About James Scott Bell

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

Don’t Be Satisfied With Competence

by James Scott Bell

In reviewing Uncommon Type, a short story collection by Tom Hanks, the critic concluded that, with one exception, Hanks’s stories “are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.”

Ouch, man.

I like Tom Hanks. I’ve liked him ever since Bosom Buddies. I haven’t read his stories, so this is not a pile-on. And critics have been known to be wrong (ya think?)

But I was struck by that phrase, the special banality of mere competence. That’s because when I teach workshops, I usually lead off with this quote from a former acquisitions editor for a major house:

As my first boss used to warn us green editorial assistants two decades ago, the type of submission that’s the toughest to spot—and the most essential to avoid—is the one that is skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable.

Over my two decades of teaching the craft and reading manuscripts submitted at conferences, I’ve seen a rise in the tide of competent fiction. A big reason is, I think, the internet, with great teaching blogs like **blush** this one, and so many others. There are **blush** online courses and podcasts. And we still have the tried-and-true teaching avenues, like critique groups (in person and via email), books and Writer’s Digest, panels of writers at conferences, freelance editors, and so on.

All of which I love. I still get excited about diving into a good article on writing, or revisiting one of the many craft books in my collection.

So yeah, there is a lot of competent fiction out there.

But that’s not good enough.

Let me amend that. What’s “good enough” is highly subjective. But the ministers of content within the walls of the Forbidden City (that is, traditional publishing) are always looking for that “extra” thing. Much of the time they call it voice, and treat it the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously approached obscenity. He couldn’t define it, he said, “But I know it when I see it.”

Of course, now it’s possible for writers outside the walls to publish whatever they like. And competent fiction may bring some return.

But for a long-lasting career, I say make it your goal to go higher.


Create a self-study plan.

There are seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice (or style) and meaning (or theme). You can, in conjunction with others (trusted beta readers, a good editor, a critique group) assess your strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas. Try giving yourself scores on a 1-10 scale.

Then start with your weakest factor and design a six-week self-study program. Get a couple of books on the subject. Write some practice scenes. Get feedback.

Then move on to the next factor.

Just think about it. If you were to improve each of these areas just by 10%, the overall effect on your writing will be enormous. And you can get there in less than a year.

Of course, as you’re studying the craft, keep writing your current project and developing your next, and the one after that.

Is this work? Um, yeah. Like any pursuit of excellence.

Is it also fun? Oh, yes. When you see and feel your improvement, there’s nothing quite like it.

It took me a good two years to get to competent. And no buyers. Then one day I had a literal epiphany reading a certain chapter in a certain book (it was Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham). Sirens went off in my head. The next thing I wrote got me a Hollywood agent.

A few years later, I got a book contract (this was seven years after I began to seriously study the craft). When I got another contract with another house, I had the privilege of working with one of the best editors in the business. His feedback took me to another level. When I started working with my agent, Donald Maass, there was another hike.

Each of these stages was a beautiful thing.

I wish you that same beauty, writer friend. It’s worth all the effort.

I’ll leave you with a quote I’ve always liked, from an old-time ad man named Leo Burnett: “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”

Are you reaching?


Short Chapters and Lots of Dialogue

by James Scott Bell

Last week commenter Alec asked: “JSB, I’m reading your Ty #1 book at the moment (I’ve read thru Chap. 36). I’m struck by two things – the amount of dialog and you seem to be using and chapter breaks to move time along … Do you recommend shorter chapters with the intent being that each chapter reflects a scene or a conversation? I looked and this book has 127 chapters.”

Several years ago I was having my teeth cleaned (stay with me, Alec, this will connect) and the hygienist asked what I did for a living. I told her I was a writer. (Such conversations invariably lead to the person asking something like, “Oh, have I heard of you?” Which leads, also invariably, to a furrowed brow and some sort of negative response.)

“Oh,” she said. “Have I heard of you?”

I gave her my name.

Her brow furrowed. She said, “Hm, I don’t think so.”


As she put the little bib on me, she asked, “Have you heard of James Patterson?”

“Sounds somewhat familiar,” I said.

She leaned over conspiratorially and said, “I know his secret.”

“Do tell,” I said.

“He uses really short chapters.”

So that’s it! So simple! Short chapters = millions of copies sold!

I’m only half kidding. For Patterson really did popularize the short chapter method for thrillers. Indeed, much of the time he takes what would be a traditional chapter of, say, 2k words or so, and breaks it down into three or four shorter units. The last line of a unit will have some sort of read-on prompt and there you have it—a page turner. It’s kind of worked for him.

