"Conflict, Action and Suspense," William Noble

Pros: Useful information; good topics; helpful hints
Cons: Some overblown examples; some flawed assertions; text a bit dry
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 2/19/2003

I saw someone recently define a book as “not horror” because it wasn’t of the “slasher” variety of horror. This is an unfortunately common misconception. There’s a very pertinent quote by author Douglas Winter from his 1982 anthology “Prime Evil”:

Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.

You can’t point to one formula of writing and call it horror. Horror fiction is defined by emotion, which means that it can overlap with other types of writing such as fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and so on. This can make it very difficult to quantify and define. Because of this, many people try to grab on to one small part of horror and call that the genre. If something is a horrific mystery, after all, then it tends to be called a mystery. Horror/fantasy is called “dark fantasy.” Since the word “horror” tends to be associated with the slasher-genre, publishers go out of their way to label their horror by any other name in the hopes that it will sell better without that word attached to it. As a result, the problem only becomes worse–a book is labeled “psychological thriller,” so that’s what people call it, and their belief that horror is something else entirely is reinforced.

You may wonder why I’m telling you all this right now. In most horror fiction, suspense plays a very large role. It’s an emotion-heightener. It makes our heart pound a little faster, and it makes us jump at shadows. It tenses our muscles. The horror author that has no understanding of suspense probably isn’t going to be very effective. And that’s where this book comes in: “Conflict, Action & Suspense,” by William Noble. It’s the perfect book for the horror author who understands that simple slasher movies do not define the genre.

Okay, so it’s also very useful for other sorts of fiction authors, too. And that’s part of my point. Emotion is inherent in all good fiction, whether that emotion is horror or joy or heartbreak.

Topics

Drama produces excitement in our writing. It keeps the reader interested. And how do we create drama? By playing with conflict, action, and suspense.

Chapter 1: The Nuts and Bolts of Drama deals with the basic concepts of drama, confrontation, pulling on the reader’s emotions, escalation, and immediacy. It’s an introduction to the wider concepts Mr. Noble will be dealing with in this book.

Chapter 2: Stage-Setting covers some of the writing basics that help to keep your story moving: appropriate grammar, charged images, shifts in point of view, and contrast. The author does a good job of telling us the how and why of things, rather than simply telling us what to do.

Chapter 3: Openings Here we deal with one of the first things every writer learns in classes: the fact that you need to start off strong if you want to hook your reader and keep him. Mr. Noble goes into nearly 15 pages of detail, though, including whether or not you’re better off starting with dialogue or narrative (and when, and how, and how long you can go before you should really mix in some of the other). He even deals with stories that start off ending-first, and how this affects suspense.

Chapter 4: Leave ‘Em Hanging Cliff-hangers! Some people love ’em; others hate ’em. Mr. Noble clearly loves them and believes his readers will too. I know I’m somewhat unusual in not being entirely thrilled with how many writers execute their cliff-hangers, so I won’t argue with him. He does go into a nice bit of detail in this chapter, and I have to give him plenty of credit for acknowledging that there’s a limit to how long you can leave a scene incomplete. (Maybe if more writers understood that, I’d like cliff-hangers better.) He also covers the mechanics of transitions very well, rather than just telling us to “leave ’em hanging” and expecting us to understand exactly what that means.

Chapter 5: Building through Dialogue Noble talks about the effects that dialogue has on the building of suspense, and why dialogue and action aren’t necessarily incompatible. There are plenty of specific techniques discussed here, such as “yes/no,” “well/maybe,” the threat of the unsaid, self-talk, and gesturing.

Chapter 6: Building through Mood and Atmosphere Atmosphere and mood are key to suspense and horror, and Noble does an admirable job of discussing how to build these things. Not just through the use of physical description, but also through other means:

But physical description may not be enough to hold our readers. There must be involvement.

