BOOK REVIEW: Conflict & Suspense by James Scott Bell

Conflict and Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing_Conflict and Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing_ by James Scott Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Country With No Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali

The Country Without a Post OfficeThe Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 27 poems about life in conflict-riddled Kashmir. Kashmir is a territory in the Himalayas that’s governed by India, but claimed by both India and Pakistan—and, it should be noted, has a significant population of residents that want to be part of neither country. In other words, there are some who’d like to see an independent Kashmir. However, at the moment Kashmir is one portion of one of India’s 29 states, Jammu and Kashmir—a state which is, itself, tripartite (Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir, and Buddhist Ladakh.)

It’s a telling quote from Tacitus with which the author begins the collection. Solitudinum faciunt et pacem appellant. I won’t claim that I didn’t have to look this up, but it means: “They make a desert, and call it peace.” The first poem echoes variations on that quote.

There are a range of poetry styles within this collection, including: rhyming verse, free verse, poetic prose, and ghazal. A ghazal is a Middle Eastern style of lyric poem which has a pattern of rhyme and is metered to be set to music; there are several in this collection. Some of the poems are sparse and some are wordy, and variety is the order of the day.

The 27 poems of this collection are divided among five parts. The book is brief (under 100 pages), and it contains only a prologue and notes (some of which are interesting) with respect to ancillary matter.

This collection paints a portrait of war and life in a war-torn locale. It’s as much the latter as the former. The title poem, “The Country With No Post Office,” suggests the sapping nature of life where the institutions of governance and civil society have broken down.

I’d recommend this collection for those who enjoy poetry, but also for those interested in the conflict in Kashmir.

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