About James Scott Bell

#1 bestselling author of PLOT & STRUCTURE, and thrillers including ROMEO'S RULES, TRY DYING, DON'T LEAVE ME, and FINAL WITNESS. You can be the first to know about his new releases by going HERE.

Writing Lessons From Ireland

JSB at the River Boyne

by James Scott Bell

The Bells were a turbulent Scottish clan that stopped throwing rocks at their enemies long enough to move to Ulster during the great Scot migration of the 1600s. After several generations in Ireland, one of us, William Bell of County Armagh, decided to give America a whirl, landing in Philadelphia in the mid-1700s. From this line your humble correspondent emerged in the far-off land known as Los Angeles.

A couple of weeks ago I went with my wife and daughter to Ireland, to see what I could see. I thought I’d share a bit about the trip, and how it relates to writing.

Take Risks

Since we really wanted to get to know the place, we decided to rent a car and drive around the island.

Which meant driving on the left side of the road.

Do you know how hard that is for an American? Especially on these twisting former bridle paths they have the temerity to call roads. My wife was constantly saying, “Too close!” as I consistently veered toward the shoulder. That’s because I was trying not to get hit by the oncoming vehicles, several of which were TOUR BUSES. These behemoths didn’t even slow down and took up every bit of space between lane line and whatever was on the other side: stone wall, grass, dirt, the occasional cow. Driving in Ireland feels like a 300-pound man going cave spelunking. I survived the ordeal through a combination of quick reflexes and sheer terror.

Which is how writing should feel sometimes, yes? If you’re never a bit scared of what you’re writing you’re not going far enough. And just like these automotive jaunts brought us to a new and wonderful location, so too will your risky writing take you to story stuff you would have missed otherwise.

Observe Intentionally

My favorite part about a research trip is walking around, listening, seeing, drinking it all in. Speaking of which, the pubs were a delight. Like at the wonderful Sin é in Cork. Here’s a bit of it:

Our barman, Tony, welcomed us with a big Irish smile and was more than happy to offer some tips on seeing Ireland. “Don’t do just the tourist stops. Stop in the little towns and villages and walk around during the day. Then go to the pubs.”

So when we walked around, I looked around. Some of the things I noticed:

Irish eyes really do smile. I saw some of the most gorgeous eyes on the lasses, and dancing eyes on the lads. There’s an old saying that a fellow has “the map of Ireland on his face,” and it holds true. There’s a distinctive Irish look, especially on the men—the kind of face you can imagine with a pipe, regaling you with a story about the banshee or the little people.

I found something else to be true: the Irish love to talk. There were a couple of occasions when we needed to get on the road. But an inn keeper here and a villager there kept up with friendly gab. We’d probably still be in Ireland if, on our last morning there, I hadn’t grabbed old Aidan’s hand (“I worked thirty-five years for Aer Lingus. Then was in Mozambique and oh, that was somethin’ all right …”) and said, “Thanks, but we’ve gotta run.”

We Americans always gotta run, which is the source of some amusement to the Irish.

Lesson: Lap up the sights, sounds, and smells on your research trips—and especially listen to the people.

Find the Gold in the Obstacles

My favorite encounter occurred by way of an inconvenience. Our rental car started acting funny, and the key card had a “low battery” warning. Luckily we were near the Kerry airport and went in for a word with the Hertz man. Who was not in his trailer. (Kerry airport is about the size of an elementary school playground.) So I went next door to see the Avis man, who told us the Hertz man should be back “in a bit.” It was more like three bits, but he finally arrived.

The Hertz man made a call and told us, “Go out the exit there and turn left and go to the top of the hill. Turn left again and go until you see a shop on the right. On the other side of the shop you’ll see a sign for Tom Murphy’s place. He’ll fix you up.”

Dutifully, we followed the directions and pulled into a dirt yard full of haphazard cars, piles of old tires, and a couple of trailers from a 1959 surplus sale.

No one was in either trailer. Then from an old house next door came the biggest Irishman I’ve ever seen. Think Hagrid from Harry Potter, only with a haircut. He also had the thickest Irish brogue this side of Barry Fitzgerald. And he talked fast. So after replacing the key battery and test driving the car he rat-a-tatted, “No worries about the motor andlikethatyasee? If there’s somethin’ wrong with the motor ye’ll see a yellow light andlikethat, yaknow? But if ya don’t see it it’s no worries andlikethat, okay?”

Okay! I wasn’t about to argue with the man.

Which is to say, the best part about research for me is finding something unexpected and delightful, which often happens when you meet an obstacle and are forced to push through it.

Times Are Always Tight For Poets

In Galway, we strolled along Shop Street, known for its (shockingly) shops. We really wanted to see the much-touted buskers, but I have to say the fare was, this day, disappointing. Several single acts (guitar, sax), and one fairly good trio. I was hoping for somebody like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Now that’s a busker.

Anyway, toward the end of the street, we came upon a poet, with his little table and typewriter, offering to write a poem about anything upon request. Saw no one take him up on it, and then it began to spit rain. The poet had to gather up his things and run for cover.

Lesson: write poetry for fun, not profit, and bring an umbrella.


There is much more I could tell you about the trip, but I fear I’d end up like that friend who comes to dinner with 500 slides of his visit to Sri Lanka. Instead, I’ll leave you with one of those happy occurrences that come when you least expect it. It’s a title.

