How to Mess Up Your Lead Character’s Ordinary Day

by James Scott Bell

On the first page (preferably in the first paragraph or even first line) of a novel, I want to see a disturbance to a character’s ordinary world. It can be subtle, like a midnight knock on the door (The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve). Or extreme, like a ticking bomb (Final Seconds by John Lutz and David August).

What I don’t want is “Happy People in Happy Land” (HPHL). I’ve seen a few of these openings in my time, mainly in domestic settings. The happy family getting ready for the day, etc. The author thinks: If I show these really nice people being really nice, the reader will care about them when the trouble starts.

But we don’t. We start to care about characters when trouble—or the hint of it—comes along, which is why, whenever I sign a copy of Conflict & Suspense, I always write, Make trouble!

Now, there are two ways to disturb HPHL in the opening. One is something happening that is not normal, as I mentioned above. It’s an “outside” disturbance, if you will.

But there’s another way, from the “inside.” You can give us a character’s ordinary day as it unfolds—while finding a way to mess it up.

That’s the strategy Michael Crichton uses in his 1994 novel, Disclosure (made into a movie with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore).

The plot centers around Tom Sanders, an mid-level executive at a thriving digital company in Seattle. He’s married to a successful lawyer named Susan. They live in a nice house on Bainbridge Island, with their four-year-old daughter and nine-month-old son.

As the book opens, we learn that Sanders expects this to be a good day. He’s sure he’s going to be promoted to head of his division, which will set him up for a windfall of millions after an expected merger and IPO. So it’s essential he get to the office on time.

Crichton is not going to let that happen. Here’s the first paragraph:

Tom Sanders never intended to be late for work on Monday, June 15. At 7:30 in the morning, he stepped into the shower at his home on Bainbridge Island. He knew he had to shave, dress, and leave the house in ten minutes if he was to make the 7:50 ferry and arrive at work by 8:30, in time to go over the remaining points with Stephanie Kaplan before they went into the meeting with the lawyers from Conley-White.

So Tom is in the shower when—

“Tom? Where are you? Tom?”

His wife, Susan, was calling from the bedroom. He ducked his head out of the spray.

“I’m in the shower!”

She said something in reply, but he didn’t hear it. He stepped out, reaching for a towel. “What?”

“I said, Can you feed the kids?”

His wife was an attorney who worked four days a week at a downtown firm.

So now he’s got to feed the kids? He hasn’t got time! But that’s life with two working parents, so he quickly begins to shave. Outside the bathroom, he hears his kids starting to cry because Mom can’t attend their every need. Crichton stretches out this sequence. Even something as innocuous as shaving can be tense when the kids are wailing.

Tom finally emerges from the bathroom, with only a towel around him, as he scoops up the kids to feed them.

Susan called after him: “Don’t forget Matt needs vitamins in his cereal. One dropperful. And don’t give him any more of the rice cereal, he spits it out. He likes wheat now.”

She went into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.

His daughter looked at him with serious eyes. “Is this going to be one of those days, Daddy?”

“Yeah, it looks like it.”


He mixed the wheat cereal for Matt, and put it in front of his son. Then he set Eliza’s bowl on the table, poured in the Chex, glanced at her.



He poured the milk for her.

“No, Dad!” his daughter howled, bursting into tears. “I wanted to pour the milk!”

“Sorry, Lize—”

“Take it out— take the milk out—” She was shrieking, completely hysterical.
“I’m sorry, Lize, but this is—”

I wanted to pour the milk!” She slid off her seat to the ground, where she lay kicking her heels on the floor. “Take it out, take the milk out!”

Every parent knows how true to life this is. A four-year old has definite ideas on their routine, and what they want to control!

“I’m sorry,” Sanders said. “You’ll just have to eat it, Lize.”

He sat down at the table beside Matt to feed him. Matt stuck his hand in his cereal and smeared it across his eyes. He, too, began to cry.

Can’t you just picture this?

Sanders got a dish towel to wipe Matt’s face. He noticed that the kitchen clock now said five to eight. He thought that he’d better call the office, to warn them he would be late. But he’d have to quiet Eliza first: she was still on the floor, kicking and screaming about the milk.

“All right, Eliza, take it easy. Take it easy.” He got a fresh bowl, poured more cereal, and gave her the carton of milk to pour herself. “Here.”

She crossed her arms and pouted. “I don’t want it.”

“Eliza, you pour that milk this minute.”

Throughout the scene he’s looking at the clock, trying to gauge how late he will be. At the end of the chapter, Susan has finally come to Tom’s rescue, and says—

“I’ll take over now. You don’t want to be late. Isn’t today the big day? When they announce your promotion?”

“I hope so.”

“Call me as soon as you hear.”

“I will.” Sanders got up, cinched the towel around his waist, and headed upstairs to get dressed. There was always traffic before