About James Scott Bell

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What Writers Can Learn From It’s a Wonderful Life

by James Scott Bell

Today I begin an occasional feature—JSB at the Movies. I’m a lifelong movie fan, my B.A. is in Film Studies, and I often use movie clips in my craft workshops. The crossover between screen and page storytelling is substantial.

So let’s start with one of the best.

Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life was not always a beloved Christmas classic. That’s because it was rarely seen after its initial run in 1947. When movies started showing up on TV in the 50s, Wonderful Life was tangled up in issues over ownership and copyright. That cloud did not begin to dissipate until 1974, while I was a film student at U.C. Santa Barbara. That year the copyright owner, Republic Pictures, failed to renew (probably due to a clerical error) and the film fell into public domain. That’s when it started showing up on TV for new generations to embrace.

To celebrate the movie’s new life our film department arranged for a showing, with a special guest—Frank Capra himself.

Capra is one of my all-time favorite directors. So I wangled and cajoled my way into being named his chauffeur for the evening.

Not that it was a glamorous ride—it was in my scruffy, three-on-the tree Ford Maverick. But the greatest populist director, the champion of “the common man,” did not seem to mind at all getting ferried to the campus in a rattletrap student automobile.

Along the way I told him my two favorite movies of his were It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I added that my dad was an extra in Mr. Smith. Capra told me of the cold reception that film received when it was shown in D.C. Apparently the senators did not take kindly to the way their chamber was depicted. (Sheesh, what would a Capra film do to them today?)

Campbell Hall, our big auditorium, was packed. I got to do the introduction. Mr. Capra made some opening remarks, and then we watched the movie.

It knocked me out. And, I daresay, had the same effect on most of the audience. We had just been gifted the magic of what critics called “the Capra Touch.”

A Frame Story

Wonderful Life begins and ends on the same Christmas Eve, in a town called Bedford Falls. It opens with shots of the snowy town, and the voices of various townspeople praying for a man named George Bailey. The last voice is the one we’ll come to know as Zuzu (George’s youngest child) pleading, “Please bring Daddy back!”

We then switch to the heavens, where angels (in the form of twinkling stars) talk about what do to answer these prayers. The assignment is give to an angel named Clarence who hopes to earn his wings.

The film switches to the linear story of George, from boyhood to the present. He’s a man with hopes and dreams who comes to think of himself as a failure; indeed, that it would be better for everyone if he were dead.

This is when Clarence the angel intervenes.

This film ends by returning to the frame—Christmas Eve—and George’s redemption. A bell on the Christmas tree rings. Zuzu announces, “Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”

George winks at the sky. “Attaboy, Clarence.”

Lesson: A frame-story can add another level of emotion if you make it entertaining in its own right. A frame-story can add another level of emotion if you make it compelling in its own right. Other movie examples using this device are The Princess Bride and Titanic. Novels with a frame include The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, and The Green Mile by Stephen King.

The Imperfect Lead 

Heroes who are perfect are uninteresting. Deep down we don’t really buy it. That’s why your Lead should have flaws and foibles just like all of us.

George Bailey (James Stewart) is a good man, a solid citizen, but is far from perfect. He’s not above leering at the attractive derrière of Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) as she shimmies down the street. He loses his temper and becomes abusive. He verbally destroys the simple-minded Uncle Billy when the latter loses a crucial bank deposit. On Christmas Eve, his life at its lowest ebb, he screams over the phone at his child’s teacher, then yells at his children, bringing them to tears. (Stewart’s acting is brilliant throughout. He was suitably nominated for Best Actor, losing only because the equally brilliant Frederic March in The Best Years of Our Lives.)

Lesson: The imperfect Lead creates empathy. The key, however, is that he is aware of his flaws, and wants to overcome them, as George does.

Strong Supporting Characters 

Every one of the secondary characters in Wonderful Life is well-drawn and engaging in their own right. Clarence the Angel (Henry Travers); Bert the cop (Ward Bond); Ernie the cab driver (Frank Faylen); the tragic Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner); all the way down to Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes, who is still with us). Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is a classic villain, and even his nonspeaking servant has an eerie presence.

Lesson: Give each of your supporting characters, even the minor ones, their own unique quirks and tags. These add “spice” to your stories, increasing reader enjoyment.

A Rocky Romance

At the heart of the film is the love story of George and Mary (Donna Reed). When George’s brother, Harry, returns to town, married, George learns he’s been offered a great job by his father-in-law. Harry tells George he’ll keep his end of the bargain by running the Building and Loan so George can travel, but George knows the job is best for his brother and sister-in-law, and tells Harry to take it.

Which doesn’t help George’s frustration about staying in town. That evening he finds himself walking by Mary Hatch’s house. Mary, back in town from school, has been waiting for this moment. She has on her best dress and has set up the parlor to reveal a picture of a romantic moment from their high school days—when George said he would “lasso the moon” for Mary.

But that was then.

Now, as Mary does everything she can to rekindle the romance, George shoots her down at every turn. Finally Mary has had enough. She smashes the phonograph record of “Buffalo Gals” just as she receives a phone call from her suitor, Sam Wainwright. Sam asks to speak to George. He proceeds to offer George a “ground floor” position at his new plastics firm.


George’s turmoil explodes to the surface. He grabs Mary by the shoulders, shakes her. “Now you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics! I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married – ever – to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do. And you’re…you’re…”

George pulls Mary to him in a fierce embrace. Love has conquered his rage.

Lesson: Readers love to read about love. But be it a romance plot or a romance subplot, the path of love must have obstacles. In a scene of high intensity, find a competing emotion that fights for supremacy inside the character.

