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Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense Paperback – December 1, 2012
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The Amazon Book Review
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About the Author
James Scott Bell is the author of more than fifteen novels and a Christy Award winner for Final Witness in 2000. His fiction has been reviewed in Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, and the Library Review. He's the author of Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing, and The Art of War for Writers. He writes for Writer's Digest magazine. Bell currently teaches fiction writing courses at Pepperdine University and is a regular on the conference circuit. His website is www.jamesscottbell.com. He lives in West Hills, California.
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The new information is definitely helpful for writing conflict and suspense, but not as essential. Bell's step-by-step how to write a novel "LOCK" system from Plot and Structure is reprinted here in its entirety. If you're only going to buy one how-to write (any type of fiction) book, even if you want to write action or suspense, I'd still go for Plot and Structure first every time. Why? Because of its broader focus. It covers a lot more situations. It''s like a toolbox, whereas this book is more of a specialized wrench set. They do complement each other and go hand-in-hand, so if you don't mind the information overlap and just want more good insights and advice from Bell, then get this book, too. Just know you're only getting maybe half a book's worth of new stuff.
Again, the new stuff here is very good, some of it quite brilliant, and there are enough "aha!" gems to make it worth adding to your collection . . . just maybe not for full price. My 4-star rating reflects that.
The book is divided into two unequal parts. The first, and larger, consists of fourteen chapters about conflict. The first few chapters describe conflict and how it is set up. Then Bell examines how the many dimensions of writing can be manipulated to fire up the tension, including: point of view, openings, subplots and flashbacks, dialogue, theme, style, and even editing. Chapter 14 suggests some tools that writers may employ to help them ratchet up the conflict.
The second, and shorter, part (8 chapters) delves into the topic of suspense. The organization follows a similar progression. First, Bell describes suspense through many potent examples. Second, he moves onto examine the various means by which suspense can be created. With respect to the latter, Bell suggests ways in which dialogue, setting, and style can be presented in order to create cliff-hangers. The last chapter pulls everything together to advise writers on the how to create stories that maximize conflict and suspense. This is in part a summary of the book, but it looks at the process more and the dimensions of writing less, and therefore offers something new as well.
Readers of Bell’s other guides may be familiar with the LOCK formulation that he uses in his “Plot & Structure” book. LOCK is an acronym for Lead (an intriguing opening), Objective (a goal of dire consequence), Confrontation (the battle for the objective), and Knock-out Ending (a conclusion that satisfies.) I mention this because one may find synergy in reading other books in the series. LOCK is not as central a concept here as in the “Plot & Structure” book, but it’s nice to have a common mechanism by which ideas are conveyed.
There’s not much by way of ancillary material. There are a few simple black and white graphics / diagrams. However, there is one nice feature in the form of an Appendix that analyzes conflict for two novels: “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Silence of the Lambs.” These were good choices both because they represent literary as well as commercial fiction, and because they both have popular movie adaptations. The latter comment might seem like sacrilege to the “the book always beats the movie” crowd. However, using movies as examples—as Bell does here and there—offers the advantage that the average reader will have seen a higher percentage of good movies than they’ve read good books. This is even true for most us who read a ton because relatively few (if any) great movies come out each year and the history of cinema is much shorter.
I both enjoyed and learned from this book. Bell uses many excellent examples to support the ideas that he’s presenting, and this makes the book readable and easily digestible. I’d recommend it for writers of fiction who seek to put more zip into their creations.
If you want to improve your fiction writing, I would recommend Stephen King's On Writing and this book. To be fair though, I have done a minimal amount of writing.
Suspense happens when the stakes are high, and we have a protagonist to cheer for. Remember Bell's advice in his seminal Plot & Suspense: have a Lead worth following who is fighting to achieve an Objective in the face of Obstacles and Conflict, wound up by a Knockout ending.
Get Bell's Conflict & Suspense, and study the lessons. When you internalize them, you'll be plotting a novel that is driven from within and characters who are alive because they're always fighting the good fight.