Ten Penalties All Writers Must Avoid

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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Forgive my second sports-related post in a row, but come on! It’s Super Bowl Sunday! Across America––and indeed the world––fans will gather around big screens in homes and bars to watch the most exciting spectacle of the viewing year: funny commercials!

Oh yes, and a football game.

This one has drama. On the one side we have the Denver Broncos and their quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is without question one of the greatest QBs of all time, a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer. But injuries and Father Time have taken their toll. Thus, this will likely be Manning’s final game and his last chance to win one more Super Bowl ring.

On the other side is the new kid, the immensely talented Cam Newton. This guy is huge––6’5”, 260, with a cannon of an arm and legs that can go. He led his Carolina Panthers to an amazing 17-1 season. And now he makes his Super Bowl debut.

I will be with friends noshing sausages, pulled pork, chili, and items from the other essential food groups–the salted nut group, the nacho group, and of course the chocolate-covered anything group.

I hope the game is a good one. I’d love to see it go down to the final minutes. I’ll also be very happy if a kicker does not miss a last-second field goal and thus suffer from nightmares the rest of his life.

And let us hope the game is not marred by a lot of penalties! Hate to see those yellow flags all over the field.

It occurred to me there are some penalty flags that are thrown on writers. So in the interest of helping you write your best, here are some violations you must avoid lest you lose yardage (which, for writers, is measured in pages) and, much more important, readers.

  1. False start

Are you warming up your engines at the beginning of your novel? Do you spend too much time with exposition and backstory? Do you go several pages without a disturbance? Are you giving us “Happy People in Happy Land”? That’s a false start. Penalty: five pages.

  1. Illegal use of the adverbs

Are you using too many adverbs to prop up weak verbs? Worse, are you using adverbs to prop up dialogue? Are you writing things like:

“Get out of here, you louse!” Sheila yelled angrily.

Or

“I’m gonna cut your heart out and feed it to the family dog,” he said threateningly.

If you do, you’ll be penalized, and it’s a big one: fifteen pages.

  1. Passage interference

Also known as the illegal flashback. This is where you stop a narrative in its tracks to give us a long look backward at some scene from the past. Unless there is a dang good reason for this, you will get a yellow flag and docked ten pages.

  1. Encroachment

Also known as author intrusion, this is when you try to sneak in some exposition that does not sound natural to the voice of the character (this penalty is explained more fully in the book VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing).

The skilled referee usually finds this in dialogue. The author wants to slip information to the reader through the characters’ words, but they are words the character would never use. Such as:

“Listen, Martha, you’re my lovely wife of twenty-eight years, and I wouldn’t be the head of surgery at Johns Hopkins without you. Especially after suffering that head injury in college when I foolishly went out for the rugby team. But dammit, you can’t dwell on your past as a stripper in a Nevada roadhouse when you were known as Cling Peaches. Please try to relax, like your sister Mary, who is two years younger than you, so we can go enjoy dinner in our hometown of Denver, Colorado.”

Encroachment is an automatic five pages, and loss of down.

  1. Delay of plot

Have you pushed your protagonist through the Doorway of No Return by the 20% mark of your novel? No? Then here’s a hard truth: it’s starting to drag. It doesn’t matter how quirky your characters. They have overstayed their welcome if they are not, by this time, into the struggle of Act II. Penalty: ten pages.

  1. Ineligible character downfield

Do you introduce a major character after the midpoint? Near the end, do you have a minor character show up out of nowhere to solve a plot problem? If you do, you need to go back to the first half and plant these characters. Five pages.

  1. Roughing the villain

League rules are protecting the antagonist more than ever. What do I mean by that? Simply this: if you have an antagonist who is evil, you must give him his due. You can’t just make him pure evil or insane. Boring! Every villain feels justified, and you the author must “make his case” in the book. Far from excusing his evil, this deepens the emotional currents in the reader and, ironically, makes the evil all the more scary. Fifteen page penalty for this one, plus the league may order you go to some rehab, like right here.

  1. Intentional sounding

Have you fallen in love with your sentences? There’s a reason the axiom “kill your darlings” exists. I should explain that this doesn’t mean cut every sentence you like. You’re allowed to delight in your own good writing. But you have to make sure it works for your story, and is true to character and context. Ten pages if, in the judgment of the officials, your pretty prose is more showing off than storytelling.

