Using the Argument Against Transformation to Strengthen Your Story

by James Scott Bell

Today’s post is for structure fans. If you’re a dedicated pantser for whom any thought of form and function causes you to break out in hives, you have my permission to go play Candy Crush, for we are about to take a deep dive into the skeletal framework of storytelling.

This post was prompted by an email from a reader of Super Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. The gist of the email is below, reproduced with the sender’s permission:

I’m planning a book that is plot-driven rather than character-driven, so as I look at developing my “Mirror Moment,” I know it’s going to be more about digging deep and finding the strength to face physical and/or psychological death (like in The Fugitive), rather than a specific need to change. I wondered how the twin plot points of “Argument Against Transformation” and “Transformation” worked in that case (since there isn’t an actual transformation)? Are those beats skipped in a plot-driven story?

This is a very intelligent question, and told me immediately that my correspondent has a real grasp of structure and what it’s supposed to accomplish.

He rightly points out there are two kinds of arcs for a main character: 1) he becomes a better version of himself; or 2) he remains the same person fundamentally, but grows stronger through the ordeal. (Note: both of these arcs can be reversed, resulting in tragedy).

In books or movies of the first kind, such as Casablanca, you’ll often find a compelling beat, which I call “the argument against transformation.” It’s a setup move which defines the MC’s journey and pays off nicely at the end, with actual transformation.

Thus Rick, at the end of Casablanca, has transformed from a loner who has withdrawn from the community into a self-sacrificing member of the war effort. Remember at the  airport, when he’s explaining to Ilsa why they can’t go off together? “I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do you can’t be any part of.”

And two minutes later Rick proves his transformation by shooting Major Strasser right in front of Louis, the French police captain.

Early in Act 1, we have Rick’s argument against such a transformation. That is, he states something that is the opposite of what he will come to believe—and be—at the end. He says it two times, in fact: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Another example: At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has learned, “There’s no place like home.” But early in Act I, she argues against that notion. She tells Toto there’s got to be a place they can go where there’s no trouble, a place you can’t get to by a boat or a train. A place “behind the moon … beyond the rain …” (cue music).

That’s the first kind of transformation. But my correspondent was asking about the second kind, where the character does not change inside. Here’s what I wrote in response:

In the kind of story you describe, there is a transformation—from weaker to stronger. The hero is forced to survive in the dark world, and must become more resilient. So at the end he is not fundamentally a different person, but is a stronger, more resourceful version of himself.

In thinking about your question, it seems to me that the “argument against transformation” in a “getting stronger” story corresponds to what my friend Chris Vogler labels “Refusal of the Call” (in his book The Writer’s Journey). One example Chris uses is Rocky. When Rocky Balboa is first offered the chance to fight Apollo Creed, he says no. “Well, it’s just that, you see, uh…I fight in clubs, you know. I’m a ham-and-egger. This guy… he’s the best, and, uh, it wouldn’t be such a good fight. But thank you very much, you know.”

Implicit in that refusal is his belief that he’s not strong enough.

The transformation beat comes at the conclusion of the final battle, usually in the form of some visual that shows the stronger self. In Rocky, he’s got Adrian in his arms and adulation from the fans.

In The Fugitive, the argument against transformation is shown cinematically. After Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives on the scene of the train derailment, we cut to Kimble running through the woods, his face etched with fear. In a book, you could put in Kimble’s inner thoughts about it. I know an operating chamber, not the streets! How am I going to survive?

The Mirror Moment is what holds these two ends of the spectrum together, which is why it is perfectly situated in the middle of a book. The protagonist has a moment when he’s forced to look at his situation, as if in a mirror (sometimes there’s an actual mirror in the scene!). He either thinks, Who am I? What have I become? Will I stay this way? (Casablanca); or, There is no possible way I can survive this…I’m probably going to die! (The Fugitive).

Now, if you pantsers have made it this far without your heads exploding, I congratulate you, and offer this word of comfort: you don’t have to think about structure before you start a project, or while you’re writing it. Go ahead, be as wild and free as you like!

But when the time comes (and it always does) when you need to revise and figure out why something isn’t working—and what you can do to make it work—structure will be there to help you figure it out.

Because story and structure are in love, and there’s no argument against that!