The Mirror Moment

There’s a perfect mirror moment in the middle of the film. George is forced to look at himself and choose what kind of man he’s going to be.

Old man Potter has been trying to take over—or ruin—the Bailey Building and Loan Company, so his firm will be the only one building homes for the community. But George has frustrated those plans. And while he’s now married with children, George is not rolling in dough like his friend Sam Wainwright (see above) who made a killing in plastics during the war.

Knowing this, Potter calls George in for a meeting and hands him a big, fat cigar. He starts with the flattery, then offers George a job—at ten times George’s current take-home!

“You wouldn’t mind living in the nicest house in town,” Potter says, “buying your wife a lot of fine clothes, a couple of business trips to New York a year, maybe once in a while Europe. You wouldn’t mind that, would you, George?”

George is stunned. And tempted! To travel like that has been his dream. To have money to lavish on his wife, who has had to make the best of his meager salary, has always been his desire. He’s considering the offer when he asks what will become of the Building and Loan.

“Confound it, man, are you afraid of success?” Potter says. “I’m offering you a three-year contract at twenty-thousand dollars a year, starting today. Is it a deal or isn’t it?”

We read the conflict in George’s eyes. Who am I? he is thinking. What will happen if I take this offer?

He asks Potter for a day to think it over. Potter consents, tells George to go talk it over with his wife and meanwhile he’ll draw up the papers. He offers his hand.

The script describes what happens next: As they shake hands, George feels a physical revulsion. Potter’s hand feels like a cold mackerel to him. In that moment of physical contact he knows he could never be associated with this man. George drops his hand with a shudder. He peers intently into Potter’s face.

George says: “No…no…no…no, now wait a minute here! I don’t have to talk to anybody. I know right now, and the answer is no. NO! Doggone it!”

George has decided who he must be, but will that be enough to sustain him? That’s what the rest of the movie is about.

Lesson: At some point in your writing—the planning stage or at any point along the pantsing highway—brainstorm five possible deep questions your Lead can ask about himself. What is the central inner issue at this point in the story? You’ll often find that the third, fourth or fifth idea is the one that jumps out at you as original and on point. And that’s when you know what your story is really all about.


At the end of every great story is a transformation of the Lead. In this case, George is transformed from a bitter and discouraged man to one who has realized that his gift to the world has been right there in his little hometown. Because of his sacrifices and generosity, Bedford Falls is a lovely place to live, as opposed to the Pottersville of the alternate world (where George had never been born).

Note that this transformation is an answer to the question raised by the mirror moment.

And here’s a little technique that will add depth to all this: the argument against transformation.

That’s a beat early in Act 1 where the Lead makes a case for the opposite of the transformation. For example, Rick in Casablanca is transformed into a self-sacrificing hero at the end. So what does he say early on? “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

In Wonderful Life, George’s realization about his town’s love is argued against in Act 1. That’s when the young George Bailey tells the two girls, Mary and Violet, the following:

You don’t like coconuts! Say, brainless, don’t you know where coconuts come from. Lookit here – from Tahiti – Fiji Islands, the Coral Sea!
MARY: A new magazine! I never saw it before.
GEORGE: Of course you never. Only us explorers can get it. I’ve been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society. I’m going out exploring some day, you watch. And I’m going to have a couple of harems, and maybe three or four wives. Wait and see.

Lesson: Once you know the transformation, give your Lead a line or two in Act 1 that is expressing the opposite view. The readers will experience a most satisfying character arc that way.

And that is why It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic of its time—and for all time.

This is JSB at the Movies, signing off.

The End.

How to Write a Fight Scene With Carla Hoch

by James Scott Bell

Carla Hoch

It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Carla Hoch, author of Fight Write: How to Write Believable Fight Scenes (Writer’s Digest Books). It’s a fantastic resource, jam-packed with info, tips, and techniques on virtually every aspect of physical altercations. As such it is useful both as a resource (to make sure you know what you’re writing about) and a brainstorming tool (providing abundant ideas for making your fight scenes vivid and original). It’s also a pleasure to read in Carla’s jaunty, entertaining voice. Carla is a writer herself and a trained fighter with experience in nearly one dozen martial arts and fighting styles. Settle in, this is a lengthy interview, but entirely worth your time. Without further fondue:

One of the great benefits of your book is as a reference when planning a fight scene. With all the possibilities of strikes, moves, weapons, size disparities of the opponents and so on, one can create an almost infinite variety of fight scenes, just as there is almost an infinite variety of chess moves, right?

Absolutely, and the proficiency of the fighter isn’t just in how many different techniques they know but also in their ability to combine them productively. A fighter can know a hundred moves, but if the fighter can’t combine them, they are basically knowledge rich but skill poor.

You advocate working backwards, starting with the type of injury you want to have at the end of the fight scene. Then choreographing the scene by actually moving around physically and doing the strikes yourself. This is best done privately and not at Starbucks, I assume. Can you expand on this?

If you walk through your fight scene in Starbucks, do it before you give them your name for your order. Or, use a different name, like, I don’t know, Jim Bell.

Every writer has their own process. But, I, as a writer and fighter, highly suggest blocking your fight around the injury goal. For one, starting with the injury in mind gives you a destination, and it’s much easier to get somewhere if you know where you should end up. Having an injury goal also keeps the story front and center. Whatever harm you mean to inflict in the scene has to further the plot or bring the reader into the story. So, basing movements around that harm ensures that you will have the wound your plot or character development requires. I teach a whole class on injuries and what they offer your story. They can really be great tools.

