This is a book about the stuff that keeps readers reading. Without conflict there is no hindrance to a character achieving his or her goal, and thus no story. Suspense is a lack of clarity about what comes next that spurs the reader to keep exploring. Bell defines conflict and suspense, and then explores the various means by which these crucial features are conveyed in stories. I say in stories, but Bell is predominantly speaking to novelists with this book.
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.