Using Your External Conflict as a Vehicle

Susan-Meier~ By Susan Meier

Note: This post originally appeared here

The first three things an editor wants to see when she reads your romance novel synopsis are…

What gets them together?

What keeps them together?

What makes staying together difficult?

Questions 1 and 2, basically, should be your external conflict. But the answers to these questions shouldn’t just be “what” your external conflict is. It should show that your external conflict can drive your story.


For example…

In the first scene of my June 2012 release, THE TYCOON’S SECRET DAUGHTER, (a Rita finalist btw) the hero and heroine meet accidentally in the lobby of the local hospital. Divorced for eight years, they haven’t seen each other since the night she left him. She doesn’t want to see him. He was an alcoholic who made the last years of their marriage miserable. But HE wants to see her. He’s in AA…and as part of 12 steps, he needs to make amends.

THAT’S what gets them together. The inciting incident. Meeting in the hospital lobby.

What keeps them together is the daughter who runs out of the elevator, innocently saying…Hey, Mom, Grandma wants to know if you’re making that coffee.

Hero takes one look at the little girl, knows this is his daughter and his good AA intentions to make amends go flying when he realizes she’s kept his daughter from him for 8 years.

Do you smell more than coffee brewing! LOL

Of course, you do. That innocent encounter is our first sniff of the conflict. But it’s not the internal conflict. It’s the EXTERNAL CONFLICT a situation strong enough to drive an entire book.

External conflict (in Susan Meier World…which is something like a theme park but not exactly) is the thing that draws the hero and heroine together and keeps them together, even as it puts them at odds.

Now that he knows about his daughter, both the hero and heroine know they need to get him into Trisha’s life (now that he’s sober) as seamlessly and safely as possible. That’s their external goal. But…wow, he’s not too happy she kept his child from him and she’s not too happy to be forced to let him see the daughter she’s been protecting from him.

That external goal also becomes the “vehicle” for them to be forced to interact, albeit unhappily. His seeing their daughter forces them to spend time together. Without that daughter, they could meet, have a short conversation and walk away. With the daughter, they are forced to interact.

That’s what an external conflict does. It KEEPS THEM AT ODDS.

But, in this case, his wanting to see his daughter is also a VEHICLE to keep them together.

Sometimes, though, the external conflict doesn’t work to keep them together and you need a vehicle.

In a book I wrote many, many years ago, ONE MAN AND A BABY, the heroine was promised the job as manager for her dad’s horse farm, but one day her dad up and hires the hero. When she confronts her dad, he remembers the promise (with a wince) and says, Okay, I’ll give the hero six weeks to train you to take over. If he thinks you’re good enough to have the job it’s yours. If not it’s his.

Well, duh! What’s in it for him to train her? LOL They are now competing for the same job … which is the EXTERNAL CONFLICT.

But if they are both only competing for the job …the external conflict…there’s no reason for them to interact. They could do different jobs on the horse farm, on other sides of the property, visit different vendors, work with the horses at different times of the day…and never once see each other.

Which was why we needed a vehicle, something to keep them together and force them to interact, and why I added the Dad’s directive that the hero TEACH her.

The order of her dad for the hero to teach her how to run the farm forces them to spend time together and to interact. Because it’s only through interacting that they reveal their secrets, their goals, their pasts…and only through doing those three things that they can fall in love.

External conflict…thing that puts them at odds.

Vehicle…thing that forces them to interact even though they are at odds.

Lots of times they can be the same thing…but sometimes you’re going to have to create a vehicle. J

Here’s another value of the vehicle…

If you’re having trouble with your story, if you can’t quite seem to figure out what should happen next…you might be missing a vehicle.

Lots of us try to manufacture vehicles for our stories…We decide to write about a heroine and hero who have an intense backstory and intense internal and external conflicts. Say they were married and he cheated and she’ll never trust men again and he may never trust himself again.

That’s intense and wonderful and meaty, but we can’t figure out a reason they’d BE TOGETHER…let alone spend enough time together to reveal their inner cores and heal those inner wounds?

