Three Easy Ways to Strengthen A Scene

by James Scott Bell

Scenes are the bricks that build the fiction house. The better the bricks, the better the house. You don’t want bricks that easily crumble or aren’t fitted properly.

Now, sing with me the song of the novel:

It’s a brick houuuuse
It’s mighty mighty, makin’ the readers shout


So what is a scene? It’s a unit of action. It involves a viewpoint character who has a scene objective. If there is no objective, the scene is flat and crumbly. The objective must be met with obstacles, which create conflict. If there are no obstacles, the scene is boring. Finally, there is an outcome, which must push the reader on to the next scene.

For today’s lesson, let’s take it as a given that you’ve constructed a scene with these elements. It’s a solid brick, doing its work. I want to suggest three easy ways to strengthen that brick.

  1. Enter later

Suppose a scene begins this way:

The next morning I showered, shaved, and put on my best suit. I was going to show Mr. Bullard not only that I could be prompt, but also that I looked every bit the hot young salesman on the way up.

Too bad traffic didn’t cooperate with me. The 405 was absolutely jammed. Which made me ten minutes late.

When I walked into Bullard’s office, the first thing out of his mouth was, “You’re late.”

“Sorry, Mr. Bullard, but the traffic was—”

“I don’t care about the traffic. You were told 8:30. It was your business to be here.”

“If I may—”

“The only sound I want to hear is you cleaning out your desk.”

Okay, there’s nothing technically wrong with how this scene opens. It sets the whole thing up. And you may decided to leave it that way for pacing purposes. But consider entering the scene this way:

“You’re late,” Bullard said.

“Sorry, Mr. Bullard, but the traffic on the 405 was—”

“I don’t care about the traffic. You were told 8:30. It was your business to be here.”

“If I may—”

“The only sound I want to hear is you cleaning out your desk.”

I slinked out of his office, feeling ridiculous in my best suit. So I was going to show him a hot young salesman, huh? What a joke.

Notice that some of the exposition from the first example is filled in by way of dialogue. That’s always the better choice, so long as you place the info in the midst of a tense exchange.

Tip: Look at the opening of every scene in your book and see if you can start a bit later. Most of the time you can without losing anything.

  1. Exit earlier

Most writers, I expect, write a scene to “closure.” They want to end it as if it were a complete unit. Something like this:

The last thing I put in the box was the framed picture of Molly and me.

“So you got the ax.”

I looked up. It was Jennifer, the accounts manager.

“Yep,” I said.

“No worries,” she said. “You’ll land on your feet.”

And then she was gone.

I finished filling up the box. Taking one last look around my office—my former office—I made my way to the elevators. Five minutes later I was out on the street.

The last paragraph makes the scene feel like a completed unit. So what’s wrong with that? Subconsciously, the reader takes a breath, relaxes just a bit. If that’s your intent, fine. But consider creating more page-turning momentum this way:

The last thing I put in the box was the framed picture of Molly and me.

“So you got the ax.”

I looked up. It was Jennifer, the accounts manager.

“Yep,” I said.

“No worries,” she said. “You’ll land on your feet.”

And then she was gone.

Wait, what? What happened after she left? The reader needs to know! So the page is turned and you take the reader to the next scene, right in the middle of the action (see tip #1).

“Double Jameson’s,” I said. “Neat.”

The lunch crowd hadn’t arrived yet. The bar area in Morton’s was cool and dark.

“Tough morning?” the bartender said.

Tip: Look at all your scene endings and see if a little trim doesn’t give you added momentum. I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

  1. Surprise us

I have a little sticky note that says SUES: Something Unexpected in Every Scene. If you think about it, what is it that makes reading dull? It’s when the reader anticipates what’s coming next…and then it does!

So surprise them. Sometimes that means we change the scene outcome to provide a major shock or twist. But we can’t do that every time without giving the reader whiplash. What you can do is find some way to create surprise within the scene itself. Again, this is easy to do.

Tip: Simply look at the scene and ask yourself what the reader might be expecting with each beat. Then give them something different. Try:

  • Flipping a character stereotype.
  • Adding a fresher description.
  • Using side-step dialogue.

Just a bit more on that last one, which is one of my favorites. From my book How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, I use this example:

“Let’s go to the store, Al.”

“Okay, Bill, that’s a fine idea.”

That’s called “on the nose” dialogue. And while you need some of it, for that is how we communicate in real life, doing the “side step” is an easy way to surprise the reader.

“Let’s go to the store, Al.”

“Your wife called me yesterday.”


“Let’s go to the store, Al.”

“Why don’t you shut your fat face?”

In sum, these are three easy ways to strengthen any scene. The ROI is tremendous, and you’ll end up with a solid brick houuuuuse.


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Write a Big Moment For All It’s Worth

by James Scott Bell

We all have favorite scenes from books and movies, story moments that hit us so powerfully we never forget them. One of mine is the stump clearing scene in Shane.

Then there are the moments that happen in real life. They can be little things, like the police officer who lay down on the floor to comfort a little boy.

Or they can be big, with millions of people watching. Of this variety, my all time favorite is the Kirk Gibson home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. You could not have scripted it any better—a hobbled hero given one shot to save the day against overwhelming odds. Here’s how it went down.


The Los Angeles Dodgers had been an under .500 team for two straight seasons. Then they got the opportunity to sign a premiere free agent, Kirk Gibson, age 31. The $4.5 million investment paid off. Gibson won the National League MVP award, batting .290 with 25 home runs, 76 RBIs, and 31 stolen bases. He led the Dodgers to their first division title in three years.

In the National League Championship Series, the Dodgers upset the New York Mets in seven games. Gibson hit home runs in Games 4 and 5. But his knees were hurting. He needed injections to play. And then in the last inning of Game 5, while sliding into second to break up a double play, Gibson pulled a hamstring. Which meant he would be unable to play against the Oakland A’s in the World Series. That made the Dodgers huge underdogs.


Game 1 of the Series was at Dodger Stadium. The legendary Dodger announcer, Vin Scully, was calling the game for NBC, along with Joe Garagiola.

The Dodgers scored two runs in the first inning. The fans were excited. But in the second inning, Jose Conseco of the A’s, he of the huge (i.e., juiced) biceps, hit a screaming line drive with the bases loaded. The ball scorched over the centerfield fence and actually dented a TV camera. That’s how hard it was hit. Just like that, it was 4-2, A’s.

The Dodgers got another run in the sixth, and that’s where things stayed until the bottom of the ninth. With the score 4-3, the Dodgers had to face the most feared relief pitcher in all of baseball, Dennis Eckersley. This future Hall of Famer simply did not lose ballgames. I will describe the mood of the crowd by lifting a line from Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s immortal poem “Casey at the Bat.” On that stricken multitude a death-like silence sat.

