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Learning From the Movies: The King’s Speech

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech

Imagine a hungry young screenwriter getting invited to a pitch session on a studio lot.

“What’ve you got for me, kid?” the producer says.

“Okay,” the screenwriter says, “we have this guy, see, he’s a king, see, and he’s got to make a speech. Only the guy stutters.”

“What’s the rest of it?”

“The rest of what?”

“The movie!”

“That’s it. That’s the movie! And at the end, see, he makes the speech.”

“Security!”

And yet The King’s Speech (2010) won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Screenwriter. How did they pull that off?

Through the power of character bonding and the magic of story structure. You can do just about anything with your novel so long as you have a reader intensely and emotionally invested in your Lead and put him through the beats of a well-crafted tale.

Let’s talk about emotional investment first. In Plot & Structure I discuss various ways a writer can join reader and character in the bonds of holy storytelling. One of the strongest bonding agents is hardship—at the beginning we are introduced to a character who faces a physical or emotional challenge.

In The King’s Speech, the hardship is both physical and psychological. Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Colin Firth) has a severe stammer which not only prevents him from delivering a simple speech; it also keeps him locked in a prison of self-doubt.

As the movie opens we see Albert nervously stepping up to a microphone to speak to a crowd. His stuttering talk bombs. People look embarrassed and disappointed. Prince Albert’s hardship has caused him massive public humiliation.

We’ve all been embarrassed, though not on so grand a scale. So we have immediate sympathy.

But that’s not all. There’s another powerful bonding agent I call the Care Package. This is a relationship in place before the story begins, showing that the Lead is not merely self interested. If we see someone who cares about someone else, it gives us hope for his ultimate redemption.

Early in Act 1 there is a lovely scene that gets me every time. Prince Albert, all done up in a tux, comes to say good-night to his two daughters. They want a story! “Can’t I be a penguin instead?” he asks. Clearly, he doubts even his ability to tell his children a simple bedtime tale. But they insist!

And so, out of love and fatherly duty, he makes the attempt. He tells a story about two princesses whose papa was changed by a witch into a penguin. This made him sad, for a penguin does not have arms to embrace his children. Not only that, the witch banished him to the South Pole. It’s obvious he is talking, metaphorically, about himself. The story ends with a restored father hugging his daughters. We can’t help but wonder if Albert will be healed, too. By now we hope so, because we are firmly invested in him.

The Duchess (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges a meeting for Albert with an eccentric speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Here we get another structural beat: The Argument Against Transformation. Unconvinced Lionel can help him, Albert is about to leave when Lionel asks him to try something. He puts headphones on the prince and plays classical music while having the prince read the famous soliloquy from Hamlet. After a minute or so Albert rips off the headphones and shouts, “Hopeless!” Then: “Thank you, Doctor. I don’t…feel this is for me.”

This sets up the arc of transformation that pays off at the end. (In Casablanca, Rick argues against his ultimate transformation by saying, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” At the end, of course, he does that very thing.)

The First Doorway of No Return

In a movie we need to get into the death stakes of Act 2 by the 25% mark (for novels, I advise 20% at the latest). That happens when the Lead is forced—either physically or emotionally—through a doorway that slams shut behind him (meaning he can never go back to his ordinary world). In The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, it’s physical (a tornado and the start of the Civil War, respectively). In Casablanca, it’s emotional (the arrival of Rick’s lost love, Ilsa).

In The King’s Speech, Albert is emotionally thrust through the doorway by his domineering father, King George V. Sitting his son down in front of microphones he says, “With your older brother shirking his duties, you’re going to have to do a lot more of this.”

Albert tries, but can’t get started. “Do it!” the king demands.

Later, in emotional torment over what he must be—and firmly believes he can never be—Albert puts on the recording Lionel made. And to his astonishment he’s read the soliloquy perfectly. Now he must place his trust in Lionel or “die” inside by letting down his entire country.

