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S2/E24: Conflict, Action & Suspense by William Noble

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Today, I’ll be reviewing Conflict, Action & Suspense by William Noble. Noble has been writing and teaching since the 1970’s. He’s authored or coauthored 20 nonfiction books around a variety of topics, including writing. His books have been chosen as book club selections by Book-of-the Month Club and the Writers Digest Book Club. His short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in more than one hundred magazines (e.g. Yankee Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Salon.com, Adirondack Life Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, Baltimore Sun, Garden State Golf Magazine, Northeast Golf Magazine, World War II Magazine, Vermont Ski News) and newspapers, as well as the occasional anthology. He’s also appeared on 40+ TV shows, including the Today! Show in connection with his books.

The book has been out for a while. My copy is from 1994. It’s part of the Elements of Fiction Writing Series (see additional books below), and weighs in at 181 pages.

After breaking down the “Nuts and Bolts of Drama,” Noble shows the way that the following components can ramp up conflict, action, and suspense:

  1. Stage-Setting, Mood, and Atmosphere

  2. Openings and Endings

  3. Transitions and Pacing

  4. Dialogue, Character Development, and POV

  5. Foreshadowing, Subtlety, and Misdirection

As usual, I will barely be able to scratch the surface, but here are my…

Three Things

1. Conflict = struggle. Or the longer version: conflict “means, simply, that the story contains someone or something struggling with someone or something and the outcome is in doubt.” Action = happenings (around that struggle). Suspense = uncertainty (related to that struggle). The conflict catches the reader’s attention. Action and suspense keep the reader’s attention. A confrontation is the foundation on which action and suspense are developed. And specifically, the struggle happens between a character and someone. Conflict (all the ones you remember from school – human vs. human, human vs. nature, human vs. themselves) gives the reader an opportunity to root for one side or the other – someone has to win, someone has to lose. Make sure you’ve made it clear who the main character is up against and what they’re struggling for, towards, or against. Because as Noble reminds us later in the book, “There can be no action or suspense without conflict; it is in the nature of things that for a reader to be moved bu action or suspense sequences, there must be conflict at the core.”

2. How to Use POV to Enhance Conflict. When you’re beginning or revising a story, take a minute to evaluate which POV might work best. In general, Noble proposes first-person if you would like to have the reader feel very close and connected to the character (and if the character is “strong enough to carry the entire story”). Conflict here remains in the head and heart of the main character. Third-person allows you to work more easily in multiple settings and when using several dominant characters. Conflict can often be layered on other conflicts that are part of the bigger picture a first-person character might not know about or be able to experience.

3. The Three M’s. Because conflict is the foundation we need to build, and the characters’ perceptions and reactions are key to this, Noble touches on three aspects of these responses:

  1. Motives – Why do characters take the actions they do?

  2. Memories – How does what happened in their past influence the characters’ actions?

  3. Mirages – In what ways are the characters confused or fooling themselves about their own history, motivations, and actions?

When drafting or revising, check in with the Three M’s from time to time. Play with them and see how they might generate action (responses) and suspense (insecurity) in your characters and therefore in your story.

*Hack: Leave Them Hanging. Bring the reader up to a point where they are in the middle of a conflict, to an exciting point, and then stop. Cut to a new scene or chapter. The reader will be flying through the pages to resolve that conflict. Noble says, “The readers wonder, the readers are surprised, the readers may even guess what happens. But the readers don’t know! And that’s why they won’t forget, and that’s why they will stay interested and read on. Curiosity, something unresolved, it’s human to pursue it.” The Rookie Writer Tip: Try writing up the full scene or sequence of events as they happen without interruption. Then look at it and see where it could reasonably be broken up and interspersed with the B story line. No one says you have to sit down and write things sequentially from page one through “The End.” Think of your story as a bit like puzzle pieces you can move around until you find where they fit (if at all).

William Noble reminds us:

“Action, after all, is more direct and more immediate than suspense, which thrives on indirectness and the hope of a payoff somewhere down the line. Action throbs while suspense quivers; action shouts while suspense whispers; action does while suspense hints….” William Noble, Conflict, Action & Suspense

I hope this was helpful! Next week, I’ll be back with a review of R.L. Stine’s MasterClass. Come back and hear three things I learned from this master of Horror and writing for young audiences!

Until then. . .

Happy writing, people!

In other Dair-related news:

  1. Fellow author Robin Knabel and I recently posted a new episode of our new podcast, Unsettling Reads. Come check out our spoiler-free review of Simone St. James’s The Sun Down Motel and browse our other reviews of books from the crime, fantasy, horror, literary, mystery, sci-fi, suspense, and thriller genres. You can find it all at www.UnsettlingReads.com.

  2. To find out what I’ve been working on, fiction-wise, visit www.HDairBrown.com. Sign up for the email list, and I’ll send you a free story every month. Just one email a month. I promise not to inundate you. I hate a pesky emailer!

  3. Finally, to help you keep track of both your writing goals and your time, visit TheRookieWriter.net and sign up for the email list to get a free undated quarterly version of The Rookie Writer Playbook (a planner/organizer just for writers) to try out. And, of course, The Rookie Writer Etsy shop has full annual, dated Writing Planners available, along with a few other tools and fun swag for writers. Now on sale for 50% off!

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