The injury goal also determines the movement. A character who aims to break someone’s nose will move differently than a character who means to hobble someone. Also, if you want the injury to be mild, that immediately negates certain weaponry and moves. If I need the character to die, then I know I need to create a scenario where that could happen.

I really do suggest moving around and doing a bit of the blocking to know how your character’s body will be oriented. This is especially important if you have no fight training. And, don’t worry, you don’t have to be able to do the moves as well as your character can. But move around to see if the moves you are linking can actually connect.

As you move, think about how the actions impact each fighter not only offensively but defensively. Let’s say your character is being struck under the chin with an upper cut. If you were punched under your chin with straight, upward momentum, what would your head do? It would kick backward. So, if that strike knocked you out, in what direction would you likely fall? Look straight up as far as you can and see how your body moves. You’ll notice that your whole body tilts backward. Knocked out, you’d likely fall onto your back. If your character needs to fall forward, you now know, because you moved your body, that an upper cut isn’t the punch to accomplish that.

Bodily response is a part of fight strategy. Fighters do certain techniques in order to get certain responses from their opponent. For example, if I’m boxing and want to punch my opponent’s jaw but they are guarding their face well, I will punch at their midsection. If I make contact with the abdomen, great, but I don’t have to. What I want is for my opponent to drop their hands to guard their midsection, thereby exposing their jaw, or crunch their abs which brings their head down. Even if I can’t make contact with their jaw, with their head down their temples are likely accessible and temples are good targets too.

On that note, don’t be too fancy. Really and truly, readers want to know the implications of the moves far more than the moves themselves. Readers want a sensory experience. It’s what they can relate to! Not every knows what it’s like to punch or be punched in the eye. But everyone has gotten something in their eye. They know that when one eye hurts, the other eye squints and waters and you can’t see and then your nose gets runny and you sniffle and snort and even though it’s just dust in your eye everything comes to a screeching halt until the invasive speck is out of your eye!!! It’s maddening! Use that common, maddening experience.

How about using a blank piece of paper and drawing the scene?

If that works for you, I think that is great! It’s definitely helpful if there are a lot of people involved or if the battle scene is epic and involves troop formation.

One usually thinks of the size advantage, as in a Jack Reacher type. But you point out some of the advantages of a smaller fighter. What are those?

Well, first, the advantages are few and far between. I know this from experience. And you may hear people say that technique beats size and strength so as long as your smaller fighter is highly trained, they are fine. Let me tell ya something. Go ahead and scoot in close and let me whisper this so I don’t offend anyone who believes that lie. The only people who say technique always beats size and strength are either big or haven’t fought a day in their life!

What smaller people have to their advantage is that they are used to the size disparity and have learned to work with it. They know what they need to do to strike someone taller because it’s a problem they face often. It is also easier for smaller people to slip out of holds by larger people. My jiujitsu coach is very muscular. When he bends his arm, his bicep hits his forearm and, let me tell ya, I’m so thankful for that. Above his bicep is a little bit of space that I can use to wiggle my hand in to use as a brace. Another one of my coaches in very tall. His long limbs have a problem keeping a tight hold on me.

Physics is also on the side of the smaller person. They have a greater potential for rotation and can change their momentum more quickly than a larger person for the simple fact they have less mass. That’s one reason why gymnasts tend to be small. However, that doesn’t mean a larger person can’t be as agile or quick as a smaller person.

As a whole, however, smaller people are at a disadvantage. They have less mass which means that to create as much force in their strike as a larger person, they have to be exceptionally fast. That is one reason why combat sports have weight divisions. Larger opponents also tend to have more muscle mass. More muscle means more strength and a heavier frame. All that can be used against a smaller fighter. I have literally had larger teammates stand up with me hanging off of them still fighting as best I can. In class it’s funny. In a street fight that is death. The reason I am able to best larger opponents in combat sports is because my opponents are willing to abide by the rules of that sport and not simply pick me up and throw me or squash me like a bug.

What are some fight clichés you see over and over?

The Darth Vader hold: picking up someone by their neck. Y’all, you just can’t do that. First, the human spine isn’t meant to support the body’s weight by the cervical vertebrae at the head. That’s why hanging is a “thing.” Also, if you were held like that, the grip would be such that you couldn’t talk as so many characters in that position do. Lastly, holding that weight with one arm, especially a straight arm, would take Herculean strength and even if you had it, that much weight out in front of you would make you topple forward.

Another cliché that I see is using two swords at once. I did a little Filipino Martial Arts and it has a two-sword style known as Estilo Macabebe. I’ve written about it on my blog but have never done it. Pretty sure I’d cut my own head off immediately. I don’t have issue with a character having that style. The problem I have is why they have that style. Estilo Macabebe began with a particular purpose. Your character’s fighting style should also have a purpose that fits them and the setting of the work. They can’t just have a two-blade style because it’s showy and cool. Trust me, trained fighters are not showy. They want maximum efficiency with minimal effort. If they go to the trouble of using two swords, there’s a reason. And, yes, one of those reasons might be intimidation to hopefully avoid conflict. So, even when a fighter happens to fight fancy, there’s a purpose that goes far beyond just being cool.

That said, two-blade styles are so cool and I wish I knew one!

In all the old Westerns, fights are almost exclusively punches to the face, back and forth. Isn’t a fist to someone’s face like hitting a brick? How do you punch a guy’s jaw without ruining your hand?

Hitting someone with bare knuckles leaves the hand open to major damage. Fighters in striking sports don’t wear gloves to protect their opponent’s face. They wear them to protect their own hands. And, under those gloves is tight wrapping to pull the bones of the hand together and further protect them from breaking. Breaking the bones of the hands by punching is so common that a fracture of the bones under the ring and pinkie fingers are called “boxer’s breaks.” The bones of the hand are not created to support the impact of punching. Our moms were right. Hands weren’t made for hitting.