That car I told you about? Well, it went fritzy (yasee?) in the tiny car park in Galway (tiny car parks are all they have in Ireland. One false turn and you scrape off your side-view mirror). The car would not start. So I called Hertz, who called roadside assistance, who sent out a couple of fellas who arrived about forty minutes later. One was a squat, bald bloke who looked a bit like Michael Chiklis. He was chatty and charming, asked where I was from. I said, “Los Angeles,” and he said, “Oh, posh! Beverly Hills and all that!” I merely smiled, as I wanted him to get to work.

The other fellow was a tall red-headed lad in a rugby shirt. He was the serious one, told the chatty fellow to pop open the bonnet and try starting the car. It chugga-chugged but didn’t turn over. Rugby Lad fiddled with something and told the guy to try it again. It started. They stopped and started it one more time.

“Should be all right now,” Rugby Lad said. And with a wave and a smile from the jolly bald fellow, they were off.

I summoned my wife and daughter, who were waiting at a nearby restaurant. When they joined me my wife asked what had been the matter. I told her it was something about the injection system.

“Do you know what to do if it happens again?” my wife sensibly asked.

“Well,” I said, “I saw where he jiggled.”

To which my daughter, sitting in the back of the car, said, “Out of context, that sounds really strange.”

We laughed. But I did have my title: I Saw Where He Jiggled: My Trip to Ireland.

And … it’s good to be home!

So what’s a serendipitous event that occurred during one of your trips, research or otherwise?


When Cold Cases Kill: Guest Post By Meg Gardiner

JSB: I am on a research trip and will only have sketchy, if any, internet access today. So I’ve asked Meg Gardiner if she would step in for me. Meg is an Edgar Award winner whose new novel, UNSUB, is getting rave reviews. Like this one: 

“Outstanding series launch… Taut pacing and sympathetic characters play against a terrifying villain, who will crawl beneath your skin and trouble your sleep. Thriller fans will eagerly await the sequel.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Plus, it’s just been announced that CBS is going to adapt UNSUB as a TV series!  

UNSUB releases June 27, but you can pre-order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

Welcome, Meg!

UNSUB is about a legendary killer and the young cop who hunts him. In my thriller, the UNSUB—an unknown subject in a criminal investigation—starts killing again after twenty years, and Caitlin Hendrix must decipher his coded plan before he drags more innocents to the abyss.

The novel was sparked by the unsolved case that has haunted California for decades, and me since childhood: the Zodiac. That infamous UNSUB shot and stabbed seven people in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Zodiac sent dozens of messages to the police and media, including cryptograms that have never been broken. The terror wrought by the killings still lingers today.

I grew up in California, spooked by the knowledge that the Zodiac could strike at any time. Today, I’m spooked by the thought that the killer hasn’t been caught. The Zodiac could still be out there.

And, being a thriller writer, spooky thoughts lead me to spooky ideas. What if a terrifying cold case turned hot again? What if a killer who’d disappeared—as the Zodiac did—resumed killing decades later?

I turned that unnerving idea, that they-never-caught-him fear, into this novel.

In UNSUB, Bay Area sheriff’s detective Caitlin Hendrix is pulled into the chilling world of the serial killer known as the Prophet. This UNSUB posed his victims in garish crime scene displays, and marked their bodies with the ancient sign for Mercury. He’s given Caitlin nightmares since she was a small girl. Her father, Mack, was the lead detective on the original case. The investigation shattered Mack emotionally and tore his family apart.

To write the novel, I had to create the killer’s secret world. I delved into codes, puzzles, astrology, poetry, ancient symbolism—and 21st century hacking. The Prophet is a master of mind games. To stop him, Caitlin must do what her father couldn’t. She must decipher both the Prophet’s old, taunting messages and his strange new rhymes. What do the crime scene tableaus signify? What does the Mercury sign mean? And what is the Prophet’s end game?

Readers ask if I write to exorcise my demons. I don’t. As a writer, I take what frightens me and try to turn it into gripping fiction. I put my demons on the page, and turn them loose for readers to experience in the most exciting and suspenseful ways I can create.

UNSUB is a psychological thrill ride. Enjoy it.

But, if it gets you thinking about what’s out there, don’t turn off the lights.


Open Forum on Reading Habits

by James Scott Bell

The Kindle turns ten years old this year. A good time to ponder the question, What hath Bezos wrought?

The question comes on the heels of a controversial article from The Guardian UK, which posits that the downturn in e-book sales in 2016 may be related to “screen fatigue.” We simply spend too much time on our phones, computers, tablets, and TVs that the printed page is kind of a relief, says the author.

Another article in The Guardian proclaims that the Kindle is now unhip:

“[The Kindle] was new and exciting,” says Cathryn Summerhayes, a literary agent at Curtis Brown. “But now they look so clunky and unhip, don’t they? I guess everyone wants a piece of trendy tech and, unfortunately, there aren’t trendy tech reading devices and I don’t think people are reading long-form fiction on their phones. I think your average reader would say that one of the great pleasures of reading is the physical turning of the page. It slows you down and makes you think.”

