Scene Writing is Where the Fun Happens

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We’ve had some good posts and comments about writing methods, grouped generally under the two broad headings of plotter/outliner and pantser. You can read the latest entries HERE and HERE.

What I want to examine today is a bromide I often hear when this subject comes up. It issues from the pantsing side of the room, and goes something like this: “If I had an outline and knew everything beforehand, that would take all the fun out of writing the book.”

I beg to differ. For the one thing both sides should agree on is that writing scenes is the most fun of all.

Why? Because, of course, the scene level is where the story actually happens, unfolds, gets “discovered.” For the pantser it’s all discovery. For the outliner, the discovery is in finding, and delighting in, the granular details of bringing the scene to life.

Let’s illustrate how this is done. I give you a writer named Jeb David Huggins (this is a mash up of the three writers behind one of my favorite action movies, The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford. Jeb Stuart and David Twohy did the screenplay; Roy Huggins was the creator of the TV series upon which the movie was based).

Jeb has a tight outline for the story and knows the ups and downs and ins and outs of the plot. He’s created a fantastic cast of characters, from Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) all the way to the Chicago detectives who muck up the case (Ron Dean and Joseph Kosala). Now he starts writing.

And does he knows how to open a thriller! A murder scene and the arrest of respected surgeon Dr. Richard Kimble on suspicion of killing his wife. Trial. Conviction. Death Row.

Then he’s on the prison bus, and there’s an attempted takeover by the inmates. The crash. The train coming! Kimble saves a wounded prison guard, and barely makes it off the train!

Now, in his outline, Jeb has a scene card: KIMBLE JUMPS OUT OF THE PRISON BUS JUST BEFORE TRAIN RAMS IT.

At outline time that was enough. But while writing the scene Jeb gets a happy idea. What if we keep this going? What if the train derails…and heads straight for the escaping Kimble, who is still in leg irons!

Hot dog! (That’s what writers say when they come upon a delightful idea).

More delight comes in the writing of dialogue. You have so much leeway here. Whether you’ve outlined the scene or are pantsing through it, dialogue is yet to be discovered.

In The Fugitive, after the bus escape, Kimble is alive but wounded. The one guy who helps him is Copeland, a big, bad dude from the bus. Really bad. He’s a stone-cold killer. He says to Kimble, “Now you listen. I don’t give a damn which way you go. Just don’t follow me. You got that?”

As he’s pulling away Kimble says, “Hey Copeland.” Copeland turns around. Kimble says, “Be good.”

It’s a great moment which was not in the original script. Sometimes happy surprises are provided by the characters in the scene!

Let’s cut to a scene further on, where Kimble has managed to find some old coveralls and now must sneak into a rural hospital. He has to tend to his wound, change his appearance, find clothes, and get out.

That could be the scene card: KIMBLE HAS TO TEND TO HIS WOUND, CHANGE HIS APPEARANCE, FIND CLOTHES, AND GET OUT.

Both outliners and pantsers need to understand scene structure. I break it down into the Three O’s: Objective, Obstacles, Outcome. This is where you brainstorm.

Kimble’s objective is as described above. You—be ye pantser or plotter—have an idea of the outcome (Kimble will get away, but with more trouble following).

Now the fun of the obstacles. In the movie we have the following: time pressure, finding a room with medicine and stitching supplies; a state trooper arriving; a fax coming in with Kimble’s face; finding a room with a sedated patient; Kimble shaving off his beard…(brainstorm, brainstorm) a nurse enters the room! Kimble hides, nurse leaves, Kimble needs food…he takes the uneaten breakfast of the sedated man…Kimble finds a doctor’s smock and puts it on and starts walking out…(brainstorm, brainstorm) the state trooper is coming right toward him! The trooper says, “Hey Doc, we’re looking for a prisoner from that wreck. He might be hurt.”

Kimble keeps walking. “What does he look like?”

TROOPER: Six-one, 180, brown hair, brown eyes, beard. Seen anyone like that around?

KIMBLE: Every time I look in the mirror, pal. Except for the beard, of course.

So far so good. Anything we can add? (brainstorm, brainstorm). Ah! As Kimble is about to walk off, the trooper says, “Hey Doc.” Uh-oh. Why? Then the trooper indicates Kimble should zip up. His fly is open. Happy surprise! (Any time you can add a little laughter relief to a thriller, do it.)

Outcome: Kimble exits the hospital and steals an ambulance. Wait…we can do better. As Kimble comes out an ambulance pulls up, and out of the back the paramedics have trouble with the gurney. Kimble helps, but on the gurney is the guard whose life he saved! The guard starts to say his name, so Kimble nabs an oxygen mask and presses it on the guard’s face.

Now what? Kimble tells the medics to inform the attending physician that the guard has a puncture in his upper gastric area. One medic says to the other, “How the hell could he tell that by looking at his face?”

Perfect! Kimble gets the ambulance, but because of his act of decency (he’s a doctor, he can’t help it!) he is going to get in more trouble pretty quickly.

This is fun! (Note: Outcomes should generally set the character back, make things worse. You can have an objective realized, as in this scene, but then have the good outcome lead to greater trouble down the line.)

Here’s another area for surprise: how we characterize. In The Fugitive, the best lines come from Sam Gerard and the great turn by Tommy Lee Jones. Remember the spillway scene? Kimble has a gun on Gerard. Kimble says, “I didn’t kill my wife!” And Gerard says, “I don’t care!” Great dialogue! (Again, not in the original script; many of these lines were improvised on set.)

And then Gerard has a team with him, who provide more comic relief. At one point Gerard asks his youngest teammate, “What are you doing?” The young man says, “I’m thinking.” Gerard: “Well think me up a chocolate donut with some of those sprinkles, as long as you’re thinking.”

See how much fun we’re having? Yes, even the outliners!

So find your delight in your obstacles and outcomes, your characterizations and dialogue. If you’re doing this right you’ll say “Hot dog” a lot!

Are you having fun yet? Tell us about it. Note: I’m on the road and in the air today, so I’ll be sketchy checking in. Talk amongst yourselves!

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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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