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A Neat Trick For the Act Two Slog

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Stephen J. Cannell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discuss!

On Symbols and Motifs

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Joy of Making Stuff Up

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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

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

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

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

Ah, the pure joy of making stuff up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dreams For Your Mirror Moment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Half my life’s in books, written pages.
Live and learn from fools and from sages.
You know it’s true, oh
All the things come back to you…
Dream on!
– Aerosmith, “Dream On”

We’ve had several discussions about dreams here at TKZ. I believe the consensus rule of thumb (or, in deference to Brother Gilstrap, guideline of thumb) is never open with a dream. As Les Edgerton states in his excellent book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books):

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Ah, remember the days of SASEs and paper manuscripts?

The only exception is when you alert the reader in the first sentence that it’s a dream, as in Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier). Even so, I would counsel against the dream-sequence opening.

As for a dream later in the book, I recommend doing it only once and only for the specific purpose of revealing the character’s emotions at an intense time. Dean Koontz does this in Chapter 15 of The City:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain … (etc.)

The exception to this advice is when dreaming is an integral part of the plot. See, for example, Spellbound (1945, dir. Alfred Hitchcock).

Recently, I discovered another way to use a dream. It’s a perfect device for a mirror moment. Those of you who’ve read the book know there are two types of mirror moments that can occur in the center of the novel.

One moment is when the character has to look at himself, as in a “mirror” (sometimes literally) and reflect on who he is, inside. Will he change for the better? The rest of the novel is about whether a fundamental transformation takes place (as it does in, e.g., Casablanca).

The other type of moment is when the character looks at her situation and realizes she’s probably going to die. The odds are just too great. For example, Katniss in The Hunger Games. In the exact middle she assesses her situation and says to herself, This is an okay place to die. The story question for such a moment becomes will the character gain the strength and smarts to fight and win against the odds?

Here’s today’s tip: Either of those moments can be given to us through a dream.

I was re-reading John D. MacDonald’s final Travis McGee book, The Lonely Silver Rain. In this one McGee is dispatched to find a stolen boat. When he does, he discovers a grisly scene—three horribly murdered bodies. A bit later someone tries to kill McGee. Then there’s another attempt on his life. Why? McGee has no idea, except that it must have something to do with what happened on that boat. He undertakes a laborious investigation to find the answer. But he keeps running into a wall. Thus, in the middle of the book:

The cold had awakened me from a dream. I had been in a poker game at an oval table, with the center green-shaded light hung so low I could not make out the faces of the men at the table. They all wore dark clothing. The game was five-card draw, jacks or better to open. They were red Bicycle cards. Every time I picked up my five cards, I found the faces absolutely blank. Just white paper. I wanted to complain about this, but for some reason I was reluctant. I threw each hand in, blank faces up, hoping they would notice. All the rest of the cards were normal. I could see that each time a winner exposed his hand. There was a lot of betting, all in silence. A lot of money. And then I picked up one hand and found they were real cards. I did not sort them. I never sort poker hands or bridge hands. The act gives too much away to an observant opponent. I had three kings of clubs and two jacks of diamonds. In the dream I did not think this odd. They were waiting for me to bet when the cold woke me up. In the dream I had been shivering with the tension of having a good hand. The shivering was real. 

Why did he dream this? McGee knows there are people out there to kill him, but cannot figure out who (he can’t see the faces of the other players). He has talked to many potential witnesses, to no avail (blank cards). The knowledge he does have may be misleading (like having three kings of clubs and two jacks of diamonds in a poker hand). The shivering in the dream is uncertainty, brought into the real world.

It seems to me a perfect way to show us “the odds are too great” type of mirror moment. A dream can easily be used to show the first kind, the “is this who I really am?” type.

To make it work, the dream should have those bizarre details we get in dreams—like blank playing cards which suddenly become cards of the same type. Of course, the symbols should relate somehow to what’s going on in the story.

A good dream sequence works emotionally on the reader. In some cases it may cause the reader to pause and ponder, trying to figure it out. Either outcome is a good one, as it gets the reader more deeply invested in the story—which is what every writer dreams of, yes?

Help! My Plot is Getting Away From Me!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

(Today’s post is adapted from the book Plotman to the Rescue: A Troubleshooting Guide to Fixing Your Toughest Plot Problems. It is used by the kind permission of the author.)

Here’s a question I get from time to time. What do I do if I’m in the middle of my novel and there are so many things happening, so many characters running around, that I’m losing my way?

You would think this question would come primarily from “pantsers,” the If-I-knew-what-my-story-was-about-before-I-wrote-it-I’d-be-bored school of writing. But it arises with the plotter, too, who has perhaps been overly ambitious in the planning. As sometimes happens for the plot engineers, a sudden twist or turn or character may try to horn in at, say, the 20k mark, throwing the whole outline off.

So what do you do when you discover you’ve a) gone down that infamous rabbit hole; b) have plot points or characters popping up you didn’t plan for; c) are lost in a dark forest; or d) have fallen off a cliff into the bleached bones of the author’s graveyard?

I will allow you one wail of frustration.

Now let’s get a handle on things.

First of all, where are you, as the ad men used to say, “outline wise”? Do not skip over this part, pantsers, for you better have an outline, too.

Wait, what?

