Through the Fire
James Scott Bell

JAMES SCOTT BELL is a multiple bestselling author and winner of the Christy Award for Excellence. He served as the fiction columnist for Writers Digest magazine and has written three bestselling craft books for Writers Digest: Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing and The Art of War for Writers. He blogs each Sunday at the popular website Kill Zone ( He lives and writes in L.A.

Page-Turning Fiction

As a suspense writer, it’s my job to keep readers turning pages. If I don’t do that, it doesn’t matter how stylish my prose or how colorful my characters. My stories need to grab readers from the start and not let go.

I’ve been asked for a few words on how I try to do that.

First, I need a lead character who readers become invested in from the very first page. And I mean page one. I use an “opening disturbance.” Readers care about people who are in trouble, and it needs to be there on that first page, even the first line:

They threw me off the hay truck around noon. (The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain)

Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch. (Dragon Tears, Dean Koontz)

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge. (Darker than Amber, John D. MacDonald)

The nun hit me in the mouth and said, “Get out of my house.” (Try Darkness, James Scott Bell)

Next, something has to be at stake for the lead. And I don’t mean whether he will find his reading glasses. I mean death has to be on the line.

In fact, I think that’s the secret to every best-selling book. There are three kinds of death: physical, professional, and psychological. If one of those three is not what’s at stake, the readers are not going to care as much as they otherwise would.

In a thriller, physical death is usually an imminent possibility. But in a legal thriller, or a police procedural, losing the case is akin to death. Or at least it must seem so to the lead.

Literary fiction is often about psychological death, as in The Catcher in the Rye.

So, if I’ve got a compelling lead character who is in trouble from the start, and that trouble leads to the deep conflict where death is on the line, I know I’m off to a good start.

Now, my opposition character has to be stronger than my lead. He has to have greater resources, so as to be able to inflict death at any time. Again, that death can be one of the three.

For instance, in a classic legal thriller like The Verdict, lawyer Frank Galvin has to go it virtually alone against the largest law firm out

there, led by the greatest trial lawyer in the world, backed by the money of the Catholic Church no less. Talk about crushing opposition!

Next, the conflict between the lead and the opposition needs to move forward with the feeling of jet propulsion. There can be no extraneous scenes. Yes, we can slow down every now and then to catch our breath and get to know what’s going on inside the character and the like. But this is a matter of life and death, remember? We’re not going to be able to rest for long.

And during this conflict there must be surprises, twists, and turns. This is the fun part. But it’s not easy. Readers are sophisticated, and they’re trying to anticipate where you’re going. But while finding cool twists is a challenge, it’s worth every amount of effort.

Finally, you have to wrap up the story in a way that is exciting, satisfying, and, most important, unanticipated. That’s the hardest part of all. Beginnings are easy. I can write beginnings all day long. Endings are hard.

But as the great hard-boiled writer Mickey Spillane once put it, “Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.”

This is the duty thriller writers have signed up for.

But that is the duty thriller writers have signed up for. We cannot shirk it, for as the great hard-boiled writer Mickey Spillane once put it, “Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.”

Visit James Scott Bell’s Web site at

The Art Of War For Writers