Mirror Moment

In the dead center of great stories the Lead is forced to look at himself, as if in a mirror (usually metaphorical, but it’s amazing how often there’s a physical mirror involved). Sometimes this is caused by another character forcing the issue.

That’s what happens in the middle of The King’s Speech. Albert is terrified at the prospect of being king (which will happen soon, for his brother is going to marry a divorcee). Lionel knows this fear is what’s holding Albert back as a speaker, a royal, and a person.

Lionel: I’m trying to get you to realize you needn’t be governed by fear.

Albert: I’ve had enough of this.

Lionel: What are you so afraid of?

Albert: Your poisonous words!

Lionel: Why did you come to me? You’re not some middle-class banker who wants elocution lessons so you can chitchat.

Albert: Don’t attempt to instruct me on my duties! I am the son of a … king.

And the brother of a king.

Albert: You’re the disappointing son of a brewer. A jumped-up jackeroo from the outback. You’re a nobody!

That last line is a knife through Lionel’s heart. In Casablanca, the same thing happens when Rick basically calls Ilsa a whore. Both Rick and Albert must now “look at themselves” and wonder, “Is this who I have become? Is this who I will always be?” (In film, these thoughts are rendered visually; in a novel, you can also use interior monologue.)

The Second Doorway

To get into Act 3, where the final battle takes place, we need another doorway. It’s going to be a clue or discovery, or a major crisis or setback—something that makes the ending possible and/or inevitable.

In The King’s Speech it’s a major crisis: Hitler invades Poland. A state of war exists. And Albert has just been crowned King George VI! Now it is his duty to address his kingdom, and in such a way as to inspire iron resolve for what is coming.

No pressure.

The Q Factor

Just before the climax, the Lead takes inspiration from an emotional jolt, giving him the courage to fight. I call this The Q Factor (named after the Bond character who sets up in Act 1 the gadgets Bond will need to escape in Act 3). In story structure, it’s an emotional connection that pays off by providing the last bit of courage the Lead needs. In Star Wars, for example, Luke hears the voice of his beloved mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobe, reminding him to “use The Force.”

In The King’s Speech, just as Albert steps to the microphone, Lionel tells him, “Say it to me, as a friend.” Not simply a teacher, a friend! That trust which began in Act 1 now enables the victory as Albert delivers an inspirational speech. The movie ends by proving the transformation: Albert—King George VI—steps out on the balcony with his wife and daughters and confidently waves to the adoring crowd.

Character bonding, the right structural beats (and great acting!)—that’s how a movie about a man who stutters became a huge, award-winning hit. (I discuss the fourteen super structure beats in my book of the same name. End of commercial!)

You can think about these beats before you write; you will develop a solid outline that way. Or you can think about them during revision as you try to figure out why your editor or beta readers aren’t as enthusiastic about your story as you are.

Either way, they are here to help. Because, after all, story and structure absolutely love each other!

9+

What One Thing is Your Novel About?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In my second year of law school I was part of the Hale Moot Court Honors board. Moot court is a rite of passage for most law students. It’s a mock appellate case with rounds of oral argument before panels of law professors, local attorneys, and perhaps a judge or two. At USC, at least when I was there, the final round was in front of two federal appellate judges and one Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

This particular year our Supreme Court Justice was Thurgood Marshall.

Justice Thurgood Marshall

Marshall was, of course, the first African American appointed to the high court. He was also famous for arguing, and winning, the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which overturned racial segregation in public schools. Being an enthusiastic student of trial lawyers and oral advocacy, I knew that the other side of Brown was argued by one of the most successful Supreme Court lawyers of all time, John W. Davis.

So when I asked Justice Marshall what it was like to go up against Davis, he seemed pleased that I knew about him, and said he was a formidable foe.

Oh, wait. I forgot to mention that I made sure I was selected to pick up Justice Marshall and his wife, Cecilia, at LAX and drive them across town to the campus.

That’s because I wanted to ask Thurgood Marshall a specific question.

So there I was in my green Ford Maverick, sitting as close to a Supreme Court Justice as I will ever get, answering his queries about my law studies, the moot court competition, and life in Los Angeles.

