About James Scott Bell

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

What is Originality?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Whenever my wife and I travel to the Bay Area, we try to pop over to Berkeley and nosh at the noted bistro Chez Panisse. Overseen by its co-founder, executive chef Alice Waters, it is credited with popularizing the style of cooking known as California cuisine.

I’m no specialist in things culinary, but I know what I like. And I like California cuisine. It takes familiar foods and spices and combines them in a way that is not overpowering to the palate. It’s sort of like being in a park on a sunny California day, the temperature not overpowering, and lots of happy things going on around you.

Which brings me to the subject of originality. I connect it to Alice Waters by way of this passage from Theme & Strategy (Writer’s Digest Books) by Ronald Tobias:

We say we prize originality above all else in art. Originality is the artist’s brilliance, that indefinable something that is distinctly the artist’s and no one else’s. What gets lost in all that praise of individuality is that originality is nothing more than seasoning added to stock. Seasoning gives distinct flavor, its character or charm, if you will, and seasoning gives the distinct taste that immediately identifies the dish as unique. But we forget that the foundation remains the same, and that the chef and the diner both rely on that fact.

A chef’s genius is not to create a dish from original ingredients, but to combine standard ingredients in original ways. The diner recognizes the pattern established in the foundation of a baked stuffed turkey, and we look for the variation, the twist that will surprise and delight us. Perhaps it’s in the glaze or in the stuffing, something that makes that turkey different from all the other turkeys that came before it.

As you develop an idea for a story, start with the foundation, the pattern of action and reaction that is plot.

In my workshops I’m sometimes asked how to keep plot and structure from devolving into formulaic writing. My answer is similar to what Tobias says above. And what Alice Waters would say. You don’t cook an omelet with a watermelon. If I want an omelet, I want it made with eggs in a pan with some ingredients and spices. What those add-ons are and how they are proportioned make up the distinctiveness–the originality if you will–of the dish.

In the same way, structure is the eggs. It’s what readers expect from a story. They don’t want to be confused or frustrated. Of course, an author is free to write experimental fiction, which is also known by its unofficial name, Fiction That Doesn’t Sell.

But if you’re in this to make some dough, you’ll use familiar ingredients but you’ll spice them up with your unique brand of characterization, dialogue, and voice.

The late, great writing teacher Jack Bickham wrote the following in Scene & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books):

Mention words such as structure, form, or plot to some fiction writers, and they blanch. Such folks tend to believe that this kind of terminology means writing by some type of … predetermined format as rigid as a paint-by-numbers portrait.

Nothing could be further from the truth

In reality, a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things, and allows her to concentrate her Imagination on characters and events rather than on such stuff as transitions and moving characters around, when to begin or open a chapter, whether there ought to be a flashback, and so on. Once you understand structure, many such architectural questions become virtually irrelevant — and structure has nothing to do with “filling in the blocks.”

Structure is nothing more than a way of looking at your story material so that it’s organized in a way that’s both logical and dramatic.

Don’t get ensnared by the ruinous idea that structure is the enemy of originality and this thing we call “story.” In fact, the opposite is true.

So become a great chef. Know your ingredients. Cook up a delicious tale by mixing the familiar with your unique blend of spices.

Your readers will eat it up.

What is your view of originality? What are some examples from writers you admire?

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Use NaNoWriMo to Repo Your Mojo

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Yes, it’s almost here, November—which is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This singular event challenges writers all over the world to complete a 50,000 word (or more) novel in only one month.

I’ve participated a few times in the past and produced a couple of published books out of it. (Not, I quickly note, without a lot of revision work!) While that is all well and good, there is perhaps a better reason for jumping in—to recapture the joy of writing.

I love the NaNo vibe. Writers writing. Newbies trying. Keyboards clacking. Coffee brewing. Possibilities awakening. It’s a major accomplishment to finish a novel. To do it in one month is astounding.