Gilstrap Watch: John reports that the surgery “went great.” He feels, naturally, like he “took a beating,” but expects to be “fine in a week or two.” Huzzah! (For those who don’t know what this is about, see John’s post from last Wednesday.)


Mixing It Up With Nonfiction

By Mark Alpert

My reading habits are completely out of whack. On average, I read at least twenty novels for every one nonfiction book. This extreme asymmetry isn’t strictly a result of my career choice; although I’m a novelist and I get a lot of inspiration from reading other authors’ fiction, that’s not the reason why I plow through so many novels. I just can’t help it. I read the stuff because I love it.

And here’s what makes the imbalance even more severe: I read so much fiction that it makes me intolerant of nonfiction that’s poorly done. A book about politics or sociology or science or art might have persuasive, important arguments, but I’ll quickly lose patience with it if the author doesn’t tell an interesting story, or if his or her voice isn’t lively and compelling.

I won’t waste your time complaining about nonfiction books I hated. Instead, I’ll talk about the ones that cleared my ridiculously high bar. One of my favorite history books, for example, is Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. This monster has nearly 3,000 pages in all (1.2 million words!) but it’s riveting. The opening of the book is brilliant: instead of torturing readers with a deadly dull recitation of all the causes of the war, it starts with the tale of how in 1835 a 27-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant named Jefferson Davis (the future president of the Confederacy) fell in love with the daughter of Zachary Taylor, his commanding officer (and future U.S. president). Davis asked for Taylor’s permission to marry his daughter Sarah, but Taylor refused, so Davis resigned his commission, eloped with Sarah, and fled with her to his family’s plantation in Mississippi, where a few months later she died of either malaria or yellow fever. Ten years later, Davis was elected to the U.S. Congress, but he rejoined the army when the Mexican-American War broke out. He held the rank of colonel now, and his commanding officer, once again, was Zachary Taylor.

Awkward, right? But Davis distinguished himself so well at the Battle of Buena Vista that Taylor actually apologized to him: “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”

This opening chapter hooked me. After reading it, I was ready to go wherever Shelby Foote wanted to take me, sloshing through the blood and gore of Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg. Foote was a novelist too, so I guess it should’ve been no surprise that he could tell the story of the Civil War so well.

Another novelist who wrote excellent nonfiction was David Foster Wallace. As it turns out, the author of the literary bestseller Infinite Jest also wrote Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Books about math are usually not known for their wit and verve, but Wallace somehow managed to stir my interest in Georg Cantor, the founder of set theory and the “infinity of infinities.” Until reading this book, I never really understood how one kind of infinity (say, the set of all real numbers) could be larger than another kind of infinity (say, the set of rational numbers). But Wallace presented the mathematical proof in a way that nearly anyone could understand.

Right now I’m reading a nonfiction book about another difficult subject, the current state of theoretical research in fundamental physics (string theory, supersymmetry, all that good stuff). Titled Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, it was written by a physicist named Sabine Hossenfelder who became well-known in the physics community because of her popular blog that questioned some of the conventional wisdom in the field. Unlike most people who write science books — usually naïve journalists who are way too wide-eyed about the latest theories, or pretentious Nobel Prize winners who love to pontificate — Hossenfelder has a wry, skeptical voice, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes pissed off. Here, for instance, is her summary of one of the book’s chapters: “In which I meet with Nima Arkani-Hamed and do my best to accept that nature isn’t natural, everything we learn is awesome, and that nobody gives a fuck what I think.”

Another thing I like about this book: it’s only 236 pages long. Hey, I love physics as much as the next guy, but I have a big stack of unread novels on my desk!

Here’s a novel about science that definitely won’t bore you: THE COMING STORM


Reader Friday: Writing Goals

Predetermined writing goals can help keep our butts in the chair, fingers on the keyboard.

How often do you set a goal?

Do you preplan your writing schedule for the entire year? If so, what are your goals for 2019?

If you prefer not to look beyond the WIP you’re working on, have you set a deadline to finish the manuscript?


Road Work

By Elaine Viets

I was reading a fast-paced thriller when suddenly, the action stalled. The sheriff was chasing the killers, pursuing them on the back roads – and I was stumbling through sentences like this one: “Where State Road 41 turned north to Wyandotte, I went south on US 64, and west on Highway 27 until it intersected with Route 441, and then . . . ”

And then I lost interest. My thriller had turned into Mapquest.

