About James Scott Bell

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

Let No Good Tension Go Unstretched

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of my great movie-going experiences was watching Psycho in high school in an auditorium during a storm. The place was packed. The mood was right. And at various points in the film people in the audience screamed their heads off, which greatly added to the atmosphere.

I’m glad my first exposure to the movie was not on TV. I got to see it uncut (which is more than we can say for Janet Leigh after the shower scene). But more important, I got the full effect of the suspense without commercial interruption.

When Vera Miles started walking toward the house, the audience shrieked. Most people were shouting Don’t go in there! Stop! NOOO! My skin erupted in a million pin pricks.

Of course, Vera didn’t listen. And it seemed like forever for her to get inside the place, and then down to the basement to meet, ahem, Mrs. Bates.

The screaming did not stop during the entire sequence. The anticipation was unbearable. The surprise-twist-climax actually changed my body chemistry. I didn’t sleep right for a week.

Which demonstrates why Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense. What he did better than any other director was stretch the tension. He never let a thrilling moment escape with a mere whimper. He played it for all it was worth.

And so should fiction writers. Learning how to stretch tension is one of the best ways to keep your readers flipping pages, losing sleep and buying your books.

I first became aware of this a long time ago, when I was trying to learn to the craft. I’d read somewhere that Dean Koontz took his career up a notch with his novel Whispers. He has a scene early on, all inside a house, with a would-be rapist stalking the lead character. It goes for 17 pages!

How did he do it? Beat by ever-loving beat. Alternating action, thoughts, dialogue, description and more action. Each beat is played out in full. Almost like slow motion. Which is a good way to think about stretching tension. Focus in on each step in the scene and expand it. The expansion becomes story discovery, which is exactly what you want. You can always scale back the scene later, if you so desire.

Now, usually you’re going to find these high-tension places in the middle and toward the end of your novel. But don’t forget about the opening. And here I’m not just talking about mere action. I’m talking about a tense situation stretched to the limit.

If you’d like to see what I’m talking about, check out the first five chapters of one of Lee Child’s best, Gone Tomorrow. The tension starts on page one and stretches all the way to a shocking climax 26 pages later! Click on “Preview” below if you’d like to read it for yourself.

Try this: ID the three scenes in your manuscript with the highest degree of tension. Can you stretch them out even further? Can you add emotional beats? Inner thoughts? A memory? More action? Dialogue? Can you force the reader to read one, two or three more pages in order to find out what happens next?

Note: This is not in conflict with previous advice about writing tight. We are talking about adding beats which increase reading pleasure by delaying resolution of tension. Indeed, such beats should be the tightest writing in the book!

Comments may now commence. Shower at your own risk. 

***

Speaking of tension, today I release a new story, a contemporary suspense with a twist ending. There’s room for you to hop on board! Details are on my Patreon page.

10+

Writing In Medias Res

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

If you regularly read books and articles on the craft of fiction you’ll often come across the term in medias res. That’s Latin for “in the middle of things.” (As opposed to writing in puris naturalibus, or “stark naked,” about which I have no advice.)

Many times the context in which in medias res is used is the all-important opening chapter. As you all well know, here at TKZ we’re big on helping writers get out of the gate grabbingly (I love making up words. And BTW, you can study past examples here.)

My own formulation of in medias res is act first, explain later. You don’t need a lot of exposition up front. Most authors, knowing their story world and characters’ backgrounds, think the reader also has to have a bunch of that info from the get-go in order to be fully engaged. Wrong. Readers will happily wait a long time for those essentials if what’s happening in front of them is tense, exciting, compelling, mysterious, active, or otherwise interesting.

Here’s an example from one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, A Purple Place For Dying. The opening paragraph:

She took the corner too fast, and it was definitely not much of a road. She drifted it through the corner on the gravel, with one hell of a drop at our left, and then there was a big rock slide where the road should have been. She stomped hard and the drift turned into a rough sideways skid, and I hunched low expecting the white Alpine to trip and roll. But we skidded all the way to the rock and stopped with inches to spare and a great big three feet between the rear end and the drop-off. The skid had killed the engine.