Of course, it’ll only be a first and very rough draft. But it will exist. You can let it sit for a month and then figure out what to do with it. One likely outcome is that you’ll use it as a “discovery draft” that now allows you to structure a re-write. Another is that the novel never sees the light of day. That’s fine, so long as you get some writing lessons out of it. Analyze the draft. Judge your craft. Make a plan to strengthen your skills.

At the very least you will have proved something to yourself. Unless you’re a full-time writer, averaging 1667 words a day is hard. Doing so for a month stretches you. When you get back to your normal rate of production, try to up it by 10% now that you’ve gone through NaNo.

Here are three other NaNo tips:

Plan

NaNoWriMo is catnip for pantsers. But a little planning (starting today) can make all the difference in your final product.

First, take a day to do some free-form journaling on your idea. Who it’s about, why it matters, why anybody should care. Jot down scene ideas that come to mind, in random order.

Second, take one day to define your concept with a three sentence “elevator pitch.” This will be your plumb line, what keeps you from getting too far away from the essence of your story. Even if you go down rabbit trails, you can use this to get yourself back on the main track. (On the form of an elevator pitch, see my TKZ post here.)

Finally, brainstorm a tentative “mirror moment” for your main character. This beacon of light will help you find your way if you get stuck in the dark.

Write

Check out my 10 tips for powering through NaNoWriMo.

Try to get a “nifty 350” words done the very first thing in the morning (or second, after you get the coffee going … hey, maybe invest in a coffee maker with a timer!)

Don’t edit your work except for a quick review of your daily pages. If you can do that review right before hitting the sack, so much the better. Your “boys in the basement” will work through the night and you can dive into writing the next morning.

Take Part

Go to NaNoWriMo.org and sign up. It’s free, and will give you access to “pep talks” and local groups of participants.

Even if you’re not going for a NaNoWriMo “win,” you can still use November to re-charge your writing batteries. Cheer others on via social media and get excited about their progress. Use that positive energy in your own writing. Set a November goal. Try upping your quota for the month. Or complete the development of a new project.

But whatever you do, do it with a sort of wild abandon. Be a “crazy dumbsaint of the mind,” as Kerouac put it. Repossess your writing mojo. Then spread that out for a year, when you’ll come up to November again!

Anyone planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year? How about your past experience with it? Any tips for those who are about to try?

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On Empathy

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The other day my laptop and I drove to a local caffeine establishment to do some work. The early morning rush was over and the place relatively quiet. A young woman was at the cash register with a customer. A young man, a little older than the woman, was working the espresso machine like Frank Morgan behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.

When it was my turn to order I stepped to the counter, but before I could say a word a look of shock came over the young lady. She looked directly at me and said, “Oh my God!”

I was so sure I’d shaved that morning.

But then she said, “Excuse me!” and spun around to face a couple of large coffee urns. She started to fiddle with one, but apparently didn’t know the tune.

The young man saw this and said, “What are you doing?”

Woman: “I forgot to change the [something].”

Man: “You don’t do it that way.”

Woman: “I saw [unintelligible] do it this way.”

Man: “Well, that’s not the way you do it. Look out.”

He began rearranging and replacing things on and around the coffee urns, the whole time rat-a-tatting at the young woman with transparent annoyance.

“That’s how,” he snapped when finished, then went back to steaming milk. The woman returned to the counter, her eyes literally downcast. When she finally looked up at me, the hurt in her face was palpable. She could have been my daughter. I heard myself say, “It’s all right.” Then I placed my order.

Now why did I say that? I didn’t plan it, it just popped out. I don’t think the answer is complicated—I was hit with a jolt of empathy.

Empathy, simply put, is the ability to understand another person’s feelings, to “step into their shoes” as it were. It’s a common human attribute unless a) you are a sociopath; or b) have conditioned yourself not to care by practicing hate, selfishness, or some other form of conscience-weakening.

Empathy is powerful. So much so that it’s the theme of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. As Atticus tells Scout, “You never really understand a person … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Empathy should be the theme of a writer’s life, too. You can’t really know your characters without it, and that includes the bad guys. Fiction that transcends the predictable and mundane is largely built, I would argue, upon layers of empathy. Those layers reach out from the page and connect to readers on an emotional level.