Never mind who wrote this novel, or the real names of the roads and town – all writers lose their way sometimes.

Even big name authors will give you turn-by-turn directions to the Santa Monica Freeway or the Holland Tunnel.

Donald Westlake parodied this habit in his funny Dortmunder novels. Stan, the driver for this band of feckless crooks, always discussed his routes through New York City. Here’s a Stan sample:

“Anyway, the Van Wych’s no good because they’re putting in the monorail. I figured the old streets are still okay, I’ll take a straight run up Flatbush Avenue, come to Manhattan that way.”

Mentioning lots of streets may seem to give your novel gritty authenticity, but those streets should help illustrate your story. If your hero is chasing drug smugglers through the back country, describe those roads so they are more than jumbled numbers. Is the highway deserted at night? Is that rutted road hard to see in the rain? Are there isolated farmhouses nearby – or is this road so far off the grid your hero will have no help in an emergency?

Use those roads to give us a feeling of what’s going on. This information can rachet up the tension in your novel.

Paddy Hirsch, in his historical mystery, “The Devil’s Half Mile,” about Wall Street in 1799, mentions a spaghetti tangle of Manhattan streets. But look how he does it:

“Bedlow Street and Timber Street had the high ground and the views, while Cherry Street had the seafront promenade, but the maze of lanes and alleys that tumbled down the hill and connect them was something else entirely. Most of the land there was marsh, and the work to drain the soil and fill in the incline had not gone well. The lanes were sunken, and the buildings on them flooded in the fall, froze in the winter and attracted mosquitos in the summertime. The mysterious fevers and sicknesses that plagued the city seemed to center on those sinkholes, so that only the poorest and most wretched lived there. But the rents were cheap, and as a result they were overflowing with newcomers seeking a fresh start in the growing city.”

Hirsch outlined an entire neighborhood in one paragraph, and named the major streets.
One of the best examples of stellar road work is in T. Jefferson Parker’s “California Girl.” It’s 1960 and teenage Andy is driving his girlfriend home in his car, nicknamed the Submarine.

“Andy steered the Submarine up Red Hill Avenue, into Lemon Heights. Meredith sat close beside him, her hand on his knee. Through his jeans, he could feel the exact shape of her palm and thumb and each finger. He tried to open his leg a little, invite her hand to go farther up, but he had an accelerator to work and she’d never moved much north of his knee anyway. Wasn’t going to in the middle of day, heading home from school. That was for sure.”

They talk about their plans and then:

“Andy downshifted and made the left onto Skyline. Meredith had removed her hand from his leg but he could still feel it there, warm and soft and a little damp. . . .

“Lemon Heights was where the rich people lived. The heights were rolling foothills with eucalyptus and avocado and sycamores, even a few lemon trees from the old days. The houses were big and each one was different, not like the tracts expanding below, where two or three floor plans repeated themselves up one street and down the next.”

Using streets can give your story real direction.


ACDF: My New, Most Important Alphabet

By John Gilstrap

Note: My bone grafts will come from the bone bank, not from my hip. Thank goodness.

If you’re looking for any solid writing advice on this Wednesday, perhaps you should move along.  This week’s post is personal.  Perhaps even indulgent.

My writing schedule has been knocked completely off course by life issues.  Yes, I realize that this contradicts a point made a few weeks ago in a post on this very blog, but I’m not trolling for sympathy, and I don’t consider this space to be “social media”.  I’ve been a regular here for long enough for all y’all to feel like family.  And I don’t look at any of this as bad news.

Tomorrow, I will undergo roughly four hours of surgery to remove three discs from my cervical spine, replace them with bone grafts, and then fuse them all together with a titanium plate.  The surgeon will go in from the front of my throat, retract my trachea and esophagus off to the side.  The procedure is called anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF), and the success rate is phenomenal.

This is not my neck, but this is what my x-ray will look like when they’re done.

