James Scott Bell: Conflict & Suspense
James Scott Bell is one of my favorite writers-on-writing. I’ve read his books on Plot & Structure (2004) and Revision & Self-Editing (2008) and recommend both. When Conflict & Suspense was published earlier this year, I downloaded it to my Kindle–instant gratification.
We all know that conflict is essential in fiction. Boy meets Girl, Girl falls in love with Boy, they marry and live happily ever after doesn’t even make a good short story. Not without conflict and suspense.
Bell starts with the premise that a good novel must be emotionally gripping, and that the best tools for building that emotion are conflict and suspense. We can all agree with that, particularly if we are writing romance. What genre depends more on emotion?
But he goes on to say that the stakes in an emotionally satisfying novel have to be death. Wait a minute, now–death? I write humor. Nobody dies in my books. Well, hardly anybody. And if they do, they probably deserve it.
Think about the last sitcom you watched on TV. If you sat through the show, and laughed, there was definitely plenty of conflict and suspense, but I’ll bet nobody died. Does that break Bell’s rule?
Not at all, because death, thank goodness, need not be literal. It might be, of course (Bell writes thrillers), but it may also be professional (a career or life disaster) or psychological (if Boy can’t win Girl, or vice versa, the world might as well come to an end). In comedy the most trivial problem can turn into a towering threat. Just think about Frasier.
Most of us do our best to avoid conflict in our day-to-day lives, even when we welcome a little suspense. It isn’t always easy to throw metaphorical rocks at our characters, chase them down dark alleys or up comedic trees, but that’s just what we need to do to write good fiction, and Bell’s book is full of tools for the job. He covers the use of conflict in structure, point of view, subplots, flashbacks and backstory, dialogue, and theme, and then tackles style and revision.
Suspense (“what happens next?” or “will it happen again?”) is equally well covered, and the book is peppered with examples from novels and films. Bell’s clear and down-to-earth discussions will be useful for writers of any genre and at any career stage.
I read this book on my Kindle, which I have had, and enjoyed, for almost a year now. I find it totally satisfactory for reading novels, but somewhat less so for non-fiction, books on writing, books with illustrations–books I want to flip through and review. Looking for a little more flexibility, I recently downloaded the free Kindle for PC app, and found it much more book-like than the Kindle itself, particularly on my large hi-def monitor. The Kindle for PC gives you crisp black print on white pages that look like pages, one or two at a time (your choice), page numbers, color, and the ability to highlight and even copy text, and to page or scroll through the book with your mouse. Illustrations are clear and navigation is easy. If you have a Kindle, the computer app will show you the covers of everything you have downloaded; just click on the cover to pull the book onto your computer. But you don’t need a Kindle. Amazon will happily give you the free app (mine came with Treasure Island, Pride and Prejudice and Aesop’s Fables) in the hope that you’ll download more. And you will.
Kay Hudson was taken aback by the sight of all the books she has downloaded to her Kindle spread across her computer screen in full color. She complains regularly about her lack of reading time at kayhudson.com.