I Was Ready For My Big Moment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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Earle Hyman

Last week we lost a very dear man. Earle Hyman was known to most people as Bill Cosby’s father on The Cosby Show. But he was so much more. An accomplished stage actor, he was one of the great Othellos.

I know because I got to watch him play the role night after night.

I was a young and hungry actor, freshly arrived in New York City and living at The Leo House on West 23d. Across the street at that time was the Roundabout Theater. I walked over there one day and asked for a job. I got one, pushing around scenery for the current production, Shaw’s You Never Can Tell.

As part of the deal, I got to audition for their upcoming production of Othello.

JSB in his triumphant role as Attendant in Othello.

And I got the part! My first paid acting role! As … Attendant. No lines, but I didn’t care. I was doing Shakespeare Off-Broadway, in tights and everything!

Earle Hyman was Othello. Also in the cast was a young Powers Boothe as Roderigo.

And so we began rehearsals. I loved every minute of it, even though my part was just walking on, standing, and walking off. But when I was off, I’d listen. I’d listen to how Earle and Nick Kepros (Iago) did Shakespeare. Iago has some of the best lines in the entire canon, and I determined to play that role someday.

In fact, one night before the show I was sitting backstage with Earle. He was so generous to the young actors, down-to-earth and always willing to give advice. I mentioned I wanted to play Iago someday, and he said, “You’re perfect for it!”

“I am?” I said, wondering if some nefarious part of my personality had leaked out.

“Oh, yes,” Earle said. “You have an open, honest face.” (This, mind you, was well before I went to law school.) He explained, “Othello calls him ‘honest, honest Iago.’ It’s wrong to play the part as an obvious villain.”

I then breezily but sincerely told him I was going to mount a production of Othello someday and play Iago, and that I wanted him to play the lead.

“I’ll do it!” he said.

A lovely man.

So the show opened and was well received by the Times. I continued to listen. I was something of a voice impersonator in those days. I’d crack up the cast by doing imitations of the various actors.

Then one night it happened. My big moment.

Now, to fully appreciate what I’m about to relate it is necessary that you know the classic film All About Eve. If you have not seen it and wish to be spared knowing the plot twist, you might want to skip to the last paragraphs of this post.

In brief, All About Eve is the story of a theater diva named Margo Channing (Bette Davis). A devoted young fan named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) comes to her and pours out her heart about loving the theater and idolizing Margo. This gets her a job as Margo’s assistant.

What we come to learn is that Eve Harrington has only one thought in mind—to displace Margo as the star of a new hit play. She underhandedly snags the understudy role. And then she sets in motion an elaborate scheme so Margo will be unable to make curtain one night.

Eve is a sensation, and from there turns her back on everyone who’s helped her as she ascends the stairway to stardom.

Back to Othello. One night, about an hour and half before curtain, a call comes in from the actor playing Montano—a minor role, but with significant lines. He was stuck in Brooklyn and wouldn’t be able to make the show. I can’t remember why, but I assure you I had nothing to do with it.

The stage manager was in a panic. There were no understudies. Then someone told him, “Jim knows the part. He knows all the parts.”

The stage manager rushed over to me and put his hands on my shoulders. “Do you? Do you really know the part?”

“What from the cape can you discern at sea?” I said, quoting Montano’s first line.

“You’re going on!”

On! Me! I was giddy as he spent twenty minutes with me on the stage, walking me through the blocking. I only half listened, for my other half was loop-quoting the Bard: “Yet heavens have glory for this victory!”

Then I was dismissed to go get ready for the performance.

As I entered the dressing room, everyone was already putting on makeup or getting into costume. The moment I appeared our Iago, Nick Kepros, in a voice dripping with droll amusement and loud enough for all to hear, said, “Well, well, if it isn’t Eve Harrington!”

The room exploded in laughter. It was the perfect line, brilliantly delivered.

So on I went.

Nailed it!

Though it was one night only and did not catapult me to stardom, it was supremely satisfying. I had spoken Shakespeare on a stage in New York! And received warm congratulations from the cast, including Mr. Earle Hyman.

All that to say, writer, be ready. The old saw about luck being the intersection of preparation and opportunity applies.

Be ready when you read. When you come across a passage that moves you or compels you to turn the page, ask yourself why that is so. Mark up the book with notes.

Be ready when you write. Listen to your book and the characters as they take on life. What are they telling you that you didn’t know before?

Be ready when you edit. By studying the craft and having tools that actually work, you become more adept at creatively fixing your manuscript.

Be ready with your elevator pitch. If anyone asks you what your book is about, you should be able to tell them in thirty seconds, and in a way that makes their eyes light up. (An elevator pitch formula may be found here.)