All that said, people punch other people in the face all the time. If they don’t suffer a boxer’s break from the punch they are either lucky, much bigger than the target of the punch or have a job that has made the bones of their hands thicker. The best way to punch and not break the bones of the hand is not to punch at all. I know, I hate that answer too. It’s like when I ask my jiujitsu coach how to get out of something and his reply his, “don’t get in that position.”

When I teach self-defense, I suggest using hammer fists, defensive slaps and palm strikes. A hammer fist is a downward strike with a fist. It’s the same motion as hammering, thus, the name. If you are striking downward, hammer fist is the way to go. A defensive slap is a slap delivered with a cupped hand. You get your whole body into it like a punch. And don’t let the “slap” part mislead you. Defensive slaps are used in combat sports and will knock you out. They can also rupture an ear drum. They are great to use if you have sideways momentum. A palm strike is great for straight strikes that go directly in front of you or upward. You make contact with the base of your palm. Palm strikes can break a nose, bust lips and severely damage an eye.

And if your character gets a Tyson-like punch in the face, what’s that going to feel like?

If Iron Mike punched your character in the face they wouldn’t feel a thing. They’d be dead. Seriously. The force of Tyson’s punch is about a ton per square inch. It would break the average person’s neck. Fighters don’t just train to deliver punches. They train to take them. They strengthen their necks and learn to move with a punch to lessen the force of it.

You suggest that the winner of a fight carries around some physical and psychological trauma afterward. It seems to me some of that needs to be depicted and makes the whole thing more realistic. Tell us more.

Hurting people hurts. Period. Physically, beating someone up can leave your muscles sore and beat up your hands. Light swords grow heavy after a while. Even shooting for long periods of time can make your body ache.

Harming another is also damaging to the psyche. The closer an assailant is to the person they assault/kill, the higher the incidence of PTSD, especially if they see the victim’s face. And, yes, bad guys get PTSD. They just don’t talk about it. But, if you watch interviews with murderers, you will hear them say that they have nightmares about the person(s) they killed. Or you may notice that they are completely numb, not registering any emotion in connection to their actions. The latter is a much unhealthier state because they are not allowing their mind to deal with what they have done.

Those whose job may require them to harm another go through training that primes their brain to do so. I go through several aspects of this sort of training in my book. Some of the most common techniques are firing upon targets with a human form and referring to people with words that don’t call to mind their humanity. This is why you will hear policemen or soldiers use words like “perp”, “suspect,” “insurgent,” “assailant.” They aren’t using those words because they don’t value people. Policemen and soldiers do their job because they do value people. They use these words because they are trained to use those words, and they are trained to use those words in the case they must kill that person to save another. It is more palpable to the brain to “dispatch a target,” than “kill a human.” But, even with mental training, the mind suffers. The term PTSD came directly from work with Vietnam Vets.

Explain what JACA stands for.

JACA is a matrix used by threat assessment specialists to determine whether a threat made is credible. It was coined by Gavin deBecker, writer of the book The Gift of Fear. Everyone should read that book!

JACA is an acronym that helps predict violence. When a person makes a threat, you have to ask if that person has:

Justification – Does the person have justification for their threatened action? Were they jilted, fired, humiliated? Do they have what they see as a legitimate reason to do what they are threatening to do?

Alternatives – Does the person see alternatives to their proposed violence? In other words, does the person legitimately see no other way to handle the situation other than violence.

Consequences – Does the person see the risk of violence as worth the reward? Do they care about what could happen to them as a result?

Ability – Is the person able to carry out the threat? Are they close enough in proximity? Do they have the weaponry or physical skillset?

We have a plethora today in the movies of females kicking butt. Unless it’s a superhero, how can we bring more realism when it’s a woman doing the fighting?

Good question. Pardon me while I assemble my soap box. (hammering, hammering) Ok, here we go. Ahem! First, if your character is a trained fighter, she will fight no differently than a man. Fighters base their game on their body type and natural abilities not their gender. I have trained in ten fighting styles in as many years. Not once has a coach/sensei separated the class to teach gender specific techniques. Techniques are based in science, usually physics, and science isn’t sexist.

Also, a female in combat will dress like a male in combat. In other words, their armor doesn’t show their mid-drift! They don’t wear a helmet, carry a shield and wear a leather bikini. I mean, what is that?

Tell us a little bit about gaslighting as a weapon.

Gaslighting is a form of mental manipulation. It is an attempt to gain power over another person by causing them to question reality. When a person isn’t sure what is real, they have no concept of the amount of control another person has over them. It’s a common tactic of narcissists, cult leaders, dictators and my cat Dottie. Everything out of that one’s mouth is just straight up lies and manipulation.

One of the tactics of gaslighters is illusory truth. They will say something so often that others come to believe it. They will tell flagrant lies with such conviction that you will question whether you should even question them. They deny having said things even when there is proof. When backed into a corner they will deflect and tell you that you are being crazy or too sensitive.

Gaslighters thrive on confusion and amass troops, or at least make you believe they are, to “prove to you” that you are wrong. “Everybody knows how you are.” “Everyone says you’re too sensitive.” They also project and accuse you of what they are guilty of. “You are cheating on me and I know it.” “You lie all the time. Your friends told me so.” Above all, they will voraciously deny that they are gaslighters.

