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How to Describe Your Main Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Going to be a long post today, so pack a lunch. And be prepared to add to the discussion. The issues are important and come to me by way of an email (quoted with permission):

I know what 3rd Person Limited is, how it works, etc. based on the books and writing groups, etc. One issue that keeps coming up in my critique group about my characters is I don’t describe them early on (i.e. first couple of chapters) as the three POV characters haven’t met or interacted as of yet. I know the reflection scenario is cliche, etc.

The question- do you know some different techniques that could be used to provide character description in the 3rd Person POV? For example, would something like this be okay?

Maxwell rubbed at the double cleft of his chin or His thick fingers combed through his mop of black hair picking up the oily grease used to mat it down.

The issues raised are these:

1. How much description of a main character do you need?

2. What’s the best way to show descriptive elements on the page and remain true to POV?

3. What role does genre play in all this?

  1. How much description?

In days of yore, authors often began in an omniscient voice for a description of the protagonist before dropping down into Third Person POV. For example, here’s the first paragraph of Gone With the Wind:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin — that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

And the opening of The Maltese Falcon: 

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

And this from page 2 of For Whom the Bell Tolls: 

The young man, who was tall and thin, with sun-streaked fair hair, and a wind- and sun-burned face, who wore the sun-faded flannel shirt, a pair of peasant’s trousers and rope-soled shoes, leaned over, put his arm through one of the leather pack straps and swung the heavy pack up onto his shoulders.

There’s nothing technically wrong with any of these. It’s a style choice. And I don’t think readers care that much, as long as the description is short and sweet, and we get to some action soon.

But styles change, and today the preferred method is to keep the POV consistent from the jump.

The real question is this: how much detail do we need? And I’m going to say: not much.

Why not? Because all readers form an immediate picture of a character the moment they appear on the page. Without any description at all, we create a visual image, usually based on the actions and dialogue going on.

And you know what else? That picture will usually defy writerly details. Does anyone really picture Sam Spade as a “blond satan”? (I know, it’s probably because of Bogart…but even so, I can’t imagine Spade ever as being blond.) My picture of Spade emerges from the way he talks and how he treats the other characters.

In Dean Koontz’s Sole Survivor, Joe Carpenter wakes up in the middle of the night, clutching his pillow, calling out his dead wife’s name in the dark. Koontz describes the spare apartment he’s in. No bed, just a mattress. No other furniture. He goes to the refrigerator and gets a beer. He sits on the mattress and drinks.

We never get a physical description of Joe. We don’t need one. Just reading the first few pages I have a picture of Joe in my mind. It’s not the same picture you have, or any other reader, and that doesn’t matter. I see him, but more importantly, I sympathize with him. I don’t need to know the color of his eyes, or his hair, or his height.

There is, however, one detail that is usually important for the reader to know, and that’s age. Readers will assign an age to a character. They will “see” a picture in their minds. You can help them along by giving them dialogue and actions commensurate with the character’s age in the story. For example, a cop arriving at a crime scene and jumping out of his cruiser is not going to be pictured as Walter Brennan.

But sometimes the age must be specific. If so, find a place where the character might logically think about his age. For example, he’s about to walk into his workplace. At thirty-three, he was in his fifth year with the company. So why was he feeling like a complete newbie?

What we would call normal physical features are not usually crucial for the reader. What is important are any unique features that help to characterize: A scar on the cheek. A broken nose. Long, unkempt hair. Being tall. Being short. These are the details you’ll want to emphasize.

  1. What’s the best way to show descriptive elements on the page and remain true to POV?

The general rule is, never describe something in words the character himself wouldn’t use. In the example from the email, above, would the character think, “I’m rubbing my thick fingers through my black hair”? No. He knows his fingers and he knows his hair color. I recently read an opening page that had something like this:

Haskins looked around the room with his piercing, blue eyes.
“Over here, chief,” one of the cops said.
Lifting his lanky frame out of the chair, Haskins walked over to the cop.

Would Haskins think this way? No, this description is coming from the “outside,” that is, from the author, which makes it omniscient POV. Is this some egregious violation? I wouldn’t say so (though some editors might label it “author intrusion”). I just don’t think it’s that effective.

