Saturday, January 05, 2013

For Whom the Bell Toils

I always have mixed feelings about writing how-to books; many are okay, some are good but only a very few are excellent. There are only five I've recommended without any reservation; among them is The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell. Now after reading his elements of writing fiction book, Conflict & Suspense, I have to change that to six.

I've tried explaining conflict and suspense to other writers, so I know a bit about how tough they are as topics to define and explore. Conflict is one of those primary novel writing elements that is deceptively simple; it's also a huge part of storytelling. I consider conflict as important as characterization, because without it a novel is The Village of Happy People no one wants to visit. Suspense ties in with conflict, and is more about story structure and writing style, but it's also quite vital to learn. It's not enough to hook readers; you have to keep them reading, and suspense is like the line attached to the hook; you use it to reel them in to the very last page.

James Scott Bell knows both elements, and he explains them in this book in his clear, no-nonsense fashion. He covers conflict so well and so thoroughly that he's pretty much ruined me for other how-to writers. Be warned; James doesn't pat us on the head and tell us to be good writers of conflict and suspense; he throws down on us and demands we put some real thought and effort into developing our understanding and our skills.

This book is littered with ideas and pathways to finding powerful conflict and building plausible suspense, sustaining it by following through, relating them to other story elements and in general taking your fiction to the next level. If you struggle with conflict, this should be your new bible. As for me, now that I've read two of James Scott Bell's books and put both on my no-reservation how-to keeper shelf, I think he could publish his grocery shopping list and I'd buy it, just to find out what the guy eats for breakfast.

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