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How to Write a Mystery in Any Genre

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s an old joke about a guy walking into a bar with a squirrel in a cage. The bartender says, “What’s that squirrel doing here?” And the guy says, “Thinking about his next mystery.” The bartender asks what he means, and the guy says, “My squirrel is a mystery writer.”

“Come on!” the bartender says. “How can a squirrel write mysteries?”

“Easy,” the guy says. “He comes up with the ending, then works his way back.”

That squirrel was onto one way to write a mystery: Know the ending, the who of the whodunit, before you start writing. Some of the most successful mystery writers of all time—e.g., Dame Agatha, Erle Stanley Gardner—did it this way.

Their formula was simple. You have a dead body and several possible suspects, each with a motive and an alibi. The killer, when revealed, is a surprise.

That’s always the fun of a Perry Mason. In the classic TV show, the redoubtable Raymond Burr would be grilling a witness on cross-examination so incisively that someone out in the gallery would be forced to stand up and say, “Yes! I killed her! But she was going to force me to give up everything I worked for!”

This trope was hilariously sent up in Woody Allen’s Bananas:

But this is not the only way to do it. Other writers “pants” their way forward, not knowing until the end who the killer is going to be. They extol this method by saying, “If I can’t guess the killer until the end, then readers surely won’t be able to!”

That’s a pretty good argument, though it may entail substantial rewriting and rewiring the plot.

A rejoinder of the plotters is this: If I work out the motive and method first, I can design a whole web of red herrings to throw readers off the scent.

James N. Frey, in How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, is of the latter type. He advises picking a killer, then writing a lengthy biography to explore and justify the murder.

Personally, I don’t like to do lengthy character bios. I find it closes me in before I really get into the story. I like a little living and breathing space for my cast.

I do, however, want to know a few key things about my main characters:

  • Looks
  • Dominant Impression (a Dwight Swain advisory, which means a noun of vocation and an adjective of manner)
  • Timeline of Key Events. I identify the year of birth and go forward to other important years: first day of school, first job, first love. I always like to ask what happened to this character at the age of 16, which seems a pivotal year in everyone’s life.

Another thing the timeline gives me is a basis for cultural markers. I like to know what music, movies, and TV shows were popular in a given year. A few will pop out that seem right for the character.

When it comes to the villain, I have to come up with the most important thing: the motive. I want to have a “hidden” motive that is revealed near the end.

That’s when I write “the speech.”

We’ve seen this in many classic mysteries. The sleuth gathers all the suspects together in a room and starts explaining the clues. Hammett does this in The Thin Man, and Gardner in his courtroom scenes.

It can also be done one-on-one, as in The Maltese Falcon.

In the speech, my hero explains the whole setup, the red herrings, the clues that lead him to identify the killer. (Note: this speech is not intended for the final product, though I may use some of it. It’s a brainstorming exercise above all else.) I work on the speech over several days, sleep on it, add layers to it. This enables me to set up the “game” from the start, to know the hidden moves made by the villain “off-stage.”

Now, I’m not a pure mystery writer. I walk down the thriller street. But I believe all good fiction has a mystery to it, a question in the readers’ minds: What is going on here? Why are these things happening to the character? Why is the character acting this way? This is essential for any genre, from romance to thrillers to literary.

Because the great driver of fiction is a reader turning the pages to find out what happens next, and why. Otherwise, the story becomes predictable. And predictability is boring.

What about you? Do you agree that a mystery element, as defined above, is essential to good fiction? And when it comes to mysteries and character secrets, are you like that squirrel who knows the ending up front? Or do you like to pants-and-wait?

The Three Types of Opening Lines

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s a great Far Side cartoon (among so many great ones from the genius Gary Larson). It shows the back of a man seated at a desk. He has a pencil in his fingers, but his hands are grabbing his head in obvious frustration. In front of him are a series of discarded pages with MOBY DICK, Chapter 1 at the top. They say:

Call me Bill
Call me Larry
Call me Roger
Call me Al
Call me Warren

Ah, we’ve all been there. We often talk about the need for a grabber opening here at TKZ. That’s why we do first-page critiques. The goal is simple: make the reader want to—need to—read on.

If you can do it in the first paragraph, so much the better.

And with the first line, better still!