Gibson was in the Dodgers training room, bags of ice on his legs, watching the game on TV. Before the inning started, Vin Scully said the following: “If you’re in the ballpark with binoculars, your first thought would be, late in the game, is Kirk Gibson in the Dodgers dugout? The answer would appear to be no…There is no Gibson. The man who was the spearhead of the Dodgers’ offense throughout the year, who saved them in the league championship series, will not see any action tonight for sure. He is not even in the dugout.”

At which point Gibson sat up on the training table and said, “My ass.” He threw on his uniform and told the ball boy to set up a batting tee. After a few thwacks he told the boy to inform Tommy Lasorda, the manager, that he could hit.

Eckersley retired the first two batters. Lasorda sent Mike Davis in as a pinch hitter. Davis had not exactly set the league on fire. In his own words, “I sucked that season” Yet this journeyman somehow drew a walk from Eckersley! The tying run was now on first base.

And then Kirk Gibson came out of the dugout, bat in hand. As Vin Scully put it on the broadcast: “And look who’s coming up. All year long, they looked to him to light the fire, and all year long, he answered the demands, until he was unable to start tonight with two bad legs…and with two out, you talk about a roll of the dice, this is it.”


The fans at the stadium went wild. I went wild in front of my TV.

But we all became more subdued after the first two pitches. Gibson, looking feeble, fouled them off. The count was now 0-2, and I don’t think there was anyone on the planet—except perhaps Gibson himself—who thought he could survive. Eckersley himself remembers thinking, “I thought he was a lamb. I’m thinking I’m going to throw him a high fastball and he’s done.”

Meanwhile, Mike Davis was becoming a distraction down at first.

On the next pitch, Gibson hit a little dribbler up the first base line. As he hobbled toward the bag, the ball managed to roll past the foul line. A miraculous save!

But Gibson was still up there with two strikes. Eckersley’s next pitch was a ball…and the A’s catcher, Ron Hassey, almost picked off Mike Davis at first!

Sheesh, could this tension get stretched any further?

Of course it could.

Gibson fouled off the next pitch. Then another ball from Eckersley, putting the count at 2-2.

Another ball, and Mike Davis steals second!

Now we’ve got a full count, two outs, bottom of the ninth, the tying run on second. And all Gibson was thinking about was putting the ball in play to score Davis.

Then he played a little mind game on Eckersley. Just before the next pitch Gibson called for time and stepped out of the box. Let Eckersley think about it as the fans were screaming. At the same time, Gibson was remembering what a scout told him. If ever he faced Eckersley with a 3-2 count, you can bet your ranch he’ll come at you with a “backdoor slider.”

Which is exactly what Eckersley threw. Gibson stuck out his bat and flipped it with his wrists. It didn’t look like a hard swing at all, but it happened to meet the ball in just the right spot.

Vin Scully called it: “High fly ball into right field! She is gone!”

Gibson started limping around the bases. Scully, as he was wont to do, let the crowd noise do the talking for a long moment. And then, off the cuff, came up with one of his fabled phrases: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!”

Gibson did not have another plate appearance in the Series, but the momentum from his home run carried the Dodgers to a five-game upset of the A’s.

Now that you know the story, you can have a look at it below. For me, this never gets old:

Lesson: When you write a big scene, write it for all it’s worth. Don’t hold back! Overwrite. Feel the emotions. Stretch all tension to the limit. You will edit the scene later to polish the rough edges. You may need to scale things back a bit for a greater effect. But get that raw material down first. Then your scene will have the potential to be a winning home run.

What’s a scene from a book or a movie—or real life—that has stayed with you? Why does it work?

Scene and Un-Scene

by James Scott Bell

Today’s first-page critique raises the question of what makes a scene…and what doesn’t. Let’s have a look:

  1. The Envelope

Vanessa’s eyes watched the second-hand tick it’s way around the clocks face. The odor of furniture polish drifted into her nostrils as she sat alone at the conference room table. From the second floor, she had a clear view of the Bay Bridge. She took deep breaths as she watched the traffic.

Vanessa swiveled around when the conference room door opened. She witnessed Lindsey Harper, one of the firm’s secretaries, slam a water jug on the table. Lindsey then turned around and calmly walked out of the room. Vanessa blotted the spilled water off her client’s file. Then she opened the voice recorder app on her phone and placed it on the conference room table.

She had five more minutes to wait before her four o’clock appointment with Mr. Henderson. He needed legal representation as the police viewed him as the prime suspect in his wife’s murder.

Vanessa leaned back in her chair and looked through the glass partition at unoccupied desks. Most of the staff at Anderson & Smith LLP had gone home for the weekend. Even her boss, Mr. Smith, had left the office. She then exhaled before she folded back the cover on his file. She knew the crime scene photographs were gruesome. Her job as a criminal paralegal meant that she had to gather and examine the evidence.

Vanessa had worked at Anderson & Smith LLP, one of the top criminal law firms in San Francisco, for over two years. She earned her four-year degree in criminal justice from San Francisco State University. She attended forensic classes in college, and then she discovered she had no stomach for viewing dissected bodies.

Her job as a criminal paralegal on occasion took her to a crime scene. But usually, the Coroner had already removed the victim’s body.

The police viewed their client, Mr. Henderson, as a prime suspect in the brutal murder of his wife. He claimed to be home all evening, on the night of his wife’s murder, but there were no witnesses to confirm his story. Their live-in maid had taken a three day weekend to visit her sister in San Jose. The victim’s blood was all over the crime scene. Yet the police report stated that their client had no traces of blood on his clothes when the police arrived at his home.


JSB: Before we discuss the text, I want to say something about chapters with titles. I don’t like ’em. They might be okay for juvenile fiction, but I don’t see any gain in adult genres. It doesn’t do anything to motivate me to read on. Indeed, I never think about or even remember a chapter title as I read the actual chapter. It’s just clutter, and who needs that? (Give me your feedback in the comments.)

On to the text. We’re going to talk about the difference between an active scene, and exposition and backstory. A scene shows us action on the page; exposition and backstory tell us things about the story and characters. These latter elements are fine in their place, but their place is not on the opening page. (If you’re unclear about show and tell, I suggest you read Kris’s great post on the topic, and do some more self-study until you’ve got this issue nailed. It is absolutely essential for your success as a writer.)

Here, the first paragraph gives us a scene set-up, which is fine:

Vanessa’s eyes watched the second-hand tick it’s way around the clocks face. The odor of furniture polish drifted into her nostrils as she sat alone at the conference room table. From the second floor, she had a clear view of the Bay Bridge. She took deep breaths as she watched the traffic.

A couple of quick notes: clocks should be clock’s. I do like that you used the sense of smell. It’s underutilized in fiction. We then have Vanessa watching the traffic through the window. It’s a nice way to tell us we’re in San Francisco, but isn’t she looking at the clock? Simple fix. She can be listening to the clock. Or she can turn her head to look out the window.

