Have editors or agents told you that your writing is lovely, but your story is “too quiet, too gentle?” Or maybe your action-packed adventure got an agent or editor initially excited, only to have her pass because your story “needed more heart?” What’s going on here?
When I’ve led writing workshops or critiqued manuscripts, I’ve found one of the biggest barriers writers have to selling their stories is that they aren’t weaving together the inner world of the character’s emotional development with the external events creating the action. In other words, their plotline is either external or internal, but not both.
The external plotline involves action and choices made by the characters. The conflict can only be resolved by the protagonist doing something—defeat a villain, solve a mystery, get back home, win a contest, etc. The internal plotline involves an emotional transformation the protagonist must make.
In Cinderella, the external plotline shows Cinderella cleaning the house, getting help from her Fairy Godmother to go to the ball, meeting the prince, losing the glass slipper, revealing her identity by putting on the slipper when her stepsisters couldn’t, marrying the prince. The internal plotline involves her sadness at the death of her mother and the cruelty of her new stepmother and stepsisters. This emotional conflict is resolved when Cinderella gains happiness by winning the prince and falling in love. (As someone who has a daughter, I’m grateful new stories are showing girls how there are other ways to grow emotionally!)
The mistake many writers make is that they think of their books as either plot-driven or character-driven. It’s not completely their fault. Many think “genre stories” such as fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, and horror are plot-heavy action adventures with cardboard characters. Others feel “literary novels” are nuanced character studies that bore young readers.
Why does it have to be either or? Pixar Studios and directors like Spielberg have figured out that delivering both exciting adventures and emotional rich storylines is their secret weapon. Great children’s literature should also weave together both an internal plot with an external one. Take a look. . .
Most would consider Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone a plot-driven novel. It’s fantasy, after all. And full of action. But notice how it has a strong internal plotline as well. Harry begins with an emotional hole in his life. His parents are dead. He has no friends. His only family, the Dursleys, are uncaring and down-right cruel. (Sounds a lot like Cinderella, right?) We readers—and Harry himself— want nothing more than for this hole to be filled. And as the story advances, Harry forms a surrogate family by forging friendships with the students and teachers at Hogwarts. The steps in Harry’s internal transformation are linked with the external action of the plot. Each major advancement of the external plot—finally getting his acceptance letter from Hagrid, shopping in Diagon Alley, Harry’s first time on a broom, fighting the troll in the bathroom, descending through the trapdoor and outmaneuvering the protective barriers to reach the Sorcerer’s Stone (and Voldemort)—also help resolve Harry’s internal conflict by developing new relationships and deepening friendships that fill the emotional hole in his life. It’s what gives an exciting “action oriented” story like Harry Potter loads of heart and appeal.
Can you imagine how a character-driven story like Wonder by R.J. Palacio could easily have been low on action with much of the story taking place internally in Auggie’s thoughts? But Palacio masterfully threads together an internal and an external plotline to make the story exciting. Like with Harry (and so many other characters), Auggie has an emotional hole in his life, this one formed by the way he’s treated because he has a facial deformity. The internal conflict revolves around Auggie’s need to learn how to literally face the world, to grow more independent, and to not rely so heavily on his parents to shelter him from potential cruelty.
Palacio uses compelling action to show the external conflict and its resolution: Auggie’s encounters on the first day of school, the Halloween mask disaster, repairing his friendship with Jack, facing off against bullies at the field trip to nature preserve, losing his hearing aids. In Wonder, we see how many of Auggie’s classmates have developed a deeper understanding of kindness and compassion, and Auggie has grown more confident and less dependent on his parents to protect him. But all of this internal growth is shown through exciting conflict and edge-of-your-seat action.
First of all, look at your plot. Does it focus more on external conflict (overcoming antagonistic people or situations) or does it have more internal conflict (character transformation)? If you’ve been focusing on one more than the other, now is the time to build the dual plotlines of internal and external.
I’ve included a worksheet for you to fill in that separates the action from the emotion. I want to keep it simple, to boil your story down to the bare essence of Problem—Steps—Solution. If you’re a fan of mapping your story out, this worksheet should pair nicely with any number of outlining methods, whether it’s the traditional 3 Act Structure, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, etc.
When you get to the “Steps” boxes, think of this as the crucial scenes in your story that move the plot forward. It’s up to you and your story to decide how many steps move the external plotline and the internal plotline from problem to solution.
For the sake of this exercise, I’d suggest sticking to the bare minimum to gauge what is absolutely necessary for your story. It’ll help you also consider whether you have unnecessary scenes. Don’t be afraid to kill those darlings.
After you’ve filled the worksheet in, take a good look at how your answers for the External Plotline column compare with your Internal Plotline column. Are they happening in the same scenes or different scenes? Would they have more punch if you merged them into one scene? You’re the creative mind behind your story. Only you can ultimately decide.
Also, why not do this worksheet for your antagonist or important secondary characters as well? It might very well flesh them out for you.
Through this lesson, I hope you’ll have a better sense for how both external and internal conflict drive a plot forward. If your character is taking decisive action to solve a problem and transforming emotionally in the process, then hopefully editors and agents will be raving about how your story is both exciting and full of heart. And what young reader doesn’t like that kind of story?
John Claude Bemis is the author of the Clockwork Dark trilogy, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, and Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince (coming March 2016 from Disney-Hyperion). John was chosen as North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate for Children’s Literature and is the recipient of UNC Chapel Hill’s Excellence in Teaching Award for his work as an author-educator. He lives with in Hillsborough, NC. You can visit his website at johnclaudebemis.com
GIVEAWAY John is giving away a signed advanced copy of his March 2016 release from Disney-Hyperion Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince . If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win his book, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!
If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of John’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.
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