That’s in medias res. We have some unanswered questions: Who is She? Why is she driving so fast on a gravel road when death is just a few feet to the left? What is McGee doing in that car?

Do you want to read on to find out? I do.

“What a stinking nuisance,” Mona Yeoman said.

Okay, at least now we have a name.

The cooling car made tinkling sounds. A noisy bird laughed at us. A lizard sped through the broken rock.

“End of the line?”

“Goodness, no. We can walk it from here. It’s a half-mile, I guess. I haven’t been up here in ever so long.”

“How about my gear?”

“It didn’t seem to me you had very much. I guess you might as well bring it along, Mr. McGee. Perhaps you might be able to roll enough of this rock over the edge so you can get the jeep by. Or I can send some men to do it.”

“If we’re going to keep this as quiet as possible, I better give it a try.”

Still more questions. What’s this about a jeep? Why does she have the ability to send “some men”? Most of all, why do they have to keep things as quiet as possible?

It is not until the bottom of page two that MacDonald begins to fill in some blanks:

She had met me at noon at an airport fifty miles away, quite a distance from her home base. She said she had a place I could stay, a very hidden place, and we could do all our talking after we got there. Ever since meeting her I had been trying to figure her out.

So have we! Which is the point. MacDonald dangles little bits for us to chew on, just enough to whet our appetite for more. Which is why we keep reading.

Try this: Make a copy of your opening chapter and strikethrough all exposition and backstory. Cut any necessary descriptions to one line. See if that edited scene doesn’t move better. If you feel you need some essential exposition or backstory, limit yourself to three sentences, either all at once or spaced out.

Also: Try pretending Chapter Two is your opening chapter. You may be pleasantly surprised.

In media res can also be used in any chapter opening, to quicken the pace. Simply give us the action before you give us the setting.

Suppose we have a scene in a judge’s chambers between a young lawyer from Dewey, Cheatham & Howe and an angry judge. Let’s use first-person, with the lawyer as the POV character.

The next morning I was in Judge Crotchetti’s chambers. It had two leather chairs in front of an immaculate mahogany desk, and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf covering one wall. Judge Crotchetti was standing behind his swivel chair. On the wall above him, an oil-on-canvas Oliver Wendell Holmes glared at me.

“I won’t have that in my courtroom!” Crotchetti said, slapping the back of his chair. “Do you understand me, counsel?”

“Clearly,” I said, and smiled.

“Young man, are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

“No, Your Honor. I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

To quicken the pace, go in media res by leading with the action (note: dialogue is a form of action):

“I won’t have that in my courtroom!” Judge Crotchetti said, slapping the back of his chair. “Do you understand me, counsel?”

“Clearly,” I said, and smiled.

“Young man, are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

“No, Your Honor. I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

It was Monday morning and we were in Judge Crotchetti’s chambers. It had two leather chairs in front of an immaculate mahogany desk…

When revising, take special notice of the opening paragraphs of each chapter in your book. Do you tend to open the same way? Go for variety. Open with some form of action. Move description further down the page. Get a little more medias into your res.

Have you ever thought about in medias res? Do you strive for variety in your chapter openings?

12+

Tips for the Well-Mannered Writer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I love Project Gutenberg. This site has an ongoing project of digitizing works from the past that have fallen into public domain. The works are then made available—for free download—in Kindle, Epub, or text format. You can also read the books online. There are many classics of world literature available, but it’s the small, quirky, period books I find most interesting. If you write historical fiction, Project Gutenberg offers a treasure trove of research material from the 1700s on.

Via Feedly, I get an alert on their latest digitized titles. Many of them don’t interest me, i.e., titles like The Fern Lover’s Companion: A Guide for the Northeastern States and Canada and A Treatise on the Origin, Progress, Prevention, and Cure of Dry Rot in Timber.

But every now and then a title catches my eye and I go in for a peek at the text. The other day it was The Woman and the Car, published in 1909, and described as “A chatty little handbook for all women who motor or who want to motor.”

Having written about that period, I gave the book a peruse. It has a chapter on proper dress, filled with details that could be used to great effect in a novel.

