Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 19, 2015 - 10:03pm

Internal conflicts can be great (because we all know conflict drives a story), but we also must avoid naval gazing or things get really bad, really fast.

So, say you have a character who is racked with guilt. Or sadness, depression, confusion, whatever. They have to grapple with this, and it can be interesting to watch them struggle and come out of it for better or worse, but no one wants to read Eeyore's 1st person POV story.

I'm curious how people find the balance.

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck August 20, 2015 - 7:45am

I think it's all about finding ways of personifying the emotion/struggle.  I guess that's another way to say "show don't tell", but I don't think it's necessarily that - at least not in the way it's typically used.  As we know, show don't tell is usually applied to the prose itself, but there's also the other side: what you are showing, conceptually, with the overall events of your story.  

So, for example, if your character is depressed about a relationship ending, it's probably not going to be the best story if it revolves around them drinking alone in their apartment and staring at wall while intermittently sobbing (generally speaking of course - if someone could make that work, I'd love to read it).  But how can you use the details of the break-up to chronicle the experience?  Was there infidelity? Misunderstanding? Death?  Maybe their significant other died and now wherever the main character goes he thinks he sees her walking down the street - just any girl with brown hair, he's convinced it's her.  But that's a little trite, so then what?  Does he follow her?  Was she unfaithful and he found out, but she died before he got to confront her?  Does he become obsessive, believing her spirit to be taunting him from beyond the grave (literally or figuratively, depending on your genre of choice)?  After all, she was never really that nice to him.  He realizes it looking back now, the snide little snort she'd give whenever she looked at him out of the corner of her eye, disapproving of whatever it was at that particular moment.  She hated him - he's convinced now - and just kept him around for the joy of being in a power play where she was the only competitor.  So he feels pretty stupid about it, and angry, so how does he treat himself?  How pathetic is he, he asks himself, that she still has this hold on him?  Does he take it out on these women that he follows, as a way to silence her bitter, taunting spirit?  How does he take it out on them?  Physical attacks?  Psychological attacks (breaking in, leaving creepy notes, etc, as a way of returning his dead girlfriend's taunts)?  Where does the story go from there?

Anyway, I'm just spitballing here.  But I think it illustrates just one of literally countless ways emotions can not only be personfied into stories, but also extrapolated to create more complicated dramas. 

Bringing this back to navel gazing, you can probably get away with quite a bit of it, so long as the momentum of the story doesn't falter and the scenarios it takes place in are compelling.  Using the above example, naval gazing just to naval gaze can go wrong, but a character naval gazing while hunched on the fire escape of a woman who vaguely resembles his dead, cheating girlfriend could be a pretty wild read.  (Hell, even though I just came up with this example off the top of my head, I may actually end up writing that at some point.  I've intrigued myself.)


XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money August 20, 2015 - 1:55pm

Internal conflicts can be great (because we all know conflict drives a story), but we also must avoid naval gazing or things get really bad, really fast.

Personally I find balance by focusing on the conflict. There isn't anything special about internal conflict that doesn't apply to external conflict in this regard, so it may help to remember that long descriptive passages (about a room, a city's history, a character's face, the weather... etc.) are just the external versions of naval gazing and we run a similar risk in getting bogged down in them. But just as we use these external details to inform our external conflicts, Josh has outlined a number of corollaries for internal conflict. And indeed, it hardly does any good to separate inner and external conflict, it's all just conflict and details, really. We can use the inner musings of a character to inform a fist fight, just as well as a broken picture frame can inform a psychological breakdown. It simply behooves us as writers not to "lose the forest for the trees" or get so caught up in our ability to conjure effective details that we forget what it means for the story (and most importantly in this instance, its pacing.)