Victims of gaslighting often question themselves. After an interaction with the gaslighter they feel confused or crazy. They constantly apologize to the gaslighter. They feel hopeless and joyless and can’t understand why, with all that is good in their life, they feel that way. They lie to avoid put-downs from the gaslighter. They have trouble making decisions.

I cannot stress the amount of damage a gaslighter can do. It’s diabolical.

You write in your book about “the science of being knocked out.” What do writers miss?

First, I think people believe being knocked unconscious is always the result of a concussion. Sustaining a concussion from a punch can make you lose consciousness, but just because you lost consciousness doesn’t automatically mean you have a concussion. Honestly, I think more concussions happen when the person collapses and hits the floor.

Any time the body sustains a blow hard enough to disrupt blood, it can temporarily lose consciousness. It is the body’s effort to get the brain even with the heart to maximize blood flow. And, unless you can float, to get the head and chest on the same plain, you will have to lie down.

When a person goes unconscious from a punch or from being “choked out,” they don’t stay that way for long unless they do have a fair amount of brain damage. Now, I have never left a teammate unconscious to see how long it took them to come to, but I’ve been told that, left unassisted, they will likely be out for maybe ten seconds. Again, that is barring brain damage.

One of the creepiest things I see when people are knocked out, and that people who’ve never seen it don’t know, is that while unconscious people will jerk, wiggle and sometimes hiss. It honestly looks like they might be dying. Their limbs will go stiff, their toes will curl and that is all because of the body trying to “reboot” itself. Nerves are firing like crazy.

Also, when a person regains consciousness, they tend to come back to the moment before they were knocked/choked out. So, they may come to throwing punches! My jiujitsu coach was choked out a few weeks ago. I ran over to him and lifted his feet to get more blood flow to the brain – that’s what you should do. When he regained consciousness, after maybe five seconds, he immediately reached out as if in the middle of the fight. When he saw me standing above him, he asked what happened. I told him that I had had choked him out. (I hadn’t. I was tricking him. I regret nothing.) I could see him mulling it over and looking around. Finally, the moment before he blacked out returned to his mind and he looked at the guy who had bested him. Everyone laughed. But, to this day, I gaslight him and assure him that I was the one to choke him out. (Again, I regret nothing.)

Where can we find you on the internet?

My main presence is on my site, FightWrite.net. It has been listed in Writer’s Digest top sites for writers four years in a row and has won two Gold Crown Awards with CAN for media presence. There you can read my blog, going strong since 2016, buy my book, reach out to me or take a class.

I am active on Instagram and IGTV @fightwritecarla. I give lots of fight scene tips and post regular reader engagement posts. Like, today, I asked, “What move is actually better than the book?” I have some videos on IGTV as well. I have a regular post on the Writer’s Digest Blog and I also have videos on YouTube.

Thank you, Carla, for being our guest today.

No, thank YOU!


Carla has a busy morning, but may be able to drop by later. Comments are open!

Sweet Emotion

by James Scott Bell

The other morning, as is my wont (and I want what I wont when I want it) I took a fresh cup of joe and my AlphaSmart to the backyard for some thinking, pondering, and writing time. The joe was brewed in my moka pot, a gift to mankind from the Italian inventor Alfonso Bialetti. Usually I take it black, but we happened to have some Coffeemate Sweet Italian Cream in the fridge. I thought the key word was Italian, but as it turns out the emphasis should be on sweet. This stuff is a sugar bomb. You need less than a dollop of regular cream. My hand trembled, and I poured in a touch too much.

Which almost ruined the coffee. I soldiered on, but the enjoyment of the brew was lessened considerably.

Which naturally got me thinking about this as a metaphor for writing.

Emotion in our fiction is a sweetener. In the right amount it makes the story beautiful and tasty. Too much can ruin it.

So the trick is putting in just the right amount. But how do we measure?

Start with genre. On one end of the scale is hardboiled. At the other end is romance. In between is everything else. The mistake of the hardboiled school is avoiding emotion. The mistake of the romantics is larding it on.

There are ways around both these mistakes.

Scene and Sequel

Let’s begin with the basic premise that what’s going on inside your Lead is of abiding interest to your readers. They want to know about the emotions, not just the actions.

The latter component, action, is what the great writing teacher Dwight Swain called scene. The former he called sequel. There’s a definite structure to both.

A scene is made up of Objective, Obstacles, and Outcome.

A sequel is Emotion, Analysis, and Decision…the Decision leading to the next action scene.

Jim Butcher has said that the key to the popularity of his Dresden Files is sequel:

This basic structure for sequels is pretty much the ENTIRE secret of my success. I do it like this in every freaking book I write. I know it works because check it out. People like my books. They like them for some of the special effects, sure, and for some of the story ideas sometimes–but mostly it’s because they find themselves caring about what happens to the characters, and that happens in sequels.

For more on this, see the definitive text on scene and sequel by Swain disciple Jack Bickham.

Showing and Telling

There are times when telling the emotion is fine. I have a little “intensity scale” in my brain which measures the intensity of a moment. When it’s relatively low, I tell. When high, I show. Here’s what I mean.

A woman is slightly worried when her husband hasn’t called for a couple of hours. You might tell it like this: A trickle of worry hit Pam. Usually Steve would let her know if he was going to be late. There is no need to go into the physiological effects of worry on her body. The moment isn’t intense enough.

But what if she doesn’t hear from him that night? Or the following day? Now it’s intense, so you show: Hands trembling, she punched the number for his office. When the receptionist answered Pam’s throat clenched like a fist clutching her vocal cords.

Overwrite and Edit

Now, when you got to those big emotions, I have a suggestion. This can be done as you write, or you can do it when you edit your draft.

