Conflict and Suspense Belong in Every Kind of Novel

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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 as they vicariously experience a massive pile of trouble on a lead character.

Courtesy: Pixabay

That’s where conflict comes in. While there those who say plot comes from character, I say Bosh. Character 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 Scarlett 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, 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, professional death is 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 thrillers, of course, you have the threat of physical death hanging over the whole thing.

Courtesy: Pixabay

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.

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: Conflict & Suspense  (Writer’s Digest Books). In fact, 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.

Raymond Chandler’s legendary PI, Philip Marlowe, once told a client, “Trouble is my business.” It’s yours, too, writer. Now go make some.

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Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him online.

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14 Responses to Conflict and Suspense Belong in Every Kind of Novel

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    • This is such a big question that, unfortunately, affects a lot of people. Angela and I have run into this a ton, from people lifting content off our site to pirating our books. When you’re talking about content on your blog, you should absolutely go after anyone stealing your content. I would advise you to set up Google alerts for your name, your blog’s name, and any popularly pirated content that you have. You’ll get email notifications when those references show up somewhere on the Internet, and you can check them out to see if they’re legit. You can also run your own simple Google searches to see what pops up.

      When you find someone using your content illegally, call those people to task. Create a form letter to send to these sites telling them to take the content down. The note I use is very simple: “I’m writing to inform you that the content entitled XX is copyrighted and needs to be taken down immediately. As the author and copyright holder, I would appreciate your cooperation in this matter.” At this point, they can either do it or not, but many times, it works. Sometimes it’s a matter of ignorance, where people don’t know they’re doing anything wrong and when they find out they’re guilty, they remove it. Other times, they know when they post the content that they’re in the wrong; in these cases, calling them out (and the implication of potential legal action) will prompt them to remove your material.

      To bolster your claim, you also want to make sure you have a copyright notice on your site. We spoke to an IP lawyer, and he suggested the wording of the one we use. You can find it on the left-hand sidebar on our home page; feel free to adapt it for your own use.

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  3. Claire says:

    Great post! I especially like the concept of the three kinds of death stakes. As a fantasy writer, I feel that physical death stakes have somewhat become the standard of the genre, making it easy to forget the other kinds of ‘deaths’ that are just as compelling. Will definitely be keeping your advice in mind when raising the stakes of my stories!

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  5. :Donna says:

    Jim/James knows his stuff 😀 Conflict really is everything!

  6. When I read books, I also mark them up to literally show myself what is working and what is not in a book. Great post! Thanks, Jim. I’ve shared the post online.

  7. Thank you for pointing out the different kinds of death to motivate our characters. Psychological, professional, the death of a marriage, of a dream—there are so many meaningful losses beyond the loss of actual life. As always, this is great stuff!

  8. Talia says:

    Awesome post, Jim!! I especially like what you said about character coming from plot. I’ve always believed it goes that way and it used to annoy me when people would say otherwise. 🙂 I also liked your “death stakes.” I realized that my main character is facing both physical and psychological death. Anyway I will definitely be using your tips as I rewrite my novel.

  9. Great post Jim. It’s funny, some areas of writing we think we’ve gotten a hold of pretty well, but then a post comes along to challenge us. We can always do more–love the idea of making notes of chapter endings. I bet after your study you have some great takeaways on what techniques were used the most often and had the biggest impact.

  10. Excellent post, as always Jim! Keeping in mind the death stakes for your character throughout will help create their believable character arc as well as up the tension. Everyone, I was lucky enough to sit in on Jim’s craft workshop at The Write Stuff conference a few years ago. Highly recommend attending any session by him – and getting these two books of his for your craft shelf: Conflict & Suspense and Plot & Structure. I use them for every book I write! 🙂

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