Friday, September 28, 2012

Conflict and Suspense Belong in Every Kind of Novel

Please welcome bestselling author and popular writing seminar leader James Scott Bell to The Blood-Red Pencil! His guest post addresses our back-to school theme about new writing books by introducing his newest from Writer's Digest Books—Conflict & SuspenseIts advice will help any author keep the reader turning pages.

What is the goal of the novel? Is it to entertain? Teach? Preach? Stir up anger? Change the world? Make the author a lot of money?

It can be any of these things, but in the end, none of these objectives will work to their full potential unless they forge, in some way, a satisfying emotional experience for the reader.

And what gets the reader hooked emotionally? Trouble. Readers are gripped by the terrible trials a character goes through. (There are psychological reasons for this that are beyond the scope of this post.)

That's where conflict comes in. While there are writers who say plot comes from character, let me say that's too simplistic. Character actually comes from plot. Why? Because true character is only revealed in crisis. Put your character into big trouble (plot) and then we'll see what he or she is made of (character). If you don't believe me, imagine a 400-page novel about Scarlett O'Hara where she just sits on the porch all day, sipping mint juleps and flirting. Gone With the Wind only takes off when she finds out Ashley is going to marry Melanie (trouble) and then the Civil War breaks out (big trouble!).

Another way to think about it is this: we all wear masks in our lives. A major crisis forces us to take off the mask and reveal who we really are. That's the role of conflict in fiction: to rip the mask off the character.

Now, this conflict must be of sufficient magnitude to matter to readers. That's why I teach that "death stakes" must be involved. Your lead character must be facing death—which can be physical, professional, or psychological.

Genre doesn't matter. In a literary novel like The Catcher in the Rye, it's psychological death. Holden Caulfield must find meaning in the world or he will "die inside." Psychological death is also the key to a category romance. If the two lovers do not get together, they will lose their soul mate. They will die inside and forever have diminished lives (That's the feeling you need to create. Think about it. Why was Titanic such a hit with teen girls? It wasn't because of the special effects!).

In The Silence of the Lambs, it's professional death on the line. Clarice Starling must help bring down Buffalo Bill in part by playing mind games with Hannibal Lecter. If she doesn't prevail, another innocent will die (physical death in the subplot) and Clarice's career will be over.

And in most thrillers, of course, you have the threat of physical death hanging over the whole thing.

That's why, novelist friend, trouble is indeed your business. Without sufficient conflict readers aren't going to care enough to finish the book.

The second element is suspense, and I don't just mean in the suspense novel per se. Suspense means to "delay resolution so as to excite anticipation." Another way to say this is that it's the opposite of having a predictable story. If the reader keeps guessing what's going to happen, and is right, there is no great pleasure in reading the novel.

Thanks Jim! For more on how to deliver memorable conflict and spine-tingling suspense that grips your reader by the imagination and never lets go, check out Jim's latest book, Conflict & Suspense.

James Scott Bell, a former trial lawyer, now writes and speaks full time. A former fiction columnist for Writer's Digest Magazine, he has written four craft books for Writer’s Digest Books: Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers, and Conflict & Suspense. His popular titles include thrillers like Deceived, Try Dying, Watch Your Back, and One More Lie; he is at work on two series, pulp style boxing stories featuring Irish Jimmy Gallagher and the vigilante nun series Force of Habit; and under the pen name K. Bennett he is also the author of the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series, which begins with Pay Me in Flesh.

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  1. Excellent post. The plot/character chicken-and-egg debate continues. I think plot and character work best when they are like two struts of a building positioned so that they hold each other up. Weaken one and the other collapses, too. Strengthen one at the expense of the other and your building will be lop-sided.

    Welcome to the Blood-Red Pencil :-)

  2. Great post!! A character really becomes heroic during trials thrown at him or her.

  3. I ask myself, what it the worst thing that can happen to my character? And then I try to write it.

  4. Very helpful post. Loved the books you used as examples.

  5. Thanks for the terrific post. So glad you came to The Blood Red Pencil to share your expertise. You added another layer to what I am always telling my drama students, "Drama is all about action and reaction." When the action brings trouble, the reactions are more significant.

  6. People who think writing a book is something anybody could do well if they just tried has never done it. What reads flawlessly and keeps the reader turning pages did NOT just flow effortlessly out of the pen (or fingertips on the keyboard). A well-written book is the outgrowth of many elements and the culmination of combining several skill-sets -- plot and character development being high on the list.

    Thank you, James Scott Bell, for sharing your experience, your expertise, your words of wisdom. And welcome to the Blood Red Pencil.

  7. Thanks for coming, Jim! I'm enjoying your book. I was one of those rookie authors who went too easy on their characters at first. I'm getting over it. ;)

  8. Thanks all for the kind comments. You're such nice people! But I think you'll be mean to your characters, which is a good thing.

    Keep writing!

  9. I just bought your book at ACFW conference. I've been trying to catch up from being gone for a few days, but I can't wait to start it.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. I agree. A book is boring without conflict and suspense. Why read if we know everything already?

    Morgan Mandel

  11. Great post. I hope we'll be seeing more from Mr. Bell in the future.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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