Terry sparked a discussion on opening pages earlier this week. Let’s drill down to opening lines. There are three types: Action, Voice, and Wood.

Action

When the first line drops you right into some intriguing action, you’ve got it made. (All you have to do now is hang a novel on it. Ha!)

One of my favorites is from my man John D. MacDonald’s Darker Than Amber, a Travis McGee novel:

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

I mean, come on! We’re going to read until we find out who that girl is and why she was tossed in the drink.

James M. Cain’s opening to The Postman Always Rings Twice is aptly famous:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Dean Koontz used to revel action opening lines:

Penny Dawson woke and heard something moving furtively in the dark bedroom. – Darkfall

Katharine Sellers was sure that, at any moment, the car would begin to slide along the smooth, icy pavement and she would lose control of it. – Dance With the Devil

Remember, dialogue is action, too (waving at Terry). Koontz used to write opening lines just to see what they sparked. This one hit him:

“You ever kill anything?” Roy asked.

When he wrote that, he didn’t know who Roy was or who he was talking to. So he wrote a novel to find out—The Voice of the Night.

In my humble opinion, my best opening line is in Try Darkness, a Ty Buchanan legal thriller:

The nun hit me in the mouth and said, “Get out of my house.”

I still like it.

That’s action. There’s also..

Voice

When the voice is clear, unique, arresting, and immediately tells you the kind of story it’s going to be, you’ll want to keep reading. Mickey Spillane wastes no time in Vengeance Is Mine!:

The guy was dead as hell.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is a peach:

When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. – High Five

Usually we’re going to be in First Person POV for voice. But not always. Here, for example, is the opening of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty:

When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.

Notice that the leather jacket is ripped off and not stolen. The latter is neutral voice. The former is hot voice, setting up the tone of the book.

Wood

There’s an old saying: Your story begins when you strike the match, not when you lay out the wood. I like that. It holds true for any genre. But with literary fiction, and epic fantasy or history, an exception is sometimes made. Presumably, fans of these genres are patient at the beginning, knowing they’re in for a long, immersive ride.

Certainly, these genres can begin with action, as in Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara:

The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent.

All well and good, as the world building weaves in with the action.

Now have a look at the opening line of The Fellowship of the Ring:

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history.

And boy, howdy, do we get the history! Fifteen pages of it. This is laying out the wood. But fantasy readers do not seem to mind.

Similarly, David Morrell’s long thriller, The League of Night and Fog, also has a history beginning:

A phrase invented by the Nazis, the Night of the Long Knives, refers to the events on the night of June 30, 1934, in Austria and Germany.

The next eight pages tell us about Hitler’s rise to power, the advent of World War II, and the start of the death camps. It is dark yet riveting history. Morrell lays out this wood, and it stays with us, hovering over the action to come.

There you have it. Three ways to write an opening line. Try them out in your own work. I also recommend you play with all three as a creativity game and idea sparker. Who knows? One of them may jump out and grab you and say, “Now write me the novel, kid!”

And now, if I may, in the spirit of our occasional indulgence here at TKZ, a bit of SSP—Shameless Self Promotion. My latest thriller release begins:

The big, fat liar was dressed in yellow slacks, yellow golf shirt, and yellow socks.

The book is No More Lies. It’s a novel for which I got the rights back (former title: Deceived), and which got some of the best reviews of my career. Publisher’s Weekly said:

A master of the cliffhanger, creating scene after scene of mounting suspense and revelation . . . Heart-whamming.

And Romantic Times:

Bell delivers with this compelling and challenging story of greed, evil and redemption. Worthy characters bring to light situations that can be both beautiful and terrifying. This pure thriller with a roiling plot is not to be missed!

And because money is tight right now, I’m making it available on Kindle this week for 99¢. Grab it here. Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B0B836SCRY

Now back to our regularly-scheduled blog. Do you have an opening line you’re particularly proud of? Share it. Or share one from an author you like. Or both!

What Happens to Your Books When You Die?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” – Last words of American author William Saroyan

Now what indeed! We all have to face it. While Blue Oyster Cult tells us not to fear The Reaper, we at least have to respect his use of the scythe.

