Trouble Is Your Business


Another entry from the journal of legendary pulp writer William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. Of its origins, see here.
Benny Wannabe charged up to my table at Musso’s and said, “I did it!”
I took my fingers off the Underwood keys. My normally productive digits weren’t doing me any good at the moment. I was stuck on a scene. The smiling mug of my young pupil was good for a break.
“Sit down.” I leaned back and reached for a cigar. “Now, what is it you did?”
“Started my story! And it felt great. I told myself I was gonna write great today, just like you told me to. And I did!”
“Nice going, kid. Getting words on paper is every day is the golden rule. You have a plot?”
“I sure do!”
“Tell it to me.”
“Well, it’s about a young man who wants to become a writer and uses all his money to buy a train ticket to Los Angeles.”
“And?” I said.
“And what?”
“What happens to him?”
“Um, he gets to Los Angeles, where he meets a famous writer.”
“Uh-huh. That famous writer better be handsome, brilliant and witty.”
“Of course!”
“Problem is,” I said, “that’s not a plot.”
“It’s not?”
“You’re just telling your own story, right?”
“How’d you know?”
“Wild guess,” I said. “Listen, all new writers think the have an autobiographical story inside them, and that’s a great place to keep it. You, you need a plot.”
“But I felt great. You told me I have to write like I couldn’t fail.”
“That doesn’t mean  you don’t have to learn how to write. Write as if it were impossible to fail, then clear your decks and look at what you’ve done and figure out how to make it better. Or find somebody who knows his stuff to help  you along.”
“Like you, Mr. Armbrewster?”
“You lucky kid. Now let’s get down to basics. What’s a plot?”
“It’s what the story’s about.”
I shook my head. “Your Aunt Mabel’s flowers is ‘about something.’ Or some kid coming west. For you to have a plot you’ve got to have trouble.”
“Write this down. Trouble is your business. A plot without a trouble is like a Duesenberg without gas. Pretty to look at but going nowhere. Readers read in order to have an extended experience of worrying about what happens to somebody. So make ’em worry.”
“Get your character up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Have lightning hit the tree and set it on fire. Then get your character down. That’s a plot.”
“So let’s take your young writer. Make him so he’s not you.”
“Make him older or younger. Make him from a town without pity, or a runaway.”
Benny took out a little notebook and a pencil and started scribbling. “This is good stuff!”
“You’re talking to Armbrewster! Here’s another one. Make the character not a man, but a woman.”
Benny looked at me, pie-eyed. “But I can’t. I’m not one.”
“Dammit, boy, you’re a writer! There’s no can’t in your vocabulary.”
“But somebody told me once you have to write what you know.”
“Hooey! Write what you burn with, and then find out what you needto know to write it.”
“But I’ve never been a woman.”
“And I’ve never been a gangster or a gumshoe! Is that going to stop me? No! Do some research! Go see a Bette Davis movie. There’s one playing at the Chinese called The Great Lie. Mary Astor’s in it, too. Earn the trust of a waitress and ask her questions. And then learn to listen. Half the problems in this world are because men don’t know how to listen to women.”
“Then what?”
“She’s on a train coming west, right?”
“What happens on the train?”
“Um, she has dinner and a good, long sleep.”
I stuck the cigar in my maw so I could rub my head with both hands.
“No,” I said. “She’s in her sleeper when a guy with a gun breaks in and covers her mouth.”
“But why?”
“Figure it out! That’s your job, kid. Bad stuff happens. Your character fights against the bad stuff, because if she doesn’t, she’s gonna lose something important, maybe even her own life. That’s plot and story and the name of this game all rolled into one. When in doubt, when your fingers are frozen over the keys, just bring in a guy with a gun. I said that to Chandler once, and look at him now.”
“Raymond Chandler?”
“No, Homer Chandler the delivery boy. Of course Raymond Chandler!”
“But what if I want to write a quiet story about a character, and how he––I mean, she––becomes a better person.”
“Ah, you mean you want to be one of the literary boys?”
“Doesn’t matter. Instead of a guy with a gun, your bring in someone who has a psychological gun. Who has power to crush the spirit.”
“Personally, I prefer the rod. But you get to choose, Benny. Just make sure it’s real bad trouble.”
“That does it!” Benny said. “I’m making her a woman, and bad stuff’s going to happen to her.”
“That’s the ticket. Now go back to your room and start writing. In the first paragraph I want to see a disturbance.”
“A what?”
“Am I speaking Chinese here? A disturbance! I don’t want to see a florid description or a character who is sleepwalking through life. I want to know that there’s a change or challenge happening to your character right from the jump.”
“Like a train wreck maybe?”
“It doesn’t have to be big, remember that. It can be anything that’s disturbing, from a late night shadow outside a window to a knock on a hermit’s door. It can even be some tense dialogue. Just don’t warm up your engines! So get to your typewriter and bring me the first three pages when you’re done with ’em.”
“This is gold, Mr. Armbrewster, gold! I can’t thank—”
“It’s all right, Benny—”
“—you enough. I’m so excited I’m going to write to my ma and pa and tell ’em—”
“Good-bye, Benny.”
“—what a great and wonderful—”
“If you don’t go and start writing now, something disturbing is going to happen to you.”
“Got it!” He rushed out.
I was looking forward to what the kid was going to show me next. A young writer’s enthusiasm, if it’s mixed with a desire to grow in the craft, always pleases me.
I went back to the scene I was stuck on. Where was I going to go? And then I found myself typing: A guy with a gun walked in.

