Write Awesomely

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

JSB, Grand Canyon

In last week’s post I mentioned I would be driving all day, and that was quite true. Mrs. B and I needed to get out, get away, do something different. Cindy suggested we motor to the Grand Canyon, just to spend a day looking at something big, majestic, unsullied and quiet.

Turns out my wife’s instinct was right on the money. Scientific research suggests that several benefits flow from the experience of awe—“from happiness and health to perhaps more unexpected benefits such as generosity, humility, and critical thinking.”

In The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams emphasizes the need to get away from anthrophone. This refers to the soundscapes created by things like cities, cars, planes, machines, lawn mowers, sirens, neighbors with a teenager who is taking up the drums, and such like. The thing is, that noise goes into our brains and triggers our “fight or flight” receptors. Over time this can create chronic stress, a very real danger to our collective health and well-being.

On the other hand, natural sounds like a gentle breeze, flowing water, and singing birds are interpreted by our brains as relaxing and rejuvenating. In this state we are more creative and less hostile toward other human beings (hmmm…maybe people should only be allowed to tweet when in a forest).

Photo by JSB

The Grand Canyon is something to behold. If you’ve never been there, put it on your bucket list. Plan to spend at least four hours just looking at it. You can drive to various viewpoints, or take a shuttle bus tour, a helicopter flight, or even ride a mule for an overnight stay at the bottom. We opted for the viewpoints.

Grand Canyon = Awesome. Good for the soul.

Writing awesomely = Good for the reader.

What does it mean to write awesomely? At the very least, it means giving your readers more than a by-the-numbers story. Help them feel something beyond numbers. Tap into the inspirational. After all, that’s what the great myths were for. A hero overcomes tremendous odds so that we, the audience, might exhibit the same courage on our own journey through life.

Heracles kills the Hydra. He does so with a mixture of courage, strength and thought. Since cutting off one of the Hydra’s heads means two more heads replace it, Heracles has his nephew, Iolas, put a torch to each cut to cauterize it. And thus he dispatches the monster. Hey, maybe you can do the same when it seems your bills are like Hydra’s heads.

Or maybe you face a seemingly insoluble problem. If you approach it wisely, like Theseus in the Labyrinth, you can kill your personal Minotaur and find a way back to the world.

In our modern storytelling, we have mythic heroes of various stripes teaching us valuable lessons. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) in Now, Voyager, shows us that inner strength and beauty can be developed even under the worst of circumstances. Atticus Finch teaches us that sometimes a losing battle is morally imperative. Heck, even Dirty Harry Callahan shows us that sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to save the innocent—especially a busload of children in the grip of a mad killer. Do you believe that? “Well do ya, punk?”

Driving home with Elixir in the trunk.

So one of the ways to be awesome is to be intentional about the meaning of your story. In my book, The Last Fifty Pages, I talk about the idea of a “life lesson learned.” My friend Chris Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, calls this the “Return With the Elixir.” It’s what takes a story from tale to myth, from entertainment to exaltation. Why not go for it, every time out?

To prepare, take a little time each day to get away from the anthrophone. There are abundant apps and sites with nature sights and sounds. A fifteen-minute break every now and then seems almost a health mandate these days. So get quiet, forget about Twitter, and maybe the boys in the basement will mix you some elixir.

What is awesome to you? What natural sites have lifted your soul? 

What works of fiction have elevated you, given you a takeaway that is more than entertainment?

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Giving Characters the Courage to Change

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Zachary Scott and Eve Arden

The other day I turned on TCM and caught the last half hour of a film I’d seen before, The Unfaithful (1947). I was pleased because it has one of my favorite actors of that period, Zachary Scott. (This fine actor really needs to be remembered for his body of work, especially in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner). The other lead was the “Oomph Girl,” Ann Sheridan.

The plot: Bob Hunter (Scott) and Chris Hunter (Sheridan) are a happily married couple. One night, when Bob is away on business, Chris kills an intruder in their home. Self-defense, right?

What no one knows (at first) is that the intruder was a man with whom Chris had a one-night tryst during the war. She and Bob had been married only a short while before Bob went off to fight. Lonely and anxious, without letters from Bob, Chris found solace in this man’s arms. She felt guilty about it ever since.

Well, the truth comes out, and Bob is stunned, hurt, outraged. He demands a divorce. Chris pours out her heart to him, admitting the wrong, needing him to understand, wanting to stay married. But Bob remains resolute. Chris accepts the inevitable.