So what’s the alternative? Try a dialogue exchange. Have another character do the describing for you. In my first Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Rules, I wanted readers to know this is a guy who is strong and in shape. On page one Mike is jogging when he stops to admire the flowers being tended by a woman who is around sixty. After some initial chat:

She put out her hand. “Nell,” she said.
“Mike,” I said.
“Happy to meet you, Mike. Except …”
“Yes?”
“You don’t look like a flower man.”
“What do I look like?”
“Football player, maybe?”
I shook my head.
“Then what exactly do you do with all those muscles?”
“Are you flirting with me, Nell?”

This is First Person POV, of course, but is equally applicable to Third Person.

The other physical detail crucial to Romeo is the tattoo on his left arm. It’s Latin script: Vincit Omnia Veritas. Other characters naturally ask about it. One character wants to know if his name is “Vincent.” Another character can actually read Latin. And so on. The tat is remarked on in each book, giving me a chance to naturally reiterate what Mike Romeo’s drive in life is all about—Truth Conquers All Things.

Be sure to give these distinguishing details early in Act 1. If you wait until page 240 to reveal that your hero has one green eye and one blue eye, the change will be jarring. The reader will actually feel cheated. Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?

Yet it doesn’t have to be on page one either. If it’s early enough, readers will happily adjust their picture as needed. In the first Jack Reacher, Killing Floor (which is told in First Person), Reacher is sitting in a diner when cops come in to arrest him. He’s taken to a station for questioning. It’s not until page 16 that we get any description of Reacher. A cop explains that a murder took place, and a man was seen, “a white man, very tall, wearing a long black overcoat, fair hair, no hat, no baggage.” This gives Reacher as narrator a natural way to drop in the following:

Silence again. I am a white man. I am very tall. My hair is fair. I was sitting there wearing a long black overcoat. I didn’t have a hat. Or a bag.

Or, in the alternative, the cop could have said, “Just like you. What’d you do with the hat and the bag?”

So, the fundamentals are:

– Use description only for unique features.

– Use other characters to spell them out or, in the case of First Person, have a legit reason to mention them.

– Drop these details in early enough in the book that it won’t jar the reader later.

  1. What role does genre play?

My friend, bestselling author Deborah Raney, reminds me that in a romance eye and hair color (even if vague like “pale” or “dark”) are important because those are things the heroine will notice about the hero and vice versa.

In a literary novel where style is often a selling point, a lush description of the main character is more acceptable.

In a historical novel, the way a character dresses is usually important because it shows the reader something about the era the story is set in.

And in an experimental novel there are no rules, so do whatever the heck you want.

Whew. Okay, enjoy your lunch now. And take over from here. What questions or comments do you have about main character description?

12+

Great Art is About Killing Dragons

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Earlier this year I spent three days at Disneyland with the fam, including the two grandboys, ages 4 and 2. Let me tell you, it may be the happiest place on Earth, but for three days it’s also an endurance test. My daughter told me, via her FitBit, that we averaged 21,000 steps each day. My dogs were screaming for mercy.

But we had a stupendous time. I mean, how can you not when you experience the park through the wide-eyed wonder of two small boys?

In Fantasyland there are five indoor rides within close proximity of each other. The most popular is Peter Pan. There’s always a long wait to get into this one. Right across the way are two rides for which there is virtually no wait time: Snow White and Pinocchio.

So as I waited in the Peter Pan line, I wondered, Why should this be?

I have some theories. For one thing, Peter Pan seems the most magical because you’re whisked away in a pirate ship to go flying through the sky—over Victorian London and then Never Never Land itself. There’s just something about flying that every kid loves.

Yet why should poor Snow White and Pinocchio be so lonely? There might be one reason parents don’t take their little ones on these rides—they’re scary!

I mean, in Snow White, there’s a sudden turn from happy dwarfs and singing birds to a frightening old crone who turns on you holding out a poisoned apple. From there it gets even darker, with thunder and lightning, and the crone appearing at the top of the hill wanting to smash you and the seven dwarfs with a big rock! (Confession: I recall going on this ride when I was little, with my big brother, and I was terrified.)

