About James Scott Bell

International Thriller Writers Award winner, #1 bestselling author of THRILLERS and BOOKS ON WRITING. Become a Patron!

Scene and Un-Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page critique raises the question of what makes a scene…and what doesn’t. Let’s have a look:

  1. The Envelope

Vanessa’s eyes watched the second-hand tick it’s way around the clocks face. The odor of furniture polish drifted into her nostrils as she sat alone at the conference room table. From the second floor, she had a clear view of the Bay Bridge. She took deep breaths as she watched the traffic.

Vanessa swiveled around when the conference room door opened. She witnessed Lindsey Harper, one of the firm’s secretaries, slam a water jug on the table. Lindsey then turned around and calmly walked out of the room. Vanessa blotted the spilled water off her client’s file. Then she opened the voice recorder app on her phone and placed it on the conference room table.

She had five more minutes to wait before her four o’clock appointment with Mr. Henderson. He needed legal representation as the police viewed him as the prime suspect in his wife’s murder.

Vanessa leaned back in her chair and looked through the glass partition at unoccupied desks. Most of the staff at Anderson & Smith LLP had gone home for the weekend. Even her boss, Mr. Smith, had left the office. She then exhaled before she folded back the cover on his file. She knew the crime scene photographs were gruesome. Her job as a criminal paralegal meant that she had to gather and examine the evidence.

Vanessa had worked at Anderson & Smith LLP, one of the top criminal law firms in San Francisco, for over two years. She earned her four-year degree in criminal justice from San Francisco State University. She attended forensic classes in college, and then she discovered she had no stomach for viewing dissected bodies.

Her job as a criminal paralegal on occasion took her to a crime scene. But usually, the Coroner had already removed the victim’s body.

The police viewed their client, Mr. Henderson, as a prime suspect in the brutal murder of his wife. He claimed to be home all evening, on the night of his wife’s murder, but there were no witnesses to confirm his story. Their live-in maid had taken a three day weekend to visit her sister in San Jose. The victim’s blood was all over the crime scene. Yet the police report stated that their client had no traces of blood on his clothes when the police arrived at his home.

***

JSB: Before we discuss the text, I want to say something about chapters with titles. I don’t like ’em. They might be okay for juvenile fiction, but I don’t see any gain in adult genres. It doesn’t do anything to motivate me to read on. Indeed, I never think about or even remember a chapter title as I read the actual chapter. It’s just clutter, and who needs that? (Give me your feedback in the comments.)

On to the text. We’re going to talk about the difference between an active scene, and exposition and backstory. A scene shows us action on the page; exposition and backstory tell us things about the story and characters. These latter elements are fine in their place, but their place is not on the opening page. (If you’re unclear about show and tell, I suggest you read Kris’s great post on the topic, and do some more self-study until you’ve got this issue nailed. It is absolutely essential for your success as a writer.)

Here, the first paragraph gives us a scene set-up, which is fine:

Vanessa’s eyes watched the second-hand tick it’s way around the clocks face. The odor of furniture polish drifted into her nostrils as she sat alone at the conference room table. From the second floor, she had a clear view of the Bay Bridge. She took deep breaths as she watched the traffic.

A couple of quick notes: clocks should be clock’s. I do like that you used the sense of smell. It’s underutilized in fiction. We then have Vanessa watching the traffic through the window. It’s a nice way to tell us we’re in San Francisco, but isn’t she looking at the clock? Simple fix. She can be listening to the clock. Or she can turn her head to look out the window.

These small physical matters are important. Many a time I’ve had an editor tell me that a character who had sat down early in a scene was now walking around. Readers notice these little speed bumps.

Vanessa swiveled around when the conference room door opened.

Here’s another speed bump and it comes from the misordering of stimulus and response. We never want to invert these. In the sentence above, the stimulus is the door opening. The response is Vanessa swiveling around. She should hear the door open and then swivel.

The great writing teacher Jack Bickham (whose book I credit with setting me on the road to publication) explains that a stimulus is something external, as if we were seeing or hearing it in real time. The response must also be external, something physical (note: dialogue counts as physical). And these must be in the right order.

Not: Audrey yelped. A shot had just been fired.

But: A shot rang out. Audrey yelped.

Moving on:

She witnessed Lindsey Harper, one of the firm’s secretaries, slam a water jug on the table.

We’re starting to slip out of vivid, active writing now. This sounds like the author telling us what has happened. Scene writing needs to sound like it’s happening in right in front of us: Lindsey Harper, one of the firm’s secretaries, slammed a water jug on the table.

