James Scott Bell is well-known among writers for his useful, practical wisdom on improving our writing and story structure. Conflict and Suspense is the fourth writing book of his I’ve purchased, the third one I’ve read, and like its predecessors, it’s going to be a mainstay in my writing library.
I have two bookshelves of writing books. One is the bulk of the collection, and is just high enough to make getting to them difficult. Conflict and Suspense — if it were a paperback — would go on the other shelf, the one to the left of my computer so I can reach it without getting up. I got the Kindle edition, which is even better because I can take it anywhere and pull it out for reference while brainstorming, writing or revising. Bell includes tips for adding and improving conflict and suspense at each of these stages.
Bell organizes his material in a logical fashion, each chapter building upon the earlier ones. He varies his examples from other works, and includes enough information that even if you haven’t read/seen the work, you understand the example. That’s something I particularly appreciated since one of the works (it’s both a book and a movie) he used a few times is in the horror/suspense field — something I don’t read a lot of because it would give me nightmares. But I didn’t have to have read or seen it to grasp the lessons it contained, and that speaks to Bell’s skill as a writing teacher.
If you think you write a genre that doesn’t require conflict and suspense help, think again. Throughout reading the book, my plot bunnies (the equivalent of King’s “boys in the basement” line Bell uses often) were hopping madly, churning up ideas to deepen and improve the novel I’m revising now. That novel has elements of a thriller/suspense novel, but it also has a big literary/coming-of-age thread. So all of you scoffing at the idea of adding conflict and suspense know exactly which thread those plot bunnies were playing with, right? Wrong. It was the literary one. Sure, the sections with the guns and threats and mobsters got some benefit from Bell’s wisdom. But the literary thread got the bulk of the development, and it’s really making that thread stronger, putting my poor main character through all sorts of hell because every time he’s going to be close to addressing his internal conflict, it’s going to give the mobsters more ammunition against him. See? Conflict.
Don Maass, in his keynote at the Writer’s Digest Conference two weeks ago, explained his concept of a 21st Century Novel, a book that marries the best elements of genre fiction with the best approaches of literary fiction to create unforgettable stories. If you want to write that kind of book, I can’t think of a better place to start than to read Conflict and Suspense and apply its lessons and exercises to your own work. Your readers will thank you. Your characters might hate you, though. Their lives are about to get much tougher.
ETA: I had originally credited Bell with the “boys in the basement” line and it’s Stephen King’s line that Bell uses. Tweaked to correct that.