How to Avoid Dumb Moves

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There was a hilarious commercial a few years ago riffing off of horror movie clichés. It has a group of teens running from some unseen threat, wondering where to hide:

Which brings up the subject of dumb moves.

My wife and I enjoy old TV crime shows, like Peter Gunn, Mannix, Hawaii-Five-O, Dragnet.

We watched one the other night. The PI is looking for a sadistic killer of prostitutes. He gets a call from one who is scared, asking him to meet her at a bar. She thinks she knows where the killer is but doesn’t want to tell him over the phone.

So the PI goes to the bar and wisely sits at a table far from the door. The hooker comes in, spots him, sits down. She’s scared she may be next. But she wants money to show the PI where the guy hides out.

PI agrees and off they go walking down—naturally—a dark city street.

At which point my wife says, “It’s a set up. Don’t go there!”

But he does go there. They get to a chain link fence with an opening. Woman tells PI to follow.

“Don’t do it!” Mrs. B says.

He does it.

And, of course, a few feet later the killer and his thug buddy subdue the PI.

Now what? The killer proceeds to tell PI what he’s going to do. He’s going to kill another girl. Then he’s going to kill the PI. “You won’t know when it’s coming,” he says with a smile, then knocks him out.

PI comes to with just a bad headache. And of course nabs the killer at the end.

We’ve talked before about the TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) character. That happens because it violates a rule (yes, I said rule): Every character in every scene should make the best move possible in pursuit of their agenda.

Violation of the rule results in the dumb move, and readers hate that.

In the above scenario, there are two.

First is when the PI goes through the fence. What else could he have done? Well, for starters, how about not going through the fence? Maybe we can buy that he follows the girl this far, but his PI sense should have told him not to enter unknown territory. But the PI walks right into the trap.

The other dumb move is the killer’s. A sensible killer (if I may suppose such a thing, and Sue and Debbie can check me on that) would have offed the PI right there. But he has the idea that making him wait is the better move.

Um…no.

(Need I go into detail about the “chatty villain” who explains his whole scheme while holding a gun on the hero? Or, worse, sets up the hero to die a horrible death then walks out, giving said hero—often named James Bond—the opportunity to use some clever device to get out of harm’s way. “You expect me to talk?” Bond asks Goldfinger, as Bond is about to be sliced in two by a laser. “No, Mr. Bond,” Goldfinger says. “I expect you to die.” And then he walks out!)

Maximum Capacity

So, when you write a scene—which means Objective, Obstacles, and Outcome—give some thought before you begin on the best moves each character can make. This is called “acting with maximum capacity.”

No character should ever be passive, even the minor ones. Give each character a goal, even if it’s as simple as (in Vonnegut’s words) getting a glass of water. Then have the goals clash, which creates conflict.

The tension will rise unless a move proves dumb.

You should also give thought to what the main characters are doing “off screen.” In other words, they aren’t in suspended animation, waiting to come onstage and improvise. While the viewpoint character is dealing with the scene trouble, other characters are planning their next moves, and they should be at maximum capacity, too.

I call this “the shadow story.” If you give this some brainstorming time, you’ll be developing a lot of plot material, as if by magic.

This is not to say that every maximum move is always positive. Indeed, a character flaw can hinder a best move even though—and this is key—the character thinks it’s best at the moment.

Farley Granger in Side Street (1949)

An example would be a familiar noir trope—the nice guy who is struggling to support a family. Such a film is the noir classic Side Street (1949) starring Farley Granger. Granger plays a decent guy named Joe who has a pregnant wife (Cathy O’Donnell) but has found only part-time work as a mailman. He longs to treat his wife to some of the finer things in life.

One day Joe delivers mail to a lawyer’s office and catches glimpse of a guy putting two C notes into an accordion folder, then shoving it into a file drawer.

The next day, Joe brings the mail into the office, but the lawyer has left a note saying he’s in court and will be back soon.

Joe remembers the two hundred bucks. He looks at the filing cabinet. He hesitates…he resists….he starts to leave. But then desire overtakes judgment. He breaks into the filing cabinet and stuffs the folder into his mailbag. He takes it to a rooftop where he won’t be seen.