For about a year now, I’ve endured pain and numbness down my left arm and shoulder, radiating down into my left shoulder blade.  Sometimes, my thumb feels as if it’s been hit with a hammer.  As I type this, I can’t feel my thumb at all.  It’s called cervical radiculopathy. I’ve tried physical therapy, and I’ve had two epidural injections, one of which helped a great deal, and one that seemed to do nothing at all.  The surgeon explained that I now have two choices:

Choice One.  I can suck it up and keep going.  There’s no danger of catastrophic degeneration from my condition, so the surgery is, by definition, elective (though insurance will cover it).  He said if I do nothing, things will never be better than they are now, and if they get worse, I always have the option for surgery down the road.

Choice Two.  Have the surgery now and make the pain go away.  This is the choice I made, and here’s why: I will never be younger than I am now, and few conditions age a person faster than chronic pain.

So, the decision is made.  I’ve decided that the risks inherent in any major surgery are worth the results.  I’ve signed on for 4-6 weeks of recovery and the inability to lift anything heavier than 5 pounds for eight weeks.  This puts a big burden on my lovely bride, and she’s signed on as well.

And I’m terrified.

It’s my cervical spine, for heaven’s sake!  The fusion will happen at three levels, C4-5, 5-6, and 6-7.  In the weeks ramping up to tomorrow, I’ve realized how counter-productive it is to be the control freak that I am.  I am literally passing my future into the hands of a man I’ve met only twice.

Since mid-March of this year, the time when this surgical rock started rolling down the hill, I have spent countless hours–hundreds, probably–researching every aspect of ACDF surgery.  I’ve watched an entire procedure, from incision to final sutures (thanks, YouTube!).  I know what the likely complications will be (difficulty swallowing and speaking for the first week or two), but I also know that the vast majority of patients who undergo ACDF surgery enjoy complete elimination of their radiculopathy as soon as they open their eyes.

Knowing these details helps me settle my fears.  This is going to happen, so why not embrace it and try not to be scared?

The real casualty of this looming episode in my life is my writing–and that’s my hook around to the topic of this blog.  Thanks to my obsessive research into my surgery, I have fallen woefully behind the power curve for my next book.  It’s a quirk of my personality that I have difficulty concentrating on the imagery necessary to write a story while my mind is consumed with unanswered questions.  No excuses, just an observation.  I’m hoping that during those days (weeks, perhaps) when I am pretty much unable to do anything but rest and take walks, I’ll be able to re-focus on what I really should be doing.

So, here we go, on into the unknown . . .


It’s A Gas! Things We Can Learn
From Good Openings In Movies

By PJ Parrish

Just back from the Edgars. As banquet chair, one of my duties is to run the PowerPoint, so I stay as sober as a nun until it’s all over. Then, like everyone else, I head to the bar to see old friends and talk about the business.

I met one of the winners, Donald Joh, who won best TV episode for The Romanoffs. His writing partner was Matthew Weiner. You might have heard of him – he created Mad Men, and has won a van-load of Emmys and Golden Globes.

Donald and I got to gabbing about the differences between screenwriting and novel writing. One thing we agreed on was that both need to have a great set-up. I told him I had recently watched Gaslight, the great study in paranoia with Charles Boyer trying to drive his wife Ingrid Bergman crazy. Gaslight falls under what I call the Bad Husband genre. Others include Dial M For Murder (Bad Husband Ray Milland trying to off Grace Kelly), Suspicion (Bad Husband Cary Grant gets miffed when he finds out his heiress wife Joan Fontaine is really poor), and Bad Fiancé Robert Wagner who’s just plain mean and tosses his pregnant girlfriend Joanne Woodward off a roof).

The golden era of the Bad Husband genre seemed to end in the Fifties. We’ve got a few bad seeds now, like Nick Dunne in Gone Girl, but they pale in comparison to guys like Cary. I guess you could include Jack Torrance in The Shining but he was possessed by evil spirits, so that doesn’t count in my book. But I can make a good case for throwing in Guy Woodhouse from Rosemary’s Baby and greedy little Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, dontcha know?

But back to Gaslight. I told Donald Joh I have trouble watching movies for pleasure because I analyze the good ones for what they can teach me about how to set up a story, how to convey plot only through action and dialogue, and how to establish important things like place, atmosphere, and begin layering in character motivation. So if you’ll indulge me, let me give you a quick breakdown of how Gaslight does this.