There are a couple of assumptions baked into these articles which, upon closer inspection, do not hold flour. First of all, ebook sales outside of the traditional publishing system are doing just fine. According to the latest Author Earnings Report, between early 2016 and early 2017, overall Amazon US ebook sales grew 4%. “While that’s not the kind of double-digit (or triple-digit) growth we had seen in the earlier days of the ebook era, it’s still more than enough to offset the ongoing shrinkage at Barnes & Noble’s Nook. In other words, albeit slowly now, the overall US ebook market is still growing.”

Still, one might ask if reading habits are changing or morphing back into pre-Kindle practices. So I’d like to throw this open to the TKZ community and visitors.

What are your reading habits like today as opposed to ten years ago? Has anything changed more recently, say in the past five years?

Here’s my answer. When I got my Kindle as a Christmas present in 2010, I was giddy. You mean I can carry around the complete works of Dickens? For 99¢? And Jack London? All in this nifty little device? Cool! And then there is the massive Project Gutenberg library, with so many public domain works — fiction and non-fiction — available for free.

I did continue to frequent my local Barnes & Noble, however, where I would purchase the occasional new release from a favorite author.

But my nearby B&N is no more. The last time I was in a B&N was out of town, about six months ago. The last new print book I purchased, at full price, was on that day. It was a mass market paperback called Nick of Time by a guy named Gilstrap.

I’ve pretty much stopped buying physical books, in no small part because my bookshelves are stuffed. There are volumes stacked on the floor. I’m in the slow process of trying to weed these out, though I find parting to be of such sweet sorrow I often end up reading rather than weeding. My wife has to get me back on task. At least I don’t add to the glut by buying new books. I’m using the L.A. Public Library system more than at any time since I was a kid.

I’m also listening to more library-loaned audio books via OverDrive. 

As far as ebook purchases go, I find myself resistant to prices above $7.99. When I see that a publisher is pricing the ebook the same (and sometimes higher) than the hardcover, I actually snort, shake my head, and go light a candle for the poor author.

So how does all this shake out?

  1. I still love having a massive Kindle library.
  2. I also love having a dedicated Kindle. Not a tablet. I don’t want to multi-task. When I’m on a plane, or waiting somewhere, I just want to read.
  3. I like the ability to highlight books on the Kindle, especially nonfiction. That way, I can print out a 2-5 page précis of the salient points for review and study.
  4. I’ll read on my phone via the Kindle app, but only on occasion. My eyes favor the E ink of my 2nd Gen. Kindle, the one I got for Christmas. (Though I’ve heard the Kindle Oasis absolutely rocks, so that may be in my future).
  5. I have heard reports, however, that among the youngsters they do virtually everything on their phones now, including reading.
  6. I download a lot of samples. So if you want to sell me, make those first pages stunning (see why TKZ does those first page critiques?)
  7. Very rarely do I buy new printed books anymore.
  8. Though I do still like the feel of reading a physical book—laying it open across my chest if I begin to snooze, or throwing it across the room when I get disgusted. As Dorothy Parker once remarked,“This is not a novel to be lightly tossed aside. It should be thrown with great force.”

Your turn. What are your reading and buying habits now in the age of the Kindle? I’m asking that you chat this up amongst yourselves, as I am currently in an undisclosed research location and may not get to comment. So dive in!


Less Focus For Better Writing

by James Scott Bell

On a recent Saturday morning I took one of my famous homemade cappuccinos out by the pool and reclined on a lounge with a Dean Koontz and my AlphaSmart. My intent was simply to enjoy an hour of relaxed reading before getting back to a scene in my WIP.

The weather was sublime (“Looks like another perfect day, AH love L.A….” – Randy Newman), and I found myself contentedly sipping my brew and doing absolutely nothing. Looked at the sky, the clouds, a distant plane floating toward Burbank or LAX. A little part of my mind said, You can read now. But I didn’t listen. I was enjoying the fine art of loafing.

Which lasted about three minutes. Because something happened I know has happened to you. Up there in the writing bungalow of my brain, the staff was working under the radar. A messenger send down a memo. It was about one of the secondary characters in my WIP. It was an idea that brought her more fullness and sympathy and was perfectly in keeping with her backstory.

I grabbed my AlphaSmart and wrote a page of voice journal—the character speaking directly to me. It was deep and evocative and I knew a lot of it was going right into my book.

As I said, you know that feeling. In the car, the shower, at the grocery store—a great idea flashes and you jot it down or record it as a memo on your phone. And you can’t wait to get back to the keyboard.

This bit of serendipity got me to thinking that maybe I should try to be more systematic about my loafing. I’m naturally good at it, but how much better could I be if I used a little discipline?

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus”, Dr. Srini Pillay writes about our over-emphasis on focus. We have our to-do lists, timetables, goals. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it turns out we also should be practicing “unfocus.”

In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.

When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).

The DMN needs this energy because it is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.

Dr. Pillay recommends building “positive constructive daydreaming” (PCD) into your day. I do this very well at my local coffee house. I stare. Out the window. Sometimes at people. I’m really working, though. That’s PCD time!

Another tip from the good doctor: power naps. “When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert.”

But the technique that really jumped out at me was this:

Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.

When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.

This is close to something I’ve done on occasion. I may have finished a draft and am doing the first read through. Something’s not working. I don’t know what.