There he discovers that the folder contains not two hundred, but thirty-thousand dollars.

Now his wife can have a private room for her delivery.

But of course the thirty Gs belongs to a criminal who will soon hunt Joe.

The point is you can have a fundamentally good character make a maximum move for the wrong reason—and for which he will pay the consequences.

So remember, write your scenes to the max so readers don’t do what Dorothy Parker once suggested: “This is not a novel to be lightly tossed aside. It should be thrown with great force.”

What dumb moves annoy you in fiction or film?

Some Scene Should be Hard to Write

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was happily writing along in my WIP, the next Romeo thriller, and things were going pretty much as planned. That’s a great phrase for an outliner…as planned preceded by pretty much. That gives me the right amount of room to enhance or deviate from the plot outline while knowing I’ll still be on track with the overall story.

But then I came to a scene and it started fighting me. I had it outlined. I knew the general structure of the scene. But it wouldn’t flow. I’d start, write a few lines, then stop because it felt…not right.

Why was this happening? Was I overthinking? Trying too hard? That’s certainly a danger in our craft. The vile scourge of perfectionism is always lurking in the shadows. The old advice First get it written, then get it right applies. We should write like we’re in love, and only later edit like we’re in charge.

But I wasn’t loving this scene.

Finally, it hit me. The reason I was having a tussle with it is that it’s one of the most crucial in the entire series (this book will be #9). In fact, what happens here will affect all the books in the future.

Then I had a further thought: That’s why it’s hard, Bucko. It should be!

Because the difficulty was telling me that I’d hit on a vein of story that was deeper than I first thought. It was my signal that the richest material was still there in the rocks, and it was time to chip away and find it.

Raymond Chandler once said of Dashiell Hammett, “He did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that never seemed to have been written before.”

Wouldn’t you like readers to say that about you? By going deep into the difficult, you can get there.

Now, some say that’s too much work. Why not let the characters decide? This brings up the oft-cited experience, “My characters took over.”

Let’s think about that.

In one sense, it’s good to have a character surprise you from time to time, because that means the character will surprise the reader, too.

But then again, who’s the boss? Are the characters running the show, or the writer?

I know there are some who advocate always following the characters, wherever they lead.

But what if it’s off a cliff?

Bradbury famously said you should jump off that cliff and grow wings on the way down. Far be it from me to disagree with the great Ray, but it seems to me it worked best for his primary métier, short fiction. It is less successful in his full-length novels, especially the crime ones that came later in his career.

So I kept digging into the difficult. I re-wrote the scene maybe a dozen times, tweaking, discarding, adding and subtracting sentences.

There was a moment when one of the two principal characters was supposed to say, “Yes.” But I found myself typing, “No.”

The next morning, I woke up with the conviction that it shouldn’t be either Yes or No (see Sue’s post on answering Yes/No questions). I came up with something else and, finally, it clicked. I felt like Goldilocks tasting the porridge and pronouncing it “just right.” (Or “Just Write” as the case may be.)

So now it’s all settled and I can move on.

Until it’s time to edit, when I read the scene again.

Ack!

Do you think a scene should ever be hard to write? Or are you more with the “merrily we roll along no matter what” school of writing?

Are Smartphones Impairing Thrillers?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“I gave a smartphone to my dumb cousin. Now he’s average.” – JSB, channeling his inner Steven Wright

Free Girl Smartphone photo and pictureInstead of my usual craft post, I’d like to open up a discussion. Here’s the question: How do smartphones impact the way we write thrillers?

Let’s say your hero is out in public and has to take down a thug. Maybe he bends the law a little as he does, though he is morally justified.

In today’s world, a dozen smartphones will capture the encounter on video. And then, boom, the hero’s face and actions go viral. 

Now every cop, friend of the thug, past enemies, and thousands of social media jockeys know who he is, or at least what he looks like. 

Heck, you can’t even have a bar fight anymore without the world finding out about it. 

So: How do we thriller writers deal with this?