I’m talking about a “rolling outline,” one you put together as you roll along. When you finish a scene or chapter, write a quick synopsis of who the viewpoint character is, what he wants and what happens, as in: Ishmael gets depressed, decides to go to sea, and sets off to find a ship.

Scrivener is ideal for this because you can put the rolling outline on scene “cards” and view them on a virtual corkboard. But Word or even Excel will work fine, too.

Now, if you feel your plot is getting away from you, print out the current version of the rolling outline and do this:

Clean House on Characters

How many viewpoint characters have you got? This means you have more than one character with a storyline of their own. For example, in a traditional romance you usually have two viewpoint characters, the lovers. In a long historical or fantasy novel, you may have three, four or more.

If this is so for you, precisely define the following: What is each character’s death-stakes objective? (Death being physical, professional, or psychological.) If it’s not death, find a way to make it so, or drop this as a plotline. In the alternative, consider taking away this character’s viewpoint scenes and converting that line into a subplot. This means the character shows up in scenes told from another character’s point of view and (this is crucial) complicates the viewpoint character’s objective.

For example, you have a woman as a viewpoint character, and a man as another viewpoint character. The man’s plotline is not working out in a death-stakes way. You might remove him as a viewpoint, but have him show up in the woman’s plotline as a potential lover or long-lost brother or secret agent or alien from a parallel universe.

Clean house. Keep only the crucial characters.

For further study: The Stand by Stephen King, and Strangers by Dean Koontz. You’ll see how these authors make the several character lines work on their own terms before bringing the strands together.

Cut Scenes That Don’t Connect to Plot

Now that you are squared away on the objective of the main character or characters, assess each scene you’ve written so far. Ask:

  • Does the goal in the scene relate in some way to the overall, death-stakes objective of the Lead? If not, cut it.
  • Does the scene present an obstacle to the attainment of the objective, emotionally or physically or both? If not, why is it there?
  • If the scene is part of a subplot, how does it intersect with the main plot? How does it complicate matters for the Lead?

Write or Rewrite Your Pitch

If you’re a pantser, you may not have a pitch for your novel. After all, you’re still discovering what it’s about! Well, if you’ve done some thinking as this post suggests, you’ve made discoveries. Try putting them together in a pitch—250 words or less that would make someone interested in this story. Doing this will give you focus on where to go next.

If you’re an outliner, rewrite your pitch to include the elements you’ve uncovered. Get excited again about your journey.

Be sure to read Sue’s post on crafting a pitch.

Push On

Now finish your draft. Don’t do any more dawdling. You should have enough direction to push right on to the end. As you do, keep adding to your rolling outline. It will be helpful when you get to the editing stage.

Can you describe a time when your plot got away from you, or you felt lost? Is this a common occurrence for you? What do you do to get back on track? 

 

What Would A Famous Writer Tell You?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s a fun little exercise I’ve used from time to time to jumpstart the ol’ creative battery. It only takes about 90 seconds. 

Begin by finding a quiet spot where you will not be interrupted. Sit in a comfortable chair, feet on the floor. Relax. Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths. 

Now imagine that you are walking through a beautiful meadow. Take time to smell the flowers. (Note: there are no cows in this meadow.) 

Up ahead you see a cabin with a bit of smoke curling out of the chimney. Vividly imagine this cabin. Notice the materials and the colors. Smell the smoke. 

You walk up to the door and find it slightly open. You step into the cabin and see a famous writer—or one of your personal favorites—tapping away at a keyboard. (Note: The writer can be deceased, but try not to pre-choose who it is. Let your right brain hop in and provide the answer.)

The writer looks at you, slightly annoyed at being interrupted, and you tell said writer that you have come for one piece of writing advice that you desperately need. The writer, who is somehow familiar with your work, thinks for a moment, and says, “_______.”

Here’s what happened when I did this a few days ago. The writer was John D. MacDonald. He was writing on an electric typewriter with his ever-present pipe in his mouth. 

He finished typing a sentence and looked at me.

I said, “Sorry to interrupt, but I really need a piece of advice for my writing. Would you mind?”

MacDonald took a couple of thoughtful puffs, then said, “Work harder on your sentences.”

I wanted to pull up a chair and ask him to elaborate. But he waved me off. “I have to get back to work,” he said and started typing again. 

I walked back through the meadow, pondering his advice. I remembered something he once said about his own style. He wanted it to have “a bit of unobtrusive poetry.”

The key word is unobtrusive. He didn’t want readers noticing the poetry, just feeling it as it served the story. 

I had to admit I wasn’t taking enough time lately to think about my sentences. I determined to do more light editing after I’ve written a scene to see if I can add just a touch of unobtrusive poetry. I started to think about how. I can:

  • search for more active verbs.
  • freshen an adjective.
  • come up with a metaphor.
  • put the strongest part of the sentence at the end. For example, instead of He was holding a gun when he came through the door I can arrange it this way: He came through the door holding a gun.

You can do this exercise whenever you need some inspiration. In the past I’ve received advice from Hemingway, Mark Twain, and Raymond Chandler.

Then I let them get back to work. 

Care to try it? Don’t make something up on the spot. You want your subconscious to participate. Follow the steps for at least a minute and a half. 

Who did you find in the cabin, and what did that writer tell you? What will you do with the advice?