See the difference? And notice you don’t need to tell us Vanessa witnessed the action. If it’s happening on the page, and we’re in her POV, it’s a given that the scene is played out through her eyes.

Lindsey then turned around and calmly walked out of the room. Vanessa blotted the spilled water off her client’s file. Then she opened the voice recorder app on her phone and placed it on the conference room table.

Too bad Lindsey left, because she’s another character, has just done something annoying, and that’s fodder for conflict. If you’re not showing us some form of conflict, you’re either not writing a scene…or the scene you’re writing is a yawner.

She had five more minutes to wait before her four o’clock appointment with Mr. Henderson. He needed legal representation as the police viewed him as the prime suspect in his wife’s murder.

This is pure exposition, the author telling us what’s happening, and why. I have a little axiom: act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for information if something interesting is happening. What if Lindsey had hung around and we got this instead:

Lindsey slammed the water jug on the table. Some water splashed out, landing like raindrops on the client file.

“Hey!” Vanessa said. “Careful.”

“He’ll be here in five minutes,” Lindsey said.

Vanessa grabbed a couple of tissues from the box on the table and started sopping up the water.

“Show him right in when he gets here,” Vanessa said.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.” 

Lindsey shrugged and put her finger on one of the water drops on the table. “I just thought…”

“Thought what?”

“Because of what happened last time.”

I don’t know what they’re talking about, of course, because I’m not the author. But I do know this is a scene and that I want to read on to find out what’s happening!

Let’s skip to this:

Vanessa had worked at Anderson & Smith LLP, one of the top criminal law firms in San Francisco, for over two years. She earned her four-year degree in criminal justice from San Francisco State University. She attended forensic classes in college, and then she discovered she had no stomach for viewing dissected bodies.

This is exposition combined with backstory. It should now be clear to you that it’s not a scene happening in “real time” on the page.

The police viewed their client, Mr. Henderson, as a prime suspect in the brutal murder of his wife. He claimed to be home all evening, on the night of his wife’s murder, but there were no witnesses to confirm his story. Their live-in maid had taken a three day weekend to visit her sister in San Jose. The victim’s blood was all over the crime scene. Yet the police report stated that their client had no traces of blood on his clothes when the police arrived at his home.

All tell. “But,” you say, “readers need to know all this to make sense of the scene!”

Nay, not so.

Indeed, it’s better to hold back as much information as you can, as it creates immediate mystery. Readers will keep reading to find out what’s going on.

So when and how do you reveal crucial information? Here’s one technique: confrontational dialogue. In a tense exchange it’s easy and natural to slip in some exposition. Let’s put Mr. Henderson in the room with Vanessa:

“Let’s get this over with,” Henderson said.

“This is going to take a little time,” Vanessa said.

“You have twenty minutes.”

“Mr. Henderson, they’re going to charge you with murder. I think we need—”

“I didn’t do it.”

“And that’s why we have to—”

“Do you think I did it?”

His slate-colored eyes glared at her.

“I’m just gathering information,” she said.

“Not what I asked.”

Vanessa’s throat clenched. She took a breath and said, “You’re our client.”

“You think I took a butcher knife and cut my wife to pieces?”

By substituting dialogue for pure exposition, you are forcing yourself to write an active scene, which is the basic unit of readable fiction. So remember:

  • Act first, explain later
  • Keep stimulus-response transactions in proper order
  • With the exception of necessary description, try nixing all exposition and backstory on the opening page
  • Set the crucial information inside tense dialogue

All right! That’s enough for today. Over to you, TKZers. If you have some suggestions for our author on the submitted text, please chime in.

***

If you want more in-depth fiction craft teaching, my one-day seminar “Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down” is on special right now. Usually $197, we’ve knocked $100 off the price. Check it out here!

12+

Why You Don’t Feel Like Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

As Yogi Berra once observed, “90% of the game is half mental.” That’s why I wrote a book called The Mental Game of Writing. We have to master the space between in our ears in order to produce our best work on the page.

I’ve noticed many blog posts over the last five months talking about what a struggle it is to write in Virus World. These writers talk about a lack of energy, spark, interest, creativity. The feeling is described in a post by Peter Olson: “A frustrating sense of ‘molasses’ clogging your thoughts. A fatigue you just can’t seem to shake. Feeling ‘tired’ or ‘worn-out’ as you … journey through normal days that simply don’t feel as normal as they should.”

Every now and then a scribe wonders if there’s something wrong with them. Do they really want to do this anymore? Is the joy gone for good?