Do all that and you know what you’ll be ready for next? To “put money in thy purse!” (Iago, Act I, Scene 3.)

So what serendipitous event has happened in your own life? Were you ready for it?

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Is It Plagiarism to Steal a Plot?

A creative exercise I suggest in Plot & Structure and in my workshops is “stealing” old plots and re-imagining them. Of course I use the word stealingtongue-in-cheek. Still, I have occasionally heard an objection to this exercise, that it might in some way be unethical or even the dreaded P-word: Plagiarism!
           
It’s neither. If it were so, the greatest literary felon of all time would be a hack named William Shakespeare. Most of his plays were lifted from other sources.
           
For example, Will used an obscure narrative poem entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet as the basis for his play. He didn’t even change the names of the titular characters! What cheek! Which reminds me: Wasn’t there someone who had the bright idea of “stealing” the plot of Romeo and Juliet and turning it into a Broadway musical set in New York? But I digress.
I once read a thriller about a small town where people were being transformed into animal-like creatures who feasted on human flesh. One of the characters in the town, a child, was convinced her parents were not really her parents anymore.
As I read that I thought of one of my favorite movies, Invasion of the Body Snatchers(the 1956 version). At the beginning of the movie a little boy is running away from his mother because he doesn’t believe she’s his mother anymore.
And I’m thinking, this novelist is blatantly purloining the movie!
Then a bit later in the novel, it’s revealed that the animal-people are the result of biological experiments by a mad genius.
And now I’m thinking, the author has absconded with H.G. Welles’s plot for The Island of Dr. Moreau!
The clever scribe had walked off with not just one plot, but two!
Ah, but the writer was ahead of me. Further into the book he has a character think that the events are just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Later on, another character refers to The Island of Dr. Moreau.
The author was winking at readers like me who knew exactly what he was doing!
His name is Dean Koontz. The book is Midnight. And this combining of familiar plots, with updating and his own personal stamp, makes it legit.

In contrast, plagiarism in fiction is the serial lifting of actual passages and passing them off as one’s own. 
So go ahead and look to old plots for ideas, while keeping these general guidelines in mind:

1. Don’t Lift Words
In 2011 Little, Brown pulled a book from distribution when it was discovered that the author had copied actual sentences from James Bond novels and other sources. In an ironic twist, the book’s ranking on Amazon shot up as readers snapped up the remaining copies. This is not a marketing move I would recommend!
Another infamous case involved a young Harvard student who scored a major book deal for her debut novel. Little, Brown (again!) was setting her up to be the next big thing.
Then the Harvard Crimson broke a story showing that the author had lifted several passages out of the books of another author. You can read about that kerfuffle here. The book was pulled off the shelves, the deal scotched.
These cases involved copying the words of another author. Don’t do that. What willhappen from time to time is that an author will write a sentence that sounds like another author’s voice. That can be explained by osmosis, because we do retain things we read. No problem there. The problem is when it’s intentional.

2. Make the Plot Your Own
I would not recommend that you write a novel about a spoiled, antebellum girl on the cusp of the Civil War, who wants to marry a handsome Southerner pledged to another, at the same time she is courted by a dashing rogue. But this love triangle from Gone With the Wind could work nicely in, say, a future world where intergalactic war is about to break out.
Another favorite movie of mine is High Noon (1952) starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Writer/Director Peter Hyams took that plot and re-envisioned it in outer space. Outland (1981) starred Sean Connery and is a darn good movie.
You see the point? The “stealing” of a plot idea is only meant to open up a window to new possibilities. You still need to create your own characters and setting, and most important of all, tap into a personal passion for the plot you are developing.
3. Use Plot Elements as Sparkers
You don’t need to follow a plot pattern wholesale to find this exercise of value. You can use plot elements, characters and scenes and riff off them. We do that anyway, unconsciously. When you see a film or read a book and are moved by something, it gets sent down to the basement where your writer’s unconscious mind is eating a sandwich. Later on, your sub-mind looks it over and either files it away or sends up a message recommending you do something with it. Sometime you may not even remember the source as a fresh idea takes hold. This is all natural and acceptable.
So why not be intentional about it? Keep notes on elements that work for you, and why they work. File those away and look them over occasionally. See what bubbles up.
Being creative and productive do not happen by accident. Get your gears churning. Find creative exercises to do on a regular basis. Borrowing or combining old plots might be a good one to try.
What if we took Liz Curtis Higgs’s award-winning historical novel, Thorn in My Heart,and combined it with one of those Left Behind thrillers written by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye? Why, we’d have the story of a plucky Scottish girl eating haggis and fighting off demons during the Great Tribulation.

