart while simultaneously paralyzing them. If this is unclear at all, let’s end this post with some examples:

A guy who needs to get promoted at work (external) so that he can show his wife/partner that he’s not a loser and worthy of their love (internal).
A woman who has to abandon her career focus (external) to discover what love’s all about (internal).

Now let’s reverse the order, just to show you what that looks like.

An anxious kid who wants to be accepted (internal) has to ask the most popular other kid to the school dance because of a playground dare (external).
A mother grapples with her grief (internal) as she murders the men who hurt her daughter (external).

When you set one conflict against each other, when you put them at odds with one another, or even when you make one progress into the other, you’re creating the idea that the character needs to take action (read: do stuff) in order to accomplish at least one of those goals. Action yields momentum, which leads to more action, like a snowball downhill.

The interesting bit, the part I encourage you to ponder, is what happens when failure crops up in the course of taking those actions. How do the characters react? Who or what did the failing? Does a setback mean full-stop on the efforts? Does the character redouble their efforts?

And that’s before we even talk about the idea if the failure was incited by another character’s reactions …

(this all leads into Friday’s blogpost) Happy writing.