I set it aside for awhile and do something unfocused: like pleasure reading, eating a Tommy Burger, or riding my bike. Then when I go back to it I think of a favorite author and pretend he’s looking over my shoulder at the draft. I have him say, “I think you need to ….” and just imagine what he would advise. It’s amazing how often this can break the logjam.

In light of all the science, then, I’ve determined to take a little more unfocus time on weekends.

I’ve also gotten more specific about how I spend my focus time. I’m a morning person. I like getting up while it’s still dark and pouring that first cup of java and getting some words down. I can write for two or three hours straight. But I’ve stopped doing that. I am forcing myself to take a break after 45 minutes of writing, to let the noggin rest a bit. Ten minutes maybe. Then back to work.

In the afternoon, from roughly 1 – 4, I can’t focus like I do in the morning. So I’ll write (or edit) in 25-minute spurts. Then I’ll get up and do something unfocused for fifteen minutes. Or I might lie on my back on the floor with my legs up on a chair for ten minutes, and deep-breathe. Then I go for my next 25-minute writing stint. I believe this is called the Pomodoro Technique.

Oh yes, and this cannot be emphasized enough: tame your social media distractions or they will eat your brain!

There’s a famous story (one of many) about the dictatorial head of Columbia Studio, Harry Cohn. He walked on the lot one morning and strode past the writers’ bungalow. It was completely quiet. He blew his stack and started cursing at the building.

Suddenly, the place burst with the sound of typewriters clacking away.

Harry Cohn shouted, “LIARS!”

In retrospect, maybe he should have given them all a raise. They were unfocusing!

So what about you? Do you ever practice “unfocus”? 



For more on the mental side of the writing life, see The Mental Game of Writing: 29 Secrets For Overcoming Obstacles And Freeing Your Mind For Success.


The Random Dialogue Exercise

by James Scott Bell

Here’s a little exercise I teach in my workshops: take one of your dialogue-heavy scenes. Go to the middle and select a line at random. Now, pull down a random novel from your shelf. Open to a random page. Flip around until you find some dialogue. Pick one line of that dialogue.

NOW: substitute the line you just read for the line you selected in your scene. THEN: figure out how to justify it!

NEXT: Tweak the line so it fits the character. FINALLY: Rewrite the rest of the scene. Do this as a way to create or explore deeper levels of story or character. You may end up not using the dialogue line itself, but you will have opened up new vistas in your story and given your imagination a chance to play.

But if you do use the line, here is a big benefit: It creates a surprise for the reader. And surprise is the greatest page-turning prompt of all. Predictability is dull. So throw the reader off every now and then with something out of the blue.

Another benefit: you can use this exercise whenever you hit bad old writer’s block. Don’t know where your story is going? Having trouble plotting the next few scenes? Not sure who a character is? Try this exercise and get the mental pistons firing again.

Here’s a clip from my current WIP:

“Isn’t the view gorgeous?” she said.

“You better get right to it,” Dylan said, “because this is the last time we meet.”

“You can’t mean that.”

“I’m prepared to walk away.”

“I don’t think so, dear.”

“Watch me.”

“You haven’t even seen what I have.”

“I don’t care—”

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”


“I know people. I can get you help.”

Now I perform the exercise. I’ll show you what I came up with using four very different novels off my shelf.

Using a line from An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Oh, it doesn’t amount to anything, really. We just quarrel, that’s all, once in awhile.”

From The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (1972):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”


From The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Yeah, she had it tucked under her arm when she paid me.”

From L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais (1999):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Well, we’re going to find out, but right now we’ve got a maniac to get off the street.”

Well now! Each one of these lines takes us in a different direction, doesn’t it?

The first one gets me thinking along the lines of Psycho, and multiple personalities.

The second one gives me a whole new aspect of character.

The third one is so obscure I have to do some more cogitating. I try to figure out why this woman would have been paid, and by whom. That’s a whole new plot point! That she could be working with someone. So I spend a few minutes jotting down ideas about that. Also, what did this mystery woman have tucked under her arm?

Since I’m writing a thriller, the last example really got my imagination scrambling. Which is, of course, the point of this exercise.

If I decide to use one of these lines, I’ll tweak it to make it consistent with the character’s voice.

But, after all this, I may just go back to the way I had it before. But wouldn’t that be wasted effort? Far from it! Because the writer’s mind is always stronger after this kind of workout—lithe, supple, and ready for action … hmm, maybe I should write a romance.

But not now, because I’m in the middle of my WIP and I’ve got a maniac to get off the street.

There are innumerable fiction writing exercises and prompts to jump start your writing sessions. What are some of your favorites?


Write From the Side of the Nose

by James Scott Bell

Here is another in our series of first page critiques. This one presents an important craft issue which I’ll discuss on the flip side.

Crossing the Line

He stood with his back to the doors leading to the balcony overlooking Lake Waco. His eyes remained focused on the 9mm Glock in the hand of Deputy U. S. Marshal Seth Barkley.

“What do we do now?” asked the blond-haired man. “Is this the part where you handcuff me and cart me off to jail?”

“You’re not ever going to see the inside of a jail,” Barkley responded.

“So you’re my judge and jury?”

“I’m the closest you’re going to get.”

“You can’t shoot an unarmed man.”

“You’re unarmed?” Barkley smiled. “What’s that in your hand?”