The opening image is a foggy London street and a lamplighter making his rounds. Atmosphere and main motif of gaslight planted. Next we see a sign — 9 Thornton Square and look over the shoulder of a man reading a newspaper THORNTON SQUARE MURDER UNSOLVED. Place identified and first good hook is thrown out just via an image. The door of No. 9 opens and a girl comes out. She looks shell-shocked as the gawkers whisper. Her elderly guardian turns down the remaining gaslight and they leave in a carriage. He tells her not to look back and delivers the movie’s first lines:

“You’ve got to forget everything that happened here. You’re going to Italy to see Verbaldi. He was the best friend your aunt had. He will make you a great singer just like your aunt was.”

Another hook is thrown out, a dribble of backstory, and we’re off and running.

That opening scene could be a prologue. Because we next jump ahead ten years and to a new location. But you could also just call it “Chapter 1”. So, we cut to the next “chapter.” A sign in the window says “Verbaldi Music Lessons.” Neat location seque. Inside, the now-adult girl (Ingrid Bergman) is finishing up her lesson. Her teacher tells her she has worked so hard all these years but seems distracted.

Teacher: “You look like her.”
Paula: “But I don’t sing like her, I know. I haven’t a voice, have I?”
Teacher: “Your heart is not in your singing anymore.”

Efficient character development and time/locale bridge. Paula, we understand, feels inferior to her famous aunt and very alone in the world. “I haven’t a voice” is a pitiful recognition of her own insubstantial character. The movie is, in fact, partly about Paula finding her “voice” even as her husband tries to break her down. Paula confesses she is in love. The teacher tells her she needs a vacation. Paula leaves and outside, she embraces the man who had been accompanying her on piano — Gregory Anton. Dialogue:

Paula: “But I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you.”
Gregory: “Are you afraid?”
Paula: “Yes, of happiness.”

Again, character development layered in. Paula is being portrayed as a weakling. Which enforces her powerful character arc by the time we get to the movie’s climax. You have to give your heroine a point to begin so she can fight her obstacles and grow. Both plot and character need arcs from A to Z. She tells him she needs to go away for a week to know what she is doing. He tells her that he has waited for her so long and he can wait a little longer.

In the next chapter-scene, we are on the train to Lake Como. In her compartment, Paula chats with an old woman who is reading a murder mystery about a man who marries a girl and has six wives buried in the cellar. reinforces the plot. The old woman reveals she lives in London, in Thornton Square. Aha!

“Do you know it? You know we had a real live murder there.”

“Yes, I’d heard of it.” 

The old lady then recounts the event: Ten years ago a famous singer named Alice Alcast was murdered. So now we know what was going on in that opening scene! It’s a good lesson for novelists on how to use ACTION to tell the backstory. In a novel, we would probably have our heroine THINKING/REMEMBERING what happened 10 years ago. Much more effective to find a way to convey this info in action/dialogue if you can

The train is pulling into Lake Como. Paula is agitated and the old woman tells her that traveling alone is dangerous and to be careful. foreshadowing. When Paula gets off the train, we see a hand clasp her sleeve. Creepy! The camera pulls back to reveal it is her lover Gregory. He tells her he has followed her to Lake Como.

Gregory: “You’re not angry with me, are you?”
Paula: “Angry? If you hadn’t come I’d have sent for you.”

They kiss as the train moves out. The final shot is of the old woman in the train’s window looking concerned. More foreshadowing.

New scene: In the villa, Gregory confesses he has always dreamed of living in a quiet house in London.

Paula: “I have a house like that, at 9 Thornton Square. That house comes into my dream, a house of horror. Strange, I haven’t dreamed of it since I’ve known you. I haven’t been afraid since I’ve known you. For years I’ve been afraid of something nameless. But I’ve found peace since I found you. I could even face that house with you. You shall have your dream, Gregory. You shall have your house in the square.”

The main characters have been well introduced. We sense that Gregory is a Bad Husband, but we are intrigued to know what he is up to. Poor Paula has to face the demons of her past by re-entering the murder house. It’s like we’re screaming at the screen of a slasher movie: DON’T GO IN THE BASEMENT! The stage is set.

New chapter: We are at 9 Thornton Square. Gregory pushes open the creaky door and Paula enters her dark house of horrors for the first time in 10 years, and says:

“Will you light the gas, please?”

