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External Conflict Worksheet

© 2002 by Alicia Rasley

This is an exercise to help you connect your external conflict with your internal conflict:

1. What's going on outside your protagonist that is involving him/her in some external situation? This could be a quest, a mission, a conspiracy, an investigation, a project, a term (such as a school term), a deception, a plan... anything that will provide the protagonist with something to do for the time of the book. This does not have to be a major conflict; it just has to last the whole book.

2. Add in a deadline if you can– If X doesn't happen by (time or date), then something bad will occur. Or if I accomplish Y by (time or date), then something good will happen.

So what's yours?

Example: If I don't get my juniors to understand analogies by October, they'll all do lousy on the verbal portion of the SATs, and they won't get into college.

3. Now list a few ways this conflict can show up in your story as a problem. Give at least three events which cause the protagonist trouble, and show a couple of ways he/she attempts to solve the problem.

Example: In September, I started at this school and the principal tells me the first big challenge is to help the students prepare for the SATs. Most of them are from families where no one has graduated from high school, much less gone to college.

I start teaching from a sample SAT test and there's a whole section on analogies. I give them that part of the test and they all fail it. Students start to panic and some say they just won't do it– won't take the test, will give up their dreams of college. Most can't seem to get it when I'm teaching, no matter how I try. I ask for help from other teachers and get some worksheets, but nothing works.

Then a student comes to me and says hesitantly that he thinks he understands, but I'm just not explaining it in a way the kids understand.

4. Now explain why this conflict is especially hard for this teacher emotionally or psychologically-- why it makes him/her feel vulnerable or scared or inadequate.

Example: I used to teach at an elite private school, and my students always did great on the SATs. I thought I was a good teacher. Then I got this fellowship to come to an inner-city school and use my methods on these un-gifted students. Now I'm floundering.

They're having a harder time learning from me. They come into my classroom after walking to school through dangerous streets-- no bus system down here-- and some of them work 8 hours the night before and they've got all sorts of worries and anxieties that my previous students don't have.

And I'm realizing-- I wasn't that great a teacher after all. If I were any kind of teacher, I'd be able to teach all different kinds of kids, not just the well-fed, well-prepared, well-off ones. And now I'm thinking it was a mistake coming here-- I'm not up to this task. Only thing is, after failing so badly here, I don't think I can go back to teaching at all, because I've lost my confidence. When this kid comes up and tells me that I'm teaching wrong, that I'm just not talking their language, it reinforces my sense of failure.

5. Now list a few ways the resolution of this conflict can be developed in the latter part of the book.

Example: I tell this student that if he thinks he can teach better than I can, go ahead. I figure he'll fail just as I did-- these students are just too damaged to learn a high-level concept like "analogy," right? I'm amazed when he successfully helps one classmate to "get it," using popular music and movies as examples.

We set up peer-tutoring sessions for the other students. The tutors are teenagers too, and know what examples will work– from sports and music. Each student who figures it out is given another student to tutor. Soon everyone in the junior class, even the non-college bound students, joins in because it's become the cool thing to do.

6. Now come up with some triumphant or satisfying or just event that can show the resolution of this conflict. Think about a tournament or contest or showdown or big moment of some sort– this will be your external climactic event, so make it a good one.

Example: The day of the SATs, I come to school to find all the students with their partners going over the studysheets one more time. A few hours later, they emerge from the test room thumbs-up, and they all report they think they knew every analogy question.

7. Now see if you can come up with some way the world of the book has changed because of this triumphant resolution.

Example: A few weeks later, the test results come in, and my students did great on the Verbal section. Because the peer-tutoring project worked so well, the principal lets me set up a similar program to prepare students for the next round of SATs. I decide to stay.

8. One more question: Read over that and see if the external events show some kind of internal change too.

Example: I was always the kind of teacher who had to be in charge of the classroom. There was a line there– I was the teacher, on this side, and they were the students, on that side. This experience has taught me that sometimes students can be teachers... and that teachers should never stop learning. I learned– to let go a little and stay open to experimentation, and to trust my kids.


Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.

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