The man glanced at the dagger he was holding. “You know the old line about bringing a knife to a gun fight. You would shoot me before I got within six feet of you.”

“That’s a better deal than the one you offered your victims, but you’re right. Let’s make this fair.” The marshal reached behind his back and pulled his backup pistol from the waist of his jeans. He stooped down, laid it on the floor, and then kicked it with his foot toward the man.

“Pick it up,” Barkley said.

“No, you’ll shoot as soon as my hand touches the weapon.”

“I’ll shoot you either way. At least this way you stand a chance of living.”

Sweat poured down the man’s face as he looked from Barkley to the gun laying on the floor in front of him.

“You can’t do this, damn it, you’re a United States Marshal.”

Barkley unclipped the badge from his belt and tossed it to the side. The clink of the metal on the tile floor reverberated throughout the room. He holstered his weapon.

“Feel better now?” he asked, his eyes never leaving the eyes of his opponent.

“I didn’t do anything to those women they didn’t deserve.”

“So, you’re telling me you’re innocent in all of this because the women you stalked, tortured, and murdered asked for it?” Barkley said. The man went silent and glared into Barkley’s eyes.

The time was upon him, and his darkest fear realized. Seth Barkley was stepping over that imaginary line that would make him like his old man. His life would never be the same after crossing over from good to evil.

Barkley pulled his weapon and slowly eased the trigger. “This is for Kaitlyn,” Barkley said. He was now a vigilante, no going back.


JSB: The main point I want to make is about this piece deals with “on the nose” dialogue. That’s an old Hollywood term which means dialogue that is direct and predictable. Predictability is what makes reading boring. So learning to write “from the side of the nose” will immediately increase interest and readability.

Another problem that often shows up in dialogue at the beginning of a novel is that it overstuffs exposition. The result is that the reader gets the impression it’s the author talking, feeding us information, and not the characters talking to each other. You need to ask these questions of all your dialogue:

  1. Would the character really say that, in that way? If not, rewrite it, and don’t be afraid to cut.
  2. Is the character telling the other character things they both already know? If so, you should err on the side of cutting it. (You’ll sometimes see this when characters use each others’ names: “Hello, Frank.” “Nice day, isn’t it, Audrey?”)

The dialogue in this piece is back and forth, direct response, on-the-nose, and states things for the benefit of the reader. Remember my axiom: act first, explain later. And since dialogue is a compression and extension of action, that axiom applies here.

Here is a quick rewrite of the first few lines of dialogue:

“What do we do now?” asked the blond-haired man.

“You’re not going to see the inside of a jail,” Barkley said.

The man glanced at the dagger he was holding.

What’s left unsaid, what’s “between the lines,” is in the reader’s head now, and creating interest.

Here’s another way:

“What do we do now?” asked the blond-haired man.

“You’re not going to see the inside of a jail,” Barkley said.

“Shooting an unarmed man?”

“Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?”


Some of you will recognize that last line of dialogue from the classic cop movie The French Connection. Based on the real-life NY cop Eddie “Popeye” Egan, this totally off-the-nose line was used by Egan (and by Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in the movie) to completely throw off a suspect being interrogated. The suspect would get so rattled by this oddball question from the “bad cop” that he’d give up something to the “good cop.”

It works here because we, the audience, are also going, “What? What’d he just say? Why? Why is he saying that?”

Which means you have their interest!

Now, of course I’m not saying our writer should use that exact line. I am merely pointing out that “side-of-the-nose” dialogue works wonders. By side-of-the-nose I mean something that is not a direct response, and indeed at first hearing sounds like it doesn’t make sense!

Write, try it. Make up your own oddball line of dialogue. Even be random about it, and justify the line later!

Writing from the side of the nose is also helpful for avoiding exposition-heavy dialogue, like this: “You can’t do this, damn it, you’re a United States Marshal.”

They both know he’s a U.S. Marshal. You told the readers this in the first paragraph. Cut that line of dialogue and see how the action moves forward, faster.

Here’s another line you can cut:

“So, you’re telling me you’re innocent in all of this because the women you stalked, tortured, and murdered asked for it?” Barkley said. The man went silent and glared into Barkley’s eyes.

But, you protest, that explains this entire scene! To which I respond, act first, explain later. We don’t need to know why a U.S. Marshall is executing this guy at this moment in time. Leave a mystery!

Which brings us to the last two paragraphs, which are heavy with telling us what Barkley is becoming. As wth all exposition, ask: do we need to know that now? Here’s a shock: Almost always the answer will be no.

What if the scene ended this way:

“I didn’t do anything to those women they didn’t deserve.”

Barkley pulled his weapon. “This is for Kaitlyn,” he said.

What? End it there? Why not? The reader will be compelled to turn the page. And when he or she does, make them wait to find out what just happened. You could shift to another POV, or you could show us Barkley doing something, and through his actions we start to see what he’s becoming …

Bottom line: Check your dialogue and narrative for on-the-nose writing. Cut it. Surprise us with dialogue and details that are odd, surprising, mysterious, unpredictable.

Three other notes:

The first couple of lines give the impression we are in the “he” POV. But the scene ends in Barkley’s POV. Be strongly in Barkley’s head from the outset.

Barkley responded is redundant. Use said.

Barkley pulled his weapon and slowly eased the trigger. (You mean squeezed the trigger).

