The Two Things Every Novel Needs

“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.
Invaluable. Of all the reader mail I’ve received over the years, the ones that please me most are those that say, “I couldn’t put it down.” Music to a writer’s ears. Suspense will make music for you.
And again, genre doesn’t matter. You have to be able to excite anticipation and avoid predictability in any novel. 
I am so passionate about this that I wrote a whole book on the subject, and Writer’s Digest Books has just released it.

[Insert short commercial here!]
For the PRINT version:
[End commercial here with woman looking pleased with product]

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.
May your own new year be filled with plenty of conflict and suspense (on the page, I mean!)
NOTE: I will be teaching a workshop on conflict and suspense at the annual Writer’s Digest conference in New York, January 20-22. It’s the perfect time to travel to the Big Apple (just bring a coat). And it’s an awesome conference. Use this code: WDCSPEAKER12 when you sign up and you’ll get a $115 discount off the regular price (the home office says this is for new registrations only). Go to the WD Conference page to find out more.

34 thoughts on “The Two Things Every Novel Needs

  1. I can vouch for “Conflict and Suspense.” I drained my Kindle battery by spending about 8 hours today finishing it up after starting it earlier this week.

    My favorite thing about this book (and it’s predecessors “Plot & Structure” and “Revision and Self-Editing”) is that it immediately sets your mind to churning over your story with practical application.

    I’ve read a lot of different writers reference books and gleaned something from all of them, but the strength of “Conflict and Suspense” is the “let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work on that manuscript” feeling it gives you. Some books, while they teach good theory, don’t do that. Thank goodness for the highlight feature on the Kindle.

    But I’m OCD so I’m going to have to order a paper copy as well. It bugs me that “Plot & Structure” and “Revision & Self Editing” sit on my physical bookshelf without their third companion. Plus I have a hankering to use a real highlighter. LOL!

  2. This is a good post and a great topic, and I found myself wishing you’d expand on it when the “commercial” came along. The woman looks well pleased with the product, so I may have to give it a try. Thanks.

    Loved the fact that you used pencil to make notes in the books; writers seem to have a hard time defacing books, even old used ones.

  3. BK, thanks for the very kind words. I really appreciate them, as the “roll up your sleeves” kind of book or article was exactly what I looked for when I was learning this craft.

    And I love that yellow highlighter, too. In my two shelves of writing books, I can grab one and very quickly go through it and remember things that were meaningful, and it always jazzes me.

    My beloved high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Bruce, used to tell us there was nothing so exciting as gaining new understanding (the real job of learning, not just fact gathering). Most of the kids didn’t believe that, but I found it to be true of subjects I was passionate about, like writing fiction.

    Thanks again. Go make some trouble.

  4. Mike, as we all know the best suspense happens on TV right before the commercial…and leaves us hanging!

    As far as marking up books, that was another thing I learned from Mrs. Bruce. She encouraged that, and it was hard for me at first. That “defacing” thing. But I soon got over it and now it’s fun to go back to those old paperbacks and see what I wrote down. Again, this was invaluable to the learning process.

  5. I agree, BK.
    This book is amazing. The only thing that has torn me from it is racing to my WIP to make sure I’ve got the concepts down.

    I said on Twitter earlier this week that my only regret about “Conflict & Suspense” is it wasn’t written two years ago.

    Thank You Jim for sharing your wisdom with us all in this book – Man, the way you zero in on concepts that other writing books skim over – Solid Gold.

    Now, back to the sleeve-rolling.

  6. I had to share this post (I often do). Oddly enough my last two posts at my blog were on Suspense and how to use the four elements in suspense to milk the scene. This is perfect timing.

    I think you’ve added to the discussion, and I’ll have to work on a post about CONFLICT now.

    As always James, enjoy your input on blogspot!

  7. Paula, thanks for the feedback. I’m so glad the book is helpful. Good for you, rolling up those sleeves. That’s what it takes. Not ONLY the study of the craft, but the doing of it (the writing), then the testing and reassessing, studying again, then writing again. Applying what you learn.

    The nice thing about this is that you can feel yourself getting stronger as a writer. That’s a great feeling.

  8. Lorelei, I read your suspense posts, and that’s good stuff. Using Koontz as an exemplar of “stretching the tension” is apt. One of best examples of it is that attempted rape scene at the beginning of Whispers. It’s like 17 pages! All in the house, using all those beats of fiction.

    That was one of those early books I read of his, and man did I learn a lot.

  9. I did a happy dance of joy when I saw you’d come out with another book on writing, Mr. Bell. My only debate was whether to buy the kindle version or the hard copy. Considering how many little book marks my copy of “Plot and Structure”, “Revision and Self Editing”, and the “Art of War for Writers” have, I opted for the hard copy.

