Things I’ve Learned About Writing – Suspense and Conflict.

I've spent the last year reading an awful lot of books on writing and editing and I've decided to share some of what I've learned. To do this I'm going to write a series of blogs. I don't know how many or how often I'll be releasing them (I really don't like working to a routine!), but I'm hoping that some of the content may be of interest and may even help or inspire a few of you in your writing pursuits.

I apologise that the content of these blogs may seem random and out of order as I will be writing about whatever is relevant to me at that point in time. At the moment I am planning out scenes for my next novel, Book 2 in The Chanel Series, and as such, conflict and suspense is constantly on my mind. So that is what I want to write about today.


What makes people read?

The need to have new experiences and travel to exotic locations? What about the desire to solve a mystery, fall in love, escape from a predator or experience a first kiss – again?

We are drawn to the genres that satisfy an aspect of our inner need. Sci-fi, fantasy, chicklit, romantic comedy – they all offer us a different escapism from our normal lives. There is one other thing that they all have in common; if nothing is happening, they don't hold our attention for long.

Scenes during which nothing happens are the scenes that allow the reader to get up and check the post. Too many of those scenes and the reader will give up for good. Something has to be happening at all times to make the reader keep turning those pages and those somethings are made up of suspense and conflict.

Conflict is a clash between two entities. A struggle between good and evil, nature and man, husband and wife. It doesn't matter what that clash is, what matters is that it is there.

Suspense arises out of this conflict. Will Batman manage to foil The Penguin's evil plan? Will the fire reach the houses in the forest before the fire fighters can stop it? Will Mrs Jones find out that Mr Jones is having an affair? It is those questions that keep our readers turning the pages as we take them on the roller-coaster ride that is our story.

According to James Scott Bell there are three types of death: physical, professional and psychological. To make your novel emotionally satisfying one of these forms of death must be present. That's right, for the ultimate conflict, someone, usually the lead, must be in danger of a form of dying. Whether they risk losing their job or the love of their life or face actual real death, something must be threatening them. It is their struggles to prevent this death that sets up the suspense.

Suspense does not have to be as wildly dramatic as a bomb in a rubbish bin. Any unresolved tension makes the reader need to keep reading to find out what happens.

So how do we conjure up this suspense and conflict?

Think of your book as a three act play. In act one we are introduced to the lead but more importantly we should be introduced to the conflict, and the sooner the better. As John le Carré once said, “The cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of a story. The cat sat on the dog's mat is.”

You need to begin your story at the point of disturbance, because disturbance is conflict. It doesn't have to be huge. No need to start with an earthquake or a murder (although those are both excellent ways to grab the reader's attention), you can use anything that causes a ripple in the lead's day to day life.

So act one is about introducing the reader to your world and your characters but most importantly it is about introducing them to the conflict. Don't make the mistake of bogging the reader down with detail at this time. Yes, yes, you've gone to all that trouble to create that world and those character histories and appearances and likes and dislikes. It doesn't mean we have to share them all at once. Hell, it doesn't mean we have to share them at all. Sometimes the richness in our writing comes because we have access to all the information. It doesn't mean the reader needs it.

What they do need is to be stimulated – constantly.

The middle of the book is the longest. It is where the lead attempts to resolve the conflict. Every scene must move the story forwards. Every scene must hold suspense.

The art of moving effectively into this act two is by creating a doorway of no return.  It's not normal behaviour for people to gladly and willingly fling themselves into situations of dire peril. Therefore we need something that forces the lead forward into the struggle where they will face possible death.

Perhaps the most literal example of this doorway of no return is C.S.Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The children enter the wardrobe to avoid being caught in an area of the house off limits to them. They decided to explore and Edmund sneaks off to find the Witch. They can not go back without him. They can not go back through that wardrobe door. They are forced to go forwards into the uncertainty of the new land and ultimately possible death.

Where you place this doorway affects the pace of the book. The closer to the beginning of the book it is, the faster the pace. Leave it too long and your readers will begin to lose interest.

The next doorway in your book moves you from the second act to the third. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the end of the second act occurs when Aslan is sacrificed by the witch. (Hope I didn't just spoil that for anyone.) When He rises again it is the beginning of the third and final act. We find ourselves racing towards the battle that will settle the fate of Narnia and all of our characters.

The most important thing, throughout the whole book, is that something is always happening. One of the most memorable lines I read in all of the writing books was this.

Take your character up a tree, throw rocks at them, and then get them back down.

(I think it was James Scott Bell, and I apologise to whoever wrote it if it wasn't.)

I got a lot out of that one simple sentence. I had been being too nice to my characters. Treating them like I would in real life. But that isn't why people read books. They don't want a nice story about what a lovely day Lucy had. They want to read about how she went through a wardrobe into a different land and became a Queen and fought a battle. They want to read that she was betrayed and chased and ultimately, against all odds, triumphed.

And that is what we need to give them. It doesn't have to be action. It can be an emotional roller-coaster ride we take them on. It doesn't matter. As long as there is constant suspense, a constant reason for the reader to keep turning the pages, than we have succeeded.

There are a lot of good books out there about writing fiction, but if you want to read an excellent one on the art of suspense and conflict then get James Scott Bell's Elements of Fiction Writing – Conflict and Suspense. It's available in print or kindle form, and well worth the money.




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