Okay, TKZers, your turn. I’m traveling today and probably won’t be able to comment. So take it away and help our brave writer.


Your Characters Must Earn Their Way Out of Trouble

by James Scott Bell

My treadmill movie the other day was Fast Five.

I don’t like to think too much when I exercise.
Fast Five free online
The movie, part of the wildly successful franchise, has two opening set pieces. In the first, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is rescued from a prison bus by his car-driving cohorts, led by Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker) and Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). The three of them end up hiding out in Rio de Janeiro.

In the second set piece, Dom and his team set out to steal three cars off a moving train (why bother with a mere car dealership?) They need to pull this off without anybody on the train (including engineers, conductors, several DEA agents, and passengers with window seats) realizing that an off-road, tricked-out tow truck is tracking alongside as two guys use blow torches to peel off a large section of train car.

In other words, mindless fun.

There’s some betrayal, some fighting, some shots fired, one explosion, and naturally O’Conner ends up dangling from the side of the train just as it is approaching a steel bridge that will shave off the distressed con like Tom Selleck’s morning stubble.

Never fear, though. Dom is in a car! O’Conner manages to jump onto the back of the car right before the bridge … and right before Dom and car and O’Conner drive off the cliff.

They fall a couple hundred feet, splashing into a conveniently placed lake.

Unfortunately, as they come up for air, they are met by half a dozen local drug thugs with machine guns.

So far, so good (plot wise). They have gotten into trouble, then out of trouble, and immediately into more trouble.

We cut to a scene in a Rio warehouse, where Dom and O’Conner are hanging by their wrists, shackled by heavy chains.

The super villain, backed by his armed-to-the-teeth crew, informs our two heroes that he knows Dom’s sister is in possession of one of the stolen cars, and he wants to know where it is. If they will tell him, he’ll let them go.

Naturally, our leads swear, scoff, and glare.

Now, what does any super villain worth his salt do in such a situation? Begin the torture, of course. Get them to talk!


Wrong! Instead, the super villain says he can locate the sister himself, and quietly walks out with all but two of this thugs.

So now we have our two leads, hanging like sides of beef, under the watchful eye of a duo of armed goons.

What’s any goon worth his salt going to do? Use our heroes for target practice.


Wrong! One of the goons, without his weapon at the ready, walks right up to O’Conner so the latter can kick said goon right in the chest

But that won’t do anything, will it? After all, the two heroes are still in chains. All the thug has to do is brush himself off and restore order.



For it is here that Dom breaks his chains.

All he does, without any leverage whatsoever, using only his magnificent deltoids, is thrust his arms outward. His wrist manacles snap, and the chains break. This is so Dom can immediately head butt the other thug, who has pulled out his gun.

Meanwhile, O’Conner is able to wrap his legs around the first thug’s neck.

The sequence, from the super-villain walkout to the subduing of the twin (and, apparently, too-stupid-to-live) armed goons takes about ten seconds.

Over the whir of the treadmill I shouted, “Come on, man! You can’t just do that!”

Nevertheless, I kept on watching, for all that took place before the appearance Mr. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the largest federal agent known to man.

Which leads, shortly thereafter, to two more of my favorite “Come on, man!” movie thriller tropes:

a) The locked, heavy-steel door that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson smashes open with one kick.

b) Our heroes running across the tin roofs of Rio, chased by a dozen machine-gun-wielding agents, as bullets spray around their heads and legs, taking out windows and bricks and laundry, but never one single bullet hitting any of them anywhere.

This is where I ended my workout.

Those of us who write in the thriller, crime, mystery and suspense genres cannot get away with this. We cannot allow our readers to Come-on-man us.

Which means we cannot get our characters out of trouble by pure coincidence, Deus ex machina, or the temporary suspension of the laws of physics.

They have to earn their way out.

What do I mean?

A good novel is about a character’s life-and-death struggle (physical, professional, or psychological). The character, in meeting the challenges, must demonstrate strength of will. It is through the exercise of this strength that the character transforms (or, in the case of a tragedy) fails to transform.

The thriller writer gets his characters into deep trouble. Backs them into corners, as they say. The characters must get themselves out because of their own logical efforts. Breaking chains just ‘cuz is not a logical effort.

This does not mean, I hasten to add, that another character cannot show up to rescue your hero. But—and here’s the key—the circumstances for that rescue must be set up by the character beforehand

If your character is in physical peril, he can earn his way out by: a) exercising some physical prowess that has been set up in the beginning and conforms to reality; b) use some gadget he’s been hiding, also set up in the beginning (this was the function of Q in the James Bond movies); c) another character with whom the hero has had contact before. Often this is an enemy that turns ally, because of some act of kindness or moral persuasion. Thus, at the end of Casablanca, Louis lets Rick off the hook for killing Major Strasser. Why? Because he’s observed Rick’s increasingly heroic behavior and decided, finally, to show some spine against the Nazis.

The other kind of peril is the need to solve a mystery. This is, of course, the sine-qua-non of the classic mystery involving a sleuth. But it can also be a subplot in a thriller, or any other plot for that matter

In this case, the character earns the solution by an exercise of the mind. Miss Marple has her powers of observation and knowledge of the human condition. Holmes has his power of deduction. Bosch has the doggedness of his detective training. Castle uses his knowledge of fiction technique.