Pinocchio has more of a house of horrors type of scare. Pinocchio and Lampwick are taken to Pleasure Island where they smoke cigars, play pool and such. But as a consequence they are turned into donkeys. That’s not all. Just around the corner a giant whale jumps out at you, jaws agape! Sure, you end up safely back in Geppetto’s workshop, but it was one hairy journey to get there.

So I wonder if concerned parents simply don’t want their younger children to be frightened. I also wonder if that might be an opportunity lost. For fairy tales don’t exist in a vacuum. They are meant to be didactic. As G. K. Chesterton observed:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. (Tremendous Trifles)

Which invites the question: is great fiction always moral? We know there’s plenty of darkness swirling around, especially since anyone can upload a book or video. But is it “art” to wallow in the darkness?

The respected editor Dave King mused about this at Writer Unboxed:

Why are so many gifted writers drawn to the dark side of life? Why are they driven to present characters who are hard to love or lovable characters in situations that are either hard to follow or hard to endure? Why does it feel like work to read them? And why are they winning awards for this?

The best art, from painting to fairy tales to commercial fiction must have, in my view, a moral vision. John Gardner put it this way: “I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life . . . that is worth living. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss.” (On Moral Fiction)

And turning again to Chesterton:

All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul. Man may behold what ugliness he likes if he is sure that he will not worship it; but there are some so weak that they will worship a thing only because it is ugly. These must be chained to the beautiful. It is not always wrong even to go, like Dante, to the brink of the lowest promontory and look down at hell. It is when you look up at hell that a serious miscalculation has probably been made. (G. K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions, 1911)

There are dragons everywhere. Sometimes they have form, as in, say, a villain wanting to kill good people. Or there might be inner dragons, psychological beasts keeping a character from full form and function in life. Readers read to experience the battle, and the outcome. If the dragon is slain, it’s upbeat. If the dragon wins, it’s a tragedy but also a cautionary tale. In either case, there’s lesson to be drawn (the “return with the elixir” in mythic terms) that helps us make it through this vale of tears.

Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of Perry Mason), once said:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

(The above, BTW, is the governing philosophy of my Patreon site.)

So I offer this up for discussion. Do you think art should have a moral compass? (Yes, we can disagree about what vision is moral; but good art should at least be about making an argument for the vision, don’t you think?)

By the way, I was greatly pleased recently to learn that my oldest grandboy’s favorite bedtime story is “St.George and the Dragon.”

9+

Reader Friday: Bad Reviews

“From my close observation of writers… they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.” – Isaac Asimov

How do you respond to bad reviews?

0

Rookie Mistakes Indie Writers Make

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the Kindle made its appearance nearly twelve years ago. It ushered in the greatest boon to writers since Gutenberg—independent publishing. Not only did this sea change give new writers a way to get their work out to the world instantly; it also saved the careers of many midlist writers who were let go by their publishers due to lack of sales.

In those heady, early years a veritable Sargasso of sloppy mistakes were made by over-anxious newbies. Everything from lousy formatting to horrific covers (“But my daughter designed the cover for me, and by golly, I’m going to use it!”)

As the years rolled on, and blogs and books on indie publishing proliferated, quality issues slowly improved. That still did not guarantee huge sales numbers. You still had to write a good book! But we’ve now reached a point in indie publishing that I would call the “mature phase.”

Still, however, rookie mistakes are made by new writers. I’d like to point out three, and then turn the conversation over to you.

Cover Chaos

The other day I was browsing in the Kindle store when a cover popped out at me. Popped, but didn’t grab. I don’t want to embarrass the author, so I’ll just describe in general terms what it looked like.

The colors were fine, the fonts were good, the image — a small, shadowy figure — communicated thriller.

But the title did nothing for me. At least, what I thought was the title. For it turned out the title was a name. At first, I thought the name was that of the lead character, since it had a “title-like” font.

I should mention that the book cover was displayed in thumbnail form, which is significant because I then noticed, almost too small to read, something below the name.

It was the actual title.

And then, on the bottom of the cover: A ____ _____ Thriller.

