Daily Archives: May 22, 2014

Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 16: Conflicted!

Welcome back! Over the next many months we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison‘s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read all the segments by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on the drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month sixteen:


“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 16: Conflicted!

Conflict stands as the quintessential lifeblood of a novel. To pull your readers in and keep them involved in your story, you have to walk a narrow path between too little conflict and too much conflict.

Too little conflict will start your readers yawning. Too much conflict will rend the “veil of disbelief” and pop your readers out of the story. (As in, “Give me a break nobody suffers that much angst over a piece of burnt toast.”)

IMG_0154Toast burned and photographed by Sue.

Let’s simplify by dividing conflict into two broad categories — internal and external. Today, we’ll talk about internal. Next month, we’ll discuss external.

Internal conflict is all about what’s going on inside your character, mentally and emotionally. Internal conflict is vitally important because it builds a bridge between your character and your reader. Readers relate to strong emotions. We all know what it is to love, hate, feel jealous, be afraid, and experience all those other potent feelings. It’s the “do I love him or hate him” anguish of the romance novel (Jane Eyre, right?). It’s the “who am I and why are they trying to kill me” of suspense novels (Jason Bourne). I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

Of course, these emotional connections lead us back to the “show don’t tell” admonitions of so many how-to writing books and articles. Just to remind all of us (including myself) how “show don’t tell” relates to internal conflict, I’ll pull an example from one of my current manuscripts.

This quote is from BONE FIRE, a novel set in ancient Europe. The main character, Rose, has been kidnapped and is traveling North with her abductor. Rose grieves so much for her lost home and family that she would rather be dead than go peacefully with the kidnapper, but she is pregnant, and she wants the baby to live.

Now I could throw the above paragraph — with a few tweaks — into the middle of the novel and be done with the matter, but that won’t create an adequate bond between Rose and my readers.  Instead, in a series of scenes, I illustrate her internal conflict through her actions. Here’s one short example:

“…that part of Rose which lived inside her head traveled back over the trails to the Mother River until she reached her village. There she floated over the deserted houses, looking for Kittle, and the grandmother, and the old man Dat. When she did not find them, she came back to her own body and slept, and in the morning, when Villr [her kidnapper] offered her food, she ate.”

The best internal conflict isn’t only about choices, it’s about choices that carry immense emotional baggage. Your character has to bleed (really or figuratively) no matter what choice he or she makes. Rose’s choice is between death and life, but, if she chooses life, she is choosing to leave behind who she is, who she loves, and all that she knows. If she chooses death, she is also choosing to kill her own unborn baby. Either way, she’s hurting, big time.

Thank goodness that for a novelist, the choice is a bit easier. Choose internal conflict. Choose to pull your reader in with difficult choices and strong emotions.

What’s your main character’s name? What kind of internal conflict does he or she face?

Strength to your pen!


*Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*

Sue HarrisonBestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy, and a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.

Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you come back June 26, 2014, for part 17.