At an opportune moment I said, “Justice Marshall, you’ve delivered and heard so many arguments over the years. What would you say are the characteristics of a great oral argument?”

Without hesitation he said, “The best oral arguments have one main point, and only one.”

Which surprised me. I thought he’d say something about voice and style and performance. Instead, he explained that winning arguments have a precise legal point around which everything else revolves. The advocate’s job is to find that point and apply all his powers of persuasion toward supporting it.

Years later, I heard a similar bit of wisdom from the philosopher Curly. Remember City Slickers? There’s a scene where Curly (Jack Palance) is riding next to Mitch (Billy Crystal) and says, “You know what the secret of life is?”

“No,” Mitch says. “What?

“This.” Curly raises his index finger.

“Your finger?”

“One thing. Just one thing.”

“That’s great. But what’s the one thing?”

“That’s what you gotta figure out.”

Okay, let’s bring all this to bear on writing. In my Story Grinder workshops I ask the students to give me one word that describes what their story is about. In my most recent workshop I got answers such as redemption, forgiveness, justice, revenge.

One student said, “Amnesia.” Which was true on a surface level. I asked him to dig deeper. “What one word describes the heart of your novel?” (He should have said, “I can’t remember,” but we won’t go there.) He thought about it and said, “Identity.”

That was it! He had pinpointed the blood pumping through the veins of his plot. Which is the point of the exercise. When find the right word, you’ll know it. You’ll feel it. And you can use that feeling every time you sit down to work on your story.

Think about your current WIP:

  • What is your main character longing for? Why?
  • What is your main character fighting for? Why? (I mean really…why?)
  • What will your main character know at the end that he doesn’t know at the beginning?
  • How will what he learns change him?
  • Imagine your character a year after the story ends, and another character asks, “Why on earth did you have to go through all that?” How would your character answer?

NOW…give us the one word that describes the heart of your WIP. Where did that come from? Is this a one-off, or do you see this word as a common thread in your other work?

***

NOTE: I have a FREE short story available today for your Kindle — My Father’s Birthday. It’s a story on the literary side and I hope you enjoy it.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

10+

Delete Naiveté From Your Writing Life

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So you want to be a published writer, eh? There’s a group for that. It’s called Everybody.

The group is wildly diverse. It includes traditional types and indie speculators. It is a spectrum that stretches from the pie-in-the-sky hopefuls all the way to the business hardnoses. Today I wish to address the left end of the spectrum, which I call the Naïve Zone. My hope is that you will make the decision to move your caboose to the right.

These thoughts were inspired by an article (which, coincidentally, Kris slash P.J. mentioned in her post of Nov. 5) titled “How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying.” In it, author Heather Demetrios recounts what went wrong for her on her way to publishing riches. She admits up front that she didn’t understand the basics of the biz:

If just one person had sat me down when I signed my first book contract and explained how publishing works, how nothing is guaranteed, and how it often feels like playing Russian Roulette with words, I would have made much sounder financial and creative decisions. I would have set a foundation for a healthy life as an artist, laying the groundwork to thrive in uncertainty, to avoid desperation, panic, and bad decisions that would affect me for years to come.

The big mistake this author made (and which many an author over the years has also made) was to assume that a contract with a big advance translated automatically into a secure financial future.

How would my life be different if a fellow writer or someone in the industry had told me that the money I’d be receiving for my advances was absolutely no indication of what I could make on future book deals? What pain could I have avoided if they had advised me not to spend that money as though there would be more where that came from? I suspect I may have avoided a near nervous breakdown and not come so perilously close to financial ruin and creative burnout. But no one came forward.

That But no one came forward gives me pause. Authors bear the responsibility to figure out what the heck goes on—and changes—in this industry. An agent or colleague can help, but ultimately it’s on you to get educated.

So let’s talk about a few lessons to be drawn from this article.

The first is to understand this: A big advance is no guarantee of future results.