Which, of course, is what we’re going for. Fiction is an emotion-delivery system, not a lecture or jeremiad. Sure, you can have a message, but it won’t penetrate very deeply without character empathy.

Writers also need empathy for their readers, who are looking for escape into a story. Why? Because, as Wordsworth put it, “the world is too much with us.” We all need some relief in crazy times. If we can give that to a reader through our books, we’ve done more for that reader than a million characters of Twitter ever will.

So try this:

  • Create a childhood scene for every one of your main characters. In that scene confront them with one of the following: a bully, a pet that dies, an accident, a humiliation, a disappointment, a failure.
  • Write a diary entry from that character, describing in detail how she felt during and after the experience.

In the next scene you write, explore how that feeling might affect the way the characters in the scene treat each other.

Do the same throughout the book.

And in your life, too. Oscar Levant, the songwriter and TV curmudgeon of the 1950s and 60s, once remarked: “When I was young I looked like Al Capone, but I lacked his compassion.”

Don’t let that be your epitaph.

So how deeply to you identify with your characters … including the bad ones?

 

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Herd Your CATS

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all know that getting a reader inside a lead character’s head is one of the keys to compelling fiction. But it has to be done seamlessly so it doesn’t jerk us out of the narrative and put a crimp in the fictive dream.

Which means we have to learn to handle what I call “Character Alone Thinking Scenes” (CATS) in a deft manner.

The first issue is whether to begin the book with a CATS. As last Wednesday’s first-page critique demonstrated (in my view, at least) the answer should almost always be No.

Why? Because we have to have a little personal investment in someone before we can care deeply about their feelings.

Imagine going to a party and you’re introduced to a fellow with a drink in his hand. You say, “How are you?” and the guy says, “I’m really depressed, man, I wake up every day and the room looks dark and the sun never shines, even though it’s out there, and I don’t see it because of the dark dankness in my soul, and life has lost its meaning, its luster, whatever it was it once had for me when I was young and ready to take on the world. Ya know?”

AHHHH!!!!

Well, the beginning of a book is like walking into a party. The reader wants to meet interesting people. And interest is aroused by what people do. The way you catch readers from the start is through action and disturbance, not feeling and expounding.

I can’t tell you the number of manuscripts I’ve read over the years that did not begin with a real scene, but instead opted for the inside of a character’s head. What I usually do in such cases is flip the pages until I get to some dialogue, because that automatically means we’re in a scene. And 98% of the time that is the best place to start. (Sure, an argument can be made that a great style might be enough to carry the opening pages. But it better be truly great and truly brief.)

So, re: the opening—save your CATS for later.

Once you’re into the novel there are two types of CATS to herd—active and reactive.

In an active scene, the character is alone but with a major scene objective (something that materially relates to the plot), and thinks while trying to overcome whatever scene obstacles are in her way.

In a reactive scene, the character is alone with a chance to reflect. She may be thinking about what’s already happened in the story, or her current psychological state, or the other characters. When done well, reactive scenes strengthen our emotional bond with the character.

A couple of examples. The first is from Dean Koontz’s Intensity. A young woman named Chyna Shepherd is thrust into the dark world of serial killer Edgler Vess. After Vess murders a family (not knowing Chyna is in the house, too) Chyna sneaks into his motor home in the hopes of saving her best friend, whom Vess has dumped there. Alas, she’s dead. But it gets worse. Vess starts driving away and Chyna is trapped in the back of the motor home.

Her objective now is survival. She must keep her presence in the vehicle a secret, find an adequate weapon, and somehow kill or disable Vess. As she looks for a weapon she makes a grisly find—the body of a young man hanging in the small closet, his eyes and mouth sewn shut.

She pulled shut the pleated-vinyl panel. Though flimsy, it moved as ponderously as a vault door. The magnetic latch clicked into place with a sound like snapping bone.