In another chapter, it gives specific instructions on how to start a car:

In front of the car you will notice a handle. Push it inwards until you feel it fit into a notch, then pull it up sharply, releasing your hold of the handle the moment you feel you have pulled it over the resisting (compression) point. Unless starting a car fitted with magneto ignition, on no account press down the handle—always pull it upwards, smartly and sharply. If it is pressed down the possibility of a backfire is greater—and a broken arm may result. 

Then there’s a chapter on “Motor Manners.” Some of the rules of courteous driving behavior are worthy of note: 

  • If the road is wet, give pedestrians and cyclists a wide berth so as not to splash them with mud.

  • Avoid the bad and perilous habit of trying to squeeze through doubtful openings in traffic.

  • Remember, however, that it is necessary to sound the hooter when coming up behind and intending to pass a pedestrian or a vehicle…A hooter is meant to give warning, not to startle people.

It occurred to me that we writers owe our readers some common courtesy, too:

  1. Pull the handle sharply and smartly to start your story

If you don’t hear the motor, check that your handle is fit into the notch (that is, connected to a character) and that you have pulled vigorously enough to cause combustion (a scene with something disturbance).

  1. Do not splash the reader with mud

Gratuitous profanity is mud, in the opinion of this driver.

  1. Do not bore the reader by trying to squeeze too much information into a doubtful opening

It’s almost always best to withhold as much exposition as you can for as long as you can. It creates a sense of mystery, giving readers an invisible prompt to keep turning pages. I just finished re-reading The Maltese Falcon and noted that the background information about the black bird does not come until the middle of the novel.

  1. Don’t annoy potential readers with your, um, horn 

While the occasional tooting of your own horn is acceptable on social media, too much of that kind of noise is a turn off.

What other tips you can think of for the well-mannered writer?

***

And in honor of Father’s Day, spend a couple of minutes with the legendary Groucho Marx as he sings a famous ditty for dads.

9+

Should You Write Dreck?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week we talked about the “telling detail,” and the power it adds. We gave some tips on how to craft such moments. That requires a thing called work.

Today we’re going to ask: is it worth the effort?

This query comes out of a post by Mr. Joe Konrath. He was, most of you will remember, one of the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of self-publishing. He was also a prolific blogger, and not one to shy away from a strong opinion. Then, a couple of years ago, he went silent. Now he’s back, and clearly he’s lost none of his verve, as evidenced by his post On Writing S*** (this being a family blog, I have made a slight edit to the title).

The gist of the piece is that it may be pointless for today’s writer of indie fiction to spend too much time trying to improve the quality of his writing:

My first drafts are pretty good. They’re lean, and fast, and the character arcs and plot rarely need tweaking. The rewrite polish is mostly spent on housekeeping stuff; adding color, exploding certain scenes, adding more drama to the climax, salting in a few more jokes, changing word choices, putting in a few more clues or callbacks.

And sometimes a book is short, say around 60k words, I’ll spend time expanding some scenes or adding a few to beef it up to 70k+, because I want to give good value to the readers who still pay for my stuff rather than read it via KU.

So I spend a full 1/3 of my time as a writer trying to make a grade B book into a grade A book.

I think I’m wasting my time.

He goes on to say that readers of an author will stick with that author even if subsequent books in a series are not as good as the first few. His argument, broken down, goes like this:

Better isn’t actually better.

More is better.

Faster is better.

Flash beats substance.

Loyalty trumps all.

Konrath’s main exhibit is his wife’s reading habits. She will stick with an author she has liked in the past, even if the author’s new books aren’t so hot.

To be clear, Konrath’s post does not actually advocate its title. He does not think you can write pure dreck and get away with it. He says he couldn’t live with producing a work that’s “less than a grade C … But I could live with Bs. I was fine with getting Bs in school. Why put in all that extra work to turn a B into an A when I won’t lose readers for a B?”