In the early 2000s, as Patterson sold more and more, I began to notice the chapters of other thriller writers getting shorter, too.

Which was aces with me.

Writing in Scenes

I’m a movie guy. I grew up devouring movies on the tube. There was a regular program called The Million Dollar Movie on a local L.A. station (Channel 9, I think it was) and they’d show the same movie each night for a week, and twice on Sunday. I’d sometimes take in the same movie four or five times.

For my first official date I took the girl to a movie. It was a really romantic one, too. Willard, a horror movie about killer rats. (I should mention that this was also my last date with said girl.)

Still with me, Alec?

When I found out you could actually major in film studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was all in.

I’m drenched in movies, and indeed it was a movie that reawakened in me a desire to try to write and sell stories.

Naturally, being from Tinseltown, I started with screenplays. I really learned about structure and dialogue and writing tight scenes via screenwriting.

Part of what got me a contract to write legal thrillers was the acquisitions editor telling me that I wrote “cinematically.”

Heck, I couldn’t help it.

I began my fiction career writing in traditional chapters, of a certain minimum length. Then one day I picked up a book by the hardest of the hardboiled, Andrew Vachss. It was Dead and Gone, and I loved his approach. No chapters. No numbers. Just scenes, some long, some short, set off only by white space and a drop cap. Here’s a screenshot of the first page:

What I loved about this was how liberating it felt. This was permission to write in pure cinematic style.

So when I began writing Try Dying, the first in my Ty Buchanan legal thriller series, that’s how I did it. In deference to the publisher, I did number the scenes. But the point is that writing this way means a scene can be as long or as short as it wants to be. No padding required. It also lets me easily control pace. I can put in a short scene that is rapid-fire action, or quiet emotional reflection, depending on how I want the book to feel at that point.

There are lots of possibilities so long as the reader is never lost on POV.

And that’s why I write in scenes.

Lots of Dialogue

Alec also mentioned the amount of dialogue, implying that it seemed, well, like a lot.

That’s because it is. I write thrillers and noir, and dialogue plays a major role in both. But I also love writing dialogue. Again, the movie influence. (See all those “zingers” from Friday).

So assessing the quantity of dialogue is the wrong focus. The only question is, does it work? The Fletch books by Gregory Macdonald, for example, are almost entirely dialogue. And they work as both mysteries and entertainments.

In addition, dialogue helps pace because it creates white space for the readers.

And dialogue is the fastest way to improve your novel. When an agent or editor (or reader, for that matter) sees crisp, orchestrated dialogue, they immediately gain confidence in the writer. That’s because they see so much flabby, plain-vanilla dialogue in their submissions.

I recall another date I went on where—

“Wrap it up, Jim,” he said.

“But it’s a funny—”


That’s a wrap.


Pack More Punch in Your Prose

by James Scott Bell

We talk a lot about the big stuff here at TKZ—plot, structure, characters, scenes, and so on.

Today, I want to discuss the small stuff: words and sentences. But though they are small in stature, they are monumental in effect. It’s our sentences that create the pictures which deliver the stories to our readers.

If they’re flabby (the sentences, not the readers) the book won’t have nearly the effect it should.

So let’s get serious about sentences. The jumping-off point for our discussion is another of our first-page critiques. See you on the other side:

Lies on the Seine

Chapter One

There were three people in line in front of her. Danny Sullivan didn’t recognize the man behind the cart. Having to deal with a stranger wasn’t unheard of, but ever since the woman in Berlin it always made her throat dry and she had to force herself not to swallow. She was on high alert whenever it happened.

Danny surveyed the area around her for anyone who looked suspicious. A woman sitting on a wooden bench had a stroller and a book, but she didn’t seem to be reading or paying any attention to her child. A man in a fully buttoned suit was leaning on a tree talking on his phone. He wouldn’t stand out if he loosened his tie, she’d keep him in her sight. She noticed a group of teenagers over her left shoulder, the one in the baseball cap and sunglasses seemed to be looking directly at her, she couldn’t be sure. She wasn’t paranoid, suspicious people could be extremely dangerous.

There were two people in line in front of her. Danny turned her attention to the sandbox. Jacob and Jason were playing their favorite game, burying their cars then needing help to find them. Being that it was rare for their father to get a few minutes off in the middle of the day to meet his family at the park, Mark was unaware that the four-year-olds were conning him. She watched as he desperately looked for cars where the twins pointed even though they each knew he was excavating in the wrong location. To him, ruining his suit was a small price to pay if it meant he could play with his sons. Her family was a distraction.