  1. Illegal motion

Does your story feel unfocused during that long struggle through Act II? Are there scenes that meander? Have you lost narrative vitality? While this penalty is only five pages, enough of these violations will keep you backed up on your own goal line. One place to look for help is the “mirror moment.” This tells you what your novel is really all about so you can write scenes with organic unity and powerful forward drive.

  1. Unauthorlike conduct

Do you head out to social media without a plan and a brand? Do you fly off the handle when you tweet? Do you slip into unethical sockpuppetry in order to slam your perceived competition? This penalty is severe: you might get thrown out of the game. Worse, the league office may suspend you indefinitely.

A good football team knows how to move the ball. A great football team knows how to correct weaknesses. A championship football team does all that, and avoids the penalties that kill scoring drives.

May you write like a champion.

And enjoy the game! I know I will, even though I am completely impartial.

***(COUGH)GoPeyton(COUGH)***

Has your writing been penalty free lately?

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The Magical Midpoint Moment

 

Being a structure guy, I’ve always been fascinated by how story works. When I was first learning the craft, I spent a year studying the 3 Act structure, taking my cues primarily from Syd Field’s classic, Screenplay. In that book, Field talks about plot points, the hinges that lead the plot into Act 2 and Act 3. But I found frustrating a lack of definition of how these plot points worked. What was supposed to be in them? Field knew something happened, he sensed it, but wasn’t quite able to define it.
After watching movie after movie and charting their structures, it came to me. Especially that first plot point, which I began calling “the doorway of no return.” That’s because something has to happen to thrust the lead character into the dangers of Act 2. When you know this in your plot, and put it in the right place, it keeps your novel from dragging and gives it the momentum it needs to carry it to the end. It’s crucially important. 
Then, a couple of years ago, I decided to do more in-depth study on what many writing teachers call the “midpoint.” If you do a search about midpoint on the Internet, you’ll find all sorts of ideas about what is supposed to happen here. Some people talk about “raising the stakes.” Others talk about this being the point of commitment. Still others say it’s a change in the direction of the story, or the gathering of new information, or the start of time pressure.
So once again I started watching movies with the midpoint in mind. And what I found blew me away. Even though the writers may not have been conscious of it, they were creating something in the middle of their stories that pulled together the entire narrative.  The name I gave it is the “look in the mirror” moment. My workshop slide looks like this:
At this point in the story, the character figuratively looks at himself. He takes stock of where he is in the conflict and, depending on the type of story, has either of two basic thoughts. In a character-driven story, he looks at himself and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming? If he continues the fight of Act 2, how will he be different? What will he have to do to overcome himself? Or how will he have to change in order to battle successfully?
The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. It’s where the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him. At this point the forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way to go on and not face certain death. That death can be professional, physical, or psychological.

These two basic thoughts are not mutually exclusive. For example, an action story may be given added heft by incorporating the first kind of reflection into the narrative. This happens in Lethal Weapon when Riggs bares his soul to Murtaugh, admitting that killing people is “the only thing I was ever good at.”
A few more examples may help.
In Casablanca, at the exact midpoint of the film, Ilsa comes to Rick’s saloon after closing. Rick has been getting drunk, remembering with bitterness what happened with him and Ilsa in Paris. Ilsa comes to him to try to explain why she left him in Paris, that she found out her husband Viktor Lazlo was still alive. She pleads with him to understand. But Rick is so bitter he basically calls her a whore. She weeps and leaves. And Rick, full of self disgust, puts his head in his hands. He is thinking, “What have I become?” 
 
The rest of the film will determine whether he stays a selfish drunk, or regains his humanity. That, in fact, is what Casablancais truly about, in both narrative and theme.
In The Fugitive, an action film, at the very center point of the movie Dr. Kimble is awakened in the basement room he’s renting, by cops swarming all over the place. He thinks they are after him, but it turns out they are actually after the son of the landlord. But the damage is done. Kimble breaks down. He is looking at the odds, thinking there’s no way he can win this fight. There are too many resources arrayed against him.
 