It’s a good question, so let’s talk about it. A few reflections:

  1. Several A-list, traditionally-published writers have, over the last several years, “mailed it in.” Some have kicked up their output to satisfy publishers, who need them more than ever for the ol’ bottom line. Some of these more recent books have wider margins and fewer total words. Yet still they sell…though perhaps with some fall off, if reviews are any indication.
  2. A little fall off from an A-list writer still brings in big bucks.
  3. More is better does not always pay off. You still have to meet a certain minimum of storytelling skill.
  4. There many prolific indies (Konrath is one) who do have the skill and thus make more money the more they produce.
  5. For me, pride plays a role. I worked hard on a traditionally published legal thriller trilogy I’m very proud of. Indeed, I think the last line of the last book is the most perfect ending of my career. I re-wrote that last scene at least a dozen times. I’d do it again to gain the same effect. (FYI, the first book of the trilogy, Try Dying, is free today in the Kindle store).
  6. I write a book and work on it until I think it’s the best I can do within a time limit. I’ve got SIDs (self-imposed deadlines) and readers who want more of my stuff. Sometimes I miss a SID.
  7. If I miss a SID, I don’t cancel my contract. I do give myself a stern talking-to.
  8. I write to entertain, and for me that includes going for what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. This requires, once again, work.
  9. I also like being prolific which, in the “old days,” meant a book a year. As an indie, I can do more, and also include a regular output of short fiction.
  10. “The most critical thing a writer does is produce.” — Robert B. Parker.

So…where do you come out on this scale of craft, care, prolificity, faster, better?

Do you stick with an author or series no matter the quality of recent books?

8+

The Power of the Telling Detail

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Raymond Carver (via Wikimedia Commons)

In last week’s post, I was asked what I learned from Raymond Carver when I took his workshop in college. The experience was not a happy one. It wasn’t because of Carver; it was because I wasn’t able to “get it.” That’s probably because it was not a craft class, but a place where you shared your work and got comments from Carver and the other students. I got lousy comments. That’s because I was trying to write like Hemingway and falling well short.

Meanwhile, I’d read some Carver stories and knew there was something there, but couldn’t figure out how to get it in my own writing. It wasn’t until years later, when I went back to read Carver and Hemingway again, that I saw it—they were both masters of the telling detail.

A telling detail is a descriptive element that powerfully illuminates a character, moment, or setting. One well-placed, well-formed detail deepens a story, pulling the reader further in, in a way that seems effortless.

In Carver’s story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” a husband and wife are having an intense conversation in the kitchen. The wife is reluctantly going over details of what happened at a party years ago, when another man took her for a ride in his car and kissed her. The husband’s reaction as he listens:

He moved all his attention onto one of the tiny black coaches in the tablecloth. Four tiny white prancing horses pulled each one of the black coaches and the figure driving the horses had his arms up and wore a tall hat, and suitcases were strapped down atop the coach, and what looked like a kerosene lamp hung from the side, and if he were listening at all it was from inside the black coach.

What is going on inside the husband is revealed in the pictures he notices and how he relates to them. He’s withdrawing from the argument; he’s escaping his emotions; he’s being driven from away from his marriage; he’s longing to be in some distant past. There is no need for Carver to tell us how the husband feels. The details do the “telling.”

In Hemingway’s “Soldiers Home” there’s a detail I’ve never forgotten (and I first read it in high school). A young man, Krebs, has returned home from World War I. His mother has just made him breakfast. But things are not the same for Krebs, and never will be again. The war has taken its toll.

His mother starts going on and on about how worried she is about him, how he doesn’t seem to have any ambition and so on. After her emotional appeal, Hemingway writes:

Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

That detail is so much more powerful than telling us what Krebs feels. It works on us viscerally.

So how can you get a telling detail into your own writing?

First, you can net them when they fly up, unannounced, as you write. That could be your writers mind trying to tell you something important about the character or the place or the moment. So ponder it a moment. If it seems apt, work it into your scene.

Or you can craft the detail later. This is best done during revision. You have your entire story now. You know what’s going on inside the characters. You can go back into your scenes and sharpen the details to serve your overall purpose.

