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The internal and the external

You all know about outer jeopardy and inner conflict, right? So if you have a protagonist with some great fear of spiders, you sort of know the climatic scenes are going to involve a spider farm, or a genetically modified giant spider, or something of that sort.

To take a slightly more grownup example, the climax of Pride and Prejudice deals in the same themes that have seeded the entire book (love and marriage; maturity and immaturity; sober judgement and impulsive decisions.) The inner stuff and the outer stuff all run in parallel.

And that’s all good. That’s all part of good writing.

But there’s a more interesting way to join inner and outer. It won’t work for every book, or not in its more dramatic manifestations. But it’s still interesting enough that I want to put the thought in front of you, anyway. Oh yes, and this is the kind of thought that you can use at a really early stage in your plotting if you need to. If you use the snowflake method, for example, you can use what follows as one of the very first thoughts you commit to paper.

Here’s how it works.

You identify a deep conflict you want to explore.

Ideally, that conflict should exist at a personal level, as well as a bigger, social, level. So you might think about power struggles between a man and a woman within a marriage, but you might also think about those things more broadly within society. We’re still talking about an essentially inner conflict, however.

Then, you externalise that conflict, but on a massive scale. You don’t just write a portrait of a marriage, for example, you imagine a future where women are owned for their reproductive capacity. Boom: you’ve got Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Or you imagine a world where humans are hermaphrodite and just have seasonal biological changes that flip them into (temporary) men or (temporary) women. And boom: you’ve got Ursula K Le Guin’s classic novel, The Left Hand of Darkness.

Another example.

You know that thing you get in a large city – London or New York, let’s say, where rich and poor inhabit the same physical city, yet live completely separate lives. Or you could think about a city like Belfast, where separation is effected via religion, not wealth or race.

And, yes, you could write an interesting, carefully observed, realist novel about those things – or you could do what China Mieville did in The City, The City, and just create a world where almost literally the people of one world couldn’t ‘see’ the people of the other, and vice versa.

In all these cases – Mieville, Le Guin, Atwood – the power of their stories came from the way they took an interesting personal / psychological / social issue and externalised it on a massive scale – citywide, countrywide, planetary.

Now it’s not surprising that the examples I’ve drawn are from speculative fiction. This particular trick is quite close to defining what speculative fiction actually is. It’s the thing that lies right at the core of the art form.

But … you don’t have to write speculative fiction to use the same basic ploy. This kind of structural plotting approach can be used much more widely (and subtly) than that.

Take, for example, the Cold War novels of John Le Carre.

Le Carre wanted to write about love and betrayal, and in particular the idea that all human loving relationships would end up in betrayal. (That’s a very bleak view and not actually true to life. But you can write great fiction while not being true to life.)

Now, again, he could just have written a stony cold love story, in which everyone betrays everyone. But what would have been the resonance of that? Not a lot, one would guess.

His flash of genius was to set that basic story in the world of Cold War espionage, where everyone really did betray everyone, and where nuclear weapons were pointing at major world capitals, and things (from a certain plausible perspective) really did seem unutterably bleak.

And boom: that combination of inner and outer conflicts mirroring each other produced some of the greatest novels of post-war British fiction: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the others in that sequence.

To jump from some of the greatest ever works of literature to, ahem, my own work: I do the same thing. I don’t do it on the Atwood / Le Guin scale by any means, but:

  • Internal conflict: My character is in recovery from Cotard’s Syndrome, a genuine condition in which sufferers believe themselves to be dead. My character is constantly grappling with what it is to be alive.
  • External conflict: And my character’s job is that of … homicide detective. So her day job constantly brings her up against the same things that trouble her in her personal life.

That unity of inner and outer just adds force to every element of the tale. The murder-stories have a bigger resonance. The personal-angst stuff feels integral not gratuitous. (And yes, when I was plotting this stuff out, snowflake-style, this was one of the big principles I used.)

In other words, even if you don’t choose to go all out Atwood-Le Guin-Mieville, you can still borrow the same basic technique. It’s a brilliant tool, and I love it, and now you should go and play with it yourself.

But what about you? Are you doing something similar in your work? Tell me about. Let's have a nice cup of tea and a chat ...

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Comments (15)
  • Hi Harry,

    Love getting your emails when I wake up on a Saturday morning here in Oz. It's my excuse to have a cuppa away from the kids and do a bit of work...

    This is interesting, I hadn't thought of it so much like a methodology like that but in all my novels (all still unpublished) I have used this unconsciously. 

    My current novel, Female Freedom Fighters, about the current global crisis, is present tense first person and the protagonist Simi has a psychological 'quirk', as she calls it. Because of a trauma when she was 5 she hasn't been able to see a future. When she interviews some children of the same age who tell her they can't see a future due to global warming she feels and intense need to fight for a better world for them...aaaand inadvertently becomes a terrorist. But I see now that her 'quirk' represents societies blindness not only her own. And she is asking society to take the blinkers off, face the trauma and change the way they behave just as she must do herself.

    So thanks for that morning read and information! ...Must get back to my screaming kids now.... 


    Shahnoor Nina Gregory 

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    • These things often fall backwards out of the manuscript you've written, rather than being shoved in at the front door as you were writing. And that's OK. If deeper thoughts want to smuggle themselves in by way of story, they're always welcome to snuggle down ...

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    • The conflict in my nearly completed first novel is:

      External: 1967 Hong Kong, the Cultural Revolution in China is threatening Hong Kong. Will the Red Guards march in, or Whitehall flee?

      Internal: A young British police inspector, tasked with political interrogation, faces the murder of his wife (is it political?) and an illicit love affair (can it survive?).

      Any thoughts gratefully received.

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      • Yep, there's definitely something happening there. The echoes feel good and they'll probably sound louder once you're done with some edits. The more you mesh your inner & outer worlds, the richer the MS will seem to be.

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      • Hi Harry, I have just started (3,700 words in) a children's story about a 13 year old boy who is developing Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder). He is conflicted by other voices, known as 'Alters' which manifest themselves under certain situations - this gives me my inner conflict. I was struggling with how this story would develop and your piece came at a timely moment in my hiatus. Thanks  

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        • Happy to hear it. Sounds like a great (challenging) premise ...

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        • My second novel, The Lazarus Seed is a speculative adventure that links the outer and inner struggle.

          My protagonist, Nils, had a sickly childhood and lacks physical self-confidence, which drives his two interests, evolutionary biology and mythical hybrids. His staid life as a biology professor at Uppsala University changes abruptly when in visiting the Spanish Archive he discovers a lost manuscript from 1530 hinting at the existence of  an immortal hybrid fish-man worshiped by an obscure tribe in the mountains of Roraima, Brazil.

          His adventure challenges him to overcome his own frailties and his deep fear of death and decay, while also finally understanding the hubris of science in trying to find a permanent cure for mortality.

          His antagonist, an American entrepreneur and gerontologist, steals the DNA sample Nils has obtained in order to develop as a cure for ageing and thereby opens a Pandora's box. As mayhem ensues, Nils, who has been accidentally contaminated by the DNA, undergoes his own physical and psychological transformations and, with a small band of allies, attempts to stave off disaster.

          I have tried to juxtapose the frailties of one man with that of humanity as a whole in order to pose where we are going as a species in a way that touches us individually.

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          • Yep, like it! It feels like a rich, interesting brew ...

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          • Cornerstones (dare I mention the name) said it was great, fantastic, top mark, ready to publish etc etc . . . but I can't get agent interest! Same with my next novel. Do I go for cognitive behavioral therapy to write uplit or oplit or whatever damned thing they want or do I give up authorship and join the Judea Liberation Front?

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