Which brings up the subject of estate planning for writers. It’s a big topic, all the details of which can’t be covered in a single post. I hope to give you a broad outline which you can use for more focused attention. While I am a lawyer, and even played one on TV once, take this as the standard admonition to consult with your own lawyer and CPA as you make plans.

Don’t have a lawyer? You can get one, or you can use a resource like LegalZoom.com. For a modest price LegalZoom will help you prepare estate planning forms. For a bit more, they offer you phone consultations. They even have an estate plan bundle that starts at $249.

Now, before you go to your Final Edit there is an in-between possibility we don’t like to think about but must—incapacitation. You attend ITW in New York and a brick falls on your head, rendering you unable to handle your finances or have a Martini with Gilstrap. You should have in place a Durable Financial Power of Attorney appointing your spouse, or someone you trust, as your agent to take care of these matters. See this article from Nolo. (I’m not going into Advance Care Directives, but you should have that, too.)

First Things First

Start a notebook for your heirs—a physical notebook—which will hold originals or copies of your important documents (e.g., will, trust, publishing contracts) along with a master document detailing things like bank accounts, internet passwords, social media sites, and people to contact for help in dealing with various matters, e.g., your CPA, your lawyer, your agent, your website admin, a friend who knows about online publishing. You want your heirs to not to feel overwhelmed, and knowing who to ask for help will be a tremendous relief.

Your books are Intellectual Property (IP) and as much a part of your estate as your furniture, fine china, and collection of Beanie Babies. Create a list for your notebook of all your literary properties, where and by whom they are published, and include both ASIN and ISBN numbers.

The copyrights stay in your name. After you shuffle off this mortal coil the clock starts ticking. Your copyrights (under current law) last another 70 years.

At the front of your notebook have a simple letter to your heirs, detailing how you’d like your IP to be handled.

Update this notebook as needed, and keep it in a secure location. Put a copy of your notebook on a thumb drive and put that somewhere else, like a safety deposit box or fireproof case.

Oh yes, and tell your heirs where they can find these items when you’re dead.

Will and/or Trust

You should have a will or a trust (or both). The decision on which to choose includes a number of factors you’ll need to discuss with your tax person and estate planner. One benefit of a trust is that it avoids probate. Another is that you can control how you want your IP handled, rather than have your heirs end up doing what they want with it. Your IP is placed in the trust and is governed by your specific instructions, not the whims of infighting heirs. (You may not think this could happen in your family, but I well remember the first words from my Gifts, Wills and Trusts professor in law school: “This course is about greed and dead people!” As with contracts—even (maybe especially) among friends and family—the wisest course of action is to get things down in writing. This goes a long way toward staving off ugly misunderstandings down the line.)

The executor (will) or the trustee (trust) should be someone who can understand the publishing business in order to keep watch on—and bucks flowing from—your IP. If you have a mature and trustworthy child you can train in the biz, that’s one option. A friend or colleague conversant with publishing is another. It takes time and effort to perform this service, so you’ll set up a fee. How much is a fluid concept. It can be an hourly rate, or a percentage of the net writing income (10% is a suggested baseline). For more details, see this article.

Then there is email to deal with—fan mail, requests for interviews, speaking requests. An auto responder can be set up to deal with most of these, but your executor/trustee should be prepared to respond to requests that can result in book sales (e.g., permission to reproduce a blog post).

And then there’s the matter of social media. You’ll want your website to stay live, but you have to figure out what to do with whatever else you’re involved with: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Pinterest, Goodreads, YouTube. If you have many of these plates spinning and you want to keep them going, you might consider appointing a distinct social media executor. Anne R. Allen has a tremendous post on that subject.

My social media advice is to pick one or two you enjoy and forget the rest. But that’s another subject altogether. Sue has some good notes on social media here.

Where The Money Goes

The money you make from writing goes into a bank account, hopefully yours. This can be a personal account or a corporate account. Regardless, you’ll need to set things up so the flow continues and the monies can be dispersed to your heirs. Consider making the executor/trustee a signer on your bank account. That way they become the “surviving primary account owner” and can continue using the account, and the money in it, without complications.

I know that’s a lot to think about. But the time to start thinking about it is now. Do a little bit each week. Read helpful articles online (three good ones are here, here, and here).

Take the steps. Because contra Woody Allen’s dictum (“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens”) we’re all going to be there. Your heirs will be thankful that you made the proper preparations.

