The summer slacker has officially taken over, keeping me away from the blog (and grown-up responsibilities) for almost a month. Where has the time gone? My family has been busy celebrating the 4th of July, camping, and taking every opportunity to explore local outdoor attractions. Somehow I also managed to devour five books and produce a beautiful oil painting. What I’ve completely avoided: writing.
The summer slacking ends here!
Almost a month ago, I attended SCBWI Words in the Woods and met an incredible group of speakers:
Viking Editor Joanna Cardenas, who has flawless taste in children’s literature and an uncanny ability to point out exactly which elements make cross-genre writing work, or flop. What is she looking for right now? Layered humor that is skillfully woven into a picture book or middle grade novel.
Literary Agent Stephen Fraser, who is both a gentleman and a champion of artistic expression. In this electronic day and age, he still responds to each of the 200 e-queries he receives per day. Put him at the top of your submission list ASAP.
Author Matthew Kirby, who is every bit as talented at teaching as he is at writing. ICEFALL is a beautiful example of his work, but what has stuck with me the last few weeks has been his teaching.
Before becoming a full-time author, Matthew had a previous life as a school psychologist. This background added great insight into plotting a successful manuscript. One concept that resonated with me was his discussion on reciprocal rising action: inner conflict and outer conflict working together in a successful figure eight.
Inner conflict has always been one of the toughest elements for me to write for two reasons. First, I’m not a touchy feely sort of girl who broadcasts her feelings to the world. I was raised in a family of stubborn Germans who were taught at a young age to suck it up and move on. We’re survivors, and we don’t burden others with our struggles along the way. At first pouring out paragraph after paragraph of inner thoughts and feelings felt like a show of weakness, in direct conflict with the strong, plot-driven heroine I want to feature in my writing. It has taken much study to appreciate the extra depth a relevant inner conflict can bring to a story.
Second, the stories of my childhood didn’t feature inner conflict. I read Nancy Drew, who never grew or changed. Fans loved her exactly the way she was. I’m not sure she even had inner struggles in her picturesque life, but that’s okay. Back then, the market overflowed with plot-driven adventures, no extra depth required. Today, that type of series would be a tough sell. The need for adrenaline pumping adventure is already satisfied by television, movies, and video games. A modern children’s book needs something deeper that a screen can’t provide.
The most memorable Words in the Woods moment for me was the slide Matthew shared on reciprocal rising action, which he credited to Martine Leavitt at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had previously seen many diagrams regarding escalating the plot of a story by constantly raising the stakes after each small victory until the hero reaches the climax of the story. This diagram took that circle one step further by transforming it into a figure eight. The most successful scenes in a story should advance both the inner and outer conflict together.
In theory, something will happen to raise the stakes of the outer conflict, which will lead to the hero having a small victory, which will change the tension in the story. Many plots stop there. To take things deeper, raise the stakes of the internal conflict in that same scene, which will cause the main character to come to a realization, which will lead to a reorientation of the main character’s world view, which will cause him to grow or change before the next time the outer conflict stakes are raised. At first glimpse it sounds too technical and calculated to belong in a story.
A great example of this sequence occurring unbeknownst to the reader is a pivotal scene from ICEFALL. The stakes are raised when an unknown ship appears on the horizon. It’s a small victory to learn the ship is full of friends, not foes. The tension rises when the friends turn out to be the craziest, most unstable warriors in the land. Stop there, and you have a good scene.
What makes this scene great: a storyteller is also on that ship. This inclusion raises the stakes on the inner conflict of belonging, causing the main character to have a revelation: maybe she could learn to become a storyteller, too. Without giving away too much of the story, this revelation is a key turning point in the book when the main character realizes she could have a different future than she’d always imagined. There might be somewhere else that she belongs. From that point on, she has changed. Without that revelation, she wouldn’t have the tools to face the outer conflicts ahead.
Thanks for the great insights, Matthew! I’ll finally be diving back into my manuscript this weekend to address my (lack of) inner conflict.