There was one person in line in front of her. Her hand shook as she reached into her bag preparing for the worst. Meetings like this always put her on edge. At least she was out in the open, unlike the time inside the rubbled hospital remains in Iran when the only thing she accomplished was getting out alive. Danny had been with the CIA for almost fifteen years, danger came with the job. Now, as an operative assigned to bring down a black market arms dealer, she expected to find herself in situations that put her life at risk. However, being in such close proximity to her family was a whole different kind of scared.


JSB: Author, you’ve got the makings of a good scene here. CIA, something big about to go down, kids and husband close by. So let’s see if we can’t render this with more vigorous prose, more action, and less telling.

There were three people in line in front of her.

I want you to be on the lookout for sentences that begin with the There were… construction. It’s not ungrammatical, and I use it myself sometimes. But there are (!) other ways to deliver the same information. I mention it because you use this construction in three of the four paragraphs. I get that you’re showing the line getting shorter, but variety in the language would make this more inviting.

Also, while it’s often done, beware of beginning a story with a pronoun (her) instead of a name. Yes, a writer could have a valid reason for doing so, but be darn sure about that reason.

Why not this for the opening line:

Danny Sullivan didn’t recognize the man behind the cart.

Now we have a name, which gets us closer to the character from the jump. We have action—she’s looking and not recognizing. And we have a specific image—the man behind the cart. This opening line put us right into an actual scene. In medias res, as they say.

I like the mystery that’s dropped in about the woman in Berlin. I think we can also make this crisper, not only by cutting flab (there’s that word again) but by making this two or three sentences:

OLD: Having to deal with a stranger wasn’t unheard of, but ever since the woman in Berlin it always made her throat dry and she had to force herself not to swallow.

NEW: Dealing with a stranger wasn’t unheard of, but ever since the woman in Berlin it made her throat dry. She had to force herself not to swallow.

OR: Dealing with a stranger wasn’t unheard of. But ever since the woman in Berlin it made her throat dry. She had to force herself not to swallow.

In general, compact sentences increase tension.

The second paragraph gives us Danny’s observations. We can do some more cutting:

OLD: A man in a fully buttoned suit was leaning on a tree…

NEW: A man in a fully buttoned suit leaned on a tree… 

Grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with the first version. But when you can cut words and still convey the same information, try it. Especially if you’re writing a thriller.

He wouldn’t stand out if he loosened his tie, she’d keep him in her sight. She noticed a group of teenagers over her left shoulder, the one in the baseball cap and sunglasses seemed to be looking directly at her, she couldn’t be sure.

Odd use of commas. Change each comma to a period and I think you’ll see it reads better.

Third paragraph: As I’ve already mentioned, There were… should go. Also, we can cut some more flab. Try it this way: Two people to go. Danny looked at the sandbox.

I’d also cut the last line: Her family was a distraction. I’m not sure what it means. What kind of distraction—one that gives her pleasure, or makes her nervous? If you want this information in the scene, show us how Danny’s feeling by way of something physical—a smile, a twitch, inner warmth, inner trembling, a deep breath—or perhaps a thought beat (e.g., Mark, why’d you pick today?) 

In fact, you should cut the last line of each paragraph. There’s a little guideline called RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). Each of your last lines is an author explanation of what we’ve just read. Let the action speak for itself.

The fourth paragraph begins: Her hand shook as she reached into her bag preparing for the worst. Meetings like this always put her on edge. At least she was out in the open, unlike the time inside the rubbled hospital remains in Iran when the only thing she accomplished was getting out alive.

I like this because it’s active and has a bit of backstory is woven in naturally. Notice how the effect can be enhanced by leaving some things out:

Her hand shook as she reached into her bag. At least she was out in the open, unlike the time inside the rubbled hospital remains in Iran.

Now we have micro-mysteries. What is she reaching for? Why was she in Iran? Micro-mysteries are great in opening pages. They compel the reader to read on.

So cut the rest of the paragraph, which is plain exposition—CIA, fifteen years, black market. Instead, let us see by Danny’s subsequent actions what her skills are.

Act first, explain later.

I recall an action movie, The Long Kiss Goodnight starring Geena Davis. She’s this nice, prim wife in a small town. But when she’s viciously attacked in her home, she suddenly has this amazing skill with a knife, and dispatches her attacker with lethal force.


We have to wait a long time to find out the backstory. That’s okay. We’re hooked. (Oddly, I can’t remember the rest of the movie. But the opening remains vivid.)