Comments welcome.

 

Dialogue, Dashes, and Details

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page critique is labeled biblical fiction. Let’s have a look:

It Fell From the North

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled – and threw a cold look across the table – “What’s the matter with you, boy – breezing into my house without a knock? –”

“Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

“What else can I be,” Meshach retorted, “When you barreled through my door like a whirlwind and destroyed my vase and quiet –”

“It’s unlike you –”

“You’ve better manners than that,” he admonished.

“Sir!” Kittim pleaded, “I’ve got some urgent and disturbing news which you need to hear.”

“Kittim!” Meshach said – gesturing dismissively – “What could be more urgent than what I sent you to fetch from where you are supposed to be at now? But here you are! –”

“You need to go back and get it.”

“Sir! Please!” Kittim implored, “You need to hear what I heard out there.”

“Why would I want to? You know I don’t like gossip…and for that reason gossipers too.”

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your –”

“So! Tell me! Of what concern is it to me that I should hear what you heard?” he asked sardonically.

“– Y – Your name came up, Sir.” Kittim stuttered.

Meshach furrowed his brow and seemed surprised. “My name was mentioned? –”

“Yes!”

“Are you sure you heard right?” he asked again still not convinced.

“Yes! It was. More than once. So I thought, maybe you’re somehow involved in it, and you’d want to know what’s going on. That’s why I rushed back here,” Kittim replied.

Meshach placed his thick arms on the table and cupped his chin with his right hand. He scratched the week-old stubble on his jaw for a time and then he muttered, “There’s got to be a sound reason for all of this….”

“What was that, Sir?”

The old man stopped scratching and sighed.

“Eh! Just ignore that, Ok! –”

“Now then, speak! I’m listening. Try to make it quick and brief, there’s no time. In thirty minutes, I’ve to be somewhere else attending to other affairs, and I can’t be late.”

“Sir!” Kittim squeaked, “The King has finally lost it.”

Meshach stiffened and turned pale at the news. He felt his heart pounding loudly against his chest, his breathing coming in short but quick bursts.

The old man rose and headed for the door.

***

JSB: Here’s what I like about this opening. It starts with dialogue, which automatically makes it a scene. It’s not description or exposition. We get right into the action. (Remember: Dialogue is a compression and extension of action. It’s a physical thing characters engage in to pursue an agenda.)

The dialogue is confrontational. That means the scene starts off with the lifeblood of fiction, conflict. This automatically means there is a disturbance to the character’s ordinary world.

Now we have some cleaning up to do.

Don’t Confuse the Reader

With dialogue there has to be absolute clarity about who is speaking and what their attitude is. Thus, at the start, we’re confused:

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled – and threw a cold look across the table – “What’s the matter with you, boy – breezing into my house without a knock? –”

“Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

So we have two characters, Kittim and Meshach. The latter is chewing out the former. Meshach speaks first. But then there’s a second line of dialogue which is still Meshach.

No: A new paragraph starting with an open quote is always—always—another character speaking. (Yes, in the past it was the style to break up a character’s long speech into two or more paragraphs, where you did not close the quote at the paragraph break, and then began the new paragraph with an open quote. But that’s hardly done anymore and might seem like a “typo” to many readers.)

I’m going to rewrite this for you, taking care of the issue. There will be others that we get to, so let’s do this one step at a time.

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled – and threw a cold look across the table – “What’s the matter with you, boy – breezing into my house without a knock? Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

For the same reason, you’ve got to rewrite this:

“What else can I be,” Meshach retorted, “When you barreled through my door like a whirlwind and destroyed my vase and quiet –”

“It’s unlike you –”

“You’ve better manners than that,” he admonished.

That should be one paragraph, and you don’t need the second attribution (he admonished). (You do it again with the line: “You need to go back and get it.”)

There’s a typo (vase should be peace). You’ve also got a mixup on the punctuation. You really have to nail this stuff! First line should read:

“What else can I be?” Meshach retorted. “When you barreled through my door like a whirlwind and destroyed my peace and quiet.  It’s unlike you. You’ve better manners than that.” 

Now we have to talk about..