I really thought I had made it — forever, not just for a moment. Not for this one book deal. Forever. Otherwise, I reasoned, they would never have paid me such enormous sums. These publishers must be investing in me for the long run. I was one of their own.

Another lesson: Within the walls of the Forbidden City (traditional publishing) you are only “one of their own” so long as you make them money. The Forbidden City is not the family farm. It’s a big business with an unforgiving bottom line.

Next: the rules of personal financial management are not suspended when you get a contract.

After that second advance came through, I stepped into my dream life: I quit my day job to write full-time, moved to New York City, bought $15 cocktails, and learned (with astonishing speed) not worry about prices when ordering at a restaurant. I said yes to travel (often book research I wasn’t reimbursed for), concert tickets, new shoes, and finally being able to buy people the kind of presents I felt they deserved.

Here’s a tip: Do not quit your day job and do not move to New York City. Okay, that’s two tips.

Did I pay off my student loans? No, though I made a few large payments. Did I set money aside for retirement? No. My reasoning was that after the next book I sold, I’d take care of all that.

Bonus tip: Don’t go into student debt pursuing a degree in creative writing, folklore and mythology, theater, or anything with “lit” or “studies” appended to it.

Then there is the marketing part of the biz. Don’t expect your publisher to do the heavy lifting.

My publishers have never made so much as a bookmark for me (though twice they agreed to design them if I paid for the printing). If I wanted to go to a book festival or important industry conference out of town, I had to pay, unless the festival organizer covered the costs, which they rarely do. I couldn’t afford to do that, which meant I was unable to connect with librarians, booksellers, and industry professionals to amplify my books and, thus, my sales.

These days, the author has to do the lion’s share of the work on building a brand and marketing the work. You’ll need a website, an email list, some social media presence, and a whole lot of patience.

Kudos to Ms. Demetrios for opening up about her mistakes. To avoid them:

Learn the basics of a book contract. You can start here.

Learn the basics of book marketing. You can start here.

Learn the basics of managing money. You can start here.

Learn the basics of mental toughness. You can start here.

Well, we didn’t have time to go into the other option, self-publishing. Suffice to say naïveté is no excuse here, either. So before you take the plunge I suggest you read the articles posted on this page over at Joanna Penn’s site.

Speaking of plunges, and knowing that building a writing career of any sort takes years, which option is best for a writer long term? I’ll have some thoughts on that in a couple of weeks.

So what lessons have you learned, TKZers, that you can pass along to writers who enjoy wearing rose-colored glasses?

10+

Give Your Character a Dream

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

This past week on Monday Night Football between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants, play was interrupted for a short time when a black cat somehow wandered onto the field.

No one knows where it came from or (as of this writing) where it is now. It’s probably hiding somewhere in the bowels of MetLife Stadium, coming out only under cover of darkness to forage for hotdog stubs, popcorn bits, and field mice.

TV cameras captured the drama as Stadium security and state troopers closed in. The cat, juking like a four-footed Ezekiel Elliott, eluded capture before dashing into a tunnel.

The moment inspired the clever sports writer and podcaster Charlotte Wilder to create a winsome account of the incident. It amounts to the cat’s backstory, which I found to be instructive for writers.

Wilder names the cat Shelly Whiskers (for you youngsters out there, Shelly Winters was an Oscar winning actress of yesteryear). Wilder imagines that the dash across the field was the moment Whiskers had been hoping for all her life.

That life did not begin in promising circumstances:

The bleachers weren’t a place from where a cat wanted to be. The most privileged cats—the ones that were combed daily and fed expensive organic food marketed to their owners on Instagram—grew up in houses full of soft surfaces to sleep on and cat trees to scratch. But the bleachers were home for Whiskers. Those cement stairs littered with empty cans, peanut shells and hardened nacho cheese shaped her.

Life at home was tough for Whiskers:

Her father, Mister, worked nights at a local bodega, meowing at customers who came in to buy a lighter or a bag of chips. Sometimes they’d drop him a piece of pepperoni from a slice of pizza, but most nights he came home empty-pawed. Whiskers’s mother Fluffy disappeared when she was very young.