These small physical matters are important. Many a time I’ve had an editor tell me that a character who had sat down early in a scene was now walking around. Readers notice these little speed bumps.

Vanessa swiveled around when the conference room door opened.

Here’s another speed bump and it comes from the misordering of stimulus and response. We never want to invert these. In the sentence above, the stimulus is the door opening. The response is Vanessa swiveling around. She should hear the door open and then swivel.

The great writing teacher Jack Bickham (whose book I credit with setting me on the road to publication) explains that a stimulus is something external, as if we were seeing or hearing it in real time. The response must also be external, something physical (note: dialogue counts as physical). And these must be in the right order.

Not: Audrey yelped. A shot had just been fired.

But: A shot rang out. Audrey yelped.

Moving on:

She witnessed Lindsey Harper, one of the firm’s secretaries, slam a water jug on the table.

We’re starting to slip out of vivid, active writing now. This sounds like the author telling us what has happened. Scene writing needs to sound like it’s happening in right in front of us: Lindsey Harper, one of the firm’s secretaries, slammed a water jug on the table.

See the difference? And notice you don’t need to tell us Vanessa witnessed the action. If it’s happening on the page, and we’re in her POV, it’s a given that the scene is played out through her eyes.

Lindsey then turned around and calmly walked out of the room. Vanessa blotted the spilled water off her client’s file. Then she opened the voice recorder app on her phone and placed it on the conference room table.

Too bad Lindsey left, because she’s another character, has just done something annoying, and that’s fodder for conflict. If you’re not showing us some form of conflict, you’re either not writing a scene…or the scene you’re writing is a yawner.

She had five more minutes to wait before her four o’clock appointment with Mr. Henderson. He needed legal representation as the police viewed him as the prime suspect in his wife’s murder.

This is pure exposition, the author telling us what’s happening, and why. I have a little axiom: act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for information if something interesting is happening. What if Lindsey had hung around and we got this instead:

Lindsey slammed the water jug on the table. Some water splashed out, landing like raindrops on the client file.

“Hey!” Vanessa said. “Careful.”

“He’ll be here in five minutes,” Lindsey said.

Vanessa grabbed a couple of tissues from the box on the table and started sopping up the water.

“Show him right in when he gets here,” Vanessa said.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.” 

Lindsey shrugged and put her finger on one of the water drops on the table. “I just thought…”

“Thought what?”

“Because of what happened last time.”

I don’t know what they’re talking about, of course, because I’m not the author. But I do know this is a scene and that I want to read on to find out what’s happening!

Let’s skip to this:

Vanessa had worked at Anderson & Smith LLP, one of the top criminal law firms in San Francisco, for over two years. She earned her four-year degree in criminal justice from San Francisco State University. She attended forensic classes in college, and then she discovered she had no stomach for viewing dissected bodies.

This is exposition combined with backstory. It should now be clear to you that it’s not a scene happening in “real time” on the page.

The police viewed their client, Mr. Henderson, as a prime suspect in the brutal murder of his wife. He claimed to be home all evening, on the night of his wife’s murder, but there were no witnesses to confirm his story. Their live-in maid had taken a three day weekend to visit her sister in San Jose. The victim’s blood was all over the crime scene. Yet the police report stated that their client had no traces of blood on his clothes when the police arrived at his home.

All tell. “But,” you say, “readers need to know all this to make sense of the scene!”

Nay, not so.

Indeed, it’s better to hold back as much information as you can, as it creates immediate mystery. Readers will keep reading to find out what’s going on.

So when and how do you reveal crucial information? Here’s one technique: confrontational dialogue. In a tense exchange it’s easy and natural to slip in some exposition. Let’s put Mr. Henderson in the room with Vanessa:

“Let’s get this over with,” Henderson said.

“This is going to take a little time,” Vanessa said.

“You have twenty minutes.”

“Mr. Henderson, they’re going to charge you with murder. I think we need—”

“I didn’t do it.”

“And that’s why we have to—”

“Do you think I did it?”

His slate-colored eyes glared at her.

“I’m just gathering information,” she said.

“Not what I asked.”

Vanessa’s throat clenched. She took a breath and said, “You’re our client.”

“You think I took a butcher knife and cut my wife to pieces?”

By substituting dialogue for pure exposition, you are forcing yourself to write an active scene, which is the basic unit of readable fiction. So remember:

  • Act first, explain later
  • Keep stimulus-response transactions in proper order
  • With the exception of necessary description, try nixing all exposition and backstory on the opening page
  • Set the crucial information inside tense dialogue

All right! That’s enough for today. Over to you, TKZers. If you have some suggestions for our author on the submitted text, please chime in.


If you want more in-depth fiction craft teaching, my one-day seminar “Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down” is on special right now. Usually $197, we’ve knocked $100 off the price. Check it out here!

How to Move From One Scene to the Next

by James Scott Bell

Terry’s helpful post on transitions got me thinking (always a dangerous thing). So today I’d like to add a few nuggets of my own.

Simply put, transitions are what take you from one scene or POV to another, or ahead in time within the same scene. Here’s an example of a location transition:

     John stormed out of the apartment. If the big man wanted a showdown, he was going to get it.
     Putting pedal to the metal, John tore across town, ignoring stop signs and pedestrians and at least one cop.
     Entering the office, John heard the receptionist say, “Good morning.”
     “Whatever,” John said.

We have moved from John’s apartment to his office—change of location.

Now an example of time transition:

     “You want to know why you’re being let go?” Stevenson said.
     “Yeah,” John said. “Fill me in.”
     “Sit down, and cool off. I’ve got some things to tell you.”
John plopped in a chair.
     “I want to tell you about my dad, and how he started this firm,” Stevenson said. “I need to start when I was a kid.”
     Half an hour later, John was ready to jump out the window. Stevenson hadn’t stopped talking the whole time.

We don’t get the entire Stevenson speech. Unless it’s crucial to the plot, we don’t need it. Time transitions are easy. Just add one line to let us know we’ve moved ahead within the same scene.

Now let’s look a little more closely at location transitions. I’m not talking about chapter breaks here, but moving to another setting within a chapter. When you do change locations, you can stay with the same viewpoint character, or shift to another POV. But you have to let the reader know what’s going on in the most efficient way possible.

There are three techniques:

  1. Narrative Summary

As the term suggests, you can get from one location to the next by summarizing the transitional stuff (rather than showing each beat). Unless plot or character material is necessary, just get us to the new location with as little muss as possible. This is the narrative summary from in the first example in this post, above:

Putting pedal to the metal, John tore across town, ignoring stop signs and pedestrians and at least one cop.

We aren’t shown the drive. That would involve description, action, perhaps John’s internal thoughts as he drove. But if none of that has any value to the story, don’t put it in. Use narrative summary to get us to the new scene toot sweet.

