Slothful conflict

Ah, the pitfalls of being a writer in the Midwest, where we avoid conflict at all costs. Fortunately I'm not originally from here, although I did grow up in a conflict-adverse household. And that was actually strange since my family has always been very political, which is inherently adversarial. I guess it was a matter of keeping all conflict outside the house. That was an interesting goal. And an utter failure.

There's no such thing as a meaningful relationship without conflict. We tussle with our friends and family because we care. It isn't comfortable, but the fact we're willing to engage is a measure of how much it all matters. Learning to "live and let live" makes our relationships run more smoothly, but it takes some detachment to accomplish.

Both internal and external conflict are critical to good fiction. It's relatively easy to create external conflict for a character. Just drop him in an impossible situation then add more stress. Nothing like starting a character out broke, cold and lonely and having him go downhill from there. 

Internal conflict is a little harder to convey. We all have internal conflicts. I'm afraid of sloths and yet I'm strangely drawn to them. I can't keep my mouth shut about the state of the world, which messes with my need for approval. You get the idea. The difficulty in writing internal conflict isn't thinking up the conflict, it's figuring out a way to telegraph it to the reader without having the character think, "That sloth is terrifying. And yet, I can't stop looking at it. Should I turn away? If I do, will the image still haunt me? Is there something about that sloth that I need to know? Maybe I should become a sloth biologist... or a hunter."

I think this is what's meant by "show, don't tell." Showing the internal conflict at work builds tension and makes us unsure about the final outcome of the story. Telling us what that internal conflict is might be interesting, but not compelling. You're not on the edge of your seat wondering if I'm going to start killing sloths. But you might be if all you had was me shuddering at the image of a sloth, looking away, then looking back, staring hard and maybe fingering my gun.

External and internal conflicts drive the interpersonal conflict necessary for a romance novel. Here in the Midwest we don't do interpersonal conflict. Except, of course, we do. Because otherwise life wouldn't be interesting. Maybe not wearing our conflicts on our sleeves is actually good practice for Midwestern writers, though. Learning to decipher internal conflict body language might be a very useful skill after all.

Now I just have to figure out what my neighbor means by that photo of a sloth that she slid into my mailbox. Does she know about my fears? Or did she think it just another cute pic? I can't ask her, that would be too direct. I'll just have to watch and wait. And plan my revenge.