[NOTE: I’m once again in travel and teaching mode. So talk about how you put trouble in your books. Is there enough? What do you do when a scene is dull?]

7 thoughts on “Trouble Is Your Business

  1. Being in the thriller genre, which ever sub genre and intensity level you write at, building trouble really is our business. As I sit here working on book two of my new series I am reminded of what is said about CIA agent Kharzai Ghiassi Death is not just his business, death is his life.

    That said, I like to have a mix psychological and real mortal trouble and take people from normal every day circumstances and throw them into life altering seconds of horror on a reglar basis. For instance, two guy’s have been in an observation post for a couple weeks, looking down on this village that contains suspected rebel fighters. Eating nothing but MREs has seriously constipated one of them, humourous fart jokes ensue and these guys seem like everyday construction worker types who happen to be sent to war, but are other wise nice guys. Finally he states that he is ready to empty the storage locker and out of courtesy to his hidey-hole mate goes outside to do so.
    Just on the other side of the hill, a large patrol of rebel fighters is returning to the village after spending a couple weeks looking for rumoured Russian troops slinking around their part of Alaska.

    The trouble comes in with a bit of humour to attach the reader to the characters, then with the bliss of release soon follows the release of the terror.

    Of course you could also put the trouble in like this guy did.

  2. I write thrillers and suspense/mysteries so dull is the kiss of death. From tiny things like a car not starting when trying to make a fast getaway to large, like a killer chasing the protagonist, the conflict must keep happening. Great post! I loved the story of Benny.

  3. JSB, you surprise me every Sunday. Today struck a spark, that I will seize using the ‘Old stumbling’ introduction to what if. My protagonist is asleep in the opening hour before dawn.
    “Just a Hooty bear,” his wife comments to herself, as she places a hot mug of coffee by the bed side. This is her hour before sunrise.

    Behind closed lashes Hooty’s hour before sunrise has just been invaded by the strong smell of Aqua Velva. Must belong to the former owner who moved at two years back. He pulls a corner of the sheet back over his right ear falling gracefully back into the deep cradle of Morphous. The aroma is replaced by another irritating distraction in the form of the open end of a water hose pressing into his right ear lobe. He is fussy about his ears and his ears identify the feel of a water hose without waking him up. What if his cartilage is wrong?
    What if someone has walked into his Airstream with a big pistol?

    Did I learn anything from your blog? Can’t say for sure but that might be what happens to my boy in his story.

  4. I had big trouble in my opening scene. I thought it was riveting. Then an agent read it and said. “He’s not likeable. You have to have someone the reader will like and can connect with right in the first scene.”

    So having action in the first scene is not enough. I have to have a likable person in it too, even thought the protagonist doesn’t come in the picture yet.

  5. Well, in the opening scene of Book 2, our intrepid heroine and disgraced attorney Juliana Martin is managing a strip club in Biloxi. On the first page she is planning a party to celebrate the execution of the ex-cop convicted of killing one of the dancers.


    A knock at my office door interrupted my musing. Hopefully, part of the solution had just arrived.

    “Come on in,” I said, standing to greet her. If I wanted class, I needed to show some.

    She glided into the room on red stilettos. Her painted-on jeans and tank top hugged ample curves all the way up to a mass of blonde curls that Dolly Parton would kill for. She was no schoolgirl, I could see the horizon of forty in her face, but she owned it.

    I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets. Her grip was strong and sure. This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy.

    “Sit down,” I glanced at her application, “Miss Carmichael.”


    Trouble comes from the least expected places.

  6. Great post! I learned the lesson reading the Percy Jackson books with my wife’s fifth grade class. As she put it, “There’s a dragon in every chapter.” I happen to write pirate adventures, but the principle’s the same. Whenever she walks by as I’m writing she asks, “Is there a dragon?”

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