Turns out there’s an understandable, biological reason you feel this way. Your brain is experiencing “culture shock.” From the above article:

When someone moves to a completely new culture, many of the ‘autopilots’ your brain uses for thousands of small decisions every day become ineffective. In a similar way, your current environment has likely changed sufficiently enough that many of your own ‘autopilots’ are no longer working. When this happens, the next remaining option for your brain is to use a second decision-making process that requires far more effort and energy (glucose) to operate. Your body can only supply glucose to your brain at a certain rate – a rate far below what would be required to use this kind of thinking continually. Thus, additional thinking about routine matters has likely left you with a chronically depleted level of glucose in your brain. All to say: You are experiencing “culture shock”.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, explains how our brains work in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Here is a summary:

  1. Your brain is a great decision-making engine.
  2. Your brain has two distinct processes it uses to make decisions.
  3. One of these systems operates quickly and automatically and does not require much energy.
  4. One of these systems operates slowly and deliberately and requires a lot more energy.

Kahneman gave names to the two processes your brain uses. He called one the “fast” system. This kind of thinking has also been called the “subconscious” system. The other he called our “slow” system. “Slow” thinking is what you are doing when you say that you are “thinking” about something.

What’s happening is that our brains have to do a lot more “slow” thinking these days. We used to just run out to the store for groceries with a simple routine: Park the car, get out (without fiddling with a mask), grab a cart, stroll around, thump a cantaloupe, look over the meats, etc. But now we have to think about masks, distance, touching, not touching, hand sanitizing, keeping an eye on that guy coming down the aisle and keeping our feet on the floor stickers in the checkout line. Thus, even this once innocuous little slice of your life drains your brain.

Think of “slow thinking” a bit like ‘turbo’ from the old video games. You need it to power through some parts of life. But use it all and you’ll need to wait for it to come back again. This is why you have perhaps said that your brain feels ‘tired’ after a long meeting, an intense discussion, or after much studying. That ‘tired’ feeling is your brain calling for a break so it can replenish the sugar it just used up.

***

Hundreds of times every day we are now facing moments where fast & cheap was handling your decisions for you … but can’t anymore. Last year greeting a friend didn’t require us to use the limited capacity of slow thinking. But now it may. With many of our autopilots disabled, we are facing a world where we are being forced to think in ways we are not accustomed to. And it’s draining your brain of capacity you used to have for other – more meaningful – things.

Meaningful things like writing!

Or maybe somewhere in your tired brain there’s a voice whispering that fiction is really not all that meaningful.

Shut that voice down! People need stories more than ever. We are the ones to lighten the load of our fellow citizens dealing with the stark, often irrational, and sometimes violent nature of current reality.

As Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Share that dram with your readers!

To avoid slow-brain sluggishness, let me suggest the following:

  1. Prioritize morning writing

Awaken, get your morning beverage, then write something. I know some of you claim not be “morning people,” but it’s morning and you’re a person, right? Instead of immediately hopping onto Facebook or Instagram, play with words.

I don’t care what words. Maybe it’s a scene in your WIP, but not always. Try jotting in a journal, or starting a short story based on whatever is in your mind at the moment (the Ray Bradbury Method). Don’t judge the words, just produce them.

I like writing flash fiction (under 1,000 words) and often use early mornings to start stories…some of which I may not finish. But that’s okay. It gets me in the writing mood.

  1. Quarantine the news and social media 

Decide when and for how long you’ll glance at the news and social media. The news can get you sad, mad or both within seconds. Social media is, in the words of Cal Newport, “digital fast food.” The instant Dopamine rush you get leads to a crash later, which may result in a massive case of the blues.

Really. Set a timer. Do anything to limit the input of these two stimuli.

  1. Get together with real people

This is a bit difficult in the California compound, where I often feel like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. In L.A. you can’t have some people over to enjoy a backyard barbecue, but you can have 6 people at your table at a restaurant with outdoor dining. Go figure.

So do what you can under the rules of your locality to get real with real people. We need flesh and blood interactions more than  Zoom and Skype.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to look for wire cutters and a motorcycle.

So how is your energy to write these days? Any tips on staying motivated?

19+

The Creative Energy of Crowds

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I miss crowds.

I miss a packed Dodger Stadium in the bottom of the ninth, the fans on their feet, stomping and screaming and willing a hit.

Or the Hollywood Bowl on a summer evening, be it jazz or Beethoven, as long as I’m there with my wife, a bottle of wine, and lots of people.

How about a Broadway theater? Nothing like being front row, center, for a hit like Chicago with the legendary Gwen Verdon (as I was one night long ago.)