The thing to not lose track of is that negative emotional states are not internal conflicts. Not in and of themselves. A charcter that is sad or depressed or guilty is not having an internal conflict simply by being sad or depressed or guilty. A conflict always involves at least two factors in opposition. My girlfriend leaves me, and I am sad is only one thing. If I am sad, but I want to appear happy for a coworker's birthday party, that's a conflict because there is opposition between being sad and being happy. I get a few drinks in me and start cheering "Fuck that Bitch!" then happiness is (for the moment) winning. The ex-girlfriend shows up at the party, maybe on the arm of some guy, and sad is winning again. This back and forth is the escalation of the basic conflict between sad and happy. What is important is the opposition between the two states. Or maybe in my drunkeness I get mad and deck the guy and anger enters the picture and now there are three factors in opposition. It is the opposition that makes for a conflict. If I'm sad and I sit at home and think about how sad I am, and "isn't that the wallpaper she picked out," that makes me sad that she won't be picking out any more wallpaper for our future apartments, and there won't be any future apartments and that makes me sad... There is no conflict. Not until something opposes sadness. So as long as we focus on conflict, and having opposing forces moving against each other, we never run the risk of naval gazing... no matter how cliche my example may be.

but no one wants to read Eeyore's 1st person POV story.

Actually I would, Eeyore is a more complicated character than a lot of us give him credit for. He's so down on himself, yet the instant he does something he can be even remotely be proud of (and it's pointed out to him), he turns to arrogance. That's interesting.

Also, Notes from Underground did alright for itself so at least some people are interested in the internal perspectives of depressed neurotics.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 20, 2015 - 9:28pm


Well, what I mean by that is if you had to hear Eeyore whine like he does constantly, because he's the narrator, you'd put the book down. And maybe burn it 451 style.

Keiri LaPrade's picture
Keiri LaPrade from Virginia is reading Beowulf August 20, 2015 - 9:54pm

A lot of emotional or internal conflicts can affect the physical body.  I think adding physical movement or feels of being sick helps to show internal internal conflits pretty well.  Body language is really good for showing conflicts as well


 For example:  Anxiety sometimes can make people feel nauesous or they may tend to fidgit.  Depression can cause exhaustion, pain and may cause the character to slump over (like Eeyore always does).

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like August 21, 2015 - 8:14am

I don't think there is a balance which can be described without example or objective; I think the "balance" is whatever the writer chooses to put in their story. Internal anything (positive or negative) is like any other possible element of a story in that it can be used to fill space, or augment / play off other elements, or occupy a place of priority. There are concerns of taste, and then there are concerns of rationale; the two don't always align. If a reader wants 90/10 plot/consideration, they probably won't like a story that's 90/10 consideration/plot; and always writing 50/50 might not please anyone.

That's the most sense I can make without knowing what people mean by "navel-gazing".

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 21, 2015 - 8:09pm

navel gazing is when someone gets super introspective and just dwells on themselves, and doesn't really do anything. (which might be the balance right there...)

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like August 22, 2015 - 1:55pm

Yes. There are stories (or works of fiction) that are basically just that and nothing else. I suppose many people don't (or wouldn't) like them, but they can be funny, sad, thought-provoking, even exciting (albeit in a manner action-packed stories are not). Such writing isn't new, though it may never be considered standard storytelling.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated August 28, 2015 - 7:54pm

I avoid balance. No joke, just kick the puppy if things seem dull.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 28, 2015 - 11:18pm

The key is not overdoing conflict, and all to often it feels like (short stories generally) is interpreted as opening the story with a train robbery.

And some stories tend to focus more on internal conflict over external conflict. I think, at least in current movies, the focus tends to rely to heavily external conflict. Not that this can't be compelling, except I find that manga provides a better balance--having every second chapter be slice of life esque, being purely about the character life without external conflict.

For me when I write, the focus tends to be on finding it in oneself to overcome vaguely held familial nostalgia for sake of peer relations, and understanding the outside world in relation to our own inner world. But this I mean that the character arc focusing and allowing the inner world and self-acceptance to take precedence over the external world and its peer pressures.

For this reason, the way I would approach it would be inherently different from a story about a mannequin shooting asteroids in his space ship in deep space.