In all the textbooks she had ever read no case study of sociopathic violence had ever contained a description of a crime sufficiently vivid to make her want to retreat to a corner and sit on the floor and pull her knees against her chest and hug herself. That was precisely what she did now – choosing the corner farthest from the closet.

She had to get control of herself, quickly, starting with her manic breathing. She was gasping, sucking in great lungfuls, yet she couldn’t seem to get enough air. The deeper and faster she inhaled the dizzier she became. Her peripheral vision surrendered to an encroaching darkness until she seemed to be peering down a long black tunnel toward the dingy motor-home bedroom at the far end.

She told herself that the young man in the closet had been dead when the killer had gone to work with the sewing kit. And if he’d not been dead, at least he’d been mercifully unconscious. Then she told herself not to think about it at all, because thinking about it only made the tunnel longer and narrower, made the bedroom more distant and the lights dimmer than ever.

She put her face in her hands, and her hands were cold but her face seemed colder. For no reason that Chyna could understand, she thought of her mother’s face, as clear as a photograph in her mind’s eye. And then she did understand.

To Chyna’s mother, the prospect of violence had been romantic, or even glamorous. For a while they had lived in a commune in Oakland, where everyone talked of making a better world and where, most nights than not, the adults gathered around the kitchen table, drinking wine and smoking pot, discussing how best to tear down the hated system, sometimes also playing pinochle or Trivial Pursuit as they discussed the strategies that might bring utopia at last, sometimes far too enraptured by revolution to be interested in any lesser games …

Koontz then gives us a page-and-a-half of backstory, filtered through Chyna’s perceptions and thus relevant to the present action. She’s alone, but moving toward her scene goal. Her thoughts—which in real time would flash through her mind but in fiction time are detailed—are part of the action.

Now let’s take a look at a reactive CATS. This is from John Fante’s classic Ask The Dust. Arturo Bandini is a young writer living a meager existence in L.A. He has just decided to he’s going to steal milk off a truck. In his dingy hotel room, he reacts to his decision:

The night came reluctantly. I sat at the window, rolling some cigarets with rough cut tobacco and squares of toilet paper. This tobacco had been a whim of mine in more prosperous times. I had bought a can of it, and the pipe for smoking it had been free, attached to the can by a rubber band. But I had lost the pipe. The tobacco was so course it made a poor smoke in regular cigaret papers, but wrapped twice in toilet tissue it was powerful and compact, sometimes bursting into flames. 

The night came slowly, first the cool odor of it, and then the darkness. Beyond my window spread the great city, the street lamps, the red and blue green neon tubes bursting to life like bright night flowers. I was not hungry, there were plenty of oranges under the bed, and that mysterious chortling in the pit of my stomach was nothing more than great clouds of tobacco smoke marooned there, trying frantically to find a way out. 

So it had happened at last: I was about to become a thief, a cheap milk-stealer. Here was your flash-in-the-pan genius, your one-story writer: a thief. I held my head in my hands and rocked back and forth. Mother of God. Headlines in the papers, promising writer caught stealing milk, famous protégé of J. C. Hackmuth haled into court on petty theft charge, reporters swarming around me, flashbulbs popping, give us a statement, Bandini, how did it happen?

The scene continues, with Bandini eating an orange, doing some typing, all the while thinking about his prospects as a writer. The chapter ends with Bandini making the milk snatch, giddily bringing the two bottles back to his room, opening one and taking a long drink. And immediately spitting it out. He’d stolen what he hated—buttermilk.

There should be activity in a reactive CATS. It is often innocuous (rolling cigarettes, eating oranges, typing) but it provides the space for emotion and analysis.

The big thing to know about CATS is that they are the best way to control pace. If you need to slow things down a bit, give us more thinking. If you need to pick up the pace, compress the thoughts.

In other words, learn to herd your CATS and the readers will lap up your fiction.

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The Weapon of Surprise

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page got me thinking about strategic decision making in fiction. That’s just a fancy way of saying that on occasion we need to step back, be objective, think about the overall plan, and be willing to give something up if it makes the whole thing better (which is where the admonition to “kill your darlings” comes from).

