About James Scott Bell

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Lust, Football and Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Remember when sports used to be about winning a trophy? Not a participation trophy, which didn’t exist until about thirty years ago. A trophy was supposed to be something you earned.

An athlete wins a letter by meeting a playing-time requirement. I remember winning my letter at ol’ Taft High. How proud I was. I could now rightly don the vaunted letterman’s jacket with leather sleeves and all. A big T was stitched on the jacket, to which I could add pins for certain accomplishments. When I was elected captain, I got to stitch a star to the triceps part of the sleeve.

Back then, jackets and letters and trophies were rewards on the merits. They were an incentive to strive, work hard, do your best.

How times have changed.

We just concluded the NFL draft in—fittingly—Las Vegas. Fitting because a Nevada sex worker offered the #1 pick another kind of “award”—a professional tumble, for free.

How inspirational! Another incentive for all you kids out there to work hard at your sport!

Pardon me as I try to hold down my breakfast.

Ah, but I am most happy to report that this year’s #1 pick, Travon Walker (DE, Georgia) sounds like a class act who will not be taking up the offer. In his video interview he paid homage to his Marine father for discipline and his schoolteacher mother for his grades. And thanked God for them both.

Go forth, young man, and be a star!

Now let’s talk about lust.

Lust—held the poets and philosophers, seers and sages—is the strongest and deadliest of the passions. It gets first place in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Lust, anger and greed, these three are the soul-destroying gates of hell.”

Or as Chaucer put it in Canterbury Tales:

Foul lust of lechery, behold thy due.
Not only dost thou darken man’s mind,
But bringest destruction on his body too…

Which is why lust is such a powerful fire in fiction. It is the force behind every femme fatale in noir, and almost exclusively the downfall of the male. Think of slick insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity, or lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) in Body Heat. Think of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, caught in the alluring web of the devious Brigid O’Shaughnessy even as he knows he must deliver her to the cops.

Lust in fiction is not the sole purview of the male, of course, as certain romance covers aver. Those six-pack abs and low-rider jeans do not betoken Sunnybrook Farm. And though I’ve never read it, isn’t lust the entire driving force of Fifty Shades of Grey? (I prefer the Amish version, Fifty Shades of Hay.)

Thus, lust is a potent source of inner conflict, and inner conflict bonds reader to character.

At the end of The Maltese Falcon, Spade has to fight his passion for Brigid, the murderess of his partner, and his inner conflict is evident in what he tells her:

“I won’t play the sap for you.”

“Don’t say that, please.” She took his hand from her shoulder and held it to her face. “Why must you do this to me, Sam? Surely Mr. Archer wasn’t as much to you as—”

“Miles,” Spade said hoarsely, “was a son of a bitch. I found that out the first week we were in business together and I meant to kick him out as soon as the year was up. You didn’t do me a damned bit of harm by killing him.”

“Then what?”

Spade pulled his hand out of hers. He no longer either smiled or grimaced. His wet yellow face was set hard and deeply lined. His eyes burned madly. He said: “Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around—bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

“You’re not serious,” she said. “You don’t expect me to think that these things you’re saying are sufficient reason for sending me to the—”

“Wait till I’m through and then you can talk. Fourth, no matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows with the others. Next, I’ve no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to. That’s five of them. The sixth would be that, since I’ve also got something on you, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day. Seventh, I don’t even like the idea of thinking that there might be one chance in a hundred that you’d played me for a sucker. And eighth—but that’s enough. All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won’t argue about that. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”

“You know,” she whispered, “whether you do or not.”

“I don’t. It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won’t. I’ve been through it before—when it lasted that long. Then what? Then I’ll think I played the sap. And if I did it and got sent over then I’d be sure I was the sap. Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell–I’ll have some rotten nights—but that’ll pass. Listen.” He took her by the shoulders and bent her back, leaning over her. “If that doesn’t mean anything to you forget it and we’ll make it this: I won’t because all of me wants to–wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it—and because—God damn you—you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others.” He took his hands from her shoulders and let them fall to his sides.

Spade set the edges of his teeth together and said through them: “I won’t play the sap for you.”

She put her mouth to his, slowly, her arms around him, and came into his arms. She was in his arms when the door-bell rang.

That’s why The Maltese Falcon is a classic and not another run-of-the-mill detective story. It’s not just about greed and murder. It’s about a man’s soul torn between two savage passions—lust and duty.

Is any of that going on in any of your characters?

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?