Which meant, of course, that the font dominating the cover was the author’s name.

One little problem: this is the author’s first book. We’re not talking Lee Child here. We’re talking a rookie whom no one outside his immediate circle has ever heard of.

To give you an idea, I did a quickie mockup to show you the proportions. The names have been changed, of course.

As much of an ego boost as it is to see your name above the title, your first book is not the time to do it. Your task is to sell books and make repeat readers.

When might you put your name above the title?

a) When you hit a major bestseller list

b) When you win a major award

c) When your book sells a million copies

d) When you have established solid sales over four or five books.

Then you can move from this:

To this:

Not Paying for a Good Proofreader

I was teaching at a conference in Oklahoma recently, and took Lyft to the airport for the flight back to L.A. As I usually do, I engaged the driver in conversation. He was a local, a gray-haired ponytail fellow who goes around to fairs with a trio of guys reenacting Old West gunfights. He asked what I did and I told him and he said, “Hey, my buddy writes crime novels. He’s really into it. He’s written two of ’em.” Pause. “He needs an editor, though. A lot of mistakes and typos.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “You can’t do that. At least if you want people to buy another one of your books.”

“I bought his second one,” my driver said, then added: “But only because he’s my buddy.”

You know all those potential readers out there? Not your buddies. So don’t annoy them with a typo infested book.

Typos are the special bane of the indie existence. I’ve often said they are like sand fleas. You get back from the beach, you shower, you think you’re good. Then around midnight, what’s that itch?

Yeah, ick, I know. But that’s how I feel about a typo that slips through.

So find a good proof reader and pay that person. It’s a rookie mistake not to invest in quality control.

And if there’s still a sand flea or two? Don’t worry. A reader will alert you. (Kindle Direct Publishing does, too.) Then you can fix and re-up your book in about ten minutes. I use Vellum for my formatting, so I make the change and then output for both ebook and print. I log into KDP and click a few times and I’m done.

Marketing Mayhem

As a rook, you’ll be tempted to try every dang thing under the sun to get the word out on your book. I’ve already written the wisest guide to marketing out there, one that will save you a lot of stress.

For now I’ll point out the two biggest blunders:

  1. Overlarding your social media with variations on: “I’ve got a book out there you should buy!” Follow the 90/10 rule. Ninety percent of your content should be positive and of some value to the reader. Ten percent you can hawk your books or alert to a deal.
  2. Letting social media overwhelm your actual writing. Remember, the best marketing by far is word-of-mouth, which comes only when you produce a great reading experience, time after time. So use most of your energy to study your craft and write your next book!

Have at it, folks. What other rookie mistakes have you seen? I’m at a conference today so my interaction may be sketchy. Talk amongst yourselves! 

 

16+

Don’t be Afraid to Go There in Your Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m a fan of the AMC series Mad Men, which I’ve been re-watching. So smartly written and superbly acted, and its attention to detail in the setting—1960s New York ad world—is fantastic.

Among the many episodes and scenes that have stayed with me, the one that stands out is from the first season—Episode 9, “Shoot” (written by Chris Provenzano and series creator Matthew Weiner ). The title is a play on words, for in the episode there’s a photo shoot, and at the end another kind of shoot, which I’ll get to in a moment.

In this one, Betty Draper—perfectly played by the incandescent January Jones—is given a (seemingly) out-of-nowhere offer to become the new face of Coca-Cola. She had done some modeling before marrying Don Draper and taking on the duties of a full-time housewife.

Betty is flattered and excited. It’s a chance to break out of the routine she’s in, to escape some of the mundane problems she has to deal with at home. One of those problems is a neighbor who raises pigeons. The man chewed out Betty’s kids for letting their dog attack one of his free-flying birds. He threatens to shoot the dog if it happens again.

Now Betty has this opportunity! An exec at McCann-Erickson, one of the big agencies, calls her into a studio for a photographic session.

And then she gets canned. The agency tells her it’s because the higher-ups have decided to go in a different direction. It’s a lie. Unbeknownst to Betty, the exec at McCann gave her the gig only to coax Don to come over to his agency. When Don tells him to pound sand, Betty is shown the door.