The pulp writers were especially adept at this. Here’s how Talmage Powell (1920-2000) did it in his Black Mask story “Her Dagger Before Me.”

     “All right,” I said. “I’ll do what I can to help you. This is murder. Contrary to what the public thinks, private dicks don’t like to get mixed in murder. If we have to wade through murder the cost is high.”
     “I know,” Phyllis Darnell said. “I’ll pay.”
     “I’m not worrying. After all, I’ll have the letters, won’t I?”
     I ushered her out, showered, and went over to Mac’s garage, where my coupe had been laid up with a ring job.

  1. White Space

Another way to move is by putting in a space break, like this:

     John stormed out of the apartment. If the big man wanted a showdown, he was going to get it.


    Entering the office, John heard the the receptionist say, “Good morning.”
    “Whatever,” John said.

White space is also how you switch between POV characters within the same chapter. Just be sure to identify the new viewpoint character in the first line:

     John stormed out of the apartment. If the big man wanted a showdown, he was going to get it.


    Gil Stevenson stuck his head out his office door. “Has Stone come in yet?”
    “No, Mr. Stevenson,” Peggy said.
    “Well, get him in here the moment he arrives!” He slammed the door and took a deep breath. This was not going to be one of his better days.

  1. Just Be There

Last week I wrote about the Bill Lennox stories by W. T. Ballard. For fun I re-read the first one, “A Little Different,” published in Black Mask in 1933. In one scene Lennox is in a cab being followed by a dirty PI. He gives the cabbie a fin ($5) to lose him.

     The driver grinned and turned sharply onto Vine, right on Sunset, left at Highland, crashing a signal. Finally, at the corner of Arlington and Pico, he pulled to the curb. “Where to?”
     Lennox said, “Take me to Melrose and Van Ness.” The driver shrugged and turned towards Western.
     Lennox got out at the corner and walked to the apartment house.

What happened between the driver turning towards Western and Lennox getting out? Driving, maybe some talk, arriving, pulling to the curb, etc. We don’t need any of that. Here’s a little secret: the reader fills in that stuff subconsciously and thus the pace doesn’t slow one bit.

And speaking of pace, how you handle transitions is a major way to control it.

The above examples keep the pace crisp. But suppose you want to slow things down a bit, give the reader a breather, and stick in some deepening of character? Just use the transition to add internal thoughts or, if you’re brave enough, a flashback.

Internal thoughts

     Putting pedal to the metal, John tore down the street. He saw a cop ahead and slowed. One thing he didn’t need was a ticket. One thing he did need was a drink. Maybe a quick stop at Barney’s would help. Sure. A little liquid courage never hurt.
     Of course it hurts, you dope. You know how you get. Two shots of Bushmills and you’re ready to give Mike Tyson his comeback bout.


     Putting pedal to the metal, John tore down the street. He saw a cop ahead and slowed. One thing he didn’t need was a ticket. He stopped at the red light like an A+ driving student.
     Which he’d once been, in high school. That was before the accident. He and Tom Barker were out one night, John driving his dad’s Porsche. Tom wanted In-N-Out. John wanted Boone’s Farm Apple Wine.
     “We’ll get some guy to buy it for us,” John said. “Then we’ll go stuff your face.”

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) the skillful handling of transitions, and using variety in the technique, is a way to subtly enhance the fictive dream for the reader. And dreamers buy books.

Now let us transition into comments.



Tomorrow is release day for Romeo’s Stand, the fifth Mike Romeo thriller (the books can be read in any order). See the listing here!

Scene Writing is Where the Fun Happens

by James Scott Bell

We’ve had some good posts and comments about writing methods, grouped generally under the two broad headings of plotter/outliner and pantser. You can read the latest entries HERE and HERE.

What I want to examine today is a bromide I often hear when this subject comes up. It issues from the pantsing side of the room, and goes something like this: “If I had an outline and knew everything beforehand, that would take all the fun out of writing the book.”

I beg to differ. For the one thing both sides should agree on is that writing scenes is the most fun of all.

Why? Because, of course, the scene level is where the story actually happens, unfolds, gets “discovered.” For the pantser it’s all discovery. For the outliner, the discovery is in finding, and delighting in, the granular details of bringing the scene to life.

Let’s illustrate how this is done. I give you a writer named Jeb David Huggins (this is a mash up of the three writers behind one of my favorite action movies, The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford. Jeb Stuart and David Twohy did the screenplay; Roy Huggins was the creator of the TV series upon which the movie was based).

Jeb has a tight outline for the story and knows the ups and downs and ins and outs of the plot. He’s created a fantastic cast of characters, from Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) all the way to the Chicago detectives who muck up the case (Ron Dean and Joseph Kosala). Now he starts writing.

And does he knows how to open a thriller! A murder scene and the arrest of respected surgeon Dr. Richard Kimble on suspicion of killing his wife. Trial. Conviction. Death Row.

Then he’s on the prison bus, and there’s an attempted takeover by the inmates. The crash. The train coming! Kimble saves a wounded prison guard, and barely makes it off the train!

Now, in his outline, Jeb has a scene card: KIMBLE JUMPS OUT OF THE PRISON BUS JUST BEFORE TRAIN RAMS IT.

At outline time that was enough. But while writing the scene Jeb gets a happy idea. What if we keep this going? What if the train derails…and heads straight for the escaping Kimble, who is still in leg irons!

Hot dog! (That’s what writers say when they come upon a delightful idea).

More delight comes in the writing of dialogue. You have so much leeway here. Whether you’ve outlined the scene or are pantsing through it, dialogue is yet to be discovered.

In The Fugitive, after the bus escape, Kimble is alive but wounded. The one guy who helps him is Copeland, a big, bad dude from the bus. Really bad. He’s a stone-cold killer. He says to Kimble, “Now you listen. I don’t give a damn which way you go. Just don’t follow me. You got that?”

As he’s pulling away Kimble says, “Hey Copeland.” Copeland turns around. Kimble says, “Be good.”

It’s a great moment which was not in the original script. Sometimes happy surprises are provided by the characters in the scene!

Let’s cut to a scene further on, where Kimble has managed to find some old coveralls and now must sneak into a rural hospital. He has to tend to his wound, change his appearance, find clothes, and get out.


Both outliners and pantsers need to understand scene structure. I break it down into the Three O’s: Objective, Obstacles, Outcome. This is where you brainstorm.

Kimble’s objective is as described above. You—be ye pantser or plotter—have an idea of the outcome (Kimble will get away, but with more trouble following).