Thus, the mystery is solved when the final piece of the puzzle clicks into place in the sleuth’s mind. This is what my friend Tom Sawyer, former show runner for Murder, She Wrote, calls “the penny drop.” It’s that last little thing that happens, seemingly small (like a penny dropping on the floor) that the sleuth puts together with all the other cogitations to this point, to finally solve the whole thing. As Tom explains it in his excelent Fiction Writing Demystified:

As with other such devices it’s important, even if the penny drop is prompted for the protagonist by some lucky accident or coincidence, that most of the other elements of the equation are earned — the result of his or her doing.

So … never get your characters out of trouble without some sort of set-up that justifies the escape. You can have this figured out beforehand (plotters!) or you can get into a corner and then go back and figure out how to set up the escape (pantsers!)

Just remember what it says in the good book (of fiction writing): Thy hero shalt not escape by delts alone. 

What about you? Ever backed your hero into an inescapable corner? What did you do about it? 


How I Developed My Series Hero

by James Scott Bell

I’m happy to announce the release of my new Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Hammer. It begins on a posh beach at Malibu, and ends just up the coast at Paradise Cove. In between a lot of stuff happens. (This is called a plot summary).

Today, I thought I’d say a little bit about how I came up with Romeo as my series hero.

I’d long wanted to write about a lone-wolf, hard-boiled seeker of justice. I’ve always loved this famous Raymond Chandler quote about the classic PI:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.

But I did not want to do another PI character. I love ’em, but we have enough of them. So I conceived a backstory that would cause a man to be on the run and off the grid. With a changed name. And who spent a number of years as a cage fighter.

What else could I add to make him more interesting for me? I decided to include my love of philosophy. I was nearly a philosophy major in college. But freshman year I was in a big philosophy class, with the smaller classroom discussions taught by a TA. This guy wore sandals and smoked Camels (you could smoke in the classrooms back then). He would take out a fresh cig as he spoke, hold it between two fingers, then strike a match, all while talking. He’d get a faraway look in his eyes as he went off on a metaphysical tangent. We students would watch the match burn down, waiting until it hit his fingers, which it inevitably did, and he’d shake the match vigorously to put it out—still talking! He’d drop the dead match on the floor and begin the process all over again. It always took him 2 – 4 matches to light up.

And I thought, if that’s what I might become as a philosophy major, maybe I ought to try something else.

But I digress. I’ve always loved philosophy and theology and thinking about deep things, especially in times of crisis. Give me Epictetus when things aren’t going my way, or Pascal when reflecting on ultimate truth. I wanted my series hero to be like that. So I made him a genius, a kid who was accepted to Yale at age fourteen. But then bad things happened … and we begin with Mike Romeo in Romeo’s Rules, in the present, with a tattoo on his forearm: Vincit Omnia Veritas. Truth Conquers All Things.

Plus, he likes flowers.

Most of all, though, he has that code Chandler wrote about. And at some point it struck me that I had a model for him in the back of my mind all along.

I was a mere pup when the TV series Have Gun, Will Travel was popular. But the character, Paladin (played by Richard Boone) was cool. (A paladin was a knight known for heroic deeds and the code of chivalry).

Paladin lived in the luxurious Carleton Hotel in San Francisco. There he ate the finest foods, sipped the finest brandy, and escorted the finest women to the opera. He could speak on virtually any subject.

But he was also a gun for hire. He’d go out on jobs, donning his all-black duds and six guns. His holster had a chess knight on it. Ditto his card.

The great thing about this western, unlike, say, Gunsmoke, was that Paladin very rarely shot anyone! Instead, he used his wits to outfox bad guys, or get good guys to do the right thing.

Most of all he lived by his code. One part of that code, which Mike Romeo shares, is that if someone is being bullied, justice demands the paladin step in and stop it. Here’s a clip from an episode of Have Gun, Will Travel. Paladin has just arrived in a town to meet his employer for the first time.

That’s Paladin. And that’s the sort of hero I had in mind when I conceived Mike Romeo.

Which makes writing the series fun for me. Maybe that’s the biggest key of all. You can put your hero through all sorts of tests. You can have him suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But if he’s not someone you’d like to hang out with, the series can turn into a slog.

Fortunately, Mike Romeo is bringing me joy.

The Romeo’s Hammer ebook is available here:




B & N


Print version:


So….let’s talk series characters. Do you have one? How did you come up with him or her?


Who is your favorite series hero, and why?



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Ending Lessons From a Couple of Movies

by James Scott Bell

So the other day I watched Pretty in Pink, the 1986 Molly Ringwald film, written by John Hughes.

Why was I, a thriller author, watching Pretty in Pink? Because of James Spader. I’m a Spader fan, and I had been listening to Rainn Wilson’s memoir, The Bassoon King. Wilson (who played Dwight Schrute on TV’s The Office) was talking about his odd upbringing and high school days, and made a passing reference to being around rich kids who were like James Spader in Pretty in Pink. I didn’t recall that Spader was in the film.

So I went to the library and got the DVD and watched it.

I can see why Molly Ringwald captured hearts back then. She’s adorable and spunky and irresistible. The movie …

… okay, here netiquette demands that I insert a ***SPOILER ALERT***. I will be talking about the ending in detail, so if you want to see the movie fresh, now’s the time to go pour yourself another cup of joe.

