Becoming a Storyteller: Creating Conflict, or, Do I Have a Green Thumb for Fiction?

Drama is life with the dull parts taken out.  –Alfred Hitchcock

This post’s information comes to you via the works and words of one James Scott Bell, an author of numerous thrillers and books on writing craft, including Conflict & Suspense. James Scott Bell contributes regularly to Writer’s Digest, is an active teacher at writing conferences, and has a useful, entertaining Twitter account (@jamesscottbell), where he links to helpful articles on writing, provides tips and quotes, interacts with other writers and fans, and shows us mortals how to dangle the carrot:

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bell at the 2012 Writers Digest Conference in New York City. I attended his workshop on Conflict and Suspense, and after recently reading his article, The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes + How To Fix Them, for the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest, I dug out the notes I had scribbled during the session.

Along my journey toward becoming a storyteller, I felt Conflict was something I had a good handle on. I mean, I know that without Conflict you don’t have a Story. I know it’s the struggle between two opposing forces, and I thought I did a decent enough job of sewing the seeds of Conflict into the lives of my characters. As it turns out, I might not have the greenest of fiction thumbs. I’m too soft on my characters, and when I do start to squeeze ’em a bit, it’s too late.

When I leafed through my notepad (Useless Bit of Information #1: As a lefty, I prefer Steno notepads to regular notebooks whose binding crowds my hand.), I found that one of the first bullets under James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense session read as follows:

Soil for Conflict: A Lead Character that Readers Care About

This struck me for two reasons. First, because I had spend part of the afternoon working on an interview for Julie Kolb, whose awesome blog is:, and answered one of her questions with a gardening metaphor. She had asked if I kept any of the stories I’d written when I was young, and here was my answer:

Do you still have those early stories? 
The earliest stories I have kept are from my college days as part of the creative writing program at Florida International University. I can look back and see the seeds of something greater. I don’t know that I’ve spent enough time watering those seeds though. The one complete novel manuscript that I have developed over 10 years, with its roots stretching way back to high school and much of the first draft being grown through college.

Second, my wife had quite literally just asked me to go water the plants in our new garden. (Useless Bit of Info #2)

During his talk, James Scott Bell discussed how true character is revealed in times of trouble and conflict. He said suspense is the withholding of a resolution.

Bell went on in the session to describe different types of Lead Characters to plant in said Soil. There’s the Positive Lead, vindicating or representing the values of the community; the Negative Lead, or someone who doesn’t represent the values of the community; and the the Antihero, someone who doesn’t want to be involved in any community. Bell said, foundationally speaking, we need a bonding with the Lead Character before we can get to the next part. Death.

Bell said in order to truly reveal these Lead Characters, the threat of Death needs to be involved. He went on to describe three types of Death: physical, professional, and psychological. The article in Writer’s Digest really does a nice job of developing this point. Our job is to make the Lead Character’s problem feel so important that failing to overcome it will mean a permanent setback in their life.

As I said in my answer to Julie’s question, many times I’ve seen the seed of Conflict in my fiction, but I haven’t done enough to cultivate it. I haven’t watered the plant of the story, and I’ve failed to let the Character bloom to his full potential. The guidance of writers like James Scott Bell helps me understand the different methods I can use to better tend this garden of fiction.

Check back soon, as I’ll have another post dedicated to James Scott Bell’s article: The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes + How To Fix Them and how I’m the jackass that has made ’em all.

Conflict & Suspense
James Scott Bell signed my copy of Conflict & Suspense, and he told me to keep writing. He’s a pro, so I guess I’ll listen.