Open a new document and do some focused freewriting on the emotion. This means you don’t stop and edit, you just let it flow. Write in the POV of the character. Let the character tell you how she’s feeling. Let her go on and on, giving you the color of it, the taste of it, the metaphors of it. Do the most obvious feeling first, but then go on to another emotion, one you didn’t anticipate at first. Maybe even the opposite emotion. We’re a tangle of complexities, and that’s what makes for compelling characters, too.

Set that document aside for fifteen minutes. Come back to it and pull out the best parts, the parts that are most gripping and original. Put them in the book.


From the hardest of the hardboileds, Mickey Spillane, comes his PI Mike Hammer in One Lonely Night. Hammer’s backstory includes heavy combat in WWII, lots of kills, and what we would today call PTSD. He deals with his ghosts by shooting bad guys and boozing. So when a judge rakes him over the coals in front of a crowded courtroom, calling him a lowlife killer who doesn’t belong in a civilized world, Hammer can’t forget it. As he’s driving he gets a look at himself in the rear view mirror, and hates what he sees.

I used to be able to look at myself and grin without giving a damn about how ugly it made me look. Now I was looking at myself the same way those people did back there. I was looking at a big guy with an ugly reputation, a guy who had no earthly reason for existing in a decent, normal society. That’s what the judge had said.

I was sweating and cold at the same time. Maybe it did happen to me over there. Maybe I did have a taste for death. Maybe I liked it too much to taste anything else. Maybe I was twisted and rotted inside. Maybe I would be washed down the sewer with the rest of all the rottenness sometime. What was stopping it from happening now? Why was I me with some kind of lucky charm around my neck that kept me going when I was better off dead?

That’s why I parked the car and started walking in the rain. I didn’t want to look in that damn mirror any more.

Go thou and do likewise.

Lust, Football and Fiction

by James Scott Bell

Remember when sports used to be about winning a trophy? Not a participation trophy, which didn’t exist until about thirty years ago. A trophy was supposed to be something you earned.

An athlete wins a letter by meeting a playing-time requirement. I remember winning my letter at ol’ Taft High. How proud I was. I could now rightly don the vaunted letterman’s jacket with leather sleeves and all. A big T was stitched on the jacket, to which I could add pins for certain accomplishments. When I was elected captain, I got to stitch a star to the triceps part of the sleeve.

Back then, jackets and letters and trophies were rewards on the merits. They were an incentive to strive, work hard, do your best.

How times have changed.

We just concluded the NFL draft in—fittingly—Las Vegas. Fitting because a Nevada sex worker offered the #1 pick another kind of “award”—a professional tumble, for free.

How inspirational! Another incentive for all you kids out there to work hard at your sport!

Pardon me as I try to hold down my breakfast.

Ah, but I am most happy to report that this year’s #1 pick, Travon Walker (DE, Georgia) sounds like a class act who will not be taking up the offer. In his video interview he paid homage to his Marine father for discipline and his schoolteacher mother for his grades. And thanked God for them both.

Go forth, young man, and be a star!

Now let’s talk about lust.

Lust—held the poets and philosophers, seers and sages—is the strongest and deadliest of the passions. It gets first place in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Lust, anger and greed, these three are the soul-destroying gates of hell.”

Or as Chaucer put it in Canterbury Tales:

Foul lust of lechery, behold thy due.
Not only dost thou darken man’s mind,
But bringest destruction on his body too…

Which is why lust is such a powerful fire in fiction. It is the force behind every femme fatale in noir, and almost exclusively the downfall of the male. Think of slick insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity, or lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) in Body Heat. Think of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, caught in the alluring web of the devious Brigid O’Shaughnessy even as he knows he must deliver her to the cops.

Lust in fiction is not the sole purview of the male, of course, as certain romance covers aver. Those six-pack abs and low-rider jeans do not betoken Sunnybrook Farm. And though I’ve never read it, isn’t lust the entire driving force of Fifty Shades of Grey? (I prefer the Amish version, Fifty Shades of Hay.)

Thus, lust is a potent source of inner conflict, and inner conflict bonds reader to character.

At the end of The Maltese Falcon, Spade has to fight his passion for Brigid, the murderess of his partner, and his inner conflict is evident in what he tells her:

“I won’t play the sap for you.”

“Don’t say that, please.” She took his hand from her shoulder and held it to her face. “Why must you do this to me, Sam? Surely Mr. Archer wasn’t as much to you as—”

“Miles,” Spade said hoarsely, “was a son of a bitch. I found that out the first week we were in business together and I meant to kick him out as soon as the year was up. You didn’t do me a damned bit of harm by killing him.”

“Then what?”

Spade pulled his hand out of hers. He no longer either smiled or grimaced. His wet yellow face was set hard and deeply lined. His eyes burned madly. He said: “Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around—bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

“You’re not serious,” she said. “You don’t expect me to think that these things you’re saying are sufficient reason for sending me to the—”

“Wait till I’m through and then you can talk. Fourth, no matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows with the others. Next, I’ve no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to. That’s five of them. The sixth would be that, since I’ve also got something on you, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day. Seventh, I don’t even like the idea of thinking that there might be one chance in a hundred that you’d played me for a sucker. And eighth—but that’s enough. All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won’t argue about that. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”

“You know,” she whispered, “whether you do or not.”

“I don’t. It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won’t. I’ve been through it before—when it lasted that long. Then what? Then I’ll think I played the sap. And if I did it and got sent over then I’d be sure I was the sap. Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell–I’ll have some rotten nights—but that’ll pass. Listen.” He took her by the shoulders and bent her back, leaning over her. “If that doesn’t mean anything to you forget it and we’ll make it this: I won’t because all of me wants to–wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it—and because—God damn you—you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others.” He took his hands from her shoulders and let them fall to his sides.