Author, you’ve got the stuff here for a tense opening page. Rework it. Cut and shape those words so they punch us in the heart.

Oh, and one more thing—don’t ever start a sentence with However. That’s for academic papers and stuffy speeches to the Rotary Club, not fiction! [UPDATE: Unless it’s in the mouth of a prim character who would begin a sentence with However!]

All right, kids. Your turn.


What Should I Expect From My First Novel?

by James Scott Bell

I got an email the other day from a young writer seeking advice about his foray into self-publishing. Here’s a clip:

As for my career this is going to be my debut work and as an author I currently have no following. My goal with the book is to establish myself professionally and get a small following going as well as bring in a good amount of money for a first book. My question is what are some steps I can take to build publicity about the book and myself without having any real following or platform?

Here is my answer.

  1. A small following does not bring in “a good amount of money”

Of course, what qualifies as a “good amount” varies, but I’m assuming this writer means more than Starbucks money. To get there, you’ll need a large following and more than one book. So…

  1. Attract a following with really good books

And what qualifies as a good book? Any book that follows all the advice on Kill Zone.


Only halfway kidding. It’s a book that is crafted in a way to connect with readers. It’s a book by an author serious about that craft. Which means …

  1. Get serious about your craft 

Because this is what you want to do. But there’s a big difference between wanting to do something and actually doing it well. Get feedback from a critique group or beta readers or professional editors. And…

  1. Plan ahead

Even as you’re finishing your novel, be developing two or three or four more, because …

  1. Your first novel will probably not be ready for prime time

They say everybody has a novel inside them, and that’s usually the best place to keep it. Really. First novels are almost always best seen as a learning experience. Rarely does an author hit it out of the park on the first pitch. In the “old days” of traditional publishing (roughly 1450 – 2007) the vast majority of authors went through many rounds of rejection, and it was that third or fourth or fifth novel that finally sold.

There were some notable exceptions, like Brother Gilstrap’s debut effort, Nathan’s Run. An exception which, you guessed it, proves the rule.

Today, of course, you can easily self-publish, but that ease is a lure, because …

  1. Self-publishing is not a get-rich-quick scheme

The explosion of content out there now demands not only that books be of good quality, but that the author understand and implement some basic fundamentals about running a small business.

Self-publishing can be a profitable enterprise if you …

  1. Produce and market at a steady clip

The only real formula for making bank as an indie is quality production over time, sprinkled with a modicum of marketing knowledge. Keep in mind that the single greatest factor in selling books is word-of-mouth. Hands down. Glitzy marketing efforts only get you so far. Your books have to do the heavy lifting, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking the only thing that matters is how vigorously and breathlessly you check all the marketing boxes.

Keep writing and learning on parallel tracks, and …

  1. Don’t go shopping for a yacht

At least not until you can pay cash for it, and have enough in the bank for docking fees, upkeep and a crew. Which reminds me …

  1. Learn to handle money like a Scottish shopkeeper

That’s good advice for anybody, no matter what they do. But what you do is write, so follow the above advice and…

  1. Repeat over and over the rest of your life

A real writer writes and does not stop, even if it means managing only 250 words a day between family or work obligations. Even if it means you’ve got a broken leg and you’re in a cast that’s hanging on a chain from a rack over your hospital bed. You can still talk 250 words into Google Docs through your phone.

That is what you can expect from your first novel.

So, Zoners, what did you all learn by finishing your first novel? Where is it now?



Can Slick Marketing Sell Bad Books?

by James Scott Bell

Kris titled her post last week “Naked Came the Stranger,” and slyly didn’t give us the story behind the title. I’d like to do that now, because I well remember one of the most famous literary hoaxes in publishing history.

This was back in the 1960s, the halcyon days of big, trashy novels like Valley of the Dolls and The Love Machine. A Newsday reporter by the name of Mike McGrady, over drinks with some pals, posited that a novel with no social value and even less literary quality could sell, if it was about sex and had a titillating cover.

To prove it, he got a couple dozen of his newsroom colleagues (19 men and 5 women, including two Pulitzer Prize winners) to conspire to write a lurid tome. The simple concept was a housewife having a series of adulterous flings, one per chapter. As the New York Times put it in McGrady’s obituary, “She has sex with a mobster and sex with a rabbi. She has sex with a hippie and sex with at least one accountant. There is a scene involving a tollbooth, another involving ice cubes…” You get the picture. The conspirators wrote one chapter each, trying their darndest not to make the writing too good.

