Writer’s Digest Conference: NOTES (Part 4)

One of our neighbors went walking through our backyard with her dog about a half hour ago and now my dog won’t shut up about it. It’s driving me nuts. (If you have ever heard a beagle do that half-howl/half-bark thing, you’ll know where I’m coming from.)

In other news, MORE NOTES!!!! 😀 (If you guys are starting to get tired of these, let me know and I’ll lay off on the WDC stuff for a while.)


Conflict and Suspense: How to Keep Readers Turning Pages in Any Genre by James Scott Bell

  • The movie Moonstruck is fantastic for studying conflict/suspense. Watch it.
  • Unpredictability = good.
  • True character comes out when you’re tested. Every other time, you’re just wearing a mask.
  • Suspense = the withholding of the resolution to create an enjoyable experience for the reader.
  • If a reader can predict what’s going to happen, and it happens, there’s no pleasure in the reading experience. You need to create a suspense that “I don’t know what’s going to happen next” – that’s what’s called a Page Turner
  • “A great story is life with the dull parts taken out” – Alfred Hitchcock. No trouble = dull part. Your job is to have trouble from the very first page, even just minor trouble – you must disturb the world of your characters. You start with page 1, create that sense of trouble, and then go all the way to the end where the trouble is resolved
  • You have to make a lead character that readers care about – if they don’t care, they won’t be engaged
    • Positive lead: the hero; vindicates the values of the community (not just in the story, but in the community of readers) – reader is on your char’s side –
      • can be extraordinary, like Indiana Jones (give him flaws: afraid of snakes, etc)
      • can be ordinary, caught up in extraordinary circumstances (normal guy, convicted of wife’s murder, put on death row; must survive, becomes an escapee, etc) – You want the readers to be asking, “Will he be victorious? Will he support the values?”
    • Negative Lead: does the things we don’t like. Does not vindicate the values of the community. Reader asks, “Will this person be redeemed throughout the story, via the conflict?” Create the anticipation of a redemption (Scrooge – shows an emotion for the first time when he goes back to his childhood with the first ghost, etc)
    • Anti-hero: Americans love anti-heroes. Rebels. Don’t want to be involved with any sort of community; don’t want to be bothered (Rick in Casa Blanca). He gets dragged into a conflict that he has no interest in – gets forced into involvement. What happens at the end? Does he become selfless, does he go back to the way he was before at the end, etc? (Dirty Harry in some cop movie thing – symbolically, throws badge into bag – it’s over) HAVE TO HAVE BONDING EXPERIENCE WITH LEAD CHARACTER
  • The stakes of the story as a whole need to involve death. A great novel is how a character overcomes or comes to terms with death.
    • Physical death – thrillers. The character dies. (Jason Bourne)
    •  Professional death – what the character does for a living is on a line (Silence of the Lambs)
    •  Psychological death – people dying on the inside. Lit fic. (Catcher in the Rye– Holden’s odyssey to NYC) At the end you’re asking, “Has he found it? Will he make it?” – genre romance
      • You have to make the mistakes feel like death to your MC.
  • Open with a disturbance. Chapter 1 is often “Happy people in Happy land” – that’s BAAAD. Readers want an initial disequilibrium, or they won’t care. Readers read because they want to worry about a character. “The cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of the story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”
  • Open with:
    • One line paragraphs. Works especially well in thrillers
    • open with a little bit of disequilibrium. Something is off about the world.
    • Dialogue openings are fine because they’re opening scenes. A lot of writers try to open with description; scene doesn’t actually start for a while. That’s bad. Make sure you have dialogue on the first or second page – that grabs you. Dialogue = action.
    • ALWAYS START WITH DISEQUILIBRIUM, or  the possibility of trouble.
  • Opposition in a novel. Doesn’t have to be a villain. It just has to be stronger than your character and have an agenda. Death stakes – they hold the death stakes to oppose your character. (The Fugitive– Tommy Lee Jones – not a bad guy, but his job is to catch the fugitive, who’s the protagonist).
    • By way of physical or collective strength
    • By way of psychological strength – will of iron, won’t give up
    • Is justified in his mind about what they’re doing. Nobody is pure evil; they all think that they’re doing the right thing in their own mind. Every great villain (except for Dr. Evil) is justified in their mind about what they’re doing. They think they’re doing the right thing. Readers aren’t analyzing it – they’re just feeling it. Great villains are those who evoke not just terror, but also sympathy. Reader needs to understand the villain. (Like Alan Rickman in Seminar) (or Hannibal Lector – you’re going, “eat that guy, already!”)
  • The key to scene tension: novels are built by scenes, so you don’t want any scene that drags or reduces the momentum. You want FEAR; the fear factor – fear is the continuum, begins with simple worry and develops to outright terror. You have innumerable things to choose from to create a sense of terror in the characters. Watch out for the sit-down-for-coffee scenes. Create some kind of worry that prevents total communication between two characters having a sit-down-for-coffee scene. A simple bit of worry can create scene tension. The continuum is unlimited.
  • Structure Scenes: a scene is about some character who has an objective; there’s the objective of the story, and the objective of the scene. Trying to get information, trying to find something or prevent finding something, etc. There’s a series of obstacles in each scene that prevents this objective from occurring. Will the character realize the objective in the scene? Then there’s an outcome; they accomplish the goal in the scene or they don’t.
    • In worry novels (thrillers, suspense): You want the outcome to be a setback, or if they accomplish their goal, it leads to future trouble. Never make things easy for your character.
  • Study The Fugitive and The Graduate. Great examples of scene tension.
  • Never dial back your tension – always play it up as much as possible
  • Suspense doesn’t have to be realistic. “We’re not in the business of writing realism, we’re in the business of styling realism.” – Manipulate life, but don’t get caught at it.
  • Remember: “Your first chapter sells your book, your last chapter sells your next book” – Nicky Splain.