…Em Dashes

I love the em dash. It’s a great tool when used correctly. The author here is using an en dash, which is exclusively for dates (e.g., 1958–1963). Make sure you know how and why to make an em! (Please see my post on the subject.)

In dialogue, the em dash is used for interruptions, not for pauses in the dialogue itself. For that, a simple comma suffices. Thus:

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled, and threw a cold look across the table. “What’s the matter with you, boy, breezing into my house without a knock? Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

Every other em dash on this page should be cut, save one:

“Why would I want to? You know I don’t like gossip…and for that reason gossipers too.”

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your –”

“So! Tell me! Of what concern is it to me that I should hear what you heard?” he asked sardonically.

That’s an interruption. But note two things. Make it a real em dash, and stick it right up against the dialogue:

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your—”

Aside: Here’s a little Word trick with smart quotes. If you just type the close quote after the em dash, it’ll come out backwards, like this:

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your—“

So after the em dash, use Shift-Option-[ and it’ll come out right.

Unnecessary Dialogue Tags

Now let’s get into the overuse of tags. My advice is simple:

  • Use said or asked as defaults. They do their job and get out of the way.
  • As much as possible, make it clear from the dialogue itself, or an action beat, how someone is speaking. Then you won’t need any tag at all. Thus:

“Kittim!” Meshach threw a cold look across the table. “What’s the matter with you, boy, breezing into my house without a knock? Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

We don’t need snarled. It’s obvious from the exclamation point and the cold look. Here are the other tags used, as if the writer has been told not to use said too much, and to crack open the thesaurus:

retorted

admonished

pleaded

implored

replied

muttered

squeaked

These simply aren’t necessary, and anything unnecessary in fiction becomes what I call a “speed bump.” These mount up and make the fictional journey less than smooth for the reader. We want smooth!

Here’s one example

“– Y – Your name came up, Sir.” Kittim stuttered.

First of all, no em dashes! Stuttering is shown by ellipses, and because of that you don’t need any tag at all.

“Y…your name came up, Sir.”

Adverbs

You’ll hear it all the time, and it’s worth repeating—cut the adverbs. Almost always, especially with dialogue tags, you should let the action or dialogue itself do the work. Now, I’m not the adverb sheriff, and there are some occasions when it may be needed. But be ruthless. First see if you can strengthen the verb. Here you have:

sardonically (not even sure how many readers understand what that is anymore)

dismissively (this one you can probably keep)

loudly (he feels his heart. Can he really hear it?)

Details for Time and Setting

With historical fiction, you’ve simply got to weave in a few descriptive details to let us know where we are. I’m not sure where that is with this piece. Since it’s biblical fiction, and Kittim references a king, we’re probably somewhere in Old Testament times. But are we in Israel? Judah? Babylon? Persia? Cyprus?

Many authors simply use a setting and time stamp, e.g.,

Jerusalem
595 BC

Or you can drop in details a bit at a time. As an example, you might mention the name of the king:

“What could be more urgent than what I sent you to fetch from King Nebuchadnezzar, may he live forever!”

From John Jakes’ historical novel, The Furies, which begins:

About four o’clock Abraham Kent woke from a fitful sleep and realized he couldn’t rest again until the day’s action was concluded, in the Legion’s favor or otherwise.

His heart beat rapidly as he lay sweating in the tiny tent. He heard muted voices outside, saw a play of flame and shadow on the tent wall. Campfires, burning brightly in the sweltering dark. No attempt had been made to conceal the presence of three thousand men on the north bank of the Maumee River. The Indians already knew that the general who commanded the arm of the Fifteen Fires had arrived, and meant to fight. The only question was when.

POV confusion

It seems that Meshach is your POV character because we never get into Kittim’s head. But some of your choices confuse us

Meshach furrowed his brow and seemed surprised.

Seemed? The only one it could seem to is the other character, Kittim. Another speed bump.

and turned pale at the news.

A POV character can’t see his own face (unless looking at a reflection). Again, this is Kittim’s POV.

Make it clear which character the reader should follow, and stay firmly inside that head.

Whew! That’s a lot to think about, writer. Let me conclude with the happy note I began with. You’ve got a handle on the most important narrative strategy for opening pages: a scene with disturbance and conflict. What you have to do now is get rid of the clutter that gets in the reader’s way. If you take to heart these fundamentals, you’ll be well on your way to engaging fiction.