Oh, indeed he will. The gas light works as a theme throughout the movie on many levels and images. Paula watches as the shadows move across the parlor of the gloomy room and says:

“It is all dead in here. The whole place seems to smell of death.”

She pulls off a dusty sheet from a grand portrait of her opera singer aunt as Gregory watches from the shadows. She whispers:

“It was there I found her, there in front of the fire, in front of her own portrait. I came running downstairs. She had been strangled.”

She gets distraught and says she can’t stay here. Gregory comforts her and says they will shut all the old furnishings away so nothing can remind her of the past. Make the house full of parties and life again.

And the set up is complete. The newlyweds begin to create a life together at 9 Thornton Square and though the aunt’s portrait is locked away in the attic, you know the ghost has not been banished. 

Now, I’ve heard folks dismiss Gaslight as corny. But for my farthings, it’s an effective thriller and character study. The director George Cukor was labeled “a woman’s director” but he directed a couple sturdy noirs along the way including A Double Life with Ronald Colman as an actor who gets way too into his role as Othello and offs his ex-wife who’s playing Desdemona. But that’s for a Bad Husband for another day…



Are Only Humans Creative? Plus, 6 Ways Creativity Improves Health


My husband and I recently watched an excellent documentary on Netflix entitled The Creative Brain. “Neuroscientist David Eagleman taps into the creative process of various innovators while exploring brain-bending, risk-taking ways to spark creativity.” 

I’ve written about creativity and the brain before, so I didn’t want to write another post on the same subject. Nonetheless, all creatives should find the show fascinating. But — yes, there’s a but — the narrator claims only humans possess the ability to create. I disagree. Creativity surrounds us. We just need to remain open to it.

I think we can all agree that dancing is a creative form of expression. So, if dance is part of the arts, then the Birds of Paradise are creative geniuses …

Now, let me ask you, do you think this little guy is creative or working only on instinct?

Side note: ladies, how cool would it be if men had to woo women in the same way? 😉

Let’s dive into the ocean. In South Carolina lives one pod of bottlenose dolphins whose creativity gains great rewards.

Think about this … If they’re working strictly on instinct, then why aren’t other dolphins hunting in the same way? This “beaching” activity can only be seen in this one pod.

Check out these creative thinkers …

What if an elephant painted a self-portrait, would it then mean she’s using her creativity?

Meet Suda …

If you’re short on time, jump ahead to 10:45 to see what she painted.

This Australian Satin Bower selectively steals from humans. The female he’s courting has a fondness for blue. Only blue. Another color might ruin the design.

This post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my beloved crows. Crow nest building is serious business, but creativity also plays a role. Made of interlocking twigs gathered from surrounding trees and shrubs, they weave these twigs with metallic wire to strengthen the nest. Some crows even incorporate knotted lengths of thick plastic. But it’s their love of shiny objects that really speaks to their individuality and creativity.

How ‘bout an entire nest made of coat hangers? This magpie’s nest may not look very comfortable, but it’s creative!

That concludes the fun half of the post. Now here’s why creativity is good for you.

6 Ways Creativity Improves Health and Wellness

1) Increased Happiness

When you’re completely absorbed in a project, psychologists call this state Flow. Writers often refer to it as The Zone. For those unfamiliar with either term, have you ever been working on a project and completely lost all sense of time? That’s Flow. And Flow reduces anxiety, boosts your mood, and even slows your heartrate.

2) Reduces Dementia

Studies show that creative engagement not only reduces depression and isolation, but can also help dementia patients tap back in to their personalities and sharpen their senses.

3) Improves Mental Health

The average person has about 60,000 thoughts a day and 95% are exactly the same. A creative act such as writing helps focus the mind. Some compare creative engagement to meditation due to its calming effects on the brain and body. Even just gardening or sewing releases dopamine, a natural anti-depressant.

Creativity reduces anxiety, depression, stress, and can also help process trauma. Writing in particular helps to manage negative emotions in a productive way. Creating something through art (painting or drawing) can help people to express traumatic experiences that are too difficult to put in to words.

4) Boosts Immune System

Studies show, people who keep a daily journal have stronger immune systems than those who don’t. Experts don’t know why it works, but writing increases your CD4+ lymphocyte count — the key to your immune system.