Heck, give me Langer’s Deli at lunchtime as I munch their famous #19 pastrami on rye, with the chatter of random conversation all around me.

I miss the bustle of the streets in downtown L.A. and midtown Manhattan. Now those places look like something out of I Am Legend.

Will crowds ever come back? Will people ever rub shoulders again without masks or hypochondria?

Will big cities recover their beating hearts?

There’s a split of opinion on this. In a post that went viral, investor James Altucher says the New York he loved is dead, and will not rise from the grave:

Now [NYC] is completely dead. “But NYC always, always bounces back.” No. Not this time. “But NYC is the center of the financial universe. Opportunities will flourish here again.” Not this time.

“NYC has experienced worse”. No it hasn’t.

A Facebook group formed a few weeks ago that was for people who were planning a move and wanted others to talk to and ask advice from. Within two or three days it had about 10,000 members.

Every day I see more and more posts, “I’ve been in NYC forever but I guess this time I have to say goodbye.” Every single day I see those posts. I’ve been screenshotting them for my scrapbook.

This sentiment rubbed one Jerry Seinfeld the wrong way:

There’s some other stupid thing in the article about “bandwidth” and how New York is over because everybody will “remote everything.” Guess what: Everyone hates to do this. Everyone. Hates.

You know why? There’s no energy.

Energy, attitude and personality cannot be “remoted” through even the best fiber optic lines. That’s the whole reason many of us moved to New York in the first place.

You ever wonder why Silicon Valley even exists? I have always wondered, why do these people all live and work in that location? They have all this insane technology; why don’t they all just spread out wherever they want to be and connect with their devices? Because it doesn’t work, that’s why.

Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City. Feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t go to the theater for a while is not the essential element of character that made New York the brilliant diamond of activity it will one day be again.

I get the part about energy. As a writer who spends quite enough time alone at the keyboard, I love the electric current of crowds. Sometimes I want people around me—people I don’t even know, people who are just there at the coffee house, the park, the restaurant, the beach. There’s scientific proof (“The science!”) that such activity is an aid to creativity.

Yeah, I can fake it a bit with Coffitivity. But that’s no substitute for the vibe of a crowded ITW bar (especially when Gilstrap is present). I want to be able to sit in NY’s Bryant Park at twilight, and people watch. I want to nosh chop suey in L.A.’s Central Market at noon as the life of the city churns around me.

It would be nice to someday see faces again, too.

Alas, even when large halls and stadiums finally open up, they’re sure to be tightly regulated. (The power to tightly regulate is a drug not easily kicked.) In anticipation of this, I’ve composed a new song to sing at Dodger Stadium during the seventh inning stretch:

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the few.
Buy me some peanuts and Handi Wipes,
Keep me away from the talkative types
As I root, root, root in my face mask.
To sneeze or cough is a shame.
So stay six, eight, ten feet away
As I watch the game!

Do you miss crowds? Think they’ll ever come back?

15+

Have Your Characters Say What You Wish You’d Said

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We’ve all been there. We’re driving home from a party where we were engaged in robust conversation. Someone said something boneheaded and we thought, That was a boneheaded thing to say. But not wishing to hammer that very obvious nail, we did not reply.

Now, halfway home, it comes to us. The perfect comeback! Witty, wise, pithy. If only we could go back in time! We’d be like the legendary members of the Algonquin round table. (“He and I had an office so tiny, that an inch smaller and it would have been adultery.” – Dorothy Parker.)

There’s an entire Seinfeld episode based on this premise. George is at a Yankees’ board meeting where a platter of shrimp is served. He over-enthusiastically consumes the crustaceans, prompting another board member, Reilly, to remark, “Hey, George. The ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” The other members laugh. George can think of nothing to say in return.

Only later does he come up with what he thinks is the perfect comeback. “Oh, yeah? Well, the Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you!” George’s friends are not impressed and offer alternatives. “No!” George insists. “It’s Jerk Store!”

Now George has to elaborately recreate the encounter. Reilly has since moved to Akron, Ohio to work for Firestone. George sets up an entire meeting there to discuss a Snow Tire Day at Yankee Stadium. He also arranges for a platter of shrimp to be served. He starts stuffing his face, and sure enough, Reilly makes the same crack. George stands and fires his comeback, but is unprepared for the comeback to the comeback.

George: Oh yeah, Reilly? The Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you!

Reilly: So what? You’re their all-time bestseller!

Leaving George hung out to dry once again.

This fate does not have to befall your characters, for you have the luxury of time and reflection to give them wit on the spot.

Now, let me state up front that wit does not always mean funny. Many times it is, but the real basis of wit is sharpness. It gets the point across crisply, memorably.