We writers are in a battle—for a reader’s attention. If the reader guesses where we’re heading, and we go there, said reader feels a twinge of disappointment. If that keeps on happening, the result is boredom and the battle is lost.

One of our primary weapons is surprise. When the unexpected happens on the page it delights readers. It pulls them more deeply into the story. It creates a mini-mystery. In my workshops I use the acronym SUES—Something Unexpected in Every Scene. It doesn’t have to be big (like a corpse dropping through the roof). It can be a small as a line of dialogue or a glimpse of something odd.

So let’s read this opening page and talk about it on the flip side:

Dark Elements

Sophia sipped her fish bowl-sized piña colada and wriggled her ring finger in the sun. The delicious princess-cut diamond fractured and rearranged the light, sitting on a platinum throne and presiding over her left hand like an ice queen. The sun was retiring to bed, and soon so would he. She lowered her sunnies and watched her fiancée hoist himself out of the pool, breathless after only two laps. He paused to recover under the shade of a palm. If she squinted her eyes long enough and let them go blurry, she could almost see what he would’ve looked like at her age. Almost. But that was a long time ago.

He towelled down his greying chest. I wonder if he knows, she thought, deep down surely he must know that I’m not marrying him for love. Maybe he thinks his sparkling personality has won me over, or his irresistible wit? Maybe he thinks I have a need for security, or some kind of daddy complex? Whatever it was, he wasn’t questioning it.

He came over to where Sophia lay on the sun bed, a polka dot bikini straining to cover her sensual curves.

“What did I do to deserve you, darling?” he said, kissing her forehead.

“You must’ve been a very good boy in a past life,” she said, smacking him on his wet speedo-ed bottom as he walked past. What was it with men and speedos? she thought, the older and more overweight the man, the smaller and more fluorescent the pair of speedos he tries to squeeze himself into.

Sophia herself had been a very bad girl in her past lives, and she was about to be bad all over again. She stretched her toned legs to check her tan and picked up a glossy magazine from the side table. As her lover boy went inside to shower, Sophia turned to a story about Kim Kardashian’s un-airbrushed butt, captured in its full glory on her recent holiday to the Bahamas. As she flicked through the uncompromising images, complete with dimples, cellulite and all, she smiled to herself. Not so perfect after all, are you? she thought, and for a fleeting moment she felt guilty for taking delight in another woman’s imperfections. But then again, celebrities aren’t really real people, are they?

Something stung Sophia’s ankle and she squished the first mozzie of the encroaching dusk. There’d be more where that came from, but she didn’t want to go inside just yet. She liked to milk every last minute of the dying sunlight out of these hot, lazy days. Daytime was her time, when she could do as she pleased while he was at work. Then in the evenings she felt like a B-grade actress, trying to play the role of the besotted fiancée with conviction.

At least it never got cold here, she thought. The nights were balmy and humming with cicadas as warm breezes tickled the tropical leaves. Kiralee Island felt wild, like anything could happen. Maybe she should wait a while longer, she thought, a few months at least, maybe even a year? What was the rush? The sex was surprisingly good, after all, and he was nice enough. She’d planned for next weekend, but it felt premature. You don’t pluck an under-ripe fruit from the tree just because you’ve become impatient, you wait for exactly the right moment. Yes, she could wait a while longer before she killed him.

***

JSB: Before I get to the editing, let me say up front that I like this voice. It’s got attitude, which is essential. It’s also funny and wry in its observations. All terrific qualities. But I suggest the strategy here ought to be reconsidered for one main reason: getting that last line to pop.

By the time we read before she killed him we already suspect this character. She’s a gold digger. She’s cold about it, too, mocking the guy’s personality and attempts at wit. Indeed, we are told outright she’s been a “very bad girl” in her past (lives).

So when we read the last line we’re not really shocked. It’s more like, “Oh, okay. She is taking this guy to the cleaners, and she’s also going to kill him. I could see that.”

