Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Two Things Every Novel Needs

by James Scott Bell, bestselling author http://jamesscottbell.com/      

"Trouble is my business." – Raymond Chandler

So you want to be a writer. You want to sell your novel to a publisher, via an agent, or maybe you're thinking of going indie like 90% of sentient beings these days. Maybe you think if you do the latter, and do it fast, you'll rake in a boatload of easy lettuce.

Well, you won't. Unless your book has the two things every novel needs.

Without these two things, you will have no story. At least, no story most readers will care about. You might have an "experimental novel," and that's okay if you understand what experimental novel means. It means a novel that five people buy. (Please note: This may not matter to you, and that's perfectly fine with me. Experimental artists have given us some good stuff over the years. A lot of bad stuff, too. But if that's your corner of the artistic world, go for it. This is America, after all).

But if you want to sell your work and have a shot at generating income, you need to master these two elements.

They are Conflict and Suspense

What is the goal of the novel? Is it to entertain? Teach? Preach? Stir up anger? Change the world? Make the author a lot of money?

It can be any of these things, but in the end, none of these objectives will work to their full potential unless they forge, in some way, a satisfying emotional experience for the reader

And what gets the reader hooked emotionally? Trouble. Readers are gripped by the terrible trials a character goes through. (There are psychological reasons for this that are beyond the scope of this post). 

That's where conflict comes in. While there are writers who say plot comes from character, let me say that's too simplistic. Character actually comes from plot. Why? Because true character is only revealed in crisis. Put your character into big trouble (plot) and then we'll see what he or she is made of (character). If you don't believe me, imagine a 400 page novel about Scarlett O'Hara where she just sits on the porch all day, sipping mint juleps and flirting. Gone With the Wind only takes off when she finds out Ashley is going to marry Melanie (trouble) and then the Civil War breaks out (big trouble!) 

Another way to think about it is this: we all wear masks in our lives. A major crisis forces us to take off the mask and reveal who we really are. That's the role of conflict in fiction: to rip the mask off the character. 

Now, this conflict must be of sufficient magnitude to matter to readers. That's why I teach that "death stakes" must be involved. Your Lead character must be facing death—which can be physical, professional or psychological.

Genre doesn't matter. In a literary novel like The Catcher in the Rye, it's psychological death. Holden Caulfield must find meaning in the world or he will "die inside." Psychological death is also the key to a category romance. If the two lovers do not get together, they will lose their soul mate. They will die inside and forever have diminished lives (that's the feeling you need to create. Think about it. Why was Titanic such a hit with teen girls? It wasn't because of the special effects!)

In The Silence of the Lambs, it's professional death on the line. Clarice Starling must help bring down Buffalo Bill in part by playing mind games with Hannibal Lecter. If she doesn't prevail, another innocent will die (physical death in the subplot) and Clarice's career will be over.

And in most thrillers, of course, you have the threat of physical death hanging over the whole thing.

That's why, novelist friend, trouble is indeed your business. Without sufficient conflict readers aren't going to care enough to finish the book.


The second element is suspense, and I don't just mean in the suspense novel per se. Suspense means to "delay resolution so as to excite anticipation." Another way to say this is that it's the opposite of having a predictable story. If the reader keeps guessing what's going to happen, and is right, there is no great pleasure in reading the novel.

We've all had the wonderful experience of being so caught up in a story that we have to keep turning the pages. This is where writing technique can be studied and learned and applied. For example, there are various ways you can end a chapter so readers are compelled to read on. I call these "Read on Prompts," and it was one of the first things I personally studied when I started learning to write. I went to a used bookstore and bought a bunch of King, Koontz and Grisham. When I'd get to the end of a chapter I'd write in pencil on the page what they did to get me to read on. 


Again, genre doesn't matter. You have to be able to excite anticipation and avoid predictability. Suspense technique helps you to do that.

I am so passionate about this that I wrote a book on the subject, and Writer's Digest Books published it.  