Spade set the edges of his teeth together and said through them: “I won’t play the sap for you.”

She put her mouth to his, slowly, her arms around him, and came into his arms. She was in his arms when the door-bell rang.

That’s why The Maltese Falcon is a classic and not another run-of-the-mill detective story. It’s not just about greed and murder. It’s about a man’s soul torn between two savage passions—lust and duty.

Is any of that going on in any of your characters?

A Neat Trick For the Act Two Slog

by James Scott Bell

Stephen J. Cannell

The late Stephen J. Cannell was a hugely successful TV writer and developer. Among his hit shows were The Rockford Files, The A-Team, and 21 Jump Street. Later, Cannell became a bestselling novelist, writing stand-alone thrillers and a series featuring LAPD Detective Shane Scully.

Cannell held the Three-Act structure to be foundational. He wrote:

What is the Three-Act structure? Often, when I ask a writer this question I am told that it is a beginning, middle and an end. This is not the answer. A lunch line has a beginning, middle and an end. The Three-Act structure is critical to good dramatic writing, and each act has specific story moves. Every great movie, book or play that has stood the test of time has a solid Three-Act structure. (Elizabethan Dramas were five act plays, but still had a strictly prescribed structure.) The only place where this is not the case is in a one-act play, where “slice of life” writing is the rule.

Since we are not writing novels about having lunch, what do we need from each Act? It’s not complicated.

Act One = Getting the reader bonded with a Lead. Cannell put it succinctly: “Act One is a preparation act for the viewer or reader. They are asking who is the hero. Do I like this person? Is this guy a heavy? Do I care about the relationships? What is the problem for the hero? Is the problem gripping?”

Act Two = Conflict gets progressively more difficult. Here Cannell suggests that a bit of backstory suddenly revealed can be used to create complications. E.g., the baby the woman thought was her own when she left the hospital in Act One was actually switched by a nurse. He also reminds us that both protagonist and antagonist must be in motion, making moves to try to gain the advantage, not “standing around.” At the end of Act Two, things are looking dark for the Lead.

Act Three = An ending can be upbeat or downbeat, but it needs to clearly resolve the story problem.

As we all know, that long Act Two can frequently become a slog. There are many possible reasons why this happens, which we don’t have time to go into here (I will modestly suggest that Plotman, superhero of the writers’ world, has the answers). Cannell suggests one way to get you going again:

Once we get past the complication and are into Act Two, we sometimes get stuck. “What do I do now?” “Where does this protagonist go from here?” The plotting in Act Two often starts to get linear (a writer’s expression meaning the character is following a string, knocking on doors, just getting information). This is the dullest kind of material. We get frustrated and want to quit.

Here’s a great trick: When you get to this place, go around and become the antagonist. You probably haven’t been paying much attention to him or her. Now you get in the antagonist’s head and you’re looking back at the story to date from that point of view.

“Wait a minute… Rockford went to my nightclub and asked my bartender where I lived. Who is this guy Rockford? Did anybody get his address? His license plate? I’m gonna find out where he lives! Let’s go over to his trailer and search the place.” Under his mattress maybe the heavy finds his gun (in Rockford’s case, it was usually hidden in his Oreo cookie jar). His P.I. license is on the wall. Now the heavy knows he’s being investigated by a P.I. Okay, let’s use his gun to kill our next victim. Rockford gets arrested, charged with murder. End of Act Two.

See how easy it works? The destruction of the hero’s plan. Now he’s going to the gas chamber.

Boom! (Of course in Act Three Rockford gets out of it. This is a series, after all!)

I call Cannell’s trick the “shadow story.” The shadow story is what goes on “off screen” (or “off page” if you will). I like to make shadow story notes to myself throughout he writing (I use Scrivener for this, but you can also use the Comment function in Word). Just pause every now and then and ask what the main characters not in your current scene are doing and planning. What are their motives? Secrets? Desires?

Your shadow story will give you more than enough plot material to get you through that long middle portion of your novel.


On Symbols and Motifs

by James Scott Bell

Happy Easter. Happy Passover. Happy Sunday. Whether you worship, play, or simply lounge around, may you feel renewed and refreshed this day.

We’ll be having a family feed with the grandboys, complete with Easter egg hunt. Which invites the question: What’s the deal with eggs and bunnies? How did those things become symbols of the season?

It’s a fascinating inquiry. In the pre-Christian era, eggs were part of the fertility lore of the Indo-European races. In Persia, eggs were presented at the spring equinox, which represented the start of a new year.

At some point in the Middle Ages, the egg was incorporated into the Christian observance of Easter as a symbol of new birth. Added to it was the practice of coloring the shells. As one tongue-tangled minister put it to his congregation some years ago, “In honor of Easter, Edna Johnson will step forward and lay an egg on the altar.”

What about the Easter bunny? Well, bunnies are certainly fertile. That symbolism goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. But that’s probably not why they’re associated with Easter.

It seems it was German Protestants who came up with the Osterhase (“Easter Hare”), a friendly rabbit who brought sweets to good little boys and girls. The kiddies would prepare “nests” for the Osterhase out of straw inside hats—thus, the Easter basket. When the Germans came to the American Colonies, they brought this tradition with them, and it eventually caught on. In the 19th century, the Easter egg hunt, leading to a basket of goodies, became a motif—a repeated pattern.

So let’s talk symbolism and motifs because, when well executed, they deepen the reading experience in a powerful yet subliminal way. It’s something the readers feel (it’s for the lit professors to analyze).