That’s it for today! I have an AP literature and composition paper to write so I don’t have a lot of time to be going through notes right now, but I still have another few sessions to go over, so there’ll be more notes this Wednesday (unless, of course, y’all want a break).

Also, my current addiction:

I personally preferred the first trailer to this one (watch it here), but this still looks good. What’s your opinion?

Enjoying and learning a lot from these notes? Click here for your chance to win a free pass to the San Francisco Writers Conference this February, also held by Writer’s Digest!


13 thoughts on “Writer’s Digest Conference: NOTES (Part 4)

  1. I completely agree with you about the second HG trailer. I didn’t like it as much as the first one, but if you view it more as a “we’re just fleshing out the world and character relationships a bit more than we did in the first trailer” kind of thing, it becomes a lot more enjoyable to watch. Also, the first one would be very hard to top; I think it’s an *outstanding* movie trailer. Like, if movie trailers could be nominated for Academy Awards, that one should win a Car (get it? like half of an Oscar? :P).


    • Haha, sure. The first trailer should totally get a Car. 😉 It’s probably one of the best movie trailers I’ve ever seen, and I think one of my main problems with the second trailer is actually its inconsistency with the score presented in the first trailer. Between the sneak peak thing they did over the summer and now the two trailers, they’ve used three different types of music, and it’s left me wondering which one’s going to actually be used in the film. I really like the music in the first trailer, and I’m going to be disappointed if the movie score isn’t actually like that.

      Thanks for commenting, Ari!


  2. Yes, keep posting. I’ll going to keep them for when I go through Paradox. (Again. Like, next year, because I REFUSE to do it again so soon.)


    • Not sure if I posted this tip yet or not, but Mary Kole actually suggests taking a few months off, completely away from your novel, when you get to the point when you feel like you can’t do another draft. Just completely put it away and forget about it for a while.

      Thanks for commenting, Hannah! 🙂


      • How about I mail it to your house so I’m not tempted to burn it? *this is a good idea* *I promise*

        I think Mary Kole rejected me, way back when I was querying Tloria.

        …I actually think she was my first submission/query. O.o Wow.


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