Now the fun of the obstacles. In the movie we have the following: time pressure, finding a room with medicine and stitching supplies; a state trooper arriving; a fax coming in with Kimble’s face; finding a room with a sedated patient; Kimble shaving off his beard…(brainstorm, brainstorm) a nurse enters the room! Kimble hides, nurse leaves, Kimble needs food…he takes the uneaten breakfast of the sedated man…Kimble finds a doctor’s smock and puts it on and starts walking out…(brainstorm, brainstorm) the state trooper is coming right toward him! The trooper says, “Hey Doc, we’re looking for a prisoner from that wreck. He might be hurt.”

Kimble keeps walking. “What does he look like?”

TROOPER: Six-one, 180, brown hair, brown eyes, beard. Seen anyone like that around?

KIMBLE: Every time I look in the mirror, pal. Except for the beard, of course.

So far so good. Anything we can add? (brainstorm, brainstorm). Ah! As Kimble is about to walk off, the trooper says, “Hey Doc.” Uh-oh. Why? Then the trooper indicates Kimble should zip up. His fly is open. Happy surprise! (Any time you can add a little laughter relief to a thriller, do it.)

Outcome: Kimble exits the hospital and steals an ambulance. Wait…we can do better. As Kimble comes out an ambulance pulls up, and out of the back the paramedics have trouble with the gurney. Kimble helps, but on the gurney is the guard whose life he saved! The guard starts to say his name, so Kimble nabs an oxygen mask and presses it on the guard’s face.

Now what? Kimble tells the medics to inform the attending physician that the guard has a puncture in his upper gastric area. One medic says to the other, “How the hell could he tell that by looking at his face?”

Perfect! Kimble gets the ambulance, but because of his act of decency (he’s a doctor, he can’t help it!) he is going to get in more trouble pretty quickly.

This is fun! (Note: Outcomes should generally set the character back, make things worse. You can have an objective realized, as in this scene, but then have the good outcome lead to greater trouble down the line.)

Here’s another area for surprise: how we characterize. In The Fugitive, the best lines come from Sam Gerard and the great turn by Tommy Lee Jones. Remember the spillway scene? Kimble has a gun on Gerard. Kimble says, “I didn’t kill my wife!” And Gerard says, “I don’t care!” Great dialogue! (Again, not in the original script; many of these lines were improvised on set.)

And then Gerard has a team with him, who provide more comic relief. At one point Gerard asks his youngest teammate, “What are you doing?” The young man says, “I’m thinking.” Gerard: “Well think me up a chocolate donut with some of those sprinkles, as long as you’re thinking.”

See how much fun we’re having? Yes, even the outliners!

So find your delight in your obstacles and outcomes, your characterizations and dialogue. If you’re doing this right you’ll say “Hot dog” a lot!

Are you having fun yet? Tell us about it. Note: I’m on the road and in the air today, so I’ll be sketchy checking in. Talk amongst yourselves!

The Most Important Question You Can Ask About A Scene

by James Scott Bell

Charles McGraw and William Conrad as The Killers (1946, dir. Robert Siodmak)

The other day I reread Hemingway’s famous short story “The Killers.” It takes place in a small-town diner at twilight. Two men enter the diner and start talking tough. It is unlike any other Hemingway story in that it is clearly pulp style. “The Killers” was published in 1927, but because it was Hemingway it came out in Scribner’s Magazine, not Black Mask.

The tough guys order the diner owner and the one patron, Nick Adams (Hemingway’s alter ego in many of his stories), behind the counter. One tough takes Nick into the kitchen and ties him up with the cook.

When the owner asks what’s going on, one of the tough guys explains that he and his partner are there to kill “a Swede.” The Swede’s name is Ole Andreson. He’s supposed to come in for dinner at six. But he doesn’t show. After an hour the killers leave, presumably to go hunt for their prey.

The owner unties Nick and the cook. Nick runs over to the rooming house where Andreson lives. Nick finds him lying on his bed with his clothes on. Nick tries to warn him, but Andreson refuses to go. He says he’s tired of running. Nick returns to the diner, and we are left with the impression that Andreson will soon be dead.

The classic film noir adaptation of “The Killers” was released in 1946 (and features the film debut of Burt Lancaster, who plays Ole Andreson). It uses the short story as the opening sequence. The rest of the film is told through a police investigation and flashbacks.

I first read this story in college, when I was going through my big Hemingway phase. This time, with twenty-five years of my own writing behind me, some things bothered me about the story.

First, the killers walk in and immediately start talking like killers. They might as well have had name badges that said, “Hi! My Name is Al, Assassin, Chicago.”

Second, they come right out and say they are there to kill Ole Andreson.

Third, they make no attempt to hide their faces.

Fourth, when they leave, they don’t shoot the witnesses they’ve just spilled their guts to.

Fifth, if they wanted to kill Ole Andreson, why do it in a public place? Why not just look him up in a directory or politely ask the diner guy where they might find him? Or stake out the diner from across the street and wait for him to show?

Sixth, they overuse the term “bright boy” when they talk. Something like thirty times in just a few pages. Maybe they are indeed killers … who annoy people to death.

If I’d been around in 1927 and met Hemingway in a bar, I might have asked him these questions, then ducked.

All this leads to me to my assertion today about the most important question you can ask about a scene. This is a question that you should ask both before and after you’ve written it. There are, of course, some other questions you need to consider before you write a scene, e.g., Who is the viewpoint character? What is his or her objective in the scene? What are the obstacles? What are the agendas of the other characters in the scene? Where is the conflict?

But then should come this final and ultimate question, for it overhangs everything. Plus, it’s what the readers will immediately pick up on if it’s not answered correctly. Here it is:

Would they really?

Would the characters, if this were “real life,” act this way? Would they make these choices? Or are you, the author, pushing them to do certain things in order to move your plot?

Would hired killers really act the way they do in “The Killers”? Or was it a way for Hemingway to show that he could out-pulp the pulp writers of the day, especially in the dialogue department?

Another way to pose this question to yourself is: are all the characters in this scene operating at maximum capacity in order to get what they want? The sci-fi author Stanley Schmidt has wisely said, “At every significant juncture in a story, consciously look at the situation from the viewpoint of every character involved – and let each of them make the best move they can from his or her own point of view.”


  1. Give every character in every scene an objective, even if it’s only (as Vonnegut once said) to get a glass of water.
  2. Pit the agendas against each other. Even a scene between two friends or allies should have some form of tension.
  3. Have the characters, even the minor ones, make the best moves they can in order to realize their objectives.

Do you have a “would they really?” example from a book or movie? Carry on the conversation in the comments. I’m on the road, so will try to respond as I can.


And speaking of conversations, my book HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE is now available in audio, as read by the author.

Advanced Scene Technique: The Jump Cut

by James Scott Bell

A while ago I wrote about the perils of the eating scene, how to rescue them from dullness by injecting a few forms of conflict.

Most of us include restaurant or sitting-down-for-coffee scenes in our books. They are a natural part of life and provide an opportunity to delve a little deeper into relationships. Those relationships can be between friends, family, or potential lovers.