McGrady edited each chapter, blue-penciling anything even approaching a modicum of literary quality.

The project’s original title was Strangers In The Valley, a cross between Valley Of The Dolls by Jacqueline Susann and Strangers When We Meet by Evan Hunter. But a female colleague, Beulah Gleich, told McGrady that the title was no good. He asked why. She said it needed the word Naked. McGrady suggested The Naked Stranger. Gleich said that was too blatant, that the title should have “more class.” Well, you be the judge.

McGrady decided on the pseudonym “Penelope Ashe” and had his sister-in-law pose for the author photo. (On the back of the dust jacket, “Penelope Ashe” is described as a “demure Long Island housewife.”)

He then submitted it to publisher Lyle Stuart, known for “edgy” books. They accepted it (not knowing it was a hoax) and proceeded to design a salacious cover. If you want to see the entire cover (a rather oxymoronic term considering the context) you can go here. (The photo was purloined from a Hungarian magazine, and when the book became a phenomenon, the photographer and model demanded compensation, and got it.)

When Naked Came the Stranger hit the stores, the reviewers hit back. The Village Voice said the book was “of such perfectly realized awfulness that it will suck your soul right out of your brainpan and through your mouth, and you will happily let it go.”

It became an instant bestseller.

After the book reached the 20,000 sales mark, the hoaxers, perhaps feeling a collective pang of guilt, decided to come clean on The David Frost Show. So the joke was over, right?

Um, no. The book sold even faster, spending 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It has lifetime sales of over 400,000. Open Road Media has the pub rights now.

I remember my mom and dad laughing about all this while looking at a Life magazine story on the hoax, with a group photo of the co-authors. You can see that photo, along with some others (including one of the cigar-chomping McGrady) by going here.


1. In the staid publishing world of the 60s and 70s, if a book was about sex, even if poorly written, slick marketing and a suggestive cover sometimes led to heaving, tumultuous, luminescent waves of febrile, smoldering, incandescent sales.

2. That may happen occasionally today, though it’s much more difficult, primarily because of the roiling sea of content now available.

3. If a book is not about sex and is poorly written, slick marketing and a great cover might drive some initial sales, but with a major drop off afterward. This will be of no help to an author’s career.

4. On the other hand, a really good book will always be held back by a bad cover. That will also be of no help to an author’s career.

5. So if you’re self-publishing, don’t skimp on covers. Where do you find designers? Check out 99Designs and this article by Joanna Penn.

6. A great book with a great cover, all other things being equal, is the best driver of what is far and away the most effective marketing: word-of-mouth.

7. Book after book following #4 is the only sure-fire way of building a writing career.

So, writer, don’t play fast and loose with a one-book stand. Commit to a quality relationship with your work, and take a vow to make that a life-long bond.

Okay, Zoners, let’s have your naked opinion. Don’t be a stranger.


All Stories Have Legs

by James Scott Bell

During Abraham Lincoln’s law-practice days, he had occasion to share a stagecoach with his soon-to-be adversary, Stephen A. Douglas, and a man named Owen Lovejoy. They were on their way to the courthouse at Bloomington, Illinois.

Douglas, known as “The Little Giant,” was about five feet tall with a long body and short legs. Lovejoy, on the other hand, had a short body and long legs. Lincoln, of course, was 6’4”. It must have been crowded in that coach.

At one point, Douglas tossed some shade at Lovejoy, remarking on his “pot belly” and long legs. Lovejoy came back with a barb about Douglas’s vertically-challenged sticks.

Then Lovejoy looked at the future president and asked, “Abe, just how long do you think a man’s legs should be in proportion to his body?”

Lincoln replied, “I have not given the matter much consideration, but on first blush, I should judge they ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground.”

And how long should a story be? Long enough to reach the end, and no longer. (Please note, I have not run this theory by George R. R. Martin.)

Which is why I love the novella form. In a brisk 20k-50k, you can grab a reader and deliver a wallop. Did you know that The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain is only about 35k words? Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has a similar count.

Stephen King has done some of his best work in novellas (e.g., The Body and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption)

The novella really matured during the golden age of the pulp magazines. In the classic years of the pulps, roughly 1920 – 1955, America was awash in inexpensive commercial fiction of all types. These were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, bound between wonderfully lurid covers. You could buy one of these magazines for a dime or 15¢, and inside you’d have a plethora of short stories and novellas and perhaps even an entire novel (or an episode from a novel in serialization).

A productive pulpster who could deliver the goods could make a living, even at a penny a word.