And we could call it: Thorn in My Left Behind.
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Killing off good characters

WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS
Yesterday, I killed the dog.
I didn’t want to do it but it had to be done. The creature had been hanging around far too long and I had sort of grown to regret ever allowing it into my life. So I killed the dog.
I waited as long as I could — chapter twenty-two to be exact. But then I just typed the words and the mutt was gone. Now I have to endure the after-wrath. It won’t come for months because the book won’t be published until next year but I know it will come. There’s an unwritten rule in our genre that you never kill animals. Because if you do, your readers turn on you like, well, rabid dogs.
It’s not just dogs. It can be cats. I am a big fan of the British writer Minette Walters, read every book she put out. Until “The Shape of Snakes” and she had a character who tortured cats to death with duct tape. Repulsed, I threw the book across the room. I had seven cats at the time.
This rule about animals is not just limited to cats and dogs. It’s birds, hamsters, horses. I refused to see the movie “War Horse” until a friend assured me the horse didn’t die. And don’t get me started about what those damn pigs did to Boxer the Horse in “Animal Farm.” 
The killing of the good and innocent. It’s the toughest thing we writers do. I am often asked what books have influenced me most as a writer and my first answer is “Charlotte’s Web.” It taught me that yes, sometimes you just have to kill off a really good character for the sake of the story, even if it’s only a spider. 
Is it harder if it’s a human being?

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

That’s King Lear speaking. He’s grieving for the dead Cordelia. She was the good daughter, if you recall. Now Shakespeare had no qualms about killing off the good. (That’s why they called them tragedies.) We writers are still learning from him after all these years, especially those of us in the crime genre where death is the main machine in our plots. 
I’ve been thinking hard about this lately. Not just because of the dog thing but because of “Downton Abbey.” When Matthew Crawley bought the farm on that country road my mouth dropped open. Damn! They killed the good guy! He’s never coming back. Unless Mary steps into the shower and declares that his death was just a dream.
I felt the same way when Bobby Simone did his Mimi bit on “NYPD Blue.” Ditto when Col. Henry Blake’s helicopter went down in “M*A*S*H.” And I was upset that Lane Pryce hanged himself in “Mad Men” before he had a chance to make things right in his sad life.
Is it different in novels? Do readers feel less invested than viewers? Or are the attachments they form in the pure ether of their imaginations even stronger than those forged by film?
Consider Charles Dickens. He delivered his novel “The Old Curiosity Shop” chapter by chapter to his fans and when he killed off his heroine, Little Nell, all hell broke loose. One critic wrote, “Dickens killed Nell just as a butcher would slaughter a lamb.”
Author Conan Doyle always wanted to kill off Holmes. (“I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him,” he once grumbled.) When Doyle finally did Holmes in, thousands canceled their subscription to The Strand. Doyle eventually gave in and resurrected Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
Closer to home, a few years ago crime writer Karin Slaughter killed off one of her beloved characters. Readers were furious, many accusing her of doing it for the shock value and vowing to never pick up another one of her books again. Slaughter felt compelled to post an explanation on her website. 
Readers take these things personally. At least they do if you, the writer, are doing your job. It broke my heart when Beth died in “Little Women.” I was mad at Larry McMurtry for weeks after he killed Gus in “Lonesome Dove.”  It took me decades to understand why Phineas had to die in “A Separate Peace.”
In fact, I didn’t really get what Fowles was doing with that book until fairly recently when I finally got around to reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” Finney, I realized, had to die so Gene could find a way to live.
I wish I could say that in those decades between “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Hero’s Journey” that I have learned how to the handle death of the good. That is what the best books are supposed to do, after all, teach us about such big questions. But I think I have become a better at dealing with death as a writer. So let me offer a few suggestions for anyone who is struggling with this.
Make it worth something. You must create a bond between the doomed character and the reader so when that character dies, it has value. The death has to propel the plot forward or affect the emotional arc of another character. Check out this stellar passage from one of my favorite books “Smiley’s People” by John le Carré.

Slowly, [Smiley] returned his gaze to Leipzig’s face. Some dead faces, he reflected, have the dull, even stupid look of a patient under anaesthetic. Others preserve a single mood of the once varied nature – the dead man as lover, as father, as car driver, bridge player, tyrant. And some, like Leipzig’s, have ceased to preserve anything. But Leipzig’s face, even without the ropes across it, had a mood, and it was anger: anger intensified by pain, turned to fury by it; anger that had increased and become the whole man as the body lost its strength.