For example, in Casablanca Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is talking to Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a low-level schemer. At one point Ugarte says, “You despise me, don’t you?”

Rick says, “If I gave you any thought I probably would.”

That’s sharp, memorable, and perfectly in keeping with Rick’s character.

Which is the key. You don’t want to force wit where it doesn’t belong. It needs to sound like smoothing the character would really say.

Curving the Language

I took a comedy writing class years ago taught by the late Danny Simon. Danny was Neil’s older brother and a veteran of the early days of television. Both Neil and Woody Allen credit Danny Simon with teaching them how to write narrative comedy.

One of Simon’s primary lessons was never to write “joke jokes.” The comedy had to be something the characters would actually say in the moment. So to make a line funny and memorable, he advised “curving the language.”

To do this, you write a line as it comes to you, which is usually in a plain-vanilla sort of way. Then you play with it—you curve it—until it takes on a wittier shape.

I’ll demonstrate with a line from a Lawrence Block short story. Two cops are talking about a suspect who is not exactly lovely to look at. One cop asks the other how ugly is this guy?

Now, the plain-vanilla line could have been, “Really ugly.”

Not very snappy, is it? How about, “God made him really ugly.”

Keep curving. “God made him as ugly as he could.”

Getting there, but not quite. The actual line in the story is:

“God made him as ugly as he could, then hit him in the face with a shovel.”

That’s golden.

As a rule of thumb, try to put one gem of a line in each of the four quadrants of your novel: Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, and Act 3. Each time it happens, the character will jump off the page.

So try this in your novel:

  • In each act identify several lines of dialogue where your character conveys strong emotion or opinion.
  • Curve the language of each line, making them snap and sparkle.
  • Check to make sure it doesn’t feel forced, but is in keeping with the character you’ve created. Choose and use the best ones!

Characters who “jump off the page,” who are full and rounded and, at times, unpredictable in what they both say and do, make for a truly memorable reading experience. That’s what makes fans out of readers!

 

This post is adapted from my new craft book, Writing Unforgettable Characters: How to Create Story People Who Jump Off the Page. It is available in PRINT, as well as KINDLE, KOBO, and NOOK.

21+

Writers I’ve Learned From: Erle Stanley Gardner

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Erle Stanley Gardner

A friend of mine sent me an article about the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner. Since he has been an influence on my own work, I thought I’d do a little reflecting on the man and his method.

Let’s start with work ethic. All the great pulp writers had to relentlessly hammer the keys in order to put food on the table. Get a load of this:

When he died, in 1970, Erle Stanley Gardner was the best-selling American fiction author of the century. He wrote 100,000 words a month for some fifty years. His New York Times obituary cited sales of more than 170 million books in the US alone, and reported his paperback publisher saying that in the mid 1960s they sold 2,000 Gardner books an hour, eight hours a day, 365 days a year.

From the 1920s on, Gardner produced an avalanche of pulp stories, novellas, cowboy yarns, science fiction, travelogues and several mystery series, on top of the 80 Perry Mason novels that cemented his fame and fortune, and won him fans such as Einstein (reported to be reading a Perry Mason novel on his deathbed), Harry S. Truman, and Pope John XXIII.

Early on, Gardner pounded manual typewriters. Sometimes his fingers would bleed and he’d tape them up and keep typing. Later he made copious use of the Dictaphone and a team of secretaries. This, I will note, did not result in deathless prose. But Gardner knew what buttered his bread:

“I write to make money, and I write to give the reader sheer fun. People derive moral satisfaction from reading a story in which the innocent victim of fate triumphs over evil. They enjoy the stimulation of an exciting detective story. Most readers are beset with a lot of problems they can’t solve. When they try to relax, their minds keep gnawing over these problems and there is no solution. They pick up a mystery story, become completely absorbed in the problem, see the problem worked out to final and just conclusion, turn out the light and go to sleep.”

Some years ago I decided to read several Perry Mason novels in order. What was it about Mason that caught on in such a big way? The first Mason is The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933). It didn’t take me long to see the appeal. It wasn’t just smarts Mason possessed. All series detectives have that (e.g., Holmes, Poirot, Marple). No, it was his dogged loyalty to his clients and his determination to fight for them to the bitter end. In a letter to William Morrow about the series he was contemplating, Gardner wrote:

I want to make my hero a fighter, not by having him be ruthless with women and underlings, but by having him wade into the opposition and battle his way through to victory. . . . the character I am trying to create for him is that of a fighter who is possessed of infinite patience. He tries to jockey his enemies into a position where he can deliver one good knockout punch.