  • What are the consequences of such a scenario in a stand-alone thriller? Must it become a major plot complication?
  • What are the consequences for a series? Will the viral notoriety follow the hero from now on? Must it be dealt with in each subsequent book?
  • Or can you pull a retcon? What, you may ask, is a retcon? It stands for “retrograde continuity,” a fancy term for when material in past books is “adjusted, ignored, supplemented, or contradicted by a subsequently published work that recontextualizes or breaks continuity with the former.” (Wikipedia)
  • Or should we do whatever we can to avoid these scenes? Would that be realistic?
  • Or would the large majority of readers not care that much if smartphone recordings don’t happen in a scene such as I’ve described? Maybe you get a few emails or are docked one star in a review. But if the scene works in all other aspects, is that a big deal?

Give this all some thought and let’s start a conversation!

Reader Friday: Page Turners

Welcome to Reader Friday. Thank you to Steve Hooley for inviting me to guest post. Let’s get to it.

Do you remember reading under the covers? I do. Or, maybe you still do . . .

Usually, it was because I couldn’t put the book down. Aha! Enter the topic for today—something about which I still have much to learn.

There have been many discussions in these halls regarding the importance of scene endings and getting the reader to turn the page . . . and to keep turning pages.

Today, I thought we could have a little fun by sharing our favorite-of-all-time scene endings—as readers. You might have to dig into your memory a bit. That’s okay, we’ll wait.

I’ll start the scenes rolling. Mine just happens to be from Damage Control, by our own John Gilstrap, the fourth in his Jonathan Grave series if you don’t count the prequel. This excerpt is not only the end of the scene, but the end of the book . . . which made me immediately start the next in the series. Double whammy, John!

The man Munro saw was dressed all in black, and his face was covered by a black mask.

“I hear you’ve been looking for me,” Jonathan said. He smiled at the sight of the spreading stain in Munro’s trousers. “Well, here I am.”

I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s a killer scene ending.

Over to you, Killzoners. What’s your favorite-of-all-time scene ending?

***

 

 

Deb Gorman, owner of Debo Publishing, lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her husband, Alan, and their very smart German Shepherd, Hoka. Together they have seven children, 24ish grandchildren, and a few great-grandchildren scattered about the country.

 

 

 

Believing that one of the most foundational bedrocks of humanity—family relationships—is under attack, she writes redemptive stories of families in crisis.

 

Cutting the DULL from Your Scenes

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

George Horace Lorimer was the legendary editor of The Saturday Evening Post from 1899 to 1936. He brought the circulation up from a few thousand to over a million, and made it a place known for quality fiction.

In the early days of his reign he received a letter from an indignant author which read, “Last week you rejected my story. I know that you did not read it for, as a test, I pasted together pages 15, 16 and 17, and the manuscript came back with the pages still pasted. You are a fraud and you turn down stories without even reading them.”

Lorimer responded, “Madam, at breakfast when I open an egg, I don’t have to eat the whole egg to discover it is bad.”

Painful, but true.

We talk a lot here at TKZ about opening pages. We all know how important they are to agents, editors, and readers. But we should think the same way about every scene in our novel. And thus to the topic for today: Cutting the DULL from your scenes. To wit:

Description Dumps

We talk often about avoiding “info dumps.” That is, larding on exposition or description in a way that makes the story seem to stand still. Yet, we need to know the setting of a scene, too.

The way to go is to write not so the reader merely sees the scene, but rather experiences it.

The best descriptions are a) woven into action, and b) consistent with the mood of the story. Stephen King’s “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” is a melancholy tale about a traveling salesman who is thinking of ending it all. Here’s the opening paragraph:

It was a Motel 6 on I-80 just west of Lincoln, Nebraska. The snow that began at midafternoon had faded the sign’s virulent yellow to a kinder pastel shade as the light ran out of the January dusk. The wind was closing in on that quality of empty amplification one encounters only in the country’s flat midsection, usually in wintertime. That meant nothing but discomfort now, but if big snow came tonight—the weather forecasters couldn’t seem to make up their minds—then the interstate would be shut down by morning. That was nothing to Alfie Zimmer.

You can go line by line and see how King uses mood words within the simple action of a man arriving at a Motel 6 with a depressed disposition.

Here’s the great Raymond Chandler, as his cynical PI Philip Marlowe takes a drive in Chapter 13 of The Little Sister. Notice how this tells us as much about Marlowe as it does about the setting. (I love it because I have taken the same drive many times, albeit on the freeway):

I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped-down Fords shot in and out of the traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupés and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on north and west towards home and dinner, and evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad.