You really feel for Betty, of course. She was so thrilled at getting selected for a prime role, while all along she was just a pawn in a man’s game.

At the end of the episode, Betty is dressed in a flimsy robe one morning. She lights a cigarette and sticks it in her mouth, gun-moll style. Then she takes her son’s BB gun out into the yard and starts shooting at the neighbor’s pigeons, as he screams at her to stop.

Fade out.

It is one of the most stunning and surprising endings to a TV episode ever. Variety called it “the first truly brilliant moment of the 2007-08 television season with the pitch-perfect end…”

One of the secrets of page-turning fiction is what I call unanticipation. It’s the opposite of boring, for boredom comes when a reader anticipates (even subconsciously) what will happen next—and then it does.

If that occurs over and over, the reader is not going to finish the book. Why should they? They already know what will happen.

Thus, it behooves a writer to constantly be asking, What would the average reader expect to happen next? and then do something else.

Even more to the point, sometimes go to a place that is at the far end of the unanticipation scale, so far that it makes you nervous.

I wonder what the story meeting on this Mad Men episode sounded like.

“So Betty is deeply hurt and despairing about getting dropped as a model. She tries to save Don’s feelings by telling him she didn’t want the gig after all. How do we fade out?”

“Maybe Betty is sitting alone, smoking a cigarette, pouring herself a drink.”

“Kind of what we’d expect, though.” 

“Yeah…what if she looks at herself in the mirror then breaks the glass?” 

“Again, seen it.” 

“So then what?” 

“I dunno. What if she drives the car into a lamppost … no … what if she stands in the window at Macy’s as if she’s a mannequin … wait … she goes outside her house with a gun and shoots at some birds!”

“What birds?”

“We’ll plant a neighbor in act one, who’s obnoxious and raises pigeons. Betty’ll blast ’em!”

“Whoa! That is so un-Betty like. She’s Miss Perfect.”

“That’s what’ll blow people away!” 

That’s the kind of thinking you should do. Learn to reject the first, second, even third idea you come up with in order to get to a place you never thought you’d go. Because if you never thought it, it’s certain the reader won’t think it, either!

So when was a time you went to a place in your writing that surprised or even shocked you? How did it turn out?

9+

Some Healthful and Practical Writing Advice

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We here at TKZ care about writers—how they write, of course, but also how they can stay healthy. Today I bring you some venerable wisdom on both counts.

First, on health:

Over at Project Gutenberg I happened upon the definitive treatment of the healthy side of coffee, published in London in 1721, with the snappy title of The Virtue and Use of Coffee With Regard to the Plague, And Other Infectious Distempers. We all know coffee gives you a lift in the morning, among other benefits. But until I read this little book, I had no idea of the number of infirmities a daily cup of joe can overcome. To wit:

[Coffee] cures Consumptions, Swooning Fits, and the Rickets; and it helps Digestion, rarefies the Blood, suppresses Vapours, gives Life and Gayety to the Spirits, prevents Sleepiness after eating, provokes Urine and the Catamena.

It contracts the Bowels, and confirms the Tone of the Parts, being drank after Victuals, provided it be fresh made; for if it stands but two or three Hours, it loseth much of its Virtue. … It is an effectual Remedy against Worms in Children; so that if the Mother drinks frequently of it when she is With Child, the Infant will not be troubled with Worms, during its first Years.

’Tis likewise useful to such as are afflicted with Rheumatick or Gouty Humours. The Dutch Physicians commend the Use of it in Intermitting Fevers, and hold it to be good against Infection; because of the great Refreshment it gives the nobler Parts of the Body, and its sudden Effect upon the Spirits, which are wonderfully recreated by it. And it is apparently the Opinion of all Physicians who have yet wrote concerning the Plague, That such Bodies whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections. And again, That the Spirits must be refresh’d only by such Liquors, or Preparations, as will not promote Inflammations. And of this nature, say they, is Coffee, which by a right Use supports the vital Flame, and defends the Body from Pestilential Infection. And as such it is generally recommended, as a necessary Drink, at least twice a day; the first thing in a Morning, and at four in the Afternoon.