Even more, Mason was a modern knight, with a code. As the article states:

Central to these novels is the idea of loyalty—Mason’s loyalty to clients and to the truth; Drake and Street’s loyalty to Mason. Such loyalty is integral to the code of King Arthur’s round table, and the Three Musketeers, whose motto is “All for one and one for all.”

Perry Mason—incorruptible, clever, dedicated, dogged—slots nicely into the Arthurian mould. His “grail quest” is the pursuit of justice on behalf of innocents unable to defend themselves; his jousting field is a courtroom. He is never unseated.

My series character Mike Romeo is, like Mason, a knight. When I was a wee lad I used to watch Perry Mason (starring Raymond Burr) with my lawyer father. The other influence from that time was Have Gun, Will Travel which starred Richard Boone as Paladin (paladin, n., a knight, a champion, a legendary hero). I wrote about that influence here.

So thanks to Mr. Erle Stanley Gardner for his example. Now all I have to do is write 100,000 words in the next four weeks…

Is there an author whose work ethic or professionalism has made in impression on you? How is your own writing practice during these challenging days?

12+

Notes From the Social Media Deportment Department

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Is it too late in the day, too quaint a notion, to revive an idea of social deportment your grandmother called being nice?

We all know social media is an unavoidable part of a writer’s branding and marketing. But we also know that the Sturm und Drang of contemporary culture and interchange is rife with anger, hate, bile, vituperation, ridicule, and scorn—and that’s on a good day.

There are many reasons to avoid becoming part of the hatestream, not the least of which is that it can mess you up mentally. People get addicted to hate and the Dopamine rush of spewing it. Day after month after year of that will shrivel a soul as surely as meth shrivels the brain.

These thoughts crossed my mind recently as I perused a book published in 1899. I get daily alerts from Gutenberg.org, the site that churns out ebook editions of public domain works. If I see a title that intrigues me, I’ll have a look. One such title was Twentieth Century Culture and Deportment by Maude C. Cook. Turned out to be a big tome on etiquette. And what is etiquette but rules of behavior that keep us from being boors, jerks, haters, and dopes?

You decide. Here’s a sampling:

Learn to govern yourself and to be gentle and patient.

Guard your temper, especially in seasons of ill-health, irritation, and trouble, and soften it by a sense of your own shortcomings and errors.

Never speak or act in anger.

Remember that, valuable as is the gift of speech, silence is often more valuable.

Do not expect too much from others, but forbear and forgive, as you desire forbearance and forgiveness yourself.

Never retort a sharp or angry word. It is the second word that makes the quarrel.

Beware of the first disagreement.

Learn to speak in a gentle tone of voice.

Learn to say kind and pleasant things when opportunity offers.

Study the characters of those with whom you come in contact, and sympathize with them in all their troubles, however small.

Think social media would be a tad different in tone if people took the above advice? More:

Never permit yourself to be drawn into an argument in general society. Nothing can be more provocative of anger on one side or another, or more destructive to conversation, than a lengthy and, too often, bitter argument. Good breeding would suggest that the subject be changed at once before the controversy becomes heated. Especially should any debate upon politics or religion be avoided as subjects upon which two seldom agree, but which are so close to the hearts of the majority as to cause serious annoyance if their pet beliefs are touched upon or questioned. Be careful, also, not to take the opposite side of every question that is brought up in conversation.

All this to say I know myself well enough to know I can too easily get sucked into a heated exchange. So I avoid them, especially on social media, which is the worst place on Earth to have a rational discussion on anything controversial. It is easier to be a balloon in a knife throwing contest.

So…be nice.

And just because I want to help, here’s some further advice from the book. Pass this along to your sons and daughters.

Romantic advice for women:

As to temper or disposition, the woman can easily gain some insight into the respective peculiarities of another’s temperament by a little quiet observation. If the gentleman be courteous and careful in his attentions to his mother and sisters, and behave with ease and consideration toward all women, irrespective of age, rank, or present condition, she may feel that her first estimate was a correct one. On the other hand, should he show disrespect toward women as a class, sneer at sacred things, evince an inclination for expensive pleasures in advance of his means, or for low amusements or companionship; be cruel to the horse he drives, or display an absence of all energy in his business pursuits, then is it time to gently, but firmly, repel all nearer advances on his part.