 
Then I went looking for the midpoint of Gone With The Wind, the novel. I opened to the middle of the book and started hunting. And there it was. At the end of Chapter 15, Scarlett looks inside herself, realizing that no one else but she can save Tara.
The trampled acres of Tara were all that was left to her, now that Mother and Ashley were gone, now that Gerald was senile from shock . . . security and position had vanished overnight. As from another world she remembered a conversation with her father about the land and wondered how she could have been so young, so ignorant, as not to understand what he meant when he said that the land was the one thing in the world worth fighting for.
Scarlett wonders what kind of person she has to become in order to save Tara. And the decision is made in the last paragraph:
Yes, Tara was worth fighting for, and she accepted simply and without question the fight. No one was going to get Tara away from her. No one was going to send her and her people adrift on the charity of relatives. She would hold Tara, if she had to break the back of every person on it.
 
And that is the essence of GWTW. It’s the story of a young Southern belle who is forced (via a doorway of no return called The Civil War) to save her family home. 

Also, notice how this is different from other definitions of the midpoint you’ll see. Virtually all books on the craft approach it as another “plot” point. Something external happens that changes the course of the story. But what I detect is a character point, something internal, which has the added benefit of bonding audience and character on a deeper level.

In preparing for this post, I grabbed three of my favorite movies and went to their midpoints. Here’s what I found:
 
In Moontstruck,right smack dab in the middle, is the scene where Loretta goes into the confessional, because she has “slept with the brother of my fiancé.” The priest says, “That’s a pretty big sin.” Loretta says, “I know . . .” And the priest tells her, “Reflect on your life!” He is actually instructing her to look in the mirror! 
There’s a perfect mirror moment in It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s the moment where Mr. Potter offers George Bailey a well-paid position with his firm, a job that will mean security for George’s growing family. In return, though, George will have to give up the Building & Loan his father started. Potter offers George a cigar and George asks for time to think it over. He is actually requesting look-in-the-mirror time, and is seriously considering this move. Then he shakes Potter’s hand, and the oily exchange suddenly clarifies what’s at stake for him as a person.  “No,” he says, “now wait a minute here. I don’t need twenty-four hours. I don’t have to talk to anybody. I know right now, and the answer’s No!” George had to make a decision as to what kind of man he was going to be. And he chose not to become another Potter.

Finally, in Sunset Boulevard, in the middle of the movie to the minute, Joe Gillis also has to decide what kind of man he is. Norma Desmond, his benefactor and lover, has tried to kill herself because Joe found a girl his own age that he wants to start seeing. When Joe hears about it he rushes back to her mansion with the thought that he’ll finally tell her it’s over, that he’s leaving. But she threatens to do it again. And Joe sits down, literally, next to a mirror. In that moment he makes his fateful decision, the one that drives the rest of the movie.

Could the reason these movies are classics, and others not, be that the writers understood the power of the look in the mirror? Whether instinctive or purposeful, they knew exactly what to do.

Books:

In the middle of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is alone in her room, having just heard of Chilton’s betrayal of Lecter, meaning she won’t get any more information from him, meaning the certain death of the kidnapped girl she’s been trying to save. The odds are now firmly against her and the FBI. In the shower, Clarice reflects back on a childhood memory which symbolizes loss for her.

At the midpoint of The Hunger Games, Katniss accepts the fact that she’s going to die. The odds are too great: I know the end is coming. My legs are shaking and my heart is too quick . . . . My fingers stroke the smooth ground, sliding easily across the top. This is an okay place to die, I think.

And, if I may, in the exact middle of my thriller, Try Dying, Ty Buchanan’s home has just been firebombed. His fiancée has been murdered. And he reflects on two kinds of people, those who keep driving toward something, and those who have “given up the fight.”
 
The question I had, and couldn’t answer, was which kind was I?


Of course, not every film or book will have a “mirror moment” like I’ve described. But the ones that do have a depth about them, a better cohesion and focus, and a satisfying arc. That’s the sort of thing that makes a reader search out more of an author’s work.

 
Since I incorporated “look in the mirror moment” into my workshops, students have reported it has been incredibly helpful in discovering what their novels are really all about. The nice thing is you can explore this moment at any time in your writing process. You can play with it, tweak it. Whether you are a plotter or pantser, just thinking about what the “look in the mirror” might reveal will help you find the real heart of your novel.
That’s why it’s a magic moment (cue The Drifters)
UPDATE: Since this post first appeared, I’ve written a book on the subject called Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between

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