The Power of Decency in Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

If you’ve been in my workshops or read a few of my writing books, you know about the “pet the dog” beat. The name is not original with me, but comes from the old Hollywood screenwriters. Blake Snyder changed it to “save the cat.” So pet lover-writers can choose their preferred metaphor.

I have refined the concept to make it something more specific than merely doing something nice for someone. In my view, the best pet-the-dog moments are those where the protagonist helps someone weaker or more vulnerable than himself, and by doing so places himself in further jeopardy. Thus, it falls naturally into Act 2, usually on either side of the midpoint.

I think of Katniss Everdeen helping little Rue in The Hunger Games. Or Richard Kimble in the movie The Fugitive, saving a little boy’s life in the hospital emergency ward (and having his cover blown as a result).

David Janssen as The Fugitive

And speaking of The Fugitive, I’ve been watching the old TV series starring David Janssen. The show was a big hit in the 60s, and after watching a few I came to see that a big part of the reason is the pet-the-dog motif in almost every episode. There usually comes a time when someone is in need of medical attention. Kimble, therefore, has a dilemma. He can help and give away his medical skills (leading to suspicions about his background). Or he can quietly walk away.

What do you think this decent guy does?

An episode called “Fatso” will serve as an example. It’s a particularly good entry, directed by one of the best of that rare breed, the female Hollywood director—Ida Lupino.

Kimble (now using the name Bill Carter) has hitched a ride with a traveling salesman who is fighting off sleep. For safety’s sake, Kimble takes the wheel into the next town. Unfortunately, an errant driver forces Kimble to swerve and rear end a parked car.

Knowing the local cops will soon be on the scene, Kimble tries to sneak away, but is nabbed by the sheriff and arrested for fleeing the scene of an accident. They take his prints. Kimble, sitting in the clink, knows it’s just a matter of time before they identify who he is.

Jack Weston as David in “Fatso”

He shares his cell with a sad sack, an overweight drunk named David (played by that reliable character actor of the time, Jack Weston). When the sheriff comes to release David, Kimble socks the lawman and knocks him out. He heads for the door. David begs Kimble to take him along. They hop a train, heading for David’s boyhood home.

Meanwhile, Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), who is always one step behind Kimble, gets the report based on Kimble’s prints. He flies to Kentucky where all this is taking place.

Kimble learns that David, who everyone calls “slow,” wants to see his estranged father, who is dying on the horse ranch where he grew up. David is full of fear because of his father’s disapproval. Something happened in the past that caused his father to throw him out.

Kimble and David arrive at the ranch and are met by David’s younger brother, Frank. This guy is a real jerk. He calls David “Fatso” and needles him about that terrible thing that happened.

Frank is also suspicious of Kimble. Why would a guy like this befriend a loser like David?

As the episode goes on, with Gerard getting closer and Frank feeding the local sheriff his suspicions, Kimble tries to help David. Knowing that the only way David can become whole again is to confront the past, not run from it. To gain David’s trust, Kimble admits he’s a doctor. He then walks David through the night that the barn burned down and killed several horses. David was drunk and alone on the farm, and everyone, including David, is convinced he set the fire.

But Kimble does some digging and finds out that Frank was AWOL that night from the local army base. He presents this evidence to David’s father and mother. They confront Frank. He confesses. He set David up to get him disowned and out of the will.

David’s father asks for David’s forgiveness.

It’s all very redemptive, but there’s one problem: Gerard has just pulled up to the house with the sheriff!

The mother, played with gusto by that wonderful character actress Glenda Farrell, sends Kimble out the back door and proceeds to delay the investigators.

In each show’s epilogue, as we see Kimble disappear into the night, we hear the dulcet tones of one of the great voice-over actors, William Conrad, giving an ominous send-off. In “Fatso,” he says: “A Fugitive has to watch his step. Every step he takes, every hour, every minute, every second, any move he makes might lead to Death Row. There’s no way of knowing in advance. There’s never any way of knowing.”

Thus, virtually every episode is built around Kimble, on the run, arriving in some locale where he manages to pick up a menial job, but then gets involved with another character who is having some life-and-death problem, too … and Kimble is in a position to help.

I say this pet-the-dog motif is the secret of the show’s popularity. David Janssen was perfect for the part. He does a lot of acting with his face—trying to appear innocent as the questions get more pointed; attempting to ignore someone’s troubles even as his core goodness makes that impossible.

The movie works in the same way, with a similar stellar acting job by Harrison Ford. There’s one moment that makes me smile every time. After Kimble saves the little boy’s life in the hospital, he’s confronted by a doctor (Julianne Moore) who had seen him checking out the boy’s X-ray. She calls security. Kimble races to the stairs and starts down, almost bumping into someone.

“Excuse me,” he says.

I love it! Even as he’s running for his life, he can’t give up his fundamental decency.

Why do we respond so strongly to this motif? It’s not hard to understand. In this life, which Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish, and short,” we long for decency, thirst for kindness, are grateful for compassion. Seeing it manifested in a lead character draws us to him, creates the bond that is one of the big secrets of successful fiction.

What are some of your favorite pet-the-dog moments in movies or books? Don’t you find yourself really drawn to characters who show compassion for the vulnerable?

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The Magical Midpoint Moment

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books:

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

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

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


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

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

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What the Hell Do You Want to Say to Me?

