How to Give Your Readers Unforgettable Moments

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The legendary movie director John Huston once remarked that a great movie is comprised of “three great scenes, and no weak ones.” Not bad advice that. We don’t want any weak scenes in our fiction. But we also want those moments that reach deep into the reader’s heart.

I thought about this recently while watching an early episode of the old cop drama Hill Street Blues.

I didn’t watch the show religiously when it first aired, as it began the same year I started law school. I was kind of busy. What I do remember is how much I liked the central character, Francis Xavier “Frank” Furillo, played by Daniel J. Travanti. He was the right mix of tough and compassionate, and Travanti was perfect in the role.

A few weeks ago I ran across a channel specializing in vintage cop shows and started watching an episode of HSB. It was a two-parter titled “Jungle Madness.” The show had several plot lines, one involving John “J.D.” LaRue (Kiel Martin) as a cop going down the drain due to alcoholism. In Part 1, LaRue’s drinking causes an incident that might have gotten him killed. Furillo takes him aside and gets in his face. “You’re a drunk!” he says, and tells him he either admits this to a police doctor or he’ll be drummed off the force.

In Part 2, LaRue hits bottom. No money. Kicked out of bars. Alone.

At episode’s end he nervously walks into an AA meeting. The leader asks if there are any newcomers. Slowly, LaRue raises his hand. The leader asks him to please stand and tell everyone his first name.

“I’m John,” he says, “and I guess I’m an alcoholic.”

“Hi, John,” the group responds

As he’s about to sit down he hears, “How you doing, J.D.?”

Astonished, LaRue looks over and sees … Captain Furillo. And the twist of this tough captain being there, an alcoholic himself, was a totally unexpected heart punch. The expression on Travanti’s face was acting perfection. I’m going to admit it—the waterworks turned on.

We love moments like that, don’t we? So how can we create them for our readers?

Brainstorm. Before I write, even before I outline extensively, I do an exercise I call “killer scenes.” I take a bunch of 3 x 5 cards to a coffee house, tank up, and start jotting random scene ideas for my plot-to-be. I don’t think about how they connect or if I’ll even use them. But when I’m done I’ve got a stack of scene ideas, some of which I hope will become stunningly memorable.

Use music. On iTunes I have a library of mood music, mostly drawn from movie soundtracks. There is music to inspire action, suspense, heart tugs and so on. Music brings out emotions in us, which vibrate the imagination. My most perfect ending—to both book and trilogy—is probably in Try Fear. And it came to mind as I was listening to the Beatles song “I Will.” To find out why it worked, you’ll have to read the books (heh heh).

Listen to a character. We’ve all had the experience of a character doing something unanticipated in a scene (or at least wanting to, which starts an argument with the author). Well, give the character a fair hearing and if you get persuaded, put it in. I once had a wife who was supposed to get out of town because her husband was in jeopardy. I had her trip all planned. But she refused to leave. And it was the right move.

Re-work scenes in subsequent drafts. Your first draft will have some scenes that work and others that need to be cut or revised. Any scene that has potential can be improved. Up the emotion in the characters. Improve the dialogue.

I will never forget that scene at the AA meeting in Hill Street Blues. If you’d like to see the episode, it’s on YouTube (the AA meeting starts at the 37:40 mark).

What’s a memorable moment you recall from a movie or book?

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43 thoughts on “How to Give Your Readers Unforgettable Moments

  1. For your killer scenes, you say it’s before you’ve outlined extensively but I assume you know your beginning, middle and end.

    I have a novel series I’m stuck on, mostly because there’s a 1000 different ways it could go—I believe I’m going to try the killer scenes w/regard to primary characters & just see what pops up. It might break the stale-mate in my brain.

    • Actually, BK, I usually don’t know that much beyond my basic concept. I have a general idea of the direction of things, the main cast. Probably my opening set up. But then I let the scenes come to me, and one of them may be a climactic scene.

      And yes, this is a good “see what pops up” method for breaking through barriers, too. Don’t edit, don’t judge. Just write them down as they come.

  2. I didn’t watch Hill Street Blues much either but it was a consistently good show both with acting and writing.

    I always know my beginnings. I always know my endings. I write other scenes as I see them in the movie in my head.