Do you experience the scene like Marlowe does? How could you not?

So: Always describe your scenes in words that reflect the tone, which you’ll most often find in the mind of the viewpoint character.

Uninteresting Characters

Why does a story seem dull to a reader? In short, predictability. Subconsciously, the reader is anticipating what a character will do or say. If the character does do or does say something along those lines, the experience for the reader is boredom. “I’ve seen that before,” their sub-mind whispers. “Why keep reading?”

So: When you think about the scene you’re going to write, plan one action (even if it’s just a line of dialogue) a reader won’t see coming. A good practice is to make a quick list of the things the average reader might expect to happen…then don’t do those things.

Lethargic Action

Kurt Vonnegut said a character in a scene must want something (the scene Objective), even if it’s just a glass of water. I’d add that the Objective must be something essential. So if it’s a glass of water, the character better be dying of thirst.

So: Make the Objective an essential step toward solving the story question. The story question should involve death stakes (physical, professional, or psychological). Otherwise, why should the reader care?

Leaden Prose

John D. MacDonald went for what he called “unobtrusive poetry” in his style. He wanted sentences that “sing,” but not in such a way that it sounds like Ethel Merman in the shower. Like this, from Darker Than Amber:

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of picked bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

Leaden prose, on the other hand, is like Amish furniture from the 1850s. Functional, yes, but that’s it.

So: Work on expanding your voice. I wrote a book about that. Do some morning pages where you write page-long sentences. Try things. Make up wild metaphors, not to use (necessarily) but to stretch. Read challenging prose, even in nonfiction. Read poetry out loud (I recommend Robert W. Service).

And remember Hitchcock’s Axiom: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”

Discover Your Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We’ve often discussed here the different approaches to writing a novel. In dualistic terms, we sometimes use the terms “plotters” and “pantsers.” Or, “outliners” and “intuitive (or discovery) writers.” There are some ’tweeners (“plantsers”), too. Doesn’t matter, as long as the author creates a finished work that’s the best he or she can do.

But that’s on the macro level. Today I want to focus on the micro level—the scene—and make a pitch for the mini-outline.

A scene is a unit of action, usually defined by a single setting and linear time. To work as dramatic action, there needs to be a viewpoint character with a scene goal—the Objective—who is met with conflict—the Obstacle(s). The scene ends with the Outcome, which can be failure, setback, or portent.

The occasional success is allowed, but should lead to more trouble. Like in that great pet-the-dog scene in The Fugitive where Kimble, posing as a hospital custodian, checks a kid’s x-ray and determines he needs the operating room, stat. He changes the orders in the elevator. And saves the kid’s life. Success! Ah, but a doctor saw him looking at the film, confronts him, and calls security. Trouble!

All right, you’re about to write a scene. You know who the viewpoint character is.

You can pants it. Or you can plan it. This is our micro issue.

Some simply start writing, letting the scene unfold in their head as they take it down. Like transcribing a movie playing in the mind.

The other way is to take a few minutes to think about the three Os listed above.

Objective—Who is the viewpoint character? What does this character want to achieve in the scene? (As Vonnegut once said, a character has to want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.)

Obstacles—Brainstorm possible areas of conflict, e.g., another character with an opposing agenda. Or physical barriers (the bridge is out; the building is locked). Make a list, push past the familiar, then choose the best ones.

Outcome—I see five possible scene endings: 1) success; 2) success, but with a cost; 3) failure; 4) failure with a setback (the situation gets worse); and 5) open-ended (we have to wait for the outcome. This is a staple of multiple POV thrillers, cutting away from one scene to another scene with a different POV).

Writing with this mini-outline enables me to pick the best course among many possibilities. It also helps me to avoid clichés and stereotypes, which are often the first things that come to mind when you simply start writing a scene.

In short, I dig up the best nuggets with a few minutes of brainstorming instead of writing a scene, seeing what I came up with, and doing a lot of fixing. I’ll still have things to fix, but I do that with light editing of my previous day’s work. (Whatever approach, it’s the fixing that is the key to writing books that actually sell and not just take up space. That’s why I wrote a new writing book up for a pre-sale deal now.)