    I don’t mind highlighting my writing books, but I rarely do. I actually prefer taking notes from the book, usually how it applies to the novel I am currently working on. I had a teacher who stressed that reading and writing were great ways to really absorb something, and that notion has stuck with me.

    Since I wholeheartedly agree with BK that your books make me itch to grab my MS and get to work on it, the urge to take notes is even stronger.

    Like BK only in reverse, I am going to order the ebook version too, considering I want to read it right now. I read the sample chapters on my Kindle last night, and was sad when it was over.

    On a business note, I don’t know if you have anything to with with setting the ebook prices, Mr. Bell, but lowering the ebook price from the hard copy slightly has helped me justify getting two copies. 😀 After all, it’s only 9 dollars! That’s a deal right there! Who wants to wait until the end of January for Amazon to deliver my hard copy?

  10. James, I was reading your latest blog and was halfway through it when I thought, “This is GREAT! I’m going to suggest to him that he write a book about this.” And then I read a little further…FABULOUS! Congratulations.

    My five year old granddaughter knows two jokes. One of them involves her walking up to someone, and asking,
    “How do you keep a turkey in suspense?” When her target asks her “How?,”, she doesn’t say anything. This works once. Maybe I’ll give her your book to read.

  11. Elizabeth, thanks so much. I don’t control these prices but I’ll make sure the home office knows. Keep writing!

    Joe, that joke was perfect. Maybe she should head for standup?

  12. Kindle users: After I bought this book, I had some trouble finding it on my Kindle app. Alphabetically by title, it’s under “E” (not “C”) for “Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense.” By author, it’s under “S” for “Scott Bell, James.”

    So now my big conundrum is, do I finish “Revision and Self-Editing” first, or do I jump right in to “Conflict and Suspense”? Decisions, decisions.

  13. Ordered Conflict and Suspense last night. Had to go hard copy because I enjoy leafing through the craft books and marking things up too. I’ve always loved the way you teach, Jim, in person and on the page.

  14. Good timing!

    I just finished Plot and Structure, reread my current WIP, and realized I needed more tension.
    I’ll start Conflict and Suspense tonight.

    Could you please work on Emotion and Feelings next?

  15. Three books arrived in my mailbox yesterday and two of them were yours. I’ve just begun “The Art of War for Writers” and will start “Conflict and Suspense” soon!! (Very soon after reading this post.)

    Thanks for sharing the journey and the knowledge!

  16. I second that idea on Emotion and Feelings. For me, it’s hesitancy to be full bore with it for fear of sending the sap-o-meter off the charts.

    I always find all kinds of holes to dig myself into when I write. 😎

  17. A hard copy of C & S is my late Christmas present to myself. Definitely hard copy for this one. I like to be able to flip back and forth. Kindle is for fiction, hard copy is for reference.

    I am having trouble with suspense. I can blow stuff up, no problem, but paint myself into a corner too quickly and easily.

    I have a couple of your awesomesauce books, but can’t remember. Have you addressed endings yet?


  18. BK, when I was acting I got some good advice. Someone told me to act with full emotion…then dial it back 25%. It was just right so I didn’t “overact” (I hope the audiences felt that way).

    In writing, go for the emotions. Even overdo it. You can always dial it back when you revise. If Mickey Spillane get get emotion into Mike Hammer (see One Lonely Night) then anyone can do it!

  19. How true Jim.

    These points were driven home to me lately by my new pants and my holiday belly. Talk about conflict and suspense.

    luckily I also got a shirt with a long tail that tucked fairly deep so in the end there were no cracks in the tail… uh tale.

  20. Your journey to becoming an author is encouraging. I’m also a lawyer turned professor who is working on getting published.

    I also appreciate your great sense of humor in your books because reading about how to write can be overwhelming. Humor lightens the load.

  21. Jim, I usually have your new books within a day or two of their release. Sorry to have let this one get by so far, but I’ll remedy that soon. Thanks for all you do to share with other authors, both established and wannabe.

  22. WOW, James! You certainly did write the book. This blog rocks!

    Thanks for reminding us of what makes a good book great. And I love your housewife ad!! :))

    I’m off to buy your book. I wish you every success with it!

    Write on, brother! (Couldn’t resist saying that.)

  23. “Conflict and Suspense” is one of the best writing books I’ve read. Lightbulb moments abound!!

    It was so good that I decided to read one of your fiction books. For my first James Scott Bell novel, I picked “Try Fear” and MAN IS IT EVER A GREAT READ!!

    I love your dry and gentle touches of sarcasm that keep me chuckling, and am trying to learn from them.

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