Comments welcome.

Brood Over Your Endings

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone

The English actor Edmund Keane, on his deathbed, was heard to remark, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

In the same vein, I’ve always averred that beginnings are easy. Endings are hard. I can write opening chapters all day long. But to stick a novel after it, keep readers turning pages, and then wrap it up in such a way that it leaves them so supremely satisfied they go out looking for more of my books…that’s the hard part.

I’m fond of quoting Mickey Spillane’s admonition: “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.” That’s why I wrote an entire tome on the art and craft of unforgettable endings.

Today I want to talk about process. Because with each novel I learn a little more about this incredible, wonderful craft of ours, always looking for tweaks to my approach. I’m thinking about that as I get ready to write the last scenes of my next Mike Romeo thriller. Specifically, I’m learning again the value of brooding—giving time to my mind to ponder, create, devise.

As an outliner, I always have an ending in mind when I start writing. It is subject to change without notice, of course. The exact details will have to be worked out. But the characters involved, the stakes, and the feeling I want to achieve are there.

I watch this scene in the movie theater of my mind.

Now I’m at the place in my WIP where Romeo is about to engage in a final battle with high stakes—the highest so far for my hero.

Here is where I slow down to brood.

For the last three weeks, even as I’ve been writing toward the end, I’ve spent time away from the keyboard just to think about that scene and the choreography of it. For everything to work, the setting is crucial. I know where it’s going to happen—at a particular spot in L.A. (shocker!).

I’ve spent a good deal of time on Google Maps to get the broad lay of the land.

I’ve driven to the location, taken pictures, and revised some details. (I like to use real locations in my books, though I reserve the right to tweak and even make things up as needed!)

I know exactly what I want to happen, and it’s starting to excite me.

That’s key. If the ending doesn’t excite me how is it going to excite the reader?

But as the scene has become more vivid, I’ve encountered some problems. This is a good thing. Overcoming plot problems is one of the skills we need to develop as writers. I’ve come to believe that any problem can be overcome if you give it enough time.

My problems included the right weaponry (how does Mike get what he needs?), the presence of police (how does the final battle happen with cops all around?), and the terrain (people on the street, cars, buildings).

For each one I did more research, watching the scene again as a movie in my mind. The nice thing about being a writer is that you don’t have to spend money on expensive re-shoots. A studio won’t shut down your production.

Brooding lets the Boys in the Basement do their work. I’ll be going about my non-writing business, even just sitting in a chair reading a book, when the Boys send up a note with an insight or a possibility. (I’ve got to remember to send them some donuts.)

I test every change by asking if it makes me more excited. If so, it stays in.

The last—and to me, the most important element—is resonance. Resonance is the very last note you leave with the reader. Like the perfect ending to a Beethoven symphony, it lingers with you long after the concert is over. That’s why the last page of my novel is always the one I work on most.

Remember that great opening scene in Romancing the Stone? The romance writer (Kathleen Turner) is typing her ending, which is shown onscreen. When we cut to her at the keyboard, she has just finished and is weeping copious tears. Her ending has captured her as if it were real life (which, in the film, it soon will be!)

“No tears in the writer,” wrote Robert Frost, “no tears in the reader.”

So brood. Watch. Edit. Brood some more. Then write those last pages for all they’re worth.

What is your approach to writing the ending of your novel? When do you know you’ve really nailed it?

Oh yes! If you’d like to get in on the ground floor of the Romeo series, the first book, Romeo’s Rules, is now 99¢ on Kindle for a limited time. Order here.

Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B015OXVAQ0

Reader Friday: Favorite Things

The legendary Mary Martin originated the part of Maria in Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music.

One of the big hits from the show was a song about about raindrops on roses, bright copper kettles, schnitzel with noodles, and more of Maria’s “favorite things.”

A few of my favorite things: a scoop of vanilla on warm apple pie, any movie with Spencer Tracy, a grandchild’s smile, a check that was actually in the mail…

What are some of your favorite things?

And if you’d like to travel back to Broadway in December of 1959, and take a seat in the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, you can hear the song for yourself:

What Writers Can Learn From The Godfather

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We lost James Caan this past week. It seems an apt time to take a look at the movie that made him a star, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) from the novel by Mario Puzo. I’ll be concentrating on the movie, but a good exercise is to compare a book to its film version. Usually people end up saying a book is “better” than the film. In this case, however, it’s the other way around.