I’ll give you an example from my WIP, my next Mike Romeo thriller. I have a scene where Romeo goes to a house that used to be owned by a key witness. His Objective is simple: find out where the guy moved to.

In my head I had Mike knocking on the door and hearing a voice ask what he wants. Mike lays it out, but the voice refuses to answer the question, tells Mike to go away. There’s an Obstacle. Despite his best attempts at persuasion, the Outcome is failure.

That was my first thought, and it wasn’t enough. Had I written it out and moved on, I know I would have been disappointed upon revision.

So I brainstormed. First, more Obstacles. I thought about the setting. What else was there? How about a smell? Maybe dust…or smoke…ah! Popping into my mind: the odor of marijuana. The “sweet, skunky” smell of burning hippie lettuce. Where would that come from?

Why, the house next door. I brainstormed who it might be. Not one, not two, but three young guys, in folding chairs by a car they are presumably working on, passing around a pipe.

Mike asks them if they knew the guy who lived next door. Their answers are less than helpful, but sure does make them laugh. Mike tries the house across the street and this time it’s a thin old guy on a lawn tractor holding a hoe like a lance. Reminds Mike of Don Quixote. They guy is a misanthrope, not helpful at all.

So after three Obstacles, the ultimate Outcome was failure. Mike doesn’t get the answer he’s looking for.

What follows is a reaction beat. A full reaction beat is made up of Emotion, Analysis, and Decision. (Many of you will recognize all this as the Swain/Bickham “scene and sequel.”

Which we can go into another time.)

Point is I came up with a scene that works for my WIP, with ideas formed with a few minutes of brainstorming.

So I ask: What is your approach to scene writing? Fly into it? Plan it out? Something in between?

Three Things That Bugged Me in a Book

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Terry’s recent post observed, “As writers, we don’t read the same way ‘normal’ people do. We have internal editors who insist on reading along with us and shouting their opinions.” That’s because we are attuned to the craft; we know the rules guidelines that should not be broken ignored lest we “pull” the reader out of the story. 

Often these are little things. I call them speed bumps. The more there are along the story road, the less the reader will enjoy the ride. Much of my teaching is devoted to speed bump removal. The downside is that it’s harder for me to read just for pleasure. I can’t help lingering over the bumps I encounter and imagining ways they could have been eliminated. 

This happened recently when I went back to re-read a novel in a popular series. I was only a few pages in when I got majorly bugged by something:

1. An eating scene that defies the laws of physics (and has no conflict)

In the first chapter the series hero sits down to dine with a client. A waitress comes to the table, takes their order and leaves. The two principals chat a bit. The speedy waitress returns with drinks. More chatting (about 30 seconds worth in read-aloud time) and the world’s fastest waitress, apparently working with the world’s fastest chef, came with our filets.

Another chat session (1 minute, 23 seconds) during which one character takes one bite of filet. Then: The waitress came to clear our dishes. We ordered creme brulee for dessert.

There follows two lines of dialogue. Two! Five seconds in real-world time. Then: The waitress came with the creme brulee

Gadzooks! This waitress must be the only human to break the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats…without a car!

Forty-three seconds more of chatting, then: My creme brulee was gone.

Holy Coneheads! These character must eat like this:

I’m sure many a reader would notice the same thing. Maybe not enough to toss the book aside, but it is so unnecessary and so easily fixed! Just a few lines of narrative summary sprinkled throughout would have sufficed. Something like: We lingered over our filets, talking about her past, her ex-husband, and the train she missed in Paris. By the time we were ready to order dessert, I thought I knew her as well as my own sister.

Plus, all the dialogue was friendly and informational. No conflict or tension. Thus, boring. Again, it would have been so easy to add a little argument, a disagreement, a bad vibe. (See my further notes on eating scenes.)

I read on, and got a feeling that bugged me further:

2. Phoning it in

“To phone it in means to make the least effort possible, to do something without enthusiasm. The expression phone it in is American, and seems to have originally been connected to the theater and acting. During the early 1930s, a popular joke among theater actors alluded to having a role that was so small it was possible to call on the phone, rather than appear on the stage in person.”