With the secret out that Chris knew the victim, she is tried for murder. But through the fine job done by family friend and lawyer Larry Hannaford (Lew Ayers), she is acquitted. (Let’s hear it for lawyers!)

Bob is still firm about the divorce. He goes to see another family friend, Paula (Eve Arden, who made a career out of playing the good-hearted pal). Paula delivers some plain talk to Bob. Almost like a slap in the face. She tells him about women during the war, how frightening and lonely it all was, especially when no letters came. And aren’t we all human? Don’t we all make mistakes? And are you going to hold on to this bitterness forever?

Bob goes back to his house as Chris is coming down the stairs, her bag packed. Bob asks her what her rush is. Maybe they could talk awhile. Discuss how to split up the property (he’s clearly wanting her to stay so they can reconcile.)

Chris, however, has accepted the divorce and closed off her emotions.

Now it’s time for family friend and lawyer Hannaford to be the voice of reason. (Let’s hear it for lawyers!) He makes a plea for the two of them not to throw away what they have. He leaves telling them this is one case he won’t mind not getting.

Bob sits next to Chris on the sofa and, in a typical 1940s gesture of impending reconciliation, offers his wife a cigarette. She takes it.

Fade out.

And I thought, Nicely done. Because the film utilizes a very helpful tool of the craft—the courage to change motivator.

When a character has to go into pitched battle—physically or professionally or psychologically—he is taking a step that requires courage. We need to see what it is that helps the character overcome the natural fear that occurs when facing such a challenge.

In Bob Hunter’s case, his step is psychological. He has to be willing to put aside the blow to his male ego, admit he’s been wrong in his vindictiveness, forgive his wife, and work at saving the marriage. If he suddenly changed at the end, without any preparation for it, we’d feel a bit cheated. We need to know why he’s taking this step.

So the screenwriters (one of whom was the famous noir novelist David Goodis) gave Bob a “voice of conscience.” That was Eve Arden’s character. By giving Bob a good, old-fashioned talking-to, we are set up to accept his change of heart.

This voice of conscience needs to be someone who is credible, wise, trustworthy. In many movies—mostly from the 30s and 40s—this is a voice from the past (which is set up in Act 1). At a crucial point in Act 3, the Lead hears that voice in his head as he’s walking down the street in torment, e.g., his mothers’ voice saying, Johnny, don’t do it! Once you do it, you’ll do it again, and then you’ll be bad. Don’t break my heart, Johnny!

Then Johnny hears the voice of his parish priest (Irish accent, of course): Don’t do it, Johnny! You’ll break your poor mother’s heart!

Finally, the voice of Johnny’s brother who was gunned down by mobsters in Act 2: You’re nothing but a crumb, Johnny. That’s all you’ll ever be, you hear me? A stinkin’ lousy crumb!

Shortly after this sequence, Johnny will take the courageous step to do the right thing. And we accept it, because we know what motivated the change.

The motivation must be strong: coming from a source the Lead trusts and loves.

The motivation must be clear: there is no doubt about the source (to the Lead and to the audience).

The motivation can be a voice of conscience, or it can be invested in a physical item.

An example of the latter comes from the great Bette Davis film, Now, Voyager (1942). Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the withdrawn, unattractive daughter of a steely, upper-crust matriarch. This mother has dominated Charlotte all her life, convincing her she has nothing to offer the world.

After a nervous breakdown, Charlotte is sent to a sanitarium run by the good Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains). Charlotte reaches a point where she is ready to take a major step—going on an ocean cruise. This will require her mixing with people socially for the first time.

On the cruise she meets a man named Jerry (Paul Henreid), who is traveling alone (he is unhappily married). Jerry sees the “real” Charlotte, and the two fall in love. Ah, but they know they must part. Jerry gives Charlotte a bunch of camellias before they do.

Charlotte finally comes home to face her domineering mother. And boy, does the mother (the great character actress, Gladys Cooper) try to smash Charlotte right back to where she was before.

This is the key moment (the “mirror moment”) for Charlotte. She is thinking, can I possibly stand up to my mother? She’s too powerful! Will I go back to being the old Charlotte again?

If only there was something to give her the courage to … well, have a look:

Camellias! This emotional association is enough to give Charlotte the courage to stand up to her mother.

So …

… when you get to a point in your manuscript where your protagonist must take a major step, one that requires courage, provide a boost via a voice of conscience, or an item of emotional significance. This boost is most helpful sometime after—or simultaneously with—the mirror moment. Or during the final battle at the end of the book.

Characters exercising strength of will, to confront challenges and transform as a result. That’s what a novel is really all about.

Give them the courage to change.

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