Listening to music can also rejuvenate function in your immune system. Music affects our brains in complex ways, stimulating the limbic system and moderating our response to stressful stimuli.

5) Increases Intelligence

Studies show that people who play instruments have better connectivity between their left and right brains. The left brain is responsible for motor functions, the right brain focuses on melody. When the two hemispheres communicate, our cognitive function improves.

Writers use both hemispheres of the brain, as well. Muse on the right, the critic on the left.

6) Decreases Chronic Pain

People dealing with certain medical conditions that result in chronic pain showed improved pain control after expressing their feelings through the written word. Over a nine-week period, the test subjects also showed an overall decline in pain severity.

According to Medical News Today, “music may help to restore effective functioning in the immune system partly via the actions of the amygdala and hypothalamus. These brain regions are implicated in mood regulation and hormonal processes, as well as in the body’s inflammatory response.”

The world needs creatives.

Let’s nurture creativity rather than force our youth into professions they’re not passionate about. We’re not born creative. It’s a skill learned over time. As such, parents and/or mentors need to encourage creativity and allow our children and young adults to excel in the arts.

Need more motivation? No problem …

Now, go forth and create something amazing!


Escapism Rocks!

by James Scott Bell

There’s always been a certain amount of stress associated with being alive. In pre-historic times, this was largely based on concerns over being eaten by large animals. Or by having pointy things stuck into your body by the tribe down the road. At the same time, you had crops to attend to and weather events to deal with. All with no TV, internet, or Candy Crush.

Later on, the Greeks sat around inventing philosophy and giving people more reasons for stress, as in, trying to figure out the point of this bewildering existence. Religion was asking the same questions in places like India, China, and Jerusalem.

As the great historians say, stuff happens. Like war. More stress. In America we had a war oddly called “Civil.” And later joined the right side in a couple of wars big enough to be called “World.”

In between WWI and II, we had the Great Depression, and the stress of actually getting food onto the table. Jobs were scarce. Prospects, in many cases, dim.

Which is where escapism stepped in to offer rays of entertaining sunshine. You had the movies, of course. For a dime you could spend a few hours with Astaire and Rogers, Gable and Tracy, Hepburn and Grant. Radio was pervasive, providing laughs from Benny and Hope and Fibber McGee, and adventures with The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. And comfort by way of “fireside chats” delivered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.

But by far the most popular form of escapism came by way of the pulp magazines. In the 1930s the pulps were booming. Newsstands and drug stores carried dozens of magazines with names like Black Mask, Dime Detective, Amazing Stories, Adventure, and Thrilling Western. Popular series characters (what the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner called “the writer’s insurance policy”) included Nick Carter, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Conan the Cimmerian, Buck Rogers, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Bill Lennox.

Indeed, some of our best American writers came out of the pulps—people like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Fredric Brown, and Horace McCoy. Not to mention the many steady professionals who knew one thing above all—how to tell a dang good story.

And just what did these stories have in common? I think Gardner himself said it best:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

I believe this is still true. Which is why I’m launching my own short fiction channel via Patreon.

If you’re not familiar with Patreon, it’s a site where artists of various stripes can find support for their work. Friends, family, and fans become patrons of the artist. Usually that comes in the form of monthly pledges, in return for which a patron receives various benefits, such as early access to new work or a personally autographed print.

But there is another model called “per creation,” which seems to me more applicable to writers. In this model, patrons are not charged monthly, but only when an actual story is published. My job is to deliver the goods, which means entertaining escapism for a busy reading public. Stories you can read on the subway or the bus, or while waiting for the doctor, or simply at home after a long day when you don’t feel like cracking Moby Dick.

All of the details about this venture are on my page. I hope some of you will join me in this venture. The stories I publish will not appear anywhere else. You’ll be able to read this exclusive content online, on your phone via the free Patreon app, or on your Kindle, Nook or Kobo ereader.

My first story will come out June 1. It takes place in Hollywood in 1945. There’s a movie studio, a murder, and a studio troubleshooter named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. He’s going to be a series character, so this would be a good time to get in on the ground floor.

Because in times such as these, escapism rocks.

So what are some of your favorite books, movies, or TV shows when you simply want to escape?