What I suggest, then, is a rewrite of the page taking out all the on-the-nose references to her gold digging. And the snarky attitude toward the man. Keep the reader guessing about this relationship. Make the guy attractive. In fact, by using more dialogue, give us a reason to start liking the fellow.

And then, boom, drop the last line. Now you’ve got our attention. In fact, you’ve got us hooked.

The thing about voice, which everyone talks about but no one seems to be able to define (with, perhaps, one notable exception) is that when it’s good (as in this example) the author can easily overdo it. There’s a temptation to show it off at the wrong time (which is what I mean about strategy).

Thus, the observation about the Speedos (should be capitalized, as it’s a brand), while amusing, tells us we’re not exactly dealing with a warm personality. Again, that takes the surprise out of the last line.

The Kardashian bit seems forced and, by this time in our cultural zeitgeist, rather obvious. It feels like it’s in there only to be funny. Again, the temptation is to let voice show off at the expense of strategy. Voice should be in service to story, not the story itself. I say this because I really find this author’s voice has great potential. In fact, several times as I wrote this post I assumed the author was writing in First Person POV. When you can get a First feel into Third, you’re really on the right track with voice.

Now to some editing matters.

The sun was retiring to bed, and soon so would he.

Confusing, as the he seems to refer to the POV character, Sophia. I thought it was a typo. I’d just cut the entire line.

He towelled down his greying chest. I wonder if he knows, she thought …

Several times in this piece the author uses she thought when it is unnecessary. When we are firmly in the character’s POV, we don’t need it. The problem here is simply that we’re not firmly there. The fix is simply to get us into the character’s perspective with something like this:

She watched him towel down his graying chest. I wonder if he knows, deep down ….

Then you don’t need she thought. We know who is doing the thinking.

There are four other instances of she thought that can simply be cut.

He came over to where Sophia lay on the sun bed, a polka dot bikini straining to cover her sensual curves.

That’s a POV switch (“head hopping”) as the observance of the bikini is from his perspective, not hers.

Bottom line for me: The voice is promising, but I’d like it to be more seductive at first. Lull us into the scene so we’re really impacted by that last line. After that, there will be plenty of time for wry humor. Just don’t let that overtake your main task, which is to keep readers happily on edge from page one forward.

Okay, friends, take over from here. I’m traveling today so may not get a chance to comment. Help our brave writer out.    

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How to Cure Mid-Novel Sag

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The plot doctor is in.

I see the waiting room today is full of pantsers. They have that lost look in their eyes that usually appears in the middle of their first drafts.

One comes up to me and says, “Doc, I was having so much fun! I was writing along, letting the characters take me wherever they wanted to go. Now I’m forty thousand words in, and I’m frozen. I don’t know what to write next! Every choice seems like a rabbit hole! Help me, Doc, please!”

“Of course,” I say. “Just have a seat and—”

“Is there any hope?”

“Who’s your plot doctor, huh? Now just wait a moment and all will be well.”

There are plotters here, too. One approaches slowly, as if fearing recognition. He whispers, “Doc, I can’t figure out what went wrong. I had the whole thing mapped out and the pieces were falling into place. But the middle is sagging. Not enough oomph. What can I do, Doc?”

“Well, let me tell you—”

“Not so loud, Doc. I don’t want these pantsers giving me the raspberry …”

I’ve treated many such cases over the years. A cursory examination of the patient usually calls for three things: a shot, a couple of pills, and preventive measures.

1. The Shot

The first step is a shot of the potent “mirror moment” drug. I’ve seen immediate improvement to the eyes (which sparkle) and the mouth (which smiles or shouts Yesss!) after an injection.

The mirror moment gives the writer a new and powerful insight into what their novel is really all about. That illumination shines both backward (to the beginning) and forward (to the ending), stimulating new scene ideas and added character depth.

2. The Pills

Now I give the writer a couple of pills, with the following instructions: take the first one and see if that clears things up. Give it a few days to work. If, however, the symptoms persist, pop the second.

The Best Move Pill 

Step away from your manuscript. Go find a quiet spot or your favorite coffeehouse table, and use a pad and pen (I find this an aid to creativity).