When a series gets hugely popular, and both author and publisher know that any new book will automatically hit the top of the bestseller list, it becomes a temptation to phone it in. Put in the minimum effort and still rake in the dough. I once sat next to an author of this profile at a book signing event featuring several writers—known (him) and unknown (me). Since he was so prolific, I asked him about his work habits. He told me he writes a one-page outline and sends it to his publisher so they will send the rest of the advance. He then ignores the outline and takes a couple of weeks to dictate a book aboard his yacht. That’s about as close to phoning it in as you can get. And it is noticeable. The later books show it.

Look, there’s nothing illegal about not putting in the effort to write the best book you can, and still make bank. Heck, that may even be somebody’s version of the American dream. But it bugs me.

And so does this:

3. The superfluous said

I admit the following is only a tiny speed bump, but it’s still a bump that doesn’t need to be there. So why have it at all? This is from the same novel, the third chapter, which is yet another eating scene:

The waitress came to our table with a coffee pot. “Coffee?” she said.

Well, who else would have said it? When you have an action beat before or after the dialogue, you don’t need the attribution.

“Take it away!” she said, waving her arms.

Better: “Take it away!” She waved her arms.

Or: She waved her arms. “Take it away!”

Brock plopped in a chair. “Whattaya want with me?” he asked. 

Better: Brock plopped in a chair. “Whattaya want with me?”

Now, I like said. It’s a workhorse that does its job and gets out of the way. It’s just as much a mistake to never use said (only action beats all the time wear a reader out) as it is to use it needlessly.

So don’t do that, or I’ll get bugged.

There. I feel better now.

What little things bug you when you see them in a book?

Keeping a Scene in Focus

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today we have another first page for the TKZ critique machine.

Last Man Standing

     Molly Hammond stared in horror as her fake fingernail strained against the pull tab on her Coke can. Her brain told her to let go, but her hand wouldn’t listen. With a tiny pop, the nail snapped off and made a low sideways arc, landing gracefully in her new boss’s paper plate the man had just placed in front of him on the metal picnic table. As the nail settled between a mound of potato salad and a large helping of barbequed beans, Molly’s fledgling professional life flashed before her light brown eyes. 

Oh god!

     She stared at the cheap fire engine red plastic glaring back at her and wished with all her heart she could slip quietly beneath the table and down into the bowels of the earth. She was about to reach out to retrieve the cause of her embarrassment when the man slipped his fork beneath the nail along with a small helping of salad. He held it out and motioned in Molly’s direction.

     “Well, Ms. Hammond.” He glanced at the fork and tilted his head toward Molly before looking back at the nail, the gesture an offer as well as a question. “I hope this isn’t one of our Your Time products.” 

     Molly felt her cheeks heat up, certain they’d morphed into the same shade as the nail. She shook her head. “I’m so sorry.” She thought she saw a hint of amusement in his blue eyes but she knew there was nothing funny about making a bad first impression with a no-nonsense businessman like Spencer Steele. He lowered the fork and slid the nail onto his napkin then folded the paper neatly into a small square and tossed it into a trash barrel behind him. Molly kept her eyes on her plate, her right hand in her lap and silently waited for the blazing July morning to finish her off.

JSB: I like this set up. A nervous new employee’s fingernail lands on her boss’s lunch. It’s unique, it’s action, and it is a sudden disturbance in this character’s world. On that last point, this page demonstrates that the opening disturbance does not have to be something “big” like a car chase or a gunfight. It’s enough that it is a matter of emotional importance to the character being revealed to us. A fingernail flying into a superior’s potato salad certainly qualifies.

But in order to take full advantage of this scene, there are a few matters that need to be clarified. We don’t want the reader pausing because the picture isn’t clear.

It’s worth a mention here that there’s a big difference between confusion and mystery. The latter is good. It has the reader thinking I want to keep turning pages to find out what the action is all about. The former is bad. It has the reader thinking I’m not quite sure what’s happening on the page in front of me.

In many cases the confusion is about the setting. That’s the problem here. Where exactly are we? What are the conditions? The picture is a bit out of focus.