The Godfather is currently listed by AFI as the second-greatest movie of all time (behind Citizen Kane). It’s a graduate course in acting. Caan holds his own alongside Brando, Pacino, and Robert Duvall. He proved that the acting chops he showed in the TV movie Brian’s Song (1971) were legit. Brando won the Oscar as Best Actor. Caan, Pacino, and Duvall all got Supporting Actor nods (the winner was Joel Grey in Cabaret).

Caan went on to a long and successful career. And what writer escaped the chills—or maybe a few nightmares—when Caan was “cared for” by his “number one fan” in Misery? (Please don’t ever use the word hobbling around me. Thanks.)

James Caan as Sonny Corleone

Back to The Godfather. The story lessons from this movie could fill a book. Since this is a blog, I’ll limit myself to a few I find particularly instructive.

The Plot

When the aging don of the Corleone crime family refuses to give aid to a new narcotics business, his enemy seeks to kill him. His son Michael, a war hero, avenges the attempted assassination by killing a mobster and a corrupt police captain. In the crime wars that follow, Michael rises to become the most ruthless godfather of all.

Lesson: Be able to summarize your plots in three sentences (known as the Elevator Pitch). This applies as much to epic fantasy as it does category romance. My formula for the Elevator Pitch is as follows (using The Insider by Reece Hirsch as an example):

  1. (Character name) is a (vocation) who (immediate goal or desire)

Will Connelly is a lawyer on the verge of realizing his dream of becoming a partner at a prestigious San Francisco firm.

  1. But when (doorway of no return), (Character) is (main confrontation)

But when Will celebrates by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on a top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client has created.

  1. Now (Character) must (main objective)

Now, with the Russians mob, the SEC and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before everything blows up around him.

Argument Against Transformation

A simple and elegant tool for character arcs is what I call “The Argument Against Transformation.”

Usually, at the end of a classic Hero’s Journey, the Lead is transformed into a “better self” than at the beginning. Rick in Casablanca becomes a hero willing to sacrifice his personal happiness for a greater good. He puts his true love, Ilsa, on the plane with her husband, Victor Lazlo, because he knows it’s best for everyone and even the war effort.

But what’s his philosophy early in Act 1? It’s his argument against such a transformation. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he says.

This gives the audience an early hook, a hint at what the story is really about.

In The Godfather, we have a negative arc, a transformation that goes the other way.

During the wedding scene at the beginning of the film, Michael (who will turn out to be the main protagonist) is a war hero. He’s sitting with his girl, Kay, when she spots a “scary man.” Michael explains that is Luca Brasi, who is a “friend” of his father’s. He tells her about an incident where Vito and Luca paid a visit to a band leader who was unwilling release singer Johnny Fontaine from a long-term contract. Luca, Michael explains, put a gun to the band leader’s head as Vito tells him to sign the release, or his brains will end up all over it.

Kay is duly shocked. But Michael assures her, “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” That’s his argument against his (negative) transformation.

Proving the Transformation

At the end of a film or novel, we must see something that proves the transformation. Usually this is the last scene or chapter. In Casablanca, Rick proves he is a sacrificial hero by literally putting his life on the line to save Ilsa and Lazlo.

In the last scene of The Godfather, Michael’s sister, Connie, screams hysterically at Michael for ordering the hit on her husband, Carlo. Kay hears it all, and when she is alone with Michael she asks him if it’s true. “Don’t ask me about my business, Kay,” he says. She is insistent. “Enough!” he says. Then accedes: “This one time I’ll let you ask me about my affairs.”

Kay asks again, and in a most sincere voice Michael looks into the eyes of his wife and says, “No.”

There’s the transformation. Michael has forfeited his soul to become the new don. He can lie to his wife’s face without a single qualm.

See for yourself, and note the memorable visual at the very end:

Lesson: Look at what your Lead character has become at the end of your novel. Give the Lead a line of dialogue in Act 1 that expresses the opposite view. At the end, show us in a scene how the Lead has changed, thus proving the transformation.