But Whiskers had a dream. After seeing a squirrel on TV run across the field during a Green Bay Packers game, she thought, Why can’t I? She fell in love with the Giants star receiver, Odell Beckham, Jr., but when he was traded away, she went to pieces. Whiskers started hanging out in cat dives, like The Meow Inn, “knocking back shots of cream.”

Then came her moment. And Whiskers was all over it. As she eluded capture, stadium fans cheered and millions of television watchers did the same. Whiskers’s proud father summed it up:

“Shelly taught us that no matter who you are—a pampered house cat or a stray from MetLife—you should always chase your tail. I mean, your dreams. Definitely chase your dreams, not your tail.”

Which is a good place to talk about your own main character’s backstory. Have you given her a dream? A longing? A desire deep within her soul?

No character enters your story without a history. Note, you don’t have to know that history before you start writing. While many writers create extensive histories for their characters, others like to let characters develop (“come to life”) as they write. But even if the latter is your method, how the character behaves on the page implies a background, even if you’re not specific about it

Why not be specific and give your character a dream which animates her behavior?

Luke Skywalker dreams of being a Jedi knight.

Dorothy Gale dreams of living in a land where trouble doesn’t exist.

George Bailey dreams of leaving his small town and exploring the world.

What we dream about is a big part of what shapes us and moves us to action. The same is true for your protagonist and, I might add, your antagonist:

Darth Vader dreams of conquering the galaxy.

The Wicked Witch of the West dreams of dominating Oz.

Hannibal Lecter dreams of indulging special dietary needs.

Dreams lead to drive, which helps a story take off from the jump.

So what is your character’s dream? If she doesn’t have one, why not give it to her as a force in operation as your story begins?

***

Give a listen to sportscaster Kevin Harlan having fun with our wandering cat as he called the Monday Night Football game on national radio.

8+

Stretch Your Style

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Not every writer is interested in style. If they can write lean, mean plots that move, with interesting characters and a satisfying ending, that’s enough. They’d rather write fast and turn out more work than spend extra time trying to find the “right” words.

Isaac Asimov was such a writer. He purposely developed a stripped-down style so he could churn out the books. He was once asked what he would do if he found out he had just six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Other writers do seek to enhance their prose. One such was John D. MacDonald, considered one of the great crime writers of the 20th century. He wrote a string of paperback classics in the 1950s, and then invented an enduring series character for the 60s and beyond—Travis McGee.

He was a great plotter, but a careful stylist as well. As he himself once put it: “I want a bit of magic in the prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

While “unobtrusive poetry” is not necessary for a well-plotted novel, it is an elevation. It’s a fine thing to consider stretching your prose. The main proviso is that you never let the style overplay its hand. Serve the story first.

One place where prose style is most fitting is when there is a high emotional moment. Nothing is higher than a young writer dying, in the aptly titled and justifiably famous short story that made William Saroyan’s reputation, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.

Go ahead and stretch your prose in the safety of your own writing room. Three ideas:

  1. Read poetry

Ray Bradbury, one of our greatest unobtrusive poet-writers, read some poetry every day. “Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough,” Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing. “Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.”

  1. Write page-long sentences

As an exercise from time to time, write a run-on sentence of 250 words or so. Don’t edit yourself. Let the words take you wherever they roam!

This is a good way to add emotional depth to a scene. When you get to a point where you describe emotion, start a fresh document and write a page-long sentence of inner description. Don’t judge it; just write it.

When you’re done, look it over. Maybe you’ll use most of it in your novel. Maybe only one line. But what you’ll have is fresh and stylistically pleasing. I’m certain this is how Jack Kerouac came up with that famous passage in his novel On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

  1. Play with metaphors

Dow Mossman, author of The Stones of Summer (the subject of a documentary, The Stone Reader) says he considered each page of his massive novel to be its own poem. Naturally it is filled with metaphors and similes.

He stood, leaning against the wooden jamb of the double glass doorway, looking back, and his eyes seemed almost dull, flatter than last year, muted somehow like reptiles not swimming in open water anymore.