When I read metal picnic table I immediately thought of a prison visiting area. That’s probably just my quirk, but in any case we need to know where this table is. We know it’s a meal featuring the employee and her boss. And the trash barrel indicates they are outside somewhere. But where? Are there other people around, or is it just the two of them? Who is “the man” who served the lunch?

The issue can be easily handled with a short paragraph after the first one (which, again, starts with a unique disturbance). Here’s an example:

The annual meet-and-greet picnic for new employees was supposed to be a casual affair. The courtyard of the Your Time Building was abuzz with happy anticipation and easy chatter. Now this!

Now the scene starts to come into focus. Think of it as a gentle turn of the camera lens. The reader can enjoy the rest of the scene now without a lingering question hanging in the background.

Another type of confusion arises when a reader asks something along the lines of Would she really? Here’s what I mean. Let’s go back to the beginning:

Molly Hammond stared in horror as her fake fingernail strained against the pull tab on her Coke can. Her brain told her to let go, but her hand wouldn’t listen.

Cute, but I don’t quite buy it. In this situation—wanting to impress her new boss—the moment her brain fired off that message I think she’d release the tab. Otherwise, I’m skeptical about her ability to be anyone’s employee.

I do like what the author is going for—a slo-mo effect as an embarrassing event unfolds.

We can achieve the same thing by shifting the focus a bit. For example:

With a tiny pop, Molly Hammond’s fake fingernail flew off the pull-tab of her Coke and made a low sideways arc through the air. She watched in horror as it landed gracefully on her new boss’s plate.

Editing Notes

Molly’s fledgling professional life flashed before her light brown eyes. 

This is only a minor POV violation, but I’m a believer that these little “speed bumps” take something away from a reader being fully immersed.

So what’s the problem? Molly would not think of her “light brown eyes.” She knows what color her eyes are! As you write, always be firmly inside your viewpoint character’s head, having thoughts she would really have, not thoughts that are signals to the reader.

“Well, Ms. Hammond.” He glanced at the fork and tilted his head toward Molly before looking back at the nail, the gesture an offer as well as a question. “I hope this isn’t one of our Your Time products.” 

Another fundamental to embrace is RUE: Resist the urge to explain. This is when the action and dialogue give us all we need to know without you offering up an explanatory line. That just dilutes the effect and gives us another, unnecessary speed bump. Here, you do not need the gesture an offer as well as a question. That’s already obvious from the head tilting and the dialogue.

Molly felt her cheeks heat up, certain they’d morphed into the same shade as the nail. She shook her head. “I’m so sorry.” She thought she saw a hint of amusement in his blue eyes but she knew there was nothing funny about making a bad first impression with a no-nonsense businessman like Spencer Steele.

I found this paragraph a bit clunky. The shaking of the head seems superfluous, and the dialogue is squeezed inside the paragraph. My suggested rewrite:

“I’m so sorry!” Molly felt her cheeks heat up, certain they’d morphed into the same shade as the nail….

[NOTE: Exclamation points should be rare, but I think in this moment one is called for!]

Finally, watch out for the physics of your scene. I like the last paragraph, but there’s some confusion there:

She thought she saw a hint of amusement in his blue eyes…He lowered the fork and slid the nail onto his napkin then folded the paper neatly into a small square and tossed it into a trash barrel behind him. Molly kept her eyes on her plate, her right hand in her lap and silently waited for the blazing July morning to finish her off.

Did you catch it? If Molly is keeping her eyes on her plate, how can she notice his blue eyes and disposal of the nail? It’s an easy fix. After the boss tosses the napkin Molly looked down at her plate, her right hand in her lap, waiting for the blazing July afternoon to finish her off.  

[Note: I cut the adverb silently as it’s obvious. And if this is lunch, it would more likely be in the afternoon.]

As you can see, writing friend, there are only small matters here to take care of. Your overall page is a good one. I’m no romance expert, but I can’t help feeling this is an excellent romance setup. Unless Molly decides to murder her boss to save her career…then we’ve got a crime thriller I’d also like to read!

Comments are open.

Three Easy Ways to Strengthen A Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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

Ahem.

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.”

OR

“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
@jamesscottbell

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 BACKSTORY

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.

THE SET UP

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 MOMENT

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?