An eating scene can also be a “breather” in an otherwise relentlessly-paced thriller. It helps sometimes to slow down the pace. The trick, of course, is not to make things too slow.

One technique to keep these scenes from bogging down is called the jump cut. This is a screenwriting term referring to a scene that jumps slightly ahead in time while staying in the same location. It’s used to excise irrelevant or otherwise dull material, so only the “good stuff” remains.

John Sandford uses this technique in his thriller Winter Prey. The hero, Lucas Davenport, is an ex-cop now living in Wisconsin. The local cops ask him to to take a look at a murder scene. There he encounters a small-town doctor named Weather Karkinnen. She is smart and straight-talking. Naturally, there’s a bit of a spark between them.

Several chapters later they see each other again. Davenport asks Weather to have dinner with him. She suggests a local joint that offers a wine choice—red or white, with breadsticks on the table. As they walk to the restaurant from the parking lot there is a small interchange of backstory material.

Then we jump cut, via white space, to their getting seated in a booth and exchanging a little more information, but deeper this time, as they are beginning to trust each other. It’s a long conversation that follows, punctuated by jump cuts. After the white space, a new paragraph begins with ALL CAPS. It looks like this:

AND LATER, OVER walleye in beer batter:
“You can’t hold together a heavy duty relationship when you’re in medical school and working to pay for it,” Weather said. He enjoyed watching her work with her knife, taking the walleye apart. Like a surgeon…


AFTER A CARAFE of wine: “Do you worry about the people you’ve killed?” She wasn’t joking. No smile this time.
“They were hair balls, every one of them.” …


“CARR SEEMS LIKE a decent sort,” Lucas said.
“He is, very decent,” Weather agreed….


“YOU DON’T ACT like a doctor,” Lucas said.
“You mean because I gossip and flirt?” …

And so we get through a long restaurant conversation without needless filler. It flows nicely, the conversation getting more intimate as it goes along, so by the end of the chapter we’re pretty sure these two will soon be lovers.

It’s also a nice break in what is essentially a police procedural.

White space on the page is your friend. It helps harried readers hang in there. So when you write a scene that is a long conversation, consider:

  1. Injecting tension by giving the characters different agendas.
  2. Adding conflict by giving at least one of the characters a fear or worry about something (something they don’t want to reveal to the other).
  3. Cutting filler by using the jump cut.

For a hilarious movie example of the jump cut, here is a scene from the Preston Sturges classic, The Lady Eve. Barbara Stanwyck plays a con woman who schemes to marry the straight-laced heir to a fortune, played by Henry Fonda. She doesn’t expect to fall for him, but she does.

But when Fonda discovers her duplicity, he pretends he never loved her, that he was playing her for a sucker. To get revenge, Stanwyck comes back into his life as a woman named “Eve” and wins his heart. They get married. On their honeymoon night, on a train, Stanwyck completes her plan by telling Fonda about a previous marriage when she was sixteen, to a stable boy named Angus. Fonda is shaken, but forgiving … until she starts dropping the names of several other former husbands! (Press play then move your cursor off the clip. Enjoy!)


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.

A Scene Template For New Writers

by James Scott Bell


Today’s first-page critique provides an opportunity to discuss the nuts and bolts of the basic unit of novel writing—the scene. Let’s have a look the opening and take up this crucial craft matter on the other side.


He wrote on the back of a postcard.

“I’m in Oaxaca (Pronounced “Wah-Hah-Kah”) Mexico, 
on the first Tuesday in February. I’m enjoying very 
warm days, very hot food and good cold beer. 
Wish you were here.

23 year old Frank Sandrell thought;

This new El Cacique Premiero of the Aztecs received his Investiture on New Years Day. He’s been going around the Country, performing sacrifices in all the major Cities. He arrived in Oaxaca today, just like I did. While I’m here, he’ll actually be immolating a devout Aztec maiden under the midday sun; presenting her as an offering to Los Teochacos, keeping them satisfied, so they will continue “to sustain the World and all that is therein”.

Local people from all over the region had been crowding into the city to witness the event; so had a very large number of turistas. Not one hotel room in town was now available. Frank was glad he’d made all his reservations back in October.

The time was around 8 in the evening. The postcard he’d just signed lay on the table beside a painted glass lamp containing a burning candle. He sat in an outdoor restaurante, beneath the ceiling of a brightly lit arcade, across the street from the Main Plaza of Oaxaca Mexico. The local people called the Plaza “El Zocalo”.

Frank was seated alone, having a dinner of chicken burritos, rice, and refried beans, along with a mug of Tres Equis beer. The sound of performing mariachis came from tables at the far end of the arcade. They sang the traditional “Los Tres Caballeros”. Across the street in the Zocalo, a different band performed “Guadalajara”. The different tunes performed at the same time filled the warm evening air with melodious confusion.

At the table next to his, three stylishly dressed Oaxacan girls in their late teens sat chatting amiably while drinking beer of the Bohemia brand. They had straight black hair, tan complexions and full, firm figures.

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

Everyone in the seats around them looked where she was pointing. Frank saw an unsmiling, casually dressed middle aged Mexican hombre, with thinning hair and glasses, moving around the tables in the arcade. If he hadn’t been pointed out, Frank would not have noticed him.

As the man walked past the stylish girls’ table, the three spoke respectfully. “Buenas noches Cacique.”

He replied, still not smiling. “Buenas noches senoritas.”

He continued moving past the other tables, where all the local people respectfully greeted the Supreme High Priest of all the Aztecs.

# # #

JSB: Okay, we’ve got some work to do. I see two promising things in the material: a) the setting (Oaxaca); and b) the potential strangeness of an Aztec priest in the modern world, performing sacrifices yet!

The problem with this page is that the material is front loaded with exposition (i.e., story information the author wants the reader to know), and what minimal action there is comes too late, with too little to keep us interested.

Write this down and stick it near your computer: It is not information that captures readers. Nor is it characters. It is characters in motion toward an objective.

That is what a scene must have—one or more characters who want something, even if (as Kurt Vonnegut suggested) it’s just a glass of water.

Since you seem new to fiction writing, I’d like to provide you with a scene template. As you grow in the craft, you will learn how to riff within this basic structure. But you can’t play jazz piano without first learning the scales, right?

A scene has three component parts: Objective, obstacles, and outcome.


A novel is about a character using strength of will to attain a crucial objective. For example, in the movie The Fugitive the wrongly convicted Dr. Richard Kimble must avoid being captured, or he’ll be sent to Death Row for a murder he did not commit. To exonerate himself—and get justice for his murdered wife—he needs to stay free long enough to find the one-armed man who killed her.

Now, each scene in the film has a sub-objective that connects somehow to the big one. Thus, early on, the wounded Kimble has to sneak into a rural hospital and treat himself, without arousing suspicion. Later he poses as a janitor in a hospital in Chicago with the objective of gaining access to the records of the prosthetics wing. Why? So he can get a list of one-armed men to track down.