One of my biggest problems when writing is that I tend to get in my own way. This has occurred with some frequency during my latest project, currently titled The Lake Effect, which I discussed here a few weeks ago. You may or may not recall that I dreamt the beginning, middle, and ending of what is a love story. All that I have had to do is write the thing. This I am doing,  and am having fun doing it. Occasionally, however, I can’t leave well enough alone. I know that I should simply tell the story. I’m doing that, but occasionally I seem to consider myself to be duty bound to insert into the narrative examples of how clever and knowledgeable I consider myself to be.  As one might expect, I am usually wrong. The result is that my narrative bogs down. I’m not getting tripped up in detail. Sometimes one should stop and smell the roses, so long as the scent is pertinent in some way to the story. My mistake has been that I will be moving from Point A to Point B but will insist on stopping and describing Points A1, A2, and A3 along the way as well. I don’t consider my reader, who (hopefully) will want to get to Point B with all due and deliberate speed. I do this and  wonder why it isn’t working, then realize that I am boring myself. If I am putting myself to sleep, then what am I doing to my poor reader, who will probably leave the building, never to return?

I have found that as a sort of enjoyable and tutorial penance for such a writing error I am best served by watching a few episodes of Highway Patrol.  It was one of my favorite television series in the 1950s and remains so today. Each episode was about twenty-five minutes long. They would shoot the episodes in two to three days, twice per week, and broadcast close to forty episodes a season. This was done on a very limited budget. There were no fiery car crashes or extended shootouts through shopping malls.  There were other constraints. Broderick Crawford was the lead actor. He played Dan Mathews, the taciturn, grizzled head of the unnamed Highway Patrol unit featured in the series. Crawford’s parts in each episode had to be shot in the morning because he was usually well-toasted by lunch. It somehow worked. Crawford delivered his dialog staccato-style (“Youshouldbesorryforwakin’meathishourwhaizzit?”) (“CorneraBrownanChocorantwoaclock”) (“21-50taheadquarters10-4”) when ordering his officers about. The cadence of Crawford’s diction, or lack thereof, was perfect for an episodic series where time was of the essence.  There was also a formula applied to the shows which becomes obvious after a few different viewings. It was simple. A crime would be committed, Matthews and his team would chase their tales, and some evidence would be discovered, all within the first half of the episode. The last half of the episode (all twelve minutes or so) would show Mathews and his associates bringing the evildoers to justice. Voice-over narration by a gentleman named Art Gilmore gave each episode a quasi-documentary feel (“Burglary is the alley cat of crime, wandering the night in search of prey”). At the conclusion of each episode, Mathews, as he was getting into his car, would stop, look at the camera, and break the fourth wall by directly addressing the television audience with a pithy safe driving platitude, such as “It isn’t the car that kills…it’s the driver!” Just so.  

Each episode of Highway Patrol was suspenseful and exciting even with such a cut and dry formula. Nothing ever really felt left out. Each minute — each second — was important. Highway Patrol was the first television series to utilize fast cutting — a few different action shots of just a couple of seconds’ duration (usually consisting of a police car racing to a crime, or chasing a suspect) — to move the action along.  They also didn’t spend a lot of time getting the viewer from Point A to B. Mathews would get a lead, jump up from his chair and say, “Let’s go!” The next scene might show him driving quickly down a street for about two seconds (stock footage was often used, as Crawford at one point during the series run had his real-world driver’s license suspended for driving under the influence) followed by Mathews getting out of the car at his destination and shooting it out with the criminals. Bing bang boom.

If while writing you find yourself stuck in a thicket of your own design and wondering what to weed and what to water watch a few episodes of Highway Patrol. It is possible that you will absorb its lessons about narrative and storytelling by osmosis. All four glorious seasons (Crawford said the series stopped because they ran out of crimes) can be found on DVD,  YouTube and a couple of cable channels. It works for me. If you already have a method of bringing your writing errors and ommissions on track, please share. And thank you. 1075 to 21-50. 10-4.



Reader Friday: Ask One Question to Any Author (Alive or Dead)

If you could ask any author (alive or dead) one question, what would it be and who would you ask?

I’d love to chat with Edgar Allan Poe. A palpable sadness bleeds through his writing. It’s no secret tragedy followed him throughout his life, but his story still seems incomplete.

Asking him only one question might be near-impossible for me. 😉