Got that? Drink coffee first thing in the morning and at four in the afternoon, and your kids won’t get worms.

Now, about writing. Louisa May Alcott wrote this letter sometime in 1878:

I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice—There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort & the most enduring.

I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, & quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself & began to do it at sixteen. This long drill was of use, & when I wrote Hospital Sketches by the beds of my soldier boys in the shape of letters home I had no idea that I was taking the first step toward what is called fame. It nearly cost my life but I discovered the secret of winning the ear & touching the heart of the public by simply telling the comic & pathetic incidents of life.

Little Women was written when I was ill, & to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, & neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, & since then, though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.

But the success I value most was making my dear mother happy in her last years & taking care of my family. The rest soon grows wearisome & seems very poor beside the comfort of being an earthly Providence to those we love.

I hope you will win this joy at least, & think you will, for you seem to have got on well so far, & the stories are better than many sent me. I like the short one best. Lively tales of home-life or children go well, & the Youth’s Companion is a good paying paper. I do not like Loring as he is neither honest nor polite. I have had dealings with him & know. Try Roberts Brothers, 299 Washington St. They are very kind & just & if the book suits will give it a fair chance. With best wishes for a prosperous & happy New Year I am your friend

L.M.A.

Questions:

What is your beverage of choice when you write?

Where are you on the “long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials” road that we call the writing life?

What part of writing brings you the most joy?

9+

The James Garner Secret

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

James Garner as Maverick.

When I was a kid my big brother loved the TV Western Maverick. It’s been running on a cable channel and I’ve enjoyed catching up with it. The series introduced the American audience to James Garner as Bret Maverick (who often shared adventures with his brother Bart, played by Jack Kelly).

Garner became an instant star, and it’s not hard to see why. He was masculine without being obnoxious; handsome but not too pretty; charming but not cloying. Most of all he was a natural, relaxed actor (though he put in a lot of hard work to get that way!)

Which all led to a storied career. He created not one, but two, iconic television characters—Maverick and Jim Rockford. He transitioned easily to movies, and was at home in light comedy (The Thrill of it All; Victor/Victoria), action adventure (The Great Escape; Hour of the Gun), romance (Murphy’s Romance), and showed considerable dramatic chops in the experimental Mister Buddwing.

By all accounts, he was as decent a fellow as there was in Hollywood. Married to the same woman for 57 years. Not a party animal or public boor. A true professional who showed up on time and knew his lines.

In the 1970s he did several commercials. I was starting my stint as an actor in Hollywood then, and in a commercial acting class the teacher held up Garner as the quintessential pitchman. “You just believe him,” she said. “It’s all about trust.”

So we students all had to pick an ad out of a magazine and memorize the copy, then spout it as naturally as we could. I still remember my product: The Pentax ME camera.

The exercise paid off. I nabbed several commercials, which helped pay my bills and later gave me nice residuals all through law school. (Remember the guy at that picnic who pours everyone some Pepsi? Yep, that was me. And I’m sure you recall the handsome lad sliding a tray of hamburgers in a McDonald’s serving window. Me again!)

Which brings me to today’s clever writing segue. James Garner’s “secret”—which applies to writers as well as actors—was that he was always himself within the role. He knew his parameters, and that was his zone. That’s also what my favorite actor, Spencer Tracy, said about his acting style. He would see himself as Spencer Tracy as a priest, or Spencer Tracy as a bride’s father…or a fisherman or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Which is why, when we write, we must put ourselves into our fiction by seeing ourselves as the characters.

How does your Lead character feel at each stage of the proceedings? The answer is the way you would feel if you were that character.

That goes for any of the cast, including the bad guy. Why does he do these things? That’s backstory. What’s going on inside him? It’s what would go on inside of you if you lived that same past.

When you tap into these things, you get a James Garner effect—readers will trust your story. (It is also, by the way, how you get at that elusive thing agents and editors call voice.)

In an interview Garner once said, “When people see me in something and say, ‘That’s just you, that’s not acting,’ it’s the best compliment I can get.”

He also said, “I’ve had to work hard at that easy-going manner you see on the screen.”