    For years I didn’t write anything because I was told I was “doing it wrong” – you have to outline everything in order and write it in order, it has to take a zillion drafts and many years, and it has to be torture. I tried that. I was miserable. I couldn’t do it. I bored myself to the point where I packed away all my writing books, threw everything I had written in boxes in the garage and declared myself a failure.

    Then I discovered successful writers who write like me and thought maybe…

    My earliest published writing was newspaper writing. You can’t dither and agonize all day when your editor calls at 2:30 and says “Can you get something to me by 3:00?” (My answer was always “Yes.”).

    I picked up writing again during NaNoWriMo last year when we wrote around DisneyWorld. I decided to write like me for a change, by my rules, the way I feel comfortable and see what happens. It occurred to me before I knew I was doing it wrong I was getting quite a bit published.

    Maybe I should go back to that.

    I’ve spent the last few months organizing what I’ve come across in boxes in the garage and writing new things as well. I discovered that even though I couldn’t do a step by step outline, when I put the scenes I’ve imagined out of order where they go, they work.

    And now I love writing again.

  3. I love westerns and probably my favorite is The Sacket Brand by Louis L’Amour. In this there are a series of short scenes where various members of the Sacket family discover that an unknown family member is alone and in trouble against a vast foe. Dropping everything regardless of importance, they ride to his aid. Love those scenes. It is also possible I’ve read that book a dozen or more times in the last 25-30 years.

  4. I’m going totally off topic for now, because I’m at the Colorado Gold Conference, and have been drinking in every work James Scott Bell has ad to say, Seeing him in person is a must-have experience. My brain is too full to dig back and think of memorable moments – only one pops through the mass of information. In one of Robb’s “In Death” books, where Eve has been hurt, and Roarke is racing to get to her. He says his heart stopped as he wondered what happened to her, and she says “I’m fine and moves to get up. He says, “I’m not,” and insists she give him a moment. And she did let her hold him. In public. Where her colleagues could see her, something she never allowed. A small part of a scene, but my thought was, “People should have someone who cares that much.”

    • Great meeting you face-to-face, Terry! (She rocks a cowboy hat, friends). You mention Nora “J. D. Robb” Roberts…there’s a reason she is one of the bestselling writers of all time. Moments like that.

    • And rereading this tonight back on my mountain, still in a state of “conference brain” I have to apologize for the typos. Working on my little Surface with its tiny keyboard … I’m sure you get it.

  5. I am reading a rather exciting 2018 suspense novel by somebody so famous and prolific I will not name her. What has astounded me is that she breaks a bucket load of rules – from head hopping, POV slips, using the word ‘had’ so frequently I’d normally have put the book back in the library chute – except for one thing. I can’t put the book down. I have to know what’s going to happen. I’m busy – even books I’m adoring only receive my attention in snatched moments. Not this one.

    I related this to my 22yo daughter who writes (well) only for her own enjoyment. “Well mum, that should tell you something – it’s all about story.” Wise words.

    Sometimes I think we try so hard to be perfect, our work can lose the flavour of life and what’s more, may never be finished.
    I know the post is about memorable moments/scenes, but I’ve been so surprised at this today, I’m thinking those moments should be drip-fed throughout the whole story. Thanks for your posts James. Love this site. Greetings from Australia.

    • Jay, thanks for the thoughts. You are right, of course, that the story (which is, after all, a series of scenes) is the most important thing. The craft, IMO, is about removing the speed bumps that can interfere. Head hopping is not something most readers notice. I still contend it’s ultimately better not to do so … still, L’Amour and Nora Roberts, both of whom have been mentioned, did it all the time. Story masters.

  6. Good advice on the killer scenes. When a scene pops into my head, I generally write it down. Sometimes it makes it into the WIP, sometimes into a future writing.

    Two days ago, I wrote an opening for a short story. It didn’t go anywhere, but it keyed a thought that led to the opening of my current WIP, a third novel in a series. Great fun!

    Every writer is different. I write an opening, and if it runs, I run with it. If it doesn’t, I either trash it and write a new opening on the same concept or write another opening on a different concept.

    But I never know the ending. If I did, I’d be bored out of my mind. Also, I figure the characters are the ones actually living the story. I see myself as the recorder, the guy who’s fortunate enough that the characters invited me along to record their story.

