Previously in the pages of CBI I have often written about the basic structure for children’s fiction: a character encounters an obstacle or conflict of some kind, and then resolves it through his or her own purposeful action. This makes up the events of the story, or the plot. How the character changes as a person through this conflict and resolution process reflects the book’s theme, or underlying message. But lately I’ve been thinking that the above explanation is too simple.
After studying many successful children’s novels for ages eight and up, it’s become clear that the character really confronts two kinds of conflict: external and internal. The external conflict is often beyond the character’s control; it’s a situation he is thrust into, for better or worse, and it’s what pulls the plot along from page to page. It could be a mystery that needs solving, moving to a new neighborhood or a death in the family. The external conflict makes the period of time between the first and last page of the book different from any other time in the character’s life.
The internal conflict is something the character brings to the story on page one. This conflict may be unknown to the character — it could be lurking just under the surface — or it could be a problem the character is aware of but has been ignoring. But when the character is confronted with the external conflict, the internal conflict is brought to light. The internal conflict is contained within the main character — guilt over cheating on a test at school, anger at parents who are recently divorced, lack of self confidence — and must be resolved in some way for the character to grow. Middle grade and young adult novels, which require complexly-layered stories, need both internal and external conflicts. Without internal conflict, the characters have no depth. Without external conflict, there is no plot — only angst. But there has to be a connection between the two for a cohesive and believable story. One brings on the other. They feed off each other until the character takes active steps to resolve one conflict, thus leading to the solution of the other problem.
An example of this intricate structure is Suzanne Fisher Staples’ young adult novel Dangerous Skies (Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The narrator, 12-year-old Buck Smith, lives on the Chesapeake Bay. His family is descended from the English settlers who moved to Virginia in the 1700s. His best friend, Tunes, is descended from the slaves who were brought from Africa to work the Smith farm. She shares Buck’s last name, and the two were raised together since infancy. But Buck remarks at the beginning of the book how lately he’s noticed the adults watching them as they go off fishing together, and that suddenly Tunes is growing and turning from a girl to a woman. Buck resists this inevitable change in their lives — this is the internal conflict he brings to the book.
The external conflict soon presents itself; Buck and Tunes find the body of a friend in the Bay while fishing, and Tunes acts strangely and immediately takes off into the marsh. A few days later the sheriff appears at Buck’s house looking for Tunes — he wants to question her about the murder. As Buck helps Tunes hide from the law he is confronted with other external conflicts: racial prejudice that takes the word of a white man over a black girl; punishment from his parents when he tries to help Tunes; suspicion from the sheriff that he might be involved in the crime when he lies about Tunes’ whereabouts. Internal conflicts Buck was never aware of also surface: his relationship with his parents deteriorates when they don’t stand up for Tunes, even though she was always like a daughter to them; Tunes puts up an invisible wall between herself and Buck, keeping information from him that will allow him to fully understand her predicament.
The ending of the book is bittersweet. The external conflict is resolved, though not to Buck’s satisfaction. He also comes to terms with his internal conflicts, but it’s not a traditional happy ending. As with many great young adult novels, not all loose ends are neatly tied up. This is a story about real life, and Buck learns that people are not perfect and sometimes prejudice is too big for one person to fight. He sees this time as the end of his childhood, a loss of innocence. He accepts this and moves on, and in doing so he grows.
When creating problems for your main characters, think along two lines. A big, external conflict that forms the plot and keeps the story moving, and an internal conflict that forces your character to change, reflecting the theme. This will give your story depth, and give your readers something to think about.
Laura Backes is the publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. For more information about writing children’s books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children’s Book Insider’s home on the web at http://write4kids.com