Write down the names of every major and minor-recurring character in your novel.

Now, dedicate a page to each of these characters, answering the following question: Considering what this character wants out of the story, what is the best possible move he or she can make RIGHT NOW?

Please note that most of your characters will be “offscreen” at any given moment in your manuscript. That’s okay. They are not inert. They are in the process of planning, conspiring, sneaking, escaping, suffering … they are all doing or experiencing something. (When characters are offscreen, I call their activities “the shadow story.”)

This exercise will give you lots of plot material, scene ideas, and possible twists. See how it goes. After some time has passed if there is still significant sag, you have this:

The Guy With a Gun Pill

Raymond Chandler once wryly noted, “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Of course it does not have to be a literal man with a gun. It can be any character introduced in some surprising fashion. We’re not talking about a one-off character in a scene, but a recurring character who will add complications to the protagonist’s life.

When you place a new character in your story, you immediately inherit all of that character’s backstory, agendas, secrets, shadow story and so on. Additional scenes arise organically. As you create the new character, ponder a few questions:

  1. What can this character do to make life more difficult for my Lead?
  2. Can this character bear a secret that will upset my Lead’s applecart?
  3. Do they still make applecarts?
  4. Is there a hidden relationship this character can have with another in my cast?
  5. What is this character’s agenda?
  6. How far is this character willing to do to gain his objective?
  7. How can I give this character an even stronger motive?

Writers who dutifully take their medicine usually contact me in a few weeks to report being in the pink again. They have pep in their step and a twinkle in their eye, along with a few other clichés.

I am happy to hear it, but then I advise one further measure.

3. Preventive Medicine

If you want your heart to be healthy, you’ve got to eat healthier (and I never even went to med school!). Have you heard of Burger King’s new offering, the Rodeo Burger? It’s described as “two savory flame-grilled beef patties totaling more than ½ lb. of beef, topped with three half-strips of thick-cut smoked bacon, our signature crispy onion rings, tangy BBQ sauce, American cheese and creamy mayonnaise all on our sesame seed bun.”

I’m so there!

(Yeah, maybe once every three years.)

Anyway, I try to make my heart happy. It takes some discipline (e.g., steamed broccoli) and some hard work (e.g., actually eating the steamed broccoli).

Writing is no different. So if you’re a pantser, don’t be afraid of work and study. Get over the fear that any planning beforehand is stifling to your creativity. It’s not. You need to learn that surprises happen in the planning, too.

You plotters can continue to shore up your foundations with a growing knowledge of powerful story beats, which will allow you to leave a planned route for another choice. You can do that because you’ll know the next beat to write toward. You won’t be lost; you’ll be enjoying the trip!

Ah, the waiting room is clear. My work here is done. The doctor is out.

Do you often feel a sag in the middle of your manuscript? How have you solved that problem in the past?

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The Power of Decency in Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

If you’ve been in my workshops or read a few of my writing books, you know about the “pet the dog” beat. The name is not original with me, but comes from the old Hollywood screenwriters. Blake Snyder changed it to “save the cat.” So pet lover-writers can choose their preferred metaphor.

I have refined the concept to make it something more specific than merely doing something nice for someone. In my view, the best pet-the-dog moments are those where the protagonist helps someone weaker or more vulnerable than himself, and by doing so places himself in further jeopardy. Thus, it falls naturally into Act 2, usually on either side of the midpoint.

I think of Katniss Everdeen helping little Rue in The Hunger Games. Or Richard Kimble in the movie The Fugitive, saving a little boy’s life in the hospital emergency ward (and having his cover blown as a result).

David Janssen as The Fugitive

And speaking of The Fugitive, I’ve been watching the old TV series starring David Janssen. The show was a big hit in the 60s, and after watching a few I came to see that a big part of the reason is the pet-the-dog motif in almost every episode. There usually comes a time when someone is in need of medical attention. Kimble, therefore, has a dilemma. He can help and give away his medical skills (leading to suspicions about his background). Or he can quietly walk away.

What do you think this decent guy does?