Try this:

  1. Identify a highly charged moment in your book.
  2. Make a list of possible actions, gestures or setting descriptions that might reflect upon the scene.
  3. List at least 10 possibilities, as fast as you can. Go deep. The best way to get good ideas is to come up with lots of them, let them cool a bit, then choose the best one. Look for the detail that surprises you the most, awakens a different part of the moment for you.
  4. Write a long paragraph incorporating that detail, then edit the paragraph so that it is lean and potent. The telling detail works best when it is subtle and does the heavy lifting all by itself.

Carpe Typem!

11+

Let’s Help a New Writer Out

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Got an email from a reader of my craft books, who is finally ready (he says) to complete a novel. He wanted some career advice before taking the plunge. Below are his questions and my answers. Let’s put our heads together and help him out. We can continue the discussion in the comments!

[NOTE: I am assuming the writer is going the self-publishing route, based on question #2. If so, my opening advice is this—put your novel through the same grinding process you would if you were going to submit it to an agent or editor. Being indie is no allowance for being skimpy when it comes to prepping for publication.]

1. You mention learning to love a marketable genre. I’m a mystery and crime fan, but I realize the old school historical noir pieces may not sell. Here’s my plan: write the following sub-genres under a single pen name: (a) Hard-Boiled Police Procedural series a la Michael Connelly, (b) humorous detective/cozy a la Carl Hiaasen/Big Lebowski, and (c) romantic suspense because romance is huge but the crime element makes it interesting for me to write. Does this make sense? Would I spread myself too thin? Am I too far off the commercial mark? For example, should I go whole-hog into Romance and leave crime behind just for the money?

Establish yourself first in a single genre. You need to build up a readership and fan base, and that’s best done when you a) write a crackerjack book in a genre; and b) follow that up with another crackerjack book in the same genre.

The traditional publishers know this. It’s called branding, and they want to keep their money-making authors on brand because that keeps their bottom line in the black. When you start to sell gazillions of copies per book you can convince your publisher to let you try an off-brand novel…before getting back to your basics. See, e.g., John Grisham, James Patterson.

As an “authorpreneur,” you can make the call when you want to try something different. One of the benefits of indie is that you can branch out in short form as an experiment. For example, I write full-length contemporary thrillers, but have a comedic series of novelettes about a vigilante nun. I did some boxing stories for the love of it. But I always return to full-length suspense.

As for going “just for the money,” my advice is that you find the sweet spot where a marketable genre meets your love for the material. As you rightly point out, I believe you can learn to love a genre if you give yourself to the characters and make the stakes death (as explained in my craft books). At this point, ask yourself where you would find the most joy. Joy has a way of translating onto the page in a way that takes competent fiction up another level.

2. Kindle Unlimited is a great way to become discoverable, but is that a long-term solution? Do you plan to eventually “go wide”?

There’s an ongoing debate about this. To boil it down, those indies who favor “going wide” have concerns about the future of Amazon and possible digital disruption to same. Those who are Amazon exclusive are looking at what’s working now.

This is my personal view: since the future is unknowable, I opt for present-moment lettuce. I was wide with my fiction during the first seven or so years of the indie boom. My income via Kobo, Nook and iBooks was steady but not exciting. When I moved to KU, my income experienced a sharp increase. An added bonus is when I land a BookBub deal, my “pages read” (the way an author gets paid in the KU program) go way up for several weeks.

I know many folks have an issue with Amazon’s dominance, but betting against the company has not proved a winning strategy in the past. I recall in the late 90s when Barron’s dubbed the company “Amazon Dot Bomb.” I only wish I’d bought my shares then.

3. I used to be a pantser and, to show for it, as mentioned above, I’ve finished precisely 0 novels. Your books convinced me to outline, but I find some of the beats and plot points vague. Should I start building from the vague outline and drill down in detail until I have a card per specific scene?

Taking your question as a whole, by “vague” you mean you don’t have a sufficient idea in your mind of what the scenes would actually look like, not what the scene should accomplish within structure. That said, the beauty of the “signpost scenes” idea is that you don’t have to “drill down” before you write—unless you want to! As a pantser, you’re not used to summarizing all scenes ahead of time. In the alternative, you can start with the first couple of beats, and when you’ve gone that far look ahead to the next beat or two. You are driving at night with the headlights on, as E. L. Doctorow put it. You can always see ahead to the next signpost.