As I was saying, the movie is about a high school girl, Andie (Ringwald), who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. She’s in school with a lot of rich kids, who look down their imperious beaks at her. Chief among these privileged snoots is Steff (Spader) who can’t stand that Andie won’t give him a tumble. When Steff finds out his best friend Blane (Andrew McCarthy) likes Andie, he tries to shame him out of it.

Andie is attracted to Blane, which is a cause of serious heartache for Andie’s friend, “Duckie” (Jon Cryer). Duckie loves Andie with a passion, but Andie loves him only as a pal.

Perfect John Hughes formula, eh?

Prom is coming, and no one’s asked Andie. She doesn’t expect it. But of course Blane does, and Andie is in heaven. Duckie is in hell.

But then Steff steps up his campaign to break up Blane and Andie. He tells Blane he’s got to choose. If he insists on seeing Andie, they will no longer be friends.

Blane is conflicted, but decides to break it off with Andie. He doesn’t return her calls. When she corners him at school, he makes up a lame excuse about having invited someone else to the prom and that it slipped his mind. Andie doesn’t buy it, calls him a liar, and runs out in tears.

Prom night comes. Andie decides to take a pink dress and do some of her quirky design work on it. She gets all ready to go to the prom, alone. When her dad asks her why, she says “I just want to let them know they didn’t break me.”

She gets to the hotel but is scared to take the final step inside the ballroom. She looks up. And sees Duckie. He has also shown up alone.

They run into each others’ arms and enter the ballroom together.

Blane, who is also sans date, sees them. He gets up to go to her. Steff tries to stop him. Blane tells him off (finally).

Blane goes up to Andie and Duckie. He apologizes. He says he always believed in her, he just didn’t believe in himself. Then he says, “I love you,” kisses her on the cheek, and walks out.

Duckie, the noble friend, says, “If you don’t go to him now, I’m never gonna take you to another prom again. This is an incredibly romantic moment, and you’re ruining it for me.”

Andie thanks him, runs out to the parking lot. She and Blane kiss in the rain.

The End.

Okay, here’s where it gets interesting. I felt the ending was not right. I thought:

a) Andie shouldn’t go running after Blane. He acted like a jerk. He gave her up over a measly threat from James Spader! Come on! He deserved to suffer for being so spineless.

b) Andie running after him so quickly brought her down in my estimation. She owed her loyal friend at least a dance.

c) Duckie deserved that dance, seeing as how he saved Andie’s dignity by walking into the prom with her.

d) The dialogue line “I love you” is almost always manipulative and lazy (see The Art of War for Writers, Chapter 39).

So as I’m thinking all that, I look at the Special Features menu on the DVD and see that there is a segment on “the original ending.”

And guess what? My instincts, and indeed those of John Hughes himself, were correct. In the ending that was in the script and which they shot, Andie and Duckie do dance together and then it fades out.

Which was, as they say, justice. But apparently test audiences weren’t so happy. A majority said they wanted the cute girl to end up with the cute guy!

An internal battle broke out over the ending. Most of the creative team wanted it to stay as shot, but the suits with the purse strings feared a negative audience reaction. Guess who won that fight?

So six months after the movie had wrapped, they got the cast back together to film the ending that’s in the movie.

And got negative reaction anyway! Even now, people are split on the ending. The stars (Ringwald, McCarthy, and Cryer) who were being interviewed on the DVD (these interview were filmed in 2006, twenty years after the release) talked about the controversy. Cryer remembered feeling robbed when they changed things. And he says people still come up to him, sometimes quite livid, insisting Andie and Duckie should be together at the end!

Why would they think that? Simply this: Justice was not served!

But, the other side insists, there was no sexual chemistry between Duckie and Andie. Molly Ringwald herself is of that opinion.

Ah, but there was another way it could have gone!  Andie and Duckie enjoy the prom together, then Duckie tells Andie to go to Blane. And when she goes to Blane it shouldn’t be to fall into his arms. Let it be left that they may end up together, so long as Blane proves he’s not shallow. The ending can therefore be hopeful, but not wrapped up in a pretty pink bow.

What’s the lesson here?

a) Don’t listen to the suits.

b) The best endings are about justice, not necessarily about the cuties getting together. Exhibit A: the most famous ending of all time, Does Rick end up with Ilsa? No! But justice is done, and Rick does gain “a beautiful friendship.”

Next, I watched Big Jake, a later John Wayne western. I watched Big Jake to balance out Pretty in Pink and restore order to the universe.

Big Jake is a straightforward rescue plot. Jake McCandles (Wayne) learns his grandson has been kidnapped for ransom. With his two sons, an Indian friend, and a loyal dog named Dog, McCandles sets out to get the boy back.

Dog is trained to attack bad guys when prompted by the command, “Dog!” (John Wayne films are not complex). There’s a big showdown between Wayne’s group and the bad guys, one of whom wields a machete. Dog, wounded by a gunshot, nevertheless puts the bite on the machete guy. There’s a struggle. Machete guy breaks free, and hacks the heroic Dog to death!

Here’s my lesson from Big Jake: Don’t kill the dog!

And those are my random thoughts about two ending in two films.

So now it’s your turn: Do you have any lessons you draw from disappointing endings?