The death has to be organic. Make sure there is enough time for the reader to come to know the character. The death may be a surprise but there should be a subtle feeling of foreshadowing about it. Lennie Small in “Of Mice and Men” strikes an empathetic chord with the reader. That’s why his death at the hands of his best friend George to spare him from a lynch mob, is so powerful.
Don’t do it to fix a weak plot. We’ve all read books where another corpse is dropped and we go “meh.” Mercifully, I won’t include any examples here.
Keep true to your book’s tone. How do you want your readers to feel about this? Fearful? Deep sense of personal loss? Generalized feeling of human tragedy? Maybe you want them to laugh. Yeah, can be appropriate. I can’t think of any book examples but here’s an image I can’t forget from “L.A. Law”: Villainess Rosalind Shays accidently stepping to her doom in that open elevator shaft.
Don’t preach. Let the readers make their own conclusions about what the death means. Don’t tack on one of those awful codas where the hero stands around telling us what truths he has learned. And don’t, for corn’s sake, have someone say something like, “well, I guess we should steer clear of cannibals in the future.”
Be sure of what you are doing. Unless you’re in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s league, you can’t undo a death. At least not without some silly deus ex machina thing. I mean, I am glad that Spock didn’t really die from radiation poisoning in the warp drive tube. But I thought his rebirth was cheesy. I recently read a really good mystery by a successful author and I am pretty sure that the character he killed off isn’t really dead. (Can’t tell you the title; the author would kill me). I hope I am wrong. I hope the character is dead because it feels truer to this writer’s voice. Which leads me to my final point…
Let the end make room for beginnings. Pay attention to the survivors in your story and make sure death affects their lives. Leave room for redemption. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” what’s so disturbing about Tom Robinson’s death is its awful inevitably. After falsely being found guilty of rape, he tries to escape but is shot by prison guards. But are we left in despair? I don’t think so because through this experience, Jem and Scout are learning about the dark complexities of the adult world. And at the end, there is Jem, keeping Scout from squishing that little roly-poly bug. There is hope in his need to protect the most vulnerable. There is hope for us all.
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Death to Prologues?

James Scott Bell


“First thing we do, let’s kill all the prologues.” ––Shakespeare (hack writer Chip Shakespeare of Schenectady, NY)


Last week we discussed one of those “fiction rules” that begins to get trumpeted about until it gets chiseled in a tablet as an unbreakable command. Here’s one that seems to be developing: No prologues!

You hear this occasionally from agents and even readers. So it behooves us to ask if there’s something to this mushrooming new “rule.”

I think there is––and isn’t.

Let me explain.

First, a definition. A prologue is a scene (or sometimes a group of scenes) that precedes in time the main plot. So the question to ask yourself is, if it isn’t part of the main plot, why am I including it? And why should a reader bother with it?

Some reasons you might include a prologue:

• To start the book with intense action that hooks the reader.

• To set up an intriguing mystery that will pay off later in the book.

• To show a significant incident in the Lead’s life that haunts him in the present.

• To demonstrate the evil deeds of the bad guy, setting up the stakes for the Lead.

What a prologue should not be is merely an excuse to give us backstory, the sort of information about the Lead that can wait to be revealed later. Only if the material in the prologue is absolutely essential, riveting and has real impact on the story, should it be used.

Maybe that’s why agents are suspicious. They see too many prologues that don’t need to be there.

Some readers report that they skip prologues. Why would they do that? Perhaps because it seems to them that it’s just setup information and they want to get right on to the story.

So what should you do if you’ve got a great prologue that makes sense? That accomplishes just what it’s suppose to?

Should you give up and bow to the blanket rule that you should never use a prologue? I don’t think so.

Instead, be deceptive.

That’s right. I said deceptive. You’re a fiction writer, after all. That’s what you do.

So here is a simple strategy: never label a prologue as “Prologue.” That’s an invitation for a reader, not to mention an agent or editor, to skip this part or toss aside the manuscript.

Instead, if it’s in the long past, you can start with a date stamp, like this:

November 22, 1963

Or you can simply decide to call it “Chapter One.”

Another option is simply not to put anything at all. I like this move. You just go halfway down the page and start your scene. Then, you can number the next scene as Chapter One. This was the strategy used by Harlan Coben in Tell No One. There is no call out that the book opens with a prologue. It simply gives us a riveting scene about a husband losing his wife and getting knocked out. Then, the next scene is headed:

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Eight Years Later

But Coben wrote such a great opening scene that you don’t stop and say, “Hey! He fooled me! That was a prologue! I want my money back!”

So here’s my bottom line advice. Don’t start with a prologue unless you have an absolutely clear reason for doing so. Make it short, too, unless you can justify the longer opening––as in, say, Mystic River, where the opening scenes, in the long past, are essential to understanding the plot as it unfolds. Dennis Lehane knew what he was doing.

Make sure you do, too, and then just don’t call it a “Prologue.” Problem solved.

Or is it? Do you tend to be let down if you see the word Prologue at the beginning of the book? Do you care? Is “Kill the Prologues” one “rule” we should nip in the bud?

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