    As a result (ala Bradbury) I tend to roll off into the story with them and race through the trenches with them, trying to keep up. Every word I write is filtered through the POV character’s physical senses and opinions of the setting.

    For me, this is the perfect balance of writer (recorder) and characters. So far, it’s gotten me through 34 novels and almost 200 short stories.

    Thanks for all you do, Mr. Bell.

    • Harvey, I have many writing friends who do the Bradbury “follow the character” routine, not knowing the ending. I also have many who outline, and some who are ‘tweeners. It’s all a crazy mix of alchemy and craft, isn’t it?

  7. I use music when I write. It inspires me. In fact, I created a playlist from the last novel I wrote. Each song has a place in the book. I also listen to my characters and allow them to “speak” to me.

    A great scene in a movie is in the Lord of the Rings films when Elrond presents the ancestral sword to Aragorn and says, “Put aside the ranger and become who you were born to be.” That was a turning point in Aragorn’s life and he stepped up to act (and become) a king.

    Great post!

  8. One of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies: the ending of “Lost in Translation.” After this poignant platonic “affair” between Bill Murray’s washed-up aging actor and the lost-soul Scarlett Johansson, they part. But Murray is compelled to run after her in the teeming Tokyo crowd and whisper something in her ear. We see it only from afar, we hear nothing. Yet it never fails to move me.

    Another great ending is in “Roman Holiday.” First, the tearful parting in the taxi between princess Audrey Hepburn and commoner Gregory Peck. Then that poignant denouement at the press conference as she realizes who he really is and that single, devastating look she gives him before she retreats back into her royal life. Tears, every time. I get choked up just thinking about it.

    Unhappy endings sometimes work beautifully.

    • I need to watch Lost in Translation again, Kris.

      And good call on Roman Holiday. Sad endings, bittersweet endings … and maybe the greatest ending of all time: Casablanca. And to think the writers didn’t have it until the very end of shooting!

  9. I’m a fan of anything by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. In The Dark Knight, a killer moment is the Joker and Batman grappling with each other. The Joker tells Batman that they are really the same, “You are a freak just like me”. It strikes at Batman’s concerns with who he is. The scene also shows that the Joker is more than a giggling fool, giving the character real depth. It touches on a real truth that hero and villain can be separated by a very thin line.
    I think that illuminating a central truth of the story gives these moments real strength.
    For me, the hardest part isn’t writing these scenes, it’s recognizing them when I find one.
    It must be added that Heath Ledger’s performance was pitch perfect and his later death made the movie even more poignant.

  10. Great example, James. I remember the AA scene from Hill Street Blues vividly. And you’re right about Travanti’s acting.

    BTW, Kiel Martin was an alcoholic in real life. He also acted in many TV series, including a brief but memorable role in Kung-Fu, one of my favorites.

  11. Two of the most emotional moments I’ve experienced while watching a film both happened on the small screen:
    1) In Brian’s Song, the moment when Gale Sayers announces to the team that Brian Piccolo has cancer. I was in high school when that movie came out the second son in a family where boys did not cry, and that scene gut-hooked me. I mean, I wept. And as I was trying to hide the tears, I looked over and saw my father crying. That was a first.

    2) In the movie Shenandoah (which I saw for the first time on the small screen), there were two scenes that really got me. One was where Mr. Andersen tells the teenage soldier who just shot his son that he wasn’t going to hurt the soldier. In fact he hoped the soldier would grow old and have lots of children and one day have them taken from him. Then, when The Boy (actually his character name in the credits) enters the back of the church. I don’t want to give a lot away about that scene, but if you’ve watched the movie, you know what I’m talking about.

    There are others, of course, but the key to why these scenes work is watching the characters struggle to CONTROL their emotions. There’s very little drama in the release of sadness or anger–but the effort to swallow those emotions is one hundred percent drama.

    One of the most dramatic real moments in my life came early in my fire service years. I was maybe 23 years old had been in command of the ambulance for a particularly horrifying pediatric fatality. I was a rock on the scene, in part because that was my job, but in equal part because I was working hard to develop the hard emotional shell that every effective emergency responder has to have. When I got back to the firehouse, it was late. By the time I finished the paperwork, the rest of the crews were already crashed in the bunk room. I went to my bunk and tried to sleep, but after an hour or so I realized it was futile, so I got dressed and sneaked quietly down the the kitchen for coffee.