For both my plotting and pantsing students, I prescribe the “killer scene” brainstorming exercise. Go to your favorite local coffee house with a stack of index cards and start brainstorming scene ideas, not worrying about structure or where they might fit. Come up with 30-40 cards. Go back the next day and shuffle the cards and go through them, selecting the most promising. Figure out in which act—1, 2, or 3–those would logically fit. You’ll be amazed and happy.

4. When do you know to abandon a series or subgenre experiment and move to something more commercially viable?

There is an easy answer to this in the traditional publishing world: when your publisher does not offer you another contract.

Being indie, my view is that after three books in a series you should have a pretty good idea of how it’s going. Look at sales trajectory and reviews. Then ask yourself how wedded you are to the series. It may be that your next book is the one that brings attention to the others.

Or not. Erle Stanley Gardner developed several series characters for the pulps, including Speed Dash, Sidney Zoom and his police dog, and Ed “The Phantom Crook” Jenkins. But when he felt his writing had stalled he tried out a character he named Perry Mason. The rest is publishing history.

5. You studied under Raymond Carver. I’ve read each of his collections and am a huge fan. I’ve loved minimalist prose since I started reading Hemingway as a kid, and Carver’s style to me is a joy to read. Did he share anything specifically with you or your class you could pass on to me as to writing lean?

The main thing I picked up from Carver was his use of the “telling detail.” He was a master at putting a simple image into a scene that illuminated the emotional moment and often blew you away. Hemingway, at his best, did the same.

When a genre writer pulls this off, the effect is glorious. So glorious, in fact, that I am going to make this the subject of my next TKZ post.

Onward, writer. Carpe Typem! Seize the Keyboard!

Over to you, TKZ community. Help this new writer out.

9+

Why I Love Going Back in Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m about to begin a series of short stories featuring a Hollywood studio troubleshooter in the 1940s, as part of my Patreon project (see “Escapism Rocks!” from a couple of weeks ago). Technically, this qualifies as historical fiction, and I find something very comforting about the genre, namely: things don’t change!

With contemporary thrillers, you have to keep up with technology, forensics, communications, law, weapons and so on—knowing there’s always the possibility that some radical innovation that would solve one of your plot problems may occur between the time you finish your manuscript and when it hits a bookstore shelf!

Further, a reference you make to contemporary culture might be turned on its head shortly after your book appears. I recall a thriller from the mid-90s that made favorable references to one O. J. Simpson. The book had been out only a few months when Simpson was arrested for those brutal murders.

With historical fiction, everything like that is frozen. You can concentrate on the story. And best of all, you’re free to choose a period you love. Which is what I did twenty years ago.

Contemporary legal thrillers were hot then, and it seemed like every lawyer and retired judge was writing one. I’d done a couple myself, but wanted to find a market distinction. So I came up with the idea of mixing legal thriller with historical. And I had the perfect setting, too, one virtually unexplored in fiction—turn-of-the-century Los Angeles. (For you youngsters out there, “turn-of-the-century” refers to 1900, not 2000!) L.A. was in transition then, growing up into a major city. It was an exciting time for the practice of law. The man whom many consider the greatest trial lawyer of all time—Earl Rogers—had recently hung his shingle. And women were just beginning to be allowed in the courtroom.

So, I thought, what if we went back to 1903 and a young woman arrives in Los Angeles determined to become a trial lawyer? That became the genesis of a six-book series called The Trials of Kit Shannon.

I loved doing the research for that series, most of it in the bowels of the downtown Los Angeles library going over microfiche of the Times and the Hearst-owned Examiner. I got so into the research that I began to have dreams I was walking along on the sidewalks of 1903 L.A., passing women in their dresses and hats, hearing the ding of a trolley bell, catching a whiff of the corner cigar stand.

Another L.A. period I love is 1945 to 1955, the classic decade of film noir. America had won the war and was strutting her stuff, building the most powerful nation on Earth. Babies were booming. But the criminal element, always crawling along the underbelly of society, was also hard at work in areas like vice, bunco, murder, and police and political corruption. What’s not to like?