Two of the most famous literary symbols come from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. First is a billboard:

But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.  

This is a symbol of divine omniscience, keeping watch over the questionable morality of the characters. Does Dr. Eckleburg watch us, too? The reader feels the question.

The other symbol is the green light on Daisy’s dock. The first time the narrator, Nick Carraway, sees Jay Gatsby it is at night and from a distance.

But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

Gatsby is longing for Daisy. The Daisy of his past, to be exact, and a Daisy that will forever elude him. After Gatsby’s death, Nick reflects:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

A motif is a repeated image or phrase. Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It is a novella in which water is a central motif. It begins: In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana . . .

From the start we have a connection between water and religion and family (not to mention the symbolic significance of fishing). The river becomes the central image repeated throughout the story. When the narrator watches his brother fly fishing from a boulder, he reflects “the whole world turned to water.”

At the end, the narrator tells us “all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time . . . .I am haunted by waters.” The motif was literal at the beginning, symbolic at the end. It frames and defines the story.

Janet Fitch weaves symbols and motifs into White Oleander. The oleander plant—tough, attractive, poisonous—represents Astrid’s mother. The tomato plant “groping for a little light” signifies Astrid herself as she faces various trials. These elevate the story from a collection of plot incidents to a commentary on life, love, and human resiliency.

So why not work a little symbolism or motif into your fiction? You can come at it from different directions. If you’re a planner, you can spend some time brainstorming possibilities. If you pants your way through a draft, you can go back and look at what you’ve got, searching for symbols your muse may have fed you.

If you write with rich, sensory details (as Reavis demonstrated yesterday), you have a lot of possibilities.

Try this: Make three columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, record the details that stand out in your scenes. In the middle list your main characters. In the last, catalogue the significant settings.

Now look for connections within the columns. Connect a detail with a character and place. Or work the other way, from place to character to detail. Pick the strongest two or three connections, and see if you can weave them into your plot.

Have you considered using symbolism or motif in your books? You should try it. All it takes is a little extra thought, and the ROE (Return on Energy) is entirely worth it for the one who matters most—the reader.

Note: Part of this post is adapted from Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books) and is used by the kind permission of the author.

The Joy of Making Stuff Up

by James Scott Bell

“Once upon a time,” I told my two oldest grandboys, “there were two baby monsters. One was green and one was blue. They lived in a cave with their mom and dad…”

I had no idea what I would say next (Papa was pantsing and the pressure was on). Their eyes were riveted on me, with that expression children get when they are not really looking at you but at the pictures forming in their imaginations. There is nothing so precious as that look, and it was my task to keep it there.

Trouble being the key to plot, I got those baby monsters out of the cave and lost in the city (notice the urban landscape. I have too much noir in my bones to go bucolic). The trouble kept increasing—a truck almost hit them! A robber almost shot them! A building fell down around them!—until, finally, a stout-hearted policeman helped them get back home.

The boys were enraptured to the end. Then came my reward: “Tell us another story, Papa.”

Ah, the pure joy of making stuff up.

We’ve had several discussions over the years here at TKZ about why we write. Is it for love or money or a combo of both? (See, e.g., Debbie’s post on this topic and the comments thereto). Today I’d like to focus on another reason: pure, unadulterated joy.

Those of us who’ve labored inside the walls of the Forbidden City, where deadlines loom like nimbus clouds, know it’s not always fun and games. The beast of profit must be fed and the wolf of canceled contracts howls outside the gates.

For indies, there is business to attend to, with its expansive list of non-writing tasks. The demand to be prolific can dilute the simple joy of making stuff up.

Wherever you are in your writing, it’s crucial to find ways to nurture that joy. Getting into “the zone” when we work on our WIP is one way, though it’s hard to systematize. Some days the writing pours out of you; other days it’s like slogging through the La Brea Tar Pits in snowshoes. When I’m in the pits I find that doing some character work is the ticket back into “flow.” I’ll stop and do some thinking about one or two of the characters, and it doesn’t matter who they are—main, secondary, or a new one I make up. A bit more backstory, a secret held, a relationship hitherto unnoticed—in a little while I’m excited to dive back in.

That’s for my main work, full-length fiction. But I also take time for flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, and (as Steve mentioned yesterday) novellas. These I do these purely for fun. I don’t think about markets or editors or critics. It’s just me and my writing and new story worlds.

The nice thing is that even if a shorter work stalls out (it rarely does, for there is almost always a way to make things work) the exercise itself is good for my craft as a whole. It keeps me sharp and in shape. I write short fiction the way Rocky Marciano used the heavy bag. No one was ever in better shape than Marciano, which is why he was the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history.

I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating here:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. — Clayton Meeker Hamilton, A Manual of the Art of Fiction (1919)

I certainly had a good time writing a series of six novelettes about a Hollywood studio troubleshooter in the 1940s. These were originally written for my Patreon group, but the response was so positive I decided to put them all together in a collection which, coincidentally (how could I have known?) releases today!

TROUBLE IS MY BEAT is out now at the deal price of $2.99 (it goes up to $4.99 at the end of the week). For readers outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B09V1RLXDM

Which brings up the joy of sharing your work. You can do that now in many ways. And if you’ve had fun in the writing, there’s a good chance you’ll have the fun of making new readers. You may even get a message along the lines of, “I just discovered your books! I love them! Keep writing, please!”

Why, that’s almost as good as, “Tell us another story, Papa.”

And that’s how I see the joy of making stuff up. How about you? Do you experience this often yourself? Does it come and go? How do you get it back when it takes a powder?