Chapter 7: Building through Character Development Character development isn’t just something you do to lend authenticity to your story; it should be intimately linked to your mood, your atmosphere, and the suspense or action you’re trying to build. Noble goes into various techniques for blending character development and the furtherance of your story (terrible secrets, multiple faces, inevitable collisions and choices, and so on).

Chapter 8: Building through Point of View To a certain extent, I hate point-of-view chapters in books on other writing subjects. Point of view is often so poorly understood that every author feels he needs to re-explain the basics, and somewhere in there all of these chapters become poor summaries of a very complex subject, and fail to adequately explain the unique aspects of PoV that they should be addressing. Noble’s chapter falls somewhere in the middle here. Part of it is a poor re-hashing of the basics of something that most writers should understand but don’t (any discussion of the basics of PoV this short is pretty much, by nature, poor), but he does follow it up with some decent specifics about PoV with respect to suspense and action. If you want a much deeper and more illuminating exploration of point of view, I highly recommend Szeman’s “Mastering Point of View.” It, too, covers aspects of conflict and suspense with respect to PoV, and it does a remarkably thorough job of it.

Chapter 9: Subtlety and Misdirection I particularly enjoyed this chapter, in which Noble goes into the wonders of subtlety and misdirection–and blessedly points out that there’s a difference between laying down hints and clues for the reader and deliberately obfuscating your story. He delves into “hints and shadows,” foreshadowing, and “reversing the rules.”

Chapter 10: Time and Place delves into the logic of setting, and the role of time pressure in building suspense and directing action. He also discusses ways in which incidents and anecdotes can be used to build atmosphere and suspense, and how writing stories set in other time periods affects your fiction.

Chapter 11: It’s in the Pacing Pacing is such a difficult, delicate, and important aspect of writing–not to mention poorly understood. Noble provides information on giving the reader a breather, pushing crisis, and the ways in which narrative and dialogue impact pace.

Chapter 12: Endings Most of us know how to begin a story by now, but many writers still struggle with endings. There is no tried-and-true method that Noble can give us, but he certainly has plenty of tips and hints to help us along. He talks about surprise and delight, questions and choices, circular vs. linear endings, the climax of your story, and how to decide where to end your story.

Problems?

It isn’t a perfect book. For example, right now I’m reading Nancy Kress’ “Dynamic Characters.” Ms. Kress is a very engaging writer who uses humor to keep you interested and fascinated. Noble’s work is drier. It took me a lot longer to get through it, even though it’s a thinner book. It isn’t as dry as most textbooks, but it could certainly be better. Some of the examples that Mr. Noble makes up to use in the book are a bit on the overblown side, which kind of undercuts some of his points. He might have been better off using more examples from published fiction.

Some of Mr. Noble’s assertions regarding his topics have since been proven to be wrong. For example, when talking about the logic of settings: “…And a horror-suspense story would have problems if it was set in the unfolding of a miracle.” I’ve seen this done quite well, actually.

This book was originally copyrighted in 1994, and this may be part of the problem. Since then some of the techniques that he lauds as strong and effective have become over-used and trite. (Remember that overused techniques became that way precisely because they’re so effective.) Some of the things he says can’t be done have been done. It seems odd to say that a book like this could use an update, but it could. As it is, this book serves as a very good example of why you need to do a lot of reading in the fiction field you want to write in. Otherwise, how will you know which of his techniques have been over-used, which can be seen as trite if you aren’t careful how you use them, and which are still seen as solid, useful methods?

Does this devalue “Conflict, Action & Suspense”? Only a bit. It still has a great deal to teach fiction writers of all kinds. Just make sure that you go in with your eyes open and evaluate what you’re reading before you use it, which is something you should be doing anyway. This book will lend excitement and drama to any story centered around action, suspense, and conflict. It has certainly taught me quite a bit about the relationship between the words we write and the emotions they evoke–and that’s the heart of horror, and the heart of good fiction of all types.

This book is part of the Writer’s Digest “Elements of Fiction Writing” series.


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