Romantic advice for men:

To a man who has become fascinated with some womanly ideal, we would say, if the acquaintanceship be very recent, and he, as yet, a stranger to her relatives, that he should first consider in detail his position and prospects in life, and judge whether or not they are such as would justify him in striving to win the lady’s affections, and later on her hand in marriage. Assured upon this point, and let no young man think that a fortune is necessary for the wooing of any woman worth the winning, let him then gain the needful introductions through some mutual friend to her parents or guardians.

Under the heading “Trifling”:

Still more reprehensible is the conduct of the man who insinuates himself into the affections of a young girl by every protestation and avowal possible, save that which would be binding upon himself, and then withdraws his attentions with the boastful consciousness that he has not committed himself.

***

Again, the young lady who willfully, knowingly, deliberately, draws on a man to place hand and heart at her disposal simply for the pleasure of refusing him and thus adding one more name to her list of rejected proposals, is utterly unworthy the name of woman.

Maybe the “old way” of doing things wasn’t so bad after all. What do you think?

14+

Do a Best Day and Worst Day For Your Characters

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Back when I was first learning how to write fiction, I concentrated on plot and structure. These were the parts of the craft that were most mysterious to me. I had no idea how the writers I enjoyed came up with twisting, turning plots that held delightful surprises and satisfying endings. I thought they just sat down and started typing, and therefore had an inner genius I lacked. I’d been told as much in college: “You don’t have any inner genius, Mr. Bell.” Okay, maybe not in those exact words, but it was implied. I was certainly told I couldn’t learn how to write great fiction. You either have it or you don’t, they said.

I apparently didn’t have it. So I went into a much more stable profession—acting. Then I got married (see last week’s post) and decided a steady income was actually a good thing, so I went to law school.

Some years later I saw Moonstruck and had to find out if I could, after all, learn to write.

It took me a year of study to get a handle on structure. During that year I was concentrating on screenwriting. My primary text was Syd Field’s Screenplay. I still remember the joy I felt when I finally started to see what was going on structurally, and then added to the mix my formulation of the “doorways of no return.”

So I wrote a screenplay (my fourth or fifth effort) based on what I learned. An up-and-coming Hollywood agent consented to read it.

I sent it to her.

And vividly remember the phone call. She told me the plot was good, but the script didn’t do it for her, because “the characters don’t jump off the page.”

After retrieving my heart from my shoes, I sat back and thought about her comment. Intuitively, I understood. After all, the movie that re-awakened my desire to write, Moonstruck, is full of characters who “jump off” the screen. Even the minor ones.

That’s what was missing in my screenplays.

So began another course of study to figure out characterization.

As usual, I got some craft books and re-read a few favorite novels with great characters. I studied and practiced and, lo and behold, landed a book contract. After a few years I began teaching workshops and writing my own books on the craft.

Here’s the new one: Writing Unforgettable Characters: How to Create Story People Who Jump Off the Page. (See below for pre-order info).

I’ve included a number of my workshop exercises in the book. One of my favorites is “Best Day, Worst Day.” I got this idea from the hit comedy City Slickers. Remember? Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby play three friends: Mitch, Phil and Ed. They are almost 40 years old and have come to a point where they look at their lives and think, Is this is as good as it’s ever going to get? Mitch is stuck in a job he hates. Phil is stuck in a terrible marriage. And Ed is stuck in a macho image hiding his insecurities.

So the three decide to get away from it all and go out West for a “real” cattle drive. They join with a few other tourists. And then meet the tough trail boss, Curly (Jack Palance, in an Oscar-winning turn).

The superb script (by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) is an example of what I call “orchestration.” You cast your characters so they are different enough from each other that conflict can naturally occur. This is especially important for your allies (characters on the same team).

At one point the three friends are riding along, and Mitch tells about the best day of his life (his father taking him to Yankee Stadium for the first time) and his worst day (the day a lump was found in his wife’s breast). Then:

Phil: All right, I got one. My best day—

Ed: This isn’t the one about Arlene and that loose step, is it?

Phil: No, my wedding day.

Mitch: What!

Phil: Yeah, remember that day? Outdoor wedding. Arlene looked great. Those water pills really worked. You guys were all smiling at me, and my dad, in the front, gives me a little wink, you know? I mean, he’s not the warmest of men, but he winked. I was the first one of us to get married and have a real job and I remember thinking, I’m grown up, you know? I’m not a goofball anymore. I made it. I felt like a man. That was the best day of my life.

Ed: What was your worst day?

Phil: Every day since is a tie.