You have to evolve a permanent set of values to serve as motivation. – Leon Uris
This week I’ll be leaving for Houston to teach alongside the mythic structure guru, Christopher Vogler, and the breakout novel sage, Donald Maass. Three intensive days with a room full of writers, talking about what we all love–the craft of fiction.
So it seems apt for this post to riff on a question that Mr. Maass poses at the end of his book, The Fire in Fiction.Maass wants to know what you have invested in your story, where the blood flow is. He asks, “What the hell do you want to say to me?”
Which brings us to the subject of theme, or premise. It’s the part of the writing craft a lot of writers seem to struggle with.
I’ve been reading some resources of late on the subject. Some suggest that you must know your theme up front, or your manuscript will wander. Yet many successful authors say they concentrate on the story itself and “find” the theme as they go along.
Either approach will work as long as you let the theme arise organically out of a plot that shows a character with a high stakes objective, opposed by a stronger force.
For example, in the film The Fugitive you have an innocent man on the run from the law, trying to find the man who murdered his wife. He’s got an opposing force in the U.S. Marshal’s office (embodied by Sam Gerard, super lawman). Forced to keep ahead of the law, Dr. Richard Kimble finds resources within himself he never knew existed, and eventually proves his innocence while nailing the bad guy.


So what is the theme, or premise, of The Fugitive? You could state it in several ways:
– Dogged determination leads to justice
– A good man will ultimately prevail over evil
– Fighting for what’s right, even against the law, leads to the truth
As a writer, you probably have a sense of what your theme is simply by knowing how your character will come out at the end. And you definitely should know at least that much.
For example, when I wrote Try Dying I knew my lawyer protagonist would find out who killed his fiancé, the one true love of his life, and in doing so prevail over the bad guys. In my head, then, I was thinking something along the lines of True love will pursue justice for the slain lover, and win.
That’s what the hell I was trying to say. And I believed it passionately, which is the key to a premise that works. The reader has to believe you believe it.
At some point in your writing –– before you begin or soon after you get going –– ask the following questions:
1.  At the end, what is the condition of your Lead character? Has he won or lost?
2. What is the “take away” from that condition? What will the reader think you are saying about life?
3. Most important: Do you believe it passionately?If not, why are you writing it?
Here’s an example. In Casablanca, what is Rick’s condition at the end of the movie? He has found a reason to stop his self destructive behavior (drunkenness) and his isolation (because of perceived betrayal). He’s found the inspiration he needs to go back into the world and rejoin the fight for freedom against the Nazis.
What’s the take away? True love will sacrifice for a greater good, and restore a person to a life worth living.

Rick sacrifices his true love, Ilsa, because she is married to another man and that man is essential to the war effort. Rick knows that if he and Ilsa go off together she’ll regret it (“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”)
Coming as it did during the early years of World War II, it’s clear the filmmakers believed this passionately, because that sort of sacrifice for a greater good is what the government was calling upon its citizens to do.
So use those three power questions to find a premise worth writing about.
How about you? Do you consciously identify the themes in your stories? Do you discover them as you go along? Or do you just let it happen as the characters determine?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in detail, as I am currently working on a chapter on theme for a new collection. Let’s have a conversation. 

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Writers of the Lost Arc

The annual Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention, or Bouchercon for short, is coming up this week in San Francisco. It’s a good time for writers to gather with readers and colleagues, yak on panels, talk about writing, the business, sign books.
And hear things.
I always enjoy listening to Lee Child. He’s got this great English accent and droll delivery, and says things that are usually contrarian and funny.
At last year’s conference, Child was on a panel when the subject of character change came up. A constant drum beat in fiction classes and books on writing is that your character must change in some way. There must be a “character arc.”
“Why?” Child asked rhetorically. “There doesn’t have to be character change. We don’t need no stinkin’ arcs.”
Everybody in the room cracked up. Child went on to explain that he loves Dom Perignon champagne, and he wants it to taste the same each time. And so, too, he wants his Jack Reacher books to offer the same pleasurable experience every time out. Reacher doesn’t change. Reacher does his thing. It’s how he does it that provides the pleasure.
And I do love a good Reacher.
Then another of my favorite authors spoke. Michael Connelly was interviewed in a packed convention. The Harry Bosch books are the best series maybe  . . . ever. Connelly spoke about his decision twenty years ago to have Bosch age chronologically. So in each book Bosch is about a year older.
And that means he changes. He has varying degrees of inner development. Talk about your arcs! It’s still going on and it’s a wonder to behold.
So there you have it, a tale of two writers and two approaches, both of which work. They provide different experiences and readers can choose which they like best—or go with both, for variety.
When I teach about character work, I do say that a Lead character does not have to change in a fundamental way.  For example, in the film The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble does not become a new man. He does not have to discover his “true self.” What he has to do is grow stronger as he meets extraordinary challenges.
Similarly, Marge Gunderson in Fargo does not change, but shows her inner strength by solving a horrific crime, far beyond what she’s had to deal with before.
So in this kind of thriller, the character is already who he or she needs to be, but gets tested and strengthened.
A nice wrinkle to this type of story is when the Lead’s strength inspires another character to change. That’s what happens in The Fugitive. Kimble’s relentless search for the killer of his wife turns Sam Gerard from a lawman who “doesn’t care” about the facts of a case, to caring very much indeed.
In Casablanca, you have both kinds of change. Not only does Rick Blaine change radically, from a man who wants to be left alone to one who joins the war effort, but so does the little French captain, Louis.  Rick’s act of self sacrifice at the end inspires Louis to leave Casablanca with Rick, also fight the Nazis. It is, of course, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
So let’s talk about what you like in a series character. Do you want to see development over the life of the series? Or would you rather be able to pick any title at random and have it be pretty much the same—only enjoyably different?
What are the hallmarks of your favorite series?
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