Mirror Moment

In the dead center of the movie is the Mirror Moment for the protagonist, Michael. (For a full treatment of this beat, see my book Write Your Novel From the Middle).

In brief, the Lead has a moment within a scene where he has to metaphorically look at himself, as if in a mirror (though it’s funny how often in a movie there’s a literal mirror in the scene). The character has to take personal stock right in the middle of the “death stakes” of Act II. This moment is the linchpin between the argument against transformation at the beginning, and proving the transformation at the end.

After Michael thwarts another attempt on his father’s life, at the hospital, he’s confronted by the corrupt police captain, McCluskey, who proceeds to break Michael’s face.

In a family meeting that follows, Sonny is ready to go to war. Tom Hagen counsels against it.

Michael, sitting there virtually ignored, suggests a plan—they’ll set up a meeting with Sollozzo and McCluskey, where Michael (who is considered by the enemies to be neutral) will get his hands on a gun and kill them both.

The meeting is set at a little restaurant in the Bronx. Offscreen, the caporegime Clemenza plants a gun in the bathroom. The plan is for Michael to ask to use the john, get the gun, come out and immediately shoot both men, then drop the gun and walk out.

Michael has a mirror moment before the shooting. That moment in the book is rendered:

Sollozzo began talking again in Italian, but Michael couldn’t understand a word. He wasn’t listening. All he could hear was the sound of his heart, the thunder of blood between his ears.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone

It is more pronounced in the movie. Michael does not follow Clemenza’s instructions coming out of the bathroom. Instead of shooting the men, he sits back down at the table. Sollozzo talks, but the camera stays on Michael’s face. He’s clearly contemplating what’s about to happen. Once he kills a New York police captain, his life will never be the same. No more honored war hero. No more avoiding “the family business.”

He shoots them.

The rest of the movie revolves around the question of whether Michael will return to his “former self” and guide the family to legitimacy, or continue his trajectory toward ruthless mafia don.

Lesson: Whether you plan or “pants” or something in between, at some point brainstorm possible mirror moments for your Lead. Since I started doing this myself, I’ve found that the fourth or fifth idea on my list is usually the one that jumps out at me and announces, “This is what your book is really all about, pal!”

Orchestrating the Cast

The principle of orchestration is so important. It simply means giving your characters distinct and contrasting personalities, tags, quirks. The more skillfully you do that, the more possibilities for conflict, in scenes and dialogue. That holds true not only for adversaries, but allies as well.

In The Godfather we have the three sons of Vito Corleone. Sonny is a bloodthirsty hothead; Fredo is weak and insecure; Michael is the smart one, and cool under pressure. While they are ostensibly on “the same side,” they also have conflict with one another.

Tom Hagen is the German-Irish lawyer among all the Sicilians. Thus he and Sonny get into some heated arguments. At one point Sonny screams at him, “If I had a war-time consiglieri, a Sicilian, I wouldn’t be in this shape!”

The two caporegimes, Tessio and Clemenza, are different in both physical form and personality. The jolly Clemenza shows Michael his “trick” for cooking for twenty guys. Sonny tells him to knock it off.

Among the secondary characters is the scary Luca Brasi. He is a stone-cold hit man. Just looking at him gives you the chills. But when he goes in to see Don Corleone on the day of Connie’s wedding, he is like a little boy, barely able to talk.

Lesson: Give all your characters, even the minor ones, physical and personality differences—and quirks. Do that, and the plotting of a novel almost takes care of itself.

Whew. That’s enough for today. If you’ve never seen The Godfather or The Godfather, Part II, you’re in for a treat. The acting is brilliant throughout. Of coruse, Brando dominates. My first “real” job was ushering in movie theater the summer of Godfather I. So I must have seen the movie, in bits and pieces, about twenty times. I watched Brando through a microscope, trying to “catch” him acting. Never did. He may just be the greatest actor of all time.

Comments welcome.

Reader Friday: Read Again for the First Time

An Englishman met Mark Twain on a train and abruptly said, “Mr. Clemens, I would give ten pounds not of have read your ‘Huckleberry Finn!’ ” Twain raised his eyebrows, awaiting an explanation. The Englishman smiled, and added, “So that I could have again the great pleasure of reading it for the first time.”

What book would you like to be able to read again—for the first time?