So we decide to have them agree to chair the town fundraiser together. And though it ‘works’ to get them in the same space, it doesn’t always have the emotional impact or even the edge-of-the-seat tension that we need for a really great story. (Sorry to be beating up on fund-raising committees.)

You’re always better off to figure out an external story for your hero and heroine that springs naturally from their lives and encompasses their internal conflicts.

What do I mean by that?

Well, the dad telling the hero he has to teach the daughter springs naturally from the external conflict that they both want the same job. Forcing the hero to teach her adds another dimension to their fight. Even as it forces them to interact.

In MAID FOR THE SINGLE DAD the heroine agrees to work as a maid/nanny for the hero because she “owes” her boss a favor.

How does owing her boss a favor get her working for the hero? She was in an abusive relationship with a “rich” man and her boss helped her out. Not just out of the relationship, but out of her depressed, god-awful feelings about life that result from being abused.

So when the hero comes to the maid company, the heroine (who is running the company while her friend is on her honeymoon) doesn’t want to lose a client for the friend who has been so good to her. (Because none of the maids on their payroll have been trained to be nannies.) Especially since the friend’s new husband has been trying for a decade to get a foot in the door for the hero’s construction business.

So she takes the job as nanny, cook, and housekeeper for the client HERSELF, knowing she’s doing a good deed for the friend who’s done so much for her, and also to help the friend’s new husband.

The hero, however, is a much richer, much more powerful man than the heroine’s ex who abused her. But he reminds her of her ex all the same. Except magnified. So when she moves in (as part of the job) all her old feelings and fears about relationships come tumbling back.

Now, I could have had them in a story where she’s trying to find him a nanny (since she’s the one running her friend’s maid service while her friend is out of town) and everybody she sends over fails and the two of them are in contact nearly every day. That would be a vehicle.


Does that really give readers an intense experience? Not really.

You want your hero and heroine together in a way that hits on their internal conflict.

Putting my heroine in the same house with a guy who on the surface is the picture of her abusive ex … really highlights her internal conflict.

Having her nervous, the way his unfaithful ex-wife was, puts him on red alert.

The scenario wouldn’t have the same impact if she was looking for a nanny for him. SHE had to be in HIS HOUSE for the two of them to clash and for the internal conflict to become the issue it needs to be.

A lot of stories don’t put the hero and heroine into a close enough situation that their real issues bubble to the surface. Then, the writer scrambles for artificial ways to get and keep them together, like seeing each other at the diner or drugstore.

Not that these aren’t viable ways to get them together sometimes. But a story comes with its own readymade opportunities, if you take your thinking a step or two further and come up with a great – emotional – external story.

Especially one with a great conflict like THE TYCOON’S SECRET DAUGHTER, where a heroine who doesn’t want to interact with her ex must spend oodles of time with him because she won’t leave him alone with their daughter because she doesn’t trust him. You can FEEL the tension in that even without reading the book.

Or the hero who is forced to train his replacement (in ONE MAN AND A BABY) when he doesn’t want to be replaced! Oy! That one came with tons of tension.

The real draw for readers in any book is tension. A reason to keep flipping pages.

So you want to use every tool at your disposal!

For your homework, check your ‘external’ conflict/situation/goal/vehicle which should be the answer to question 2. Do your hero and heroine have a real reason to be together…something that’s strong and realistic and makes their situation even more dire? One that highlights their internal conflicts?

If not, can you think it through to come up with something stronger?

Susan Meier is the author of over 60 books for Harlequin and Silhouette, Entangled Indulgence, Red Hot Bliss and Bliss and one of Guideposts’ Grace Chapel Inn series books, THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS. In 2013 she lived one of her career-long dreams. Her book, THE TYCOON’S SECRET DAUGHER was a finalist for RWA’s highest honor, the Rita. The same year NANNY FOR THE MILLIONAIRE’S TWINS was a National Reader’s Choice finalist and won the Book Buyer’s Best Award.

Susan is married with three children and is one of eleven children, which is why love and family are always part of her stories.


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