I could go on and on about this subject, but we don't want to overstuff one blog post. Suffice to say that if you were to concentrate almost exclusively on these two key elements for the next few months, your books will take a huge step toward that exalted "next level" everyone always talks about. Try it and see.     

JAMES SCOTT BELL is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot and Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Deceived, Try Dying and Watch Your Back. His novella One More Lie was the first independently published work to be nominated for a prestigious International Thriller Writers Award. Under the pen name K. Bennett, he is also the author of the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series, which begins with Pay Me in Flesh. He served as the fiction columnist for Writer's Digest magazine and has written highly popular craft books for Writer’s Digest Books, including : Revision and Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict and Suspense.
Website: http://jamesscottbell.com/


  1. Welcome to Crime Fiction Collective, Jim! It's great to have you here.

    As a freelance fiction editor, I've been recommending your craft books to my clients for years. In fact, your Revision & Self-Editing is pretty much required reading for most of my clients. And I love Conflict & Suspense as well. So true that it's essential advice for fiction writers of any genre, if they want to hook readers and hold onto them.

    My next purchase at Amazon, probably today, will include your Plot & Structure, as I've been meaning to pick that one up for ages.

    Thanks again for dropping by CFC and sharing your gems of wisdom with us! Looking forward to your workshop at the Writer's Digest Conference in Hollywood in a few weeks!

  2. Jodie,

    I'm relatively new to Crime Fiction Collective, and what a treat to see a post from Mr. Bell. I'm a huge fan of his, and like you, consider his books some of the best.

    You're going to love Plot & Structure!

  3. Jim, I first met you through ACFW. I can look over my shoulder right now and see Plot & Structure, as well as The Art of War for Writers. If I go up to our library, there will be a novel or two there bearing your name.

    It's an honor to have you here today at Crime Fiction Collective.

    Your nomination for the International Thriller Writers Award for ONE MORE LIE is well deserved. That nomination then climbs to a category all by itself as the first indie published worked to have achieved that accolade, or any similar.

    Thank you for sharing some of your passion with us today. You make me wanna go write.

  4. Thanks so much for the kind words. I love it when writers say they want to go write. It's what we do, and it's what the world needs: great stories.

    A pleasure being here.

  5. I just went to Amazon and ordered PLOT & STRUCTURE, THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS, and ONE MORE LIE! Now to find time to read them! LOL

    I always buy the paper versions of your craft books, Jim, because there's so much useful info that I like to underline and write in the margins and put little flags on the pages. Great stuff!

  6. Thanks for joining us, James. Great to have you here!

    You've nailed it in every sense. Conflict and action are what drive our story and our characters. They're what keep the reader swiping at pages and not wanting to stop. I've learned (sometimes the hard way) that this is the key to great storytelling.

    Quite often, I still have to catch myself falling down that slippery slope, trying to take the easy way out. It's human nature to find the path of least resistance in real life, but in our little make-believe worlds, it's the kiss of death. I recently tossed the ending for my current WIP-about 75 pages-- because I did just that: I made it too easy for myself and my protagonist. One wrong turn and the entire novel began systematically falling apart at the seams. I raised the stakes and then I let the character struggle his way through. The end result will be and ending that's far more satisfying for the reader...at least, that's my hope.

  7. Thanks for sharing this great information! I especially liked the three P's in relation to our lead characters facing death. Physical, professional or psychological.

  8. Jodie, in the article you posted, James Scott Bell has used some excellent examples to demonstrate how conflict and suspense work. It gave me a new way of thinking about conflict! I purchased a copy of his book and really appreciate that you shared this!

  9. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment, Beverly. Every word is James Scott Bell's - I didn't edit a word, for a change! LOL. Yes, it's been great having Jim here sharing a few gems from his huge wealth of invaluable advice for fiction writers.

    And I can't wait for my latest JSB books to arrive from Amazon!

  10. For Peg
    I misplaced your email. Hers mine.
    Nancy Williams

  11. Thanks for the post. I think I'll go straight to my latest work and see if my character really peeled away her shallow mask. Great!!


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