Dull eyes like reptiles not swimming surprises in a pleasing way, but also fits the overall tone of the novel. The best similes and metaphors do both.

So how do you find these images?

Make a list. At the top, write the subject. In the above example, it would be dull eyes. Dull like what?

List as many images as you can, absurd and farfetched as they may be. Push past your comfort zone. Force yourself to come up with twenty possibilities. One of them will surely work.

Robert Newton Peck uses nouns in place of adjectives to plant the unexpected in his novel A Day No Pigs Would Die:

She was getting bigger than August.

The whole sky was pink and peaches.

Like Peck, you should occasionally step outside the normal, grammatical box. You’ll find some pleasant surprises when you do!

How important is style to you, when you write and when you read? We all agree that story comes first, but are you also an “unobtrusive poetry” fan? Do you think about it as you write or revise? 

NOTE: This post is adapted from PLOTMAN TO THE RESCUE: A TROUBLESHOOTING GUIDE TO FIXING YOUR TOUGHEST PLOT PROBLEMS.

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11+

A Simple Trick to Increase Your Productivity

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

When my father died in 1988, I found myself the head of a one-man publishing company. Dad, a highly regarded L.A. lawyer, had devoted twenty years to a pet project called Bell’s Compendium on Searches, Seizures & Bugging. It’s a digest of all California and U.S. Supreme Court opinions in this area of the law, updated several times a year, in a unique format that allows lawyers, judges, and law enforcement to find relevant decisions in a matter of seconds.

Thankfully, I’d been working with Dad on his treatise for a couple of years after leaving a big law firm to open my own practice. He taught me everything about the book, which is a good thing, for he was the only one who knew how to do it. If I hadn’t been there, Bell’s Compendium would have died with my father.

Today, over thirty years since Dad’s death, I’m still carrying on his work.

But back in ’88 I had to teach myself—fast—how to operate and expand a business.

So I created a crash course on entrepreneurship—reading books, listening to tape programs, attending seminars, and putting into practice what I learned. One of the first areas I had to master was time management. Luckily I came across Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. This little classic is filled with practical techniques, and one great tip for dealing with the bugaboo that haunts all of us from time to time: procrastination.

We writers have developed many ways to procrastinate. The problem has only grown worse over the last two decades with the rise of the internet, social media, and 24/7 stimuli. When we’re writing and we hit a bad patch, it’s so easy (and dopamine-inducing) to hop onto the net and surf around. We scan our Twitter feed. We see what a favorite blogster has to say. It’s fast and non-threatening (unless you’ve unwisely engaged in a tweet storm with some unhinged mountebank).

But what causes procrastination in the first place? I think it’s simply the prospect of unpleasantness. When we have the ability to choose among tasks, we tend to favor those that are more enjoyable (relatively speaking). Or we simply choose to lollygag about until forced to give a knotty problem some time (which is why bosses and deadlines were invented).

Lakein has an answer for this tendency. He calls it The Swiss Cheese Method. Simply put, instead of looking at the entirety of the unpleasant task, take five minutes to “take a bite” out of it (creating a hole in the task, thus the name of the method).

For instance, when you sit down for a writing session and face the blank page (“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.” Sidney Sheldon), it is sometimes pure joy and there’s no problem. Other times, though, you know you’ve hit a bump—or a wall—and it’s going to take some painstaking keyboard clacking to get you out of it.

Or maybe you’ve got several writing-related things to do in addition to your WIP. There’s editing another manuscript, marketing tasks, getting ready for an upcoming conference, queries to prepare, and so on.

Hmm, maybe I’ll just check my email first. Oh look! Marcie sent me a link to a cat video. Cute!

What’s that YouTube suggestion in the sidebar? A scene from Malcolm in the Middle. I love Bryan Cranston! I’ll just watch it and…

 

And before you know it, your time management has been turned upside down.