Conflict and tension are the lifeblood of a scene. When the viewpoint character is confronted with obstacles to gaining his scene objective—in the form of opposing characters, physical barriers, time pressure, or all three—things get tense.

In the rural hospital scene from The Fugitive, Kimble must sneak past the loading dock and find a treatment room. After stitching himself up, he needs to shave off his beard and steal some clothes. He does this in the room of a patient who is out like a light. But a nurse walks into the room! And a state trooper has arrived because Kimble might be in the area! The tension mounts as we worry about his cover being blown at any moment.


A scene has to end at some point, and needs to answer the question: did the viewpoint character realize his objective?

The answer can be: No, Yes, or Oh my gosh!

A NO answer is always a good default, because it makes the character’s situation worse. When a character is set back in his quest, the reader’s worry mounts. And that is what readers want to do: worry about characters in crisis all the way to the end.

A YES needs to happen on occasion, but when it does, brainstorm how it can lead to more trouble. For example, in the scene in The Fugitive where Kimble poses as a janitor, he is temporarily stuck on a crowded trauma floor. He spots a little boy in distress. When a doctor tells him to take the boy to an observation room, Kimble has a scene objective: Help this boy! As he pushes the gurney Kimble sneaks a look at the X-rays and the chart, and starts asking the boy diagnostic questions. He determines the boy needs surgery right away. In the elevator he changes the orders and takes the boy to an operating room. He alerts a doctor and shows her the orders. The boy will be saved! That’s a YES answer. However, his earlier look at the X-rays was seen by the doctor who asked him to help. She confronts him and calls security. Now Kimble is outed and has to get out of there! He’s in worse shape because of his good deed.

An OH MY GOSH! scene ending means you leave the situation temporarily unresolved (a “cliffhanger”) and cut to another scene (perhaps with another viewpoint character). If you write in First Person POV or Limited Third Person (meaning one viewpoint character throughout the book) you can end a chapter on a cliffhanger and take up matters in the following chapter.

That’s basic scene structure.

Now we have to discuss how you get into a scene. This is, of course, crucial for opening pages, but no less so for any scene you write. So I’ll give you a template for this as well. Learn it, know why it works, then, as I mentioned, you can begin to play around with it.

First thing I want you to do is put the name of the viewpoint character in the first paragraph of every scene you write. Also, give us an indication of the setting and some kind of action.

Here is the first line of Harlan Coben’s Missing You: 

Kat Donavan spun off her father’s old stool, readying to leave O’Malley’s Pub, when Stacy said, “You’re not going to like what I did.”

See that? Named character, setting, and action. (Here’s another tip that will help you enormously—in general, get to dialogue as soon as possible. That forces you to write in scene style.)

In a happy coincidence, here’s the opening line from yesterday’s first-page critique:

The instant her helicopter touched down, Francine threw the door open, leaned out, and shouted, “Any survivors?”

So how about this for your opening line:

Frank Sandrell was about to take another pull on his Tres Equis when a girl at the next table shouted, “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

See how much better that is? The first thing readers look for in a scene is the who. Give them that up front. This line also has an indication of setting (drinking beer and next table imply a café; the Spanish language alerts us to a foreign place).

Next, drop in some details on the setting and situation in the thought-voice-attitude of the character. Here is the next paragraph from Coben’s novel:

O’Malley’s used to be an old-school cop bar. Kat’s grandfather had hung out here. So had her father and their fellow NYPD colleagues. Now it had been turned into a yuppie, preppy, master-of-the-universe, poser asshat bar, loaded up with guys who sported crisp white shirts under black suits, two-day stubble, mansacped to the max to look un-manscaped. They smirked a lot, these soft men, their hair moussed to the point of overcoif, and ordered Ketel One instead of Grey Goose because they watched some TV ad telling them that was what real men drink.

What you have to note here is that the above description is filtered through the voice of the POV character. This is how Kat thinks of the place and the men in it. Thus, your assignment is to take some of the essential info in your page (e.g., Oaxaca, mariachis, brightly-lit arcade) and weave it into a paragraph with Frank’s voice and attitude.

The next part of the template: Somewhere within the first page of your scene make it clear what the character’s objective is. I’m not sure what Frank’s is except that it has something to do with this Aztec priest guy. What about him? Does Frank want to kill him? Learn from him? Take his power for himself?

Next: brainstorm various obstacles to that objective. Go to town with this before you write any scene. Often (most of the time?) our mind first comes up with familiar tropes, because that’s what we’ve seen in countless books and movies. Take time to come up with something fresh. Make a list of possibilities then choose the best ones.

Lastly, you decide what the outcome is going to be. Brainstorm this part, too. You may decide to change it in the course of writing the scene, and that’s perfectly fine. But you need to write your scene with a destination in mind.

Whew! That’s a lot to work on, I know. But it’s absolutely necessary for your development. Because a successful novel is a series of scenes, none of which are dull. It’s a high bar, but we’re not peddling peanuts on the street corner here. We’re attempting to transport impatient and distracted readers into a fictional world and hold them there for the duration!

Let me end today’s lesson with a few style notes:

He wrote on the back of a postcard.

“I’m in Oaxaca (Pronounced “Wah-Hah-Kah”) Mexico …

The disembodied “He” writing on a postcard did not create a picture of a character for me. The message, too, was a bit odd. Would a guy writing a postcard really use up valuable space giving the pronunciation?

Further, don’t put quotation marks around written text. That should be called out via italics, a different font or a block indentation.

23 year old Frank Sandrell thought;

Never begin a sentence with numerals. It should be: Twenty-three-year-old Frank Sandrell thought …

And you meant to use a colon, not a semi-colon. That’s a typo, obviously, but a big one, because I don’t want to see you use a semi-colon in fiction ever!

This new El Cacique Premiero of the Aztecs received his Investiture on New Years Day. He’s been going around the Country, performing sacrifices in all the major Cities. He arrived in Oaxaca today, just like I did. While I’m here, he’ll actually be immolating a devout Aztec maiden under the midday sun; [AHHH!!!] presenting her as an offering to Los Teochacos, keeping them satisfied, so they will continue “to sustain the World and all that is therein”.

This doesn’t sound like a real thought. It’s exposition from the author. Note: interior thoughts are generally short, a line or two. Otherwise it tends to sound fake. Rework these sections so the thoughts sound like the character’s voice in that particular moment.

Also, that last quote looks odd. It’s supposed to be the Aztec priest, I guess, but it throws us. Try not to do that. And, of course, the punctuation always goes inside the quote mark.

The time was around 8 in the evening.

As a general rule, spell out numbers from zero to one hundred. Thus: The time was around eight in the evening.

This can be a confusing style issue, but here’s one helpful article you can refer to.

