Tension fix: Bring out internal conflicts

This entry is part 17 of 26 in the series Tension, suspense and surprise

Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with the scene set up: we’ve put Mitch into a situation where he would be uncomfortable, unsure of himself, or required to perform a monumental feat. And yet somehow, the scene still doesn’t get the reception we want. Critique partners note that the scene—a turning point for the character—drags.

We need this scene—so now what? Can’t they see how this situation would be stressful and tense for Mitch? Doesn’t that automatically imbue the scene with tension?

Uh, no. Not if we didn’t put that there. Yeah, even though we’d all spent 300 pages together, if the feelings we know Mitch would have weren’t on the page, readers won’t see it.

Simply introducing more more tension—more conflict—through the narration can increase the tension in a scene. If Mitch just sits there and takes this pivotal situation, the readers won’t be engaged in his change—and it won’t be as believable.

Camy Tang wrote an article about this, taken Donald Maass’s “tension on every page” axiom to the next level—tension in every line. She used a great before and after comparison of a cut scene from one of her novels—one without the “tension commentary” and one with (going for tension with a humorous tone).

Weaving in your character’s emotions and observations—whether they’re a “why me” comedic effect, a “not me!” suspense effect or a “can I do this” character effect—can help to increase the tension in a turning point scene.

But don’t beat your readers over the head with it. If this is the fourth scene in a row where your protagonist is battling his Inner Demon, we readers are probably familiar enough that the conflict doesn’t have to be mentioned in every paragraph. In fact, if this is the fourth scene in a row with the same inner conflict, it might be a good time to see if all of those scenes are really necessary. Also, too much internal monologue can slow down the action of a scene, so try for a balance.

What do you think? How can you bring out your characters’ internal conflicts more?

Photo by Penguincakes

Series NavigationTension fix: Start with a bangTension fix: Boring but true—keeping the suspense while we give info

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3 thoughts on “Tension fix: Bring out internal conflicts”

  1. Showing internal conflict can be tough, because it IS internal. Some techniques I’ve tried are inner dialog, outward manifestations (pacing, fist pounding) and descriptions of the actual feelings.

    I sometimes think writing internal conflict is among the toughest of tasks.

  2. It definitely can be, but it doesn’t have to be. I had this same issue in my WIP (still need to go back and fix it), and I just need to show those same reactions more, and show what my character is thinking. I was afraid of slowing the scene down with too much thinking (and it’s already a slow scene), but I went too far and the readers couldn’t see any tension there.

  3. (But, I suppose this could also be difficult depending on how much you’re “inside” their inner lives, and how used you are to expressing those kinds of things. [Can you tell I’m reading a book on gender and communication?] It takes creativity, too—lots of it—to avoid clichés.)

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