My folks had a family friend who was one of the steady pulp writers for Black Mask, W. T. Ballard (I profiled him for TKZ here). He had a series character named Bill Lennox, a “Hollywood troubleshooter” who worked for a studio getting stars and other associated folk out of sticky situations—like murder raps.

So I decided to create my own series featuring a Hollywood troubleshooter, written in the classic hardboiled style I love (Chandler, Hammett, etc.) The first story in this series, “Blonde Bombshell,” is set to appear on June 1. These stories are exclusively for my patrons on Patreon. (The details can be found here.)

Here’s a preview:

So…for you historical fiction authors out there, why did you select the particular period of which you write?  

For the rest of you, if you were ever to write a historical, what period would you choose, and why?

8+

Using the Argument Against Transformation to Strengthen Your Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s post is for structure fans. If you’re a dedicated pantser for whom any thought of form and function causes you to break out in hives, you have my permission to go play Candy Crush, for we are about to take a deep dive into the skeletal framework of storytelling.

This post was prompted by an email from a reader of Super Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. The gist of the email is below, reproduced with the sender’s permission:

I’m planning a book that is plot-driven rather than character-driven, so as I look at developing my “Mirror Moment,” I know it’s going to be more about digging deep and finding the strength to face physical and/or psychological death (like in The Fugitive), rather than a specific need to change. I wondered how the twin plot points of “Argument Against Transformation” and “Transformation” worked in that case (since there isn’t an actual transformation)? Are those beats skipped in a plot-driven story?

This is a very intelligent question, and told me immediately that my correspondent has a real grasp of structure and what it’s supposed to accomplish.

He rightly points out there are two kinds of arcs for a main character: 1) he becomes a better version of himself; or 2) he remains the same person fundamentally, but grows stronger through the ordeal. (Note: both of these arcs can be reversed, resulting in tragedy).

In books or movies of the first kind, such as Casablanca, you’ll often find a compelling beat, which I call “the argument against transformation.” It’s a setup move which defines the MC’s journey and pays off nicely at the end, with actual transformation.

Thus Rick, at the end of Casablanca, has transformed from a loner who has withdrawn from the community into a self-sacrificing member of the war effort. Remember at the  airport, when he’s explaining to Ilsa why they can’t go off together? “I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do you can’t be any part of.”

And two minutes later Rick proves his transformation by shooting Major Strasser right in front of Louis, the French police captain.

Early in Act 1, we have Rick’s argument against such a transformation. That is, he states something that is the opposite of what he will come to believe—and be—at the end. He says it two times, in fact: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Another example: At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has learned, “There’s no place like home.” But early in Act I, she argues against that notion. She tells Toto there’s got to be a place they can go where there’s no trouble, a place you can’t get to by a boat or a train. A place “behind the moon … beyond the rain …” (cue music).

That’s the first kind of transformation. But my correspondent was asking about the second kind, where the character does not change inside. Here’s what I wrote in response:

In the kind of story you describe, there is a transformation—from weaker to stronger. The hero is forced to survive in the dark world, and must become more resilient. So at the end he is not fundamentally a different person, but is a stronger, more resourceful version of himself.

In thinking about your question, it seems to me that the “argument against transformation” in a “getting stronger” story corresponds to what my friend Chris Vogler labels “Refusal of the Call” (in his book The Writer’s Journey). One example Chris uses is Rocky. When Rocky Balboa is first offered the chance to fight Apollo Creed, he says no. “Well, it’s just that, you see, uh…I fight in clubs, you know. I’m a ham-and-egger. This guy… he’s the best, and, uh, it wouldn’t be such a good fight. But thank you very much, you know.”

Implicit in that refusal is his belief that he’s not strong enough.

The transformation beat comes at the conclusion of the final battle, usually in the form of some visual that shows the stronger self. In Rocky, he’s got Adrian in his arms and adulation from the fans.

In The Fugitive, the argument against transformation is shown cinematically. After Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives on the scene of the train derailment, we cut to Kimble running through the woods, his face etched with fear. In a book, you could put in Kimble’s inner thoughts about it. I know an operating chamber, not the streets! How am I going to survive?