An episode called “Fatso” will serve as an example. It’s a particularly good entry, directed by one of the best of that rare breed, the female Hollywood director—Ida Lupino.

Kimble (now using the name Bill Carter) has hitched a ride with a traveling salesman who is fighting off sleep. For safety’s sake, Kimble takes the wheel into the next town. Unfortunately, an errant driver forces Kimble to swerve and rear end a parked car.

Knowing the local cops will soon be on the scene, Kimble tries to sneak away, but is nabbed by the sheriff and arrested for fleeing the scene of an accident. They take his prints. Kimble, sitting in the clink, knows it’s just a matter of time before they identify who he is.

Jack Weston as David in “Fatso”

He shares his cell with a sad sack, an overweight drunk named David (played by that reliable character actor of the time, Jack Weston). When the sheriff comes to release David, Kimble socks the lawman and knocks him out. He heads for the door. David begs Kimble to take him along. They hop a train, heading for David’s boyhood home.

Meanwhile, Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), who is always one step behind Kimble, gets the report based on Kimble’s prints. He flies to Kentucky where all this is taking place.

Kimble learns that David, who everyone calls “slow,” wants to see his estranged father, who is dying on the horse ranch where he grew up. David is full of fear because of his father’s disapproval. Something happened in the past that caused his father to throw him out.

Kimble and David arrive at the ranch and are met by David’s younger brother, Frank. This guy is a real jerk. He calls David “Fatso” and needles him about that terrible thing that happened.

Frank is also suspicious of Kimble. Why would a guy like this befriend a loser like David?

As the episode goes on, with Gerard getting closer and Frank feeding the local sheriff his suspicions, Kimble tries to help David. Knowing that the only way David can become whole again is to confront the past, not run from it. To gain David’s trust, Kimble admits he’s a doctor. He then walks David through the night that the barn burned down and killed several horses. David was drunk and alone on the farm, and everyone, including David, is convinced he set the fire.

But Kimble does some digging and finds out that Frank was AWOL that night from the local army base. He presents this evidence to David’s father and mother. They confront Frank. He confesses. He set David up to get him disowned and out of the will.

David’s father asks for David’s forgiveness.

It’s all very redemptive, but there’s one problem: Gerard has just pulled up to the house with the sheriff!

The mother, played with gusto by that wonderful character actress Glenda Farrell, sends Kimble out the back door and proceeds to delay the investigators.

In each show’s epilogue, as we see Kimble disappear into the night, we hear the dulcet tones of one of the great voice-over actors, William Conrad, giving an ominous send-off. In “Fatso,” he says: “A Fugitive has to watch his step. Every step he takes, every hour, every minute, every second, any move he makes might lead to Death Row. There’s no way of knowing in advance. There’s never any way of knowing.”

Thus, virtually every episode is built around Kimble, on the run, arriving in some locale where he manages to pick up a menial job, but then gets involved with another character who is having some life-and-death problem, too … and Kimble is in a position to help.

I say this pet-the-dog motif is the secret of the show’s popularity. David Janssen was perfect for the part. He does a lot of acting with his face—trying to appear innocent as the questions get more pointed; attempting to ignore someone’s troubles even as his core goodness makes that impossible.

The movie works in the same way, with a similar stellar acting job by Harrison Ford. There’s one moment that makes me smile every time. After Kimble saves the little boy’s life in the hospital, he’s confronted by a doctor (Julianne Moore) who had seen him checking out the boy’s X-ray. She calls security. Kimble races to the stairs and starts down, almost bumping into someone.

“Excuse me,” he says.

I love it! Even as he’s running for his life, he can’t give up his fundamental decency.

Why do we respond so strongly to this motif? It’s not hard to understand. In this life, which Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish, and short,” we long for decency, thirst for kindness, are grateful for compassion. Seeing it manifested in a lead character draws us to him, creates the bond that is one of the big secrets of successful fiction.

What are some of your favorite pet-the-dog moments in movies or books? Don’t you find yourself really drawn to characters who show compassion for the vulnerable?

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