The novella largely disappeared after the death of the pulps. It was a difficult sell for book publishers who had to price them to make a profit, while bookstore browsers thought they might not be getting enough story for the price.

That didn’t mean the occasional novella didn’t break out (***cough***The Bridges of Madison County***cough***). But by the 2000s there were few being published simply because production costs exceeded revenue.

Now, because of the digital universe, those costs have disappeared, which has brought a revival of novella-length fiction.

Like the one I’ve just published.

Here’s how Framed came about. A couple of years ago I was playing the first-line-game. That’s a creativity exercise where you just come up with great opening lines and see if any of them spark a story idea. I’ve got a whole file full of ’em, some of which have led to published work.

This particular morning I found myself writing It’s not every day you bleed to death.

I had no idea who my character was or how he or she got into the implied predicament.

So I started to play with it. How could this have happened? Was it a suicide or attempted murder? Did my character have a near-death experience? Could he be narrating from the beyond?

I kept asking myself what if questions and writing things down, and eventually came up with an explanation that I liked. And from there I proceeded to develop the story.

I set it aside for awhile as I worked on other projects, then late last year came back to it and finished it. And you know how I knew it was done?

Because its legs had reached the ground. The ending felt just right.

So now, in the spirit of the pulps, I am launching the ebook for just 99¢ on Kindle. I want you to have it. I believe there is a huge market for brisk, suspenseful fiction, just like there was in the 1930s and 40s.

Do you agree?


How Should a Character Say Nothing?

by James Scott Bell

I had an amusing conversation the other day with another writer. She writes romance. I asked who some of her favorite authors are, and what they do that she likes.

Then she asked me about thriller writers.

“Have you read any Lee Child?” I said.

She rolled her eyes and huffed.

“What?” I said.

“I tried. But he kept writing Reacher said nothing …. Reacher said nothing. I just couldn’t take it.”

I had to laugh. Reacher said nothing has become a Lee Child signature. While he certainly didn’t invent this form of attribution (Hemingway used it, as you’ll see below), Lee has turned it into a personal trope. I’m sure he puts it in with a bit of a wink and a smile.

In fact, the phrase is now so familiar that the recent book by Andy Martin chronicling Lee’s writing of Make Me is titled Reacher Said Nothing. In the book Lee explains that Reacher “often says nothing. He shouldn’t have to be wisecracking all the time. He’s not into witty repartee. He’s supposed to do things.”

Nothing wrong with that. And though I personally love witty repartee, there are times when a character should stay silent.

How do we do that effectively? X said nothing is an option. I’ve certainly used it myself. But lately I’ve begun to consider other ways.

I often bring up Hemingway’s short story, “Soldier’s Home,” when discussing the telling detail. Krebs is a young man who has returned to his Midwestern home after serving overseas in World War I. Life can never be the same for him. He’s listless, doesn’t know what he’s going to do with himself. One morning as he’s eating breakfast his mother presses him to move on with his life. She even brings religion into the discussion.

“I’ve worried about you so much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”

Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

“Your father is worried, too,” his mother went on. “He thinks you have lost your ambition, that you haven’t got a definite aim in life. Charley Simmons, who is just your age, has a good job and is going to be married. The boys are all settling down; they’re all determined to get somewhere; you can see that boys like Charley Simmons are on their way to being really a credit to the community.”

Krebs said nothing.

Well there you go! Hemingway could have used Krebs said nothing both times, but I’ll tell you what: I’ve never forgotten that bacon fat hardening, and I first read the story way back in college. It is so stunningly evocative of Krebs’s inner life. Without it I don’t think the story would be the classic it is.

Let’s set up a sample exchange:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill said nothing.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

Here, said nothing does its work and gets out of the way. Fine. But overuse may call attention to it, so let’s consider alternatives: 

  1. The action beat

The character can do something rather than say something.

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill blinked a couple of times.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”


  1. The thought beat

With a POV clearly established, a thought can be a substitute:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Uh-oh. He knows.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”


  1. The perception beat

Like Krebs, the character can notice something:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill looked at the scuff marks on the floor.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

So when a character is going to be silent, don’t just default to said nothing. Use variety, which is the spice of life, fiction, and all-you-can-eat buffets.

So what do you think? Chime in. You’re not allowed to visit TKZ and say nothing!  



Oh, and speaking of nothing, how about FREE? The ebook of TRY DYING, the first of my Ty Buchanan legal thrillers, is FREE at the Kindle store today and tomorrow.