I usually have three projects going at any one time—a novel, a non-fiction, and a short story. So what I do when I first sit down to write is ask myself which project is giving me the most resistance—and then take a bite out of it. I usually aim for just a “Nifty 350” words, and then see where I am. What happens most of the time is I break through whatever barrier there is and keep going.

If for some reason I don’t move on after 350 or so, I’ll switch over to another project for awhile. When I come back to the first one, my “boys in the basement” have been working on it and I’m usually ready to write some more.

To sum up: Tackle your most unpleasant (or challenging) task when you are fresh (this works, BTW, for any enterprise you’re involved in). Take a five-minute bite out of it. If you feel some momentum (and usually, you will) keep going. If you encounter resistance, go to another task for awhile, then come back to the first one and take another “bite.”

All this talk about bites has me feeling peckish, so I’ll turn it over to you. What do you do to combat procrastination?

15+

He Has Come to Solve Your Plot Problems

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Click to enlarge. You’ll be glad you did.

Long, long ago, on the planet Plotto, there lived a king named Story and a queen named Structure. So deep was their love that they knew neither of them alone could rule the planet justly. They needed each other. So did the people.

Thus, together, King Story and Queen Structure ushered Plotto into its golden age.

Naturally, they were thrilled when a royal baby was born.

But alas, an evil villain, Vektor Formless, hatched a plan to blow up the planet. The plan was discovered, but not in time to stop the Formless Doomsday Machine countdown.

With tears in their eyes, King Story and Queen Structure lovingly placed their baby into a little rocket ship and sent him to a distant blue planet.

The rocket came to rest in a field in Kansas. An elderly couple, the Essbees, found the baby and decided to raise him as their own. They named him Jay.

As Jay Essbee grew, he began to understand that his mother was a frustrated writer. She had been working on a novel for years, and it was now being rejected by publishers in the east.

This made his mother sad, and Jay Essbee wanted her to be happy.

One day he went into the study and found his mother’s manuscript. He read it all the way through in an hour.

When his mother came in and saw Jay sitting in a chair with her pages on his lap, she was astonished.

“What are you doing with my book, Jay?” she asked.

“I read it, Mother,” Jay said.

“But you’re only eight years old!”

“And yet I read it and understood it.”

Mother Essbee trembled into a chair. “What … did you think?”

“I think there is a germ of a great plot, Mother. But the first act drags, and the main character is not forced through a doorway into a great conflict. Some of the scenes lack tension. The plot meanders in places. There is some definite sagging in the middle.”

For a long moment Mother Essbee sat frozen, staring at the boy. Then she cried out, “Father!”

Father Essbee came running into the room.

“Our son,” Mother Essbee said, “is a book critic!”

“Not a critic,” Jay said. “I can help you fix these things.”

“But how?” said Mother Essbee.

“It must be he has powers from his own planet,” Father Essbee said.

Over the next few weeks, Jay Essbee worked with his mother on her manuscript. When they were finished, Mother Essbee sent it to an agent in New York. The book sold at auction for a million dollars and then to the movies for another million.

After the movie premiere, Mother and Father Essbee took Jay out for ice cream. Mother Essbee said to her son, “We cannot keep your wonderful gift to ourselves. You must take it to the world. Henceforth, you shall be known as Plotman.”

She produced a little costume with a large P on the front, and a cape with the same P. No one seems to know how the costume grew right along with Jay and still fit him when he was an adult.

But we do know this: Plotman has sworn to uphold plot, story, and the bestselling way!

JSB: Thanks for indulging a little whimsy. All this is to introduce my new writing book, PLOTMAN TO THE RESCUE: A TROUBLESHOOTING GUIDE TO FIXING YOUR TOUGHEST PLOT PROBLEMS. The ebook is available here:

Kindle

Nook

Kobo

And just a note, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo next month, this book will be a perfect companion for the days when you sit down and go, “Now what?” or “What the heck is this?” Plotman, along with his faithful sidekick Subplot Boy, will appear to help you faster than a speeding bullet … or at least as fast as you can click to a chapter.

Happy writing!

 

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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?

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