Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 17: Curses, Foiled Again!

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 seventeen:


“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 17: Curses, Foiled Again!

You’ve probably heard the old Chinese curse (maybe from me), “May you live in interesting times.”

Interesting times — war, famine, storms, earthquakes — are terrifying to live through. However, within the framework of a novel, interesting times are wonderful to write about and to read about.

mount st. helens(Photo, public domain)

 I purposely set my first trilogy (The Ivory Carver Trilogy) just prior to, during, and shortly after a large volcanic eruption that rocked the Aleutian Islands thousands of years ago. According to archaeological and geological studies, this eruption left a very clear ash layer, which is relatively easy to date within plus or minus 50 years. I chose a date (7056 B.C.) within that time frame for the first novel of the trilogy, and that allowed me to enhance the realism. These “hey-this-really-happened” moments add definition and believability to a novel. In the case of a volcanic eruption, it also serves as an effective external conflict — man versus nature.

Although many wonderful novels are based only on internal conflict, you are more likely to please your readers if you use both internal and external conflicts.

External conflicts include man-against-man (wars and rumors of war, revenge, arranged marriages, blackmail); man-against-nature (earthquakes, storms, famine, plagues, animals); man-against-machines (robots, razor sharp pendulums, crazed vehicles); man-against-spiritual beings (devils, angels, gods); man-against-entity (governments, corporations, alien civilizations).

The most important thing to keep in mind as you develop external conflicts is to keep your characters in-character. In other words, a man who hates kids probably won’t fight a government entity to protect them. Of course, wouldn’t it be a great story if he did? If he does, however, be sure you give him proper motivation for doing so. Why the change of heart?

Another thing to remember about external (and internal) conflict is that if a conflict does not pierce the heart of your character(s), your readers will be yawning. How do you pierce the heart? Here’s a few ideas:

1. Use your conflicts to test, grow, or destroy your characters.

2. Use conflicts as foils to highlight your character’s desires, strengths, and/or weaknesses.

3. Use conflicts to force your character into rip-out-the-heart choices.

4. Use conflicts to grow your main character’s problems into something larger than his or her daily life.

5. Use conflicts to make your character suffer — mentally, spiritually, or physically.

These techniques help you touch your readers’ hearts, and that’s how writers build their reading audiences.

What types of external conflicts do you like to read about?

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 July 24, 2014, for part 18.


2 responses to “Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 17: Curses, Foiled Again!

  1. The best way I can describe my type of external conflicts as man-against-man-against-man (people fighting, but then they both go against another, greater evil), so pretty much superheroes. 😉


  2. You know what, Erik? I think you’ve come up with another category for external conflicts. Superheroes! Thank you for another “thinking outside the box” moment! You’re very good at that!


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