    I wasn’t particularly morose or sad, I was just spun up, and I was waiting for the images to blur. While I was sitting at the long table in the kitchen, Big Bob–one of the grizzled old farts who tolerated zero bullshit and rode rookies like me like a horse–came into the kitchen. He looked like hell and was barely awake. He poured himself a mug of coffee and sat on the opposite end of the table from me. He didn’t say anything, and neither did I. After three or four minutes of silence, he said, “You okay?” In that instant, faced with the question and having to articulate an answer, I knew that my voice wouldn’t work, so I nodded. He looked at me for what felt like 30 seconds, then he said, “Okay.” Big Bob rose from his seat and headed back up to the bunk room. As he passed, he gave my shoulder a gentle quick squeeze. We never spoke of it, and in the morning he was back to his bad assery. He never never touched his coffee that night.

    When I need to create an emotional scene, I go back to that night. I’d never before felt so much a part of a family as I did that night. Big Bob liked me enough to be worried. He didn’t want me to be alone if I needed to talk and respected me enough not to force it when he saw that I couldn’t. But it was the touch on the shoulder that tears me up even today. He understood. It was my turn to suck it up and move on.

    • “In Brian’s Song, the moment when Gale Sayers announces to the team that Brian Piccolo has cancer.”

      I don’t even remember the movie, but it’s got to be somewhere in deep memory. You mention it and I choke up.

    • Brian’s Song is probably the greatest male weepie of all time. It was one of–if not THE–first “made for TV movies.” A national phenomenon at the time. The musical score was a heart-grabber, too.

      John, you’re so right about attempting to control the emotions. I learned that lesson as an actor. It wasn’t the crying, but the trying NOT to cry, that was so effective.

  12. Oh…and I cry every time I watch that scene in “Field of Dreams” where Kevin Costner plays catch with his dad’s ghost.

  13. Talk about powerful scenes–the end of the Browns-Steelers game. (21-21. Browns four OT possessions, Steelers three, both teams missing field goals.) (Not emotionally significant, except for some Browns fans, but plenty of drama.) Another one of those things you probably couldn’t get away with putting in fiction.

  14. That moment where Triton destroys Ariel’s treasures in The Little Mermaid. Younger me just couldn’t watch that scene for years afterwards

  15. I use your card technique and it has improved my plotting immensely. Thank you for that suggestion.

    • “The Oxford English Dictionary regards the construction “comprised of” as incorrect, while Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Collins English Dictionary do not regard it as such…”

  16. Late to the party this time, James.
    I chuckled at your “tank up” comment. My “tanking up” moments when I was nine-to-five-ing it and WIP-ing during the off hours always came from a mid-trip Dunkin Donuts stop then a solid half-hour of solitude on the Jersey back roads on my way to my IT contracts job for a large insurance company. Some of my most productive plotting moments came during that second half hour.
    Re the index card brainstorming. My peer writing group has done two excellent “plot parties” over the years. One of us heard about them after she attended a local RWA (Romance Writers of America) chapter meeting. We set aside a Saturday morning, assemble at a writer’s house, fortify ourselves with coffee and breakfast foodies and post-it notes. We break into two groups of 3 and 4, where each of us gets about a half hour of brainstorming our latest WIP with the other 2-3 writers. The brainstorming ideas typically start with “what if” moments. One person transcribes them on the post-its. Each writer comes away with a stack of possibilities to peruse at his/her leisure.
    FYI I’m a fecking sieve with movies that even hint at sad topics/outcomes. A very memorable one for me was Bang the Drum Slowly (1973. IMDB: “The story of the friendship between a star pitcher, wise to the world, and a half-wit catcher, as they cope with the catcher’s terminal illness through a baseball season.”) Baseball as a topic is always near-dear to me, books or on screen. A young DeNiro as the catcher and Michael Moriarty as the story-telling pitcher, the only two players on the team who know about the illness (Hodgkin’s). I’m tearing up now thinking about it. I loved the novel, too, by Mark Harris.

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