Working hard to get natural. Good advice for writers, too.

What’s your favorite James Garner role? Mine has to be The Great Escape, especially the moment where Garner insists on taking the blind forger (Donald Pleasance) with him. The outcome of this plot line gets me every time.

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The Most Important Question You Can Ask About A Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Charles McGraw and William Conrad as The Killers (1946, dir. Robert Siodmak)

The other day I reread Hemingway’s famous short story “The Killers.” It takes place in a small-town diner at twilight. Two men enter the diner and start talking tough. It is unlike any other Hemingway story in that it is clearly pulp style. “The Killers” was published in 1927, but because it was Hemingway it came out in Scribner’s Magazine, not Black Mask.

The tough guys order the diner owner and the one patron, Nick Adams (Hemingway’s alter ego in many of his stories), behind the counter. One tough takes Nick into the kitchen and ties him up with the cook.

When the owner asks what’s going on, one of the tough guys explains that he and his partner are there to kill “a Swede.” The Swede’s name is Ole Andreson. He’s supposed to come in for dinner at six. But he doesn’t show. After an hour the killers leave, presumably to go hunt for their prey.

The owner unties Nick and the cook. Nick runs over to the rooming house where Andreson lives. Nick finds him lying on his bed with his clothes on. Nick tries to warn him, but Andreson refuses to go. He says he’s tired of running. Nick returns to the diner, and we are left with the impression that Andreson will soon be dead.

The classic film noir adaptation of “The Killers” was released in 1946 (and features the film debut of Burt Lancaster, who plays Ole Andreson). It uses the short story as the opening sequence. The rest of the film is told through a police investigation and flashbacks.

I first read this story in college, when I was going through my big Hemingway phase. This time, with twenty-five years of my own writing behind me, some things bothered me about the story.

First, the killers walk in and immediately start talking like killers. They might as well have had name badges that said, “Hi! My Name is Al, Assassin, Chicago.”

Second, they come right out and say they are there to kill Ole Andreson.

Third, they make no attempt to hide their faces.

Fourth, when they leave, they don’t shoot the witnesses they’ve just spilled their guts to.

Fifth, if they wanted to kill Ole Andreson, why do it in a public place? Why not just look him up in a directory or politely ask the diner guy where they might find him? Or stake out the diner from across the street and wait for him to show?

Sixth, they overuse the term “bright boy” when they talk. Something like thirty times in just a few pages. Maybe they are indeed killers … who annoy people to death.

If I’d been around in 1927 and met Hemingway in a bar, I might have asked him these questions, then ducked.

All this leads to me to my assertion today about the most important question you can ask about a scene. This is a question that you should ask both before and after you’ve written it. There are, of course, some other questions you need to consider before you write a scene, e.g., Who is the viewpoint character? What is his or her objective in the scene? What are the obstacles? What are the agendas of the other characters in the scene? Where is the conflict?

But then should come this final and ultimate question, for it overhangs everything. Plus, it’s what the readers will immediately pick up on if it’s not answered correctly. Here it is:

Would they really?

Would the characters, if this were “real life,” act this way? Would they make these choices? Or are you, the author, pushing them to do certain things in order to move your plot?

Would hired killers really act the way they do in “The Killers”? Or was it a way for Hemingway to show that he could out-pulp the pulp writers of the day, especially in the dialogue department?

Another way to pose this question to yourself is: are all the characters in this scene operating at maximum capacity in order to get what they want? The sci-fi author Stanley Schmidt has wisely said, “At every significant juncture in a story, consciously look at the situation from the viewpoint of every character involved – and let each of them make the best move they can from his or her own point of view.”

So:

  1. Give every character in every scene an objective, even if it’s only (as Vonnegut once said) to get a glass of water.
  2. Pit the agendas against each other. Even a scene between two friends or allies should have some form of tension.
  3. Have the characters, even the minor ones, make the best moves they can in order to realize their objectives.

Do you have a “would they really?” example from a book or movie? Carry on the conversation in the comments. I’m on the road, so will try to respond as I can.

***

And speaking of conversations, my book HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE is now available in audio, as read by the author.

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