The Mirror Moment is what holds these two ends of the spectrum together, which is why it is perfectly situated in the middle of a book. The protagonist has a moment when he’s forced to look at his situation, as if in a mirror (sometimes there’s an actual mirror in the scene!). He either thinks, Who am I? What have I become? Will I stay this way? (Casablanca); or, There is no possible way I can survive this…I’m probably going to die! (The Fugitive).

Now, if you pantsers have made it this far without your heads exploding, I congratulate you, and offer this word of comfort: you don’t have to think about structure before you start a project, or while you’re writing it. Go ahead, be as wild and free as you like!

But when the time comes (and it always does) when you need to revise and figure out why something isn’t working—and what you can do to make it work—structure will be there to help you figure it out.

Because story and structure are in love, and there’s no argument against that!

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Gilstrap Watch: John reports that the surgery “went great.” He feels, naturally, like he “took a beating,” but expects to be “fine in a week or two.” Huzzah! (For those who don’t know what this is about, see John’s post from last Wednesday.)

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Escapism Rocks!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s always been a certain amount of stress associated with being alive. In pre-historic times, this was largely based on concerns over being eaten by large animals. Or by having pointy things stuck into your body by the tribe down the road. At the same time, you had crops to attend to and weather events to deal with. All with no TV, internet, or Candy Crush.

Later on, the Greeks sat around inventing philosophy and giving people more reasons for stress, as in, trying to figure out the point of this bewildering existence. Religion was asking the same questions in places like India, China, and Jerusalem.

As the great historians say, stuff happens. Like war. More stress. In America we had a war oddly called “Civil.” And later joined the right side in a couple of wars big enough to be called “World.”

In between WWI and II, we had the Great Depression, and the stress of actually getting food onto the table. Jobs were scarce. Prospects, in many cases, dim.

Which is where escapism stepped in to offer rays of entertaining sunshine. You had the movies, of course. For a dime you could spend a few hours with Astaire and Rogers, Gable and Tracy, Hepburn and Grant. Radio was pervasive, providing laughs from Benny and Hope and Fibber McGee, and adventures with The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. And comfort by way of “fireside chats” delivered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.

But by far the most popular form of escapism came by way of the pulp magazines. In the 1930s the pulps were booming. Newsstands and drug stores carried dozens of magazines with names like Black Mask, Dime Detective, Amazing Stories, Adventure, and Thrilling Western. Popular series characters (what the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner called “the writer’s insurance policy”) included Nick Carter, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Conan the Cimmerian, Buck Rogers, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Bill Lennox.

Indeed, some of our best American writers came out of the pulps—people like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Fredric Brown, and Horace McCoy. Not to mention the many steady professionals who knew one thing above all—how to tell a dang good story.

And just what did these stories have in common? I think Gardner himself said it best:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

I believe this is still true. Which is why I’m launching my own short fiction channel via Patreon.

If you’re not familiar with Patreon, it’s a site where artists of various stripes can find support for their work. Friends, family, and fans become patrons of the artist. Usually that comes in the form of monthly pledges, in return for which a patron receives various benefits, such as early access to new work or a personally autographed print.

But there is another model called “per creation,” which seems to me more applicable to writers. In this model, patrons are not charged monthly, but only when an actual story is published. My job is to deliver the goods, which means entertaining escapism for a busy reading public. Stories you can read on the subway or the bus, or while waiting for the doctor, or simply at home after a long day when you don’t feel like cracking Moby Dick.

All of the details about this venture are on my page. I hope some of you will join me in this venture. The stories I publish will not appear anywhere else. You’ll be able to read this exclusive content online, on your phone via the free Patreon app, or on your Kindle, Nook or Kobo ereader.

My first story will come out June 1. It takes place in Hollywood in 1945. There’s a movie studio, a murder, and a studio troubleshooter named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. He’s going to be a series character, so this would be a good time to get in on the ground floor.

Because in times such as these, escapism rocks.

So what are some of your favorite books, movies, or TV shows when you simply want to escape?

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