Then the question is asked of Ed, who at first refuses to answer. But then:

Ed: I’m fourteen and my mother and father are fighting again, you know, because she caught him again. Caught him! This time the girl drove by the house to pick him up. And I finally realized, he wasn’t just cheating on my mother, he was cheating us. So I told him, I said, “You’re bad to us. We don’t love you. I’ll take care of my mother and my sister. We don’t need you anymore.” And he made like he was gonna hit me, but I didn’t budge. And he turned around and he left. Never bothered us again. But I took care of my mother and my sister from that day on. That’s my best day.

Phil: What was your worst day?

Ed: Same day.

That is just flat-out great dialogue. But for our purposes, it is also a fantastic exercise for deepening your characters before you render them on the page. The nice thing is you don’t have to put the material in your novel (though you certainly may). Just knowing it for yourself will automatically give you a better, more complex character. So brainstorm away, be ye plotter or pantser. You’ll be glad you did.

You’ll find more exercises like this in Writing Unforgettable Characters, which you can pre-order here:

KINDLE

KOBO

NOOK 

A print version will be also be available soon.

Why don’t we play half this game today in the comments? What was one of your best days or favorite memories?

11+

The Vision on the Stairway

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Forty years ago—today—I went to a birthday party for one of my best friends from high school. It was held in his second-story apartment in North Hollywood, and the place was packed.

At one point in the festivities I went downstairs to the courtyard to chat with a couple of buddies. We sat there chewing the proverbial fat, the subject of which I have long since forgotten. Then it happened. A glance that changed my life.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone bounding up the stairs toward the party. I turned. And saw a vision. If I may purloin Raymond Chandler’s line from Farewell, My Lovely: It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.

The Vision on the Stairway

To my courtyard companions I said, “I’ll see you later.” Up the stairs I went and into the apartment as my friend Daryl was hugging the vision, who had her back to me. Daryl saw me and silently pointed to her as if to say, This is the one I’ve been telling you about.

For several years Daryl had told me about a beautiful, funny, talented singer/actress he knew from a restaurant where they had both waited tables. Somehow I was never in the right place to meet her. Indeed, at the time of the party, I was living in New York, pounding the pavement as an actor. A strike by Actors’ Equity had dried up auditions, so I’d flown out to L.A. to see if I could drum up some work.

Daryl finished the hug and turned the vision around to meet me. I looked into her eyes for the first time and was a goner. Cupid used me for target practice.

Cindy—for that was, and is, her name—and I talked for a couple of hours, much of it over a bowl of peanut M&Ms in Daryl’s kitchen. We talked about Broadway and Sondheim and growing up in the San Fernando Valley. We shared funny anecdotes from our waitering stints. We even discovered we were on a similar spiritual journey. When Cindy mentioned she was thinking of attending church the next day, I adroitly suggested we go together and have brunch afterward.

Which is what we did.

Two and a half weeks later I asked her to marry me. Cindy wisely suggested we pump the brakes a bit. I cared not for brakes. I was doing 150 on the Ardor Motor Speedway. So I cajoled and coaxed. I even inveigled. And she finally said Yes.

Eight months later we were wed. It is still the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Astonishing, too, when I think of all the pieces that had to fall into place: Actors’ strike in New York, which is why I happened to be in L.A. Cindy told me later she almost didn’t make it to the party. She’d put in a hard day’s work performing with a song-and-dance troupe at Magic Mountain. She was just going to go home, but somehow missed her turn off the freeway and decided, what the heck, she was close to Daryl’s. She almost didn’t stay because there weren’t any parking spots on the street. But just before she drove off, one opened up. And then, of course, I happened to glance at the vision on the stairway at just the right time.

Life imitating art, wouldn’t you say? Our fiction is a series of moments that lead to other moments, a connecting of dots to form a pattern of our choosing. Forty years ago, a pattern chose Cindy and me. We’ve been working on that tapestry ever since, weaving in two children and three grandchildren.

This evening I will take my wife to a lovely, outdoor restaurant overlooking a lake. We will not talk of lockdowns or viruses or politics. We will talk—with gratitude—of forty years together. At one point I will mention, as I have many times in the past, that Cindy is a saint for being such a loyal life partner for one such as I.

And still a vision.

30+

Reader Friday: Writing From Emotions

Sue Grafton, Wikimedia Commons (Mark Coggins)

Before Sue Grafton hit with her alphabet series, she went through a bitter divorce. In an interview she said, “I used to lie in bed at night just thinking of ways to do him in. And I came up with some doozies. But I knew I was going to get caught at it because I credit the police with quite a bit of intelligence. And I knew I’d flub it. So I thought, why don’t I put this plot between the covers of a book and get paid for it? And that launched this whole new career.”

Have you ever written anything to more positively channel some of your, er, more antisocial emotions?

8+