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

When a foreign language is spoken by a character, render it in italics. Thus:

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

That’s enough for today, writer! I hope it helps. Write, learn, edit, rewrite, get feedback.

Repeat …

Your turn, Zoners. Any other advice for today’s writer?

Herd Your CATS

by James Scott Bell

We all know that getting a reader inside a lead character’s head is one of the keys to compelling fiction. But it has to be done seamlessly so it doesn’t jerk us out of the narrative and put a crimp in the fictive dream.

Which means we have to learn to handle what I call “Character Alone Thinking Scenes” (CATS) in a deft manner.

The first issue is whether to begin the book with a CATS. As last Wednesday’s first-page critique demonstrated (in my view, at least) the answer should almost always be No.

Why? Because we have to have a little personal investment in someone before we can care deeply about their feelings.

Imagine going to a party and you’re introduced to a fellow with a drink in his hand. You say, “How are you?” and the guy says, “I’m really depressed, man, I wake up every day and the room looks dark and the sun never shines, even though it’s out there, and I don’t see it because of the dark dankness in my soul, and life has lost its meaning, its luster, whatever it was it once had for me when I was young and ready to take on the world. Ya know?”


Well, the beginning of a book is like walking into a party. The reader wants to meet interesting people. And interest is aroused by what people do. The way you catch readers from the start is through action and disturbance, not feeling and expounding.

I can’t tell you the number of manuscripts I’ve read over the years that did not begin with a real scene, but instead opted for the inside of a character’s head. What I usually do in such cases is flip the pages until I get to some dialogue, because that automatically means we’re in a scene. And 98% of the time that is the best place to start. (Sure, an argument can be made that a great style might be enough to carry the opening pages. But it better be truly great and truly brief.)

So, re: the opening—save your CATS for later.

Once you’re into the novel there are two types of CATS to herd—active and reactive.

In an active scene, the character is alone but with a major scene objective (something that materially relates to the plot), and thinks while trying to overcome whatever scene obstacles are in her way.

In a reactive scene, the character is alone with a chance to reflect. She may be thinking about what’s already happened in the story, or her current psychological state, or the other characters. When done well, reactive scenes strengthen our emotional bond with the character.

A couple of examples. The first is from Dean Koontz’s Intensity. A young woman named Chyna Shepherd is thrust into the dark world of serial killer Edgler Vess. After Vess murders a family (not knowing Chyna is in the house, too) Chyna sneaks into his motor home in the hopes of saving her best friend, whom Vess has dumped there. Alas, she’s dead. But it gets worse. Vess starts driving away and Chyna is trapped in the back of the motor home.

Her objective now is survival. She must keep her presence in the vehicle a secret, find an adequate weapon, and somehow kill or disable Vess. As she looks for a weapon she makes a grisly find—the body of a young man hanging in the small closet, his eyes and mouth sewn shut.

She pulled shut the pleated-vinyl panel. Though flimsy, it moved as ponderously as a vault door. The magnetic latch clicked into place with a sound like snapping bone.

In all the textbooks she had ever read no case study of sociopathic violence had ever contained a description of a crime sufficiently vivid to make her want to retreat to a corner and sit on the floor and pull her knees against her chest and hug herself. That was precisely what she did now – choosing the corner farthest from the closet.

She had to get control of herself, quickly, starting with her manic breathing. She was gasping, sucking in great lungfuls, yet she couldn’t seem to get enough air. The deeper and faster she inhaled the dizzier she became. Her peripheral vision surrendered to an encroaching darkness until she seemed to be peering down a long black tunnel toward the dingy motor-home bedroom at the far end.

She told herself that the young man in the closet had been dead when the killer had gone to work with the sewing kit. And if he’d not been dead, at least he’d been mercifully unconscious. Then she told herself not to think about it at all, because thinking about it only made the tunnel longer and narrower, made the bedroom more distant and the lights dimmer than ever.

She put her face in her hands, and her hands were cold but her face seemed colder. For no reason that Chyna could understand, she thought of her mother’s face, as clear as a photograph in her mind’s eye. And then she did understand.

To Chyna’s mother, the prospect of violence had been romantic, or even glamorous. For a while they had lived in a commune in Oakland, where everyone talked of making a better world and where, most nights than not, the adults gathered around the kitchen table, drinking wine and smoking pot, discussing how best to tear down the hated system, sometimes also playing pinochle or Trivial Pursuit as they discussed the strategies that might bring utopia at last, sometimes far too enraptured by revolution to be interested in any lesser games …

Koontz then gives us a page-and-a-half of backstory, filtered through Chyna’s perceptions and thus relevant to the present action. She’s alone, but moving toward her scene goal. Her thoughts—which in real time would flash through her mind but in fiction time are detailed—are part of the action.

Now let’s take a look at a reactive CATS. This is from John Fante’s classic Ask The Dust. Arturo Bandini is a young writer living a meager existence in L.A. He has just decided to he’s going to steal milk off a truck. In his dingy hotel room, he reacts to his decision:

The night came reluctantly. I sat at the window, rolling some cigarets with rough cut tobacco and squares of toilet paper. This tobacco had been a whim of mine in more prosperous times. I had bought a can of it, and the pipe for smoking it had been free, attached to the can by a rubber band. But I had lost the pipe. The tobacco was so course it made a poor smoke in regular cigaret papers, but wrapped twice in toilet tissue it was powerful and compact, sometimes bursting into flames. 

The night came slowly, first the cool odor of it, and then the darkness. Beyond my window spread the great city, the street lamps, the red and blue green neon tubes bursting to life like bright night flowers. I was not hungry, there were plenty of oranges under the bed, and that mysterious chortling in the pit of my stomach was nothing more than great clouds of tobacco smoke marooned there, trying frantically to find a way out. 

So it had happened at last: I was about to become a thief, a cheap milk-stealer. Here was your flash-in-the-pan genius, your one-story writer: a thief. I held my head in my hands and rocked back and forth. Mother of God. Headlines in the papers, promising writer caught stealing milk, famous protégé of J. C. Hackmuth haled into court on petty theft charge, reporters swarming around me, flashbulbs popping, give us a statement, Bandini, how did it happen?

The scene continues, with Bandini eating an orange, doing some typing, all the while thinking about his prospects as a writer. The chapter ends with Bandini making the milk snatch, giddily bringing the two bottles back to his room, opening one and taking a long drink. And immediately spitting it out. He’d stolen what he hated—buttermilk.

There should be activity in a reactive CATS. It is often innocuous (rolling cigarettes, eating oranges, typing) but it provides the space for emotion and analysis.

The big thing to know about CATS is that they are the best way to control pace. If you need to slow things down a bit, give us more thinking. If you need to pick up the pace, compress the thoughts.

In other words, learn to herd your CATS and the readers will lap up your fiction.