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How Do You Balance Internal and External Conflict for Maximum Suspense?

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My author friend, similar to his fictional protagonist, was built like a refrigerator. Both excelled in martial arts, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that my friend’s suspense novel consisted of one fight scene after another.

“Where’s your emotion, Dan?” I asked him. “What’s your protagonist feeling?”

“Oh,” he said, “I’m going to edit all that in later.”

He never did, no doubt because if you can’t handle emotion while you’re writing your first draft, you’re probably not going to be able to handle it later.

But internal conflict isn’t everything. I’ve worked with authors who create entire chapters detailing their protagonists’ angst and backstory with few if any mentions about what that character’s external goal is.

External conflict is the reason the reader picked up your novel. It’s the yes-no question. Will she find the killer? Can he prove his innocence?

It’s Clarice Starling determined to learn Buffalo Bill’s identity, even if that means having to deal with Hannibal Lecter. It’s Katniss Everdeen fighting to survive the Hunger Games.

External conflict is what makes the reader turn the page to find out what happens next.

Internal conflict makes the reader care. We care what happens to Clarice and Katniss because we feel empathy for them. Clarice wants the save “the lambs” at all costs, and Katniss wants to survive the Hunger Games, a challenge she undertook to spare her sister. Neither novel would work if it focused only on the internal conflict of these protagonists.

In twenty-plus years of writing my own novels and helping others shape theirs, I’ve come to realize that many struggle with balancing external and internal conflict. There are reasons for this lopsided teeter-totter, and we’ll get to them shortly.

First, though, what about you?

What’s driving you to write this suspense novel of yours?

Are you burning with your idea for a plotline, or are you drawn to the emotional conflict of your protagonist?

Conflict is tricky. As you push the action forward, you also need to breathe life—and nuance, backstory and emotion—into your character. Often, when I ask an author, “What does your protagonist want?” I get answers like, “She just wants to be happy,” or “He needs to heal from the past.” Of course, it’s entirely possible to have a novel where the external conflict is the protagonist’s search for happiness or healing, but if that’s what you’re writing, it’s probably not a suspense novel.

The external conflict needs to be clear from the beginning. It starts with the inciting incident that takes place the moment something external changes, and nothing will ever again be the same.

Internal conflict needs to be woven in, usually in transitions before or after scenes, sometimes briefly in dialogue.

At the beginning of a scene

What happened to your protagonist the last time the character was in a scene? It doesn’t matter if it was two minutes or 20 years ago. What was the character’s emotion? Start the scene with that emotion. As your character reflects briefly, she ultimately decides what she’s going to do next, and that becomes the new external goal.

At the end of a scene

This happens after the scene climax when the character does or doesn’t achieve his goal. You can then step into your character’s head and reveal his emotions as he decides on his next step.

In dialogue

There are three ways to tag dialogue.

With simple tags like said. “I know who killed Wanda,” she said.

With actions. “I know who killed Wanda.” She slammed the plate of bacon on the table before him. 

Or with emotional tags. “I know who killed Wanda.” For once, she had the upper hand, and as she looked into his shocked expression, she realized she liked the way it felt.

Creating the external conflict of your story

Ask yourself the following:

Whose story is this?

Who is my protagonist? What does this person want?  

What is the yes-no question keeping the reader turning pages in your suspense novel? This is the protagonist’s external goal.

Who stands in the way of your protagonist?

What does this person, the antagonist, want?

What are the stakes?

What happens if your protagonist doesn’t reach the external goal?

Defining the internal conflict of your story

Now, for the internal conflict.

What’s the hole in your character’s life?

Has he never gotten over an important relationship? Does she blame herself for something in her past?

Is she struggling with opposing values?

In The Hunger Games, Katniss doesn’t want to kill the others, but she wants her family to survive. The book is still about the games, but her internal conflict deepens the story.

Why we struggle to write

I’ve always felt that most writing issues are as much about psychology and our own inner demons as they are about craft.

Writing reveals who we really are. It also reveals our fears.

Refrigerator man, who plans to edit in the emotion later, is afraid to move beyond his comfort zone of physical conflict. The angst and backstory authors are afraid to deal with any kind of conflict because somewhere along the line they were taught that nice people don’t disagree, let alone punch each other in the face.

Yet, if you are to write suspense that keeps the reader turning pages—and makes the reader care—you need both.

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