Inner Conflict in Series Fiction (and in life)

The worst part of reading a series, for me, is thoroughly enjoying the first book only to find that the subsequent books don’t hold my interest at all. It doesn’t happen every time—I’ve devoured many a series from the first book to the last—but it happens enough for me to have noticed a pattern. And now that I’m writing  a series, one that’s been planned that way from the beginning (the Internal Defense series was more of an accident, with a stand-alone novel turning into two books and then three, and each book was created with its own independent story arc), one of my priorities has been to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with my own books. Not only do I not want to inflict that experience on readers, I also don’t want to slog through writing the later books in my series, because if I can’t get invested in what I’m writing, then what’s the point?

Over the years, I’ve figured out that the main sticking point for me in a series is the characters’ inner growth. Typically, in the first book they resolve the major issues that have been holding them back—and then it’s time for book two, and all those issues have already been resolved. Then either the series starts focusing solely on the external plot (which is fine and all, but inner conflict is a necessary ingredient for me), or it starts going off the rails and loses the central elements that got me interested in the first place.

But making inner growth happen in every book is easier said than done, especially when writing something longer than a trilogy. After all, if you want the first book in a series to stand alone, it makes sense to resolve their issues—the thing from the past that haunts them, the flaw that’s been holding them back—in book one. Even if you don’t care about wrapping all your threads up in the first book, it can get ridiculous trying to stretch one inner conflict over the source of several books. Eventually both the author and the reader want to tell the character to just get over it and put those demons to rest already.

But once the demons are laid to rest, once the main character has come to terms with their past or taken that leap of faith or done whatever they need to do to be healthy and whole, where do they go from there? After all, once you’ve worked out that central issue, gone through your personal hero’s journey and come out the other side, you’re all set, right? Your issues are resolved, and you can go on with your life in peace.

Except that’s not how it works. That’s never how it works.

There’s always a new journey, something else to resolve, some new direction in which to grow. However serene and comfortable the new place you found yourself in was, you’re never going to stay there forever. Eventually it just becomes the starting point for a new journey. Your demons meet you where you are—whether they’re new demons or the old ones in a new form—and you fight them again and move on. And on, and on.

And that’s how it works in a good series.

No matter how important that first conflict they resolve, it will never be the last conflict, or even the most important. It’s just the first step in a journey that will take them a lot further than one book or one victory. That’s true for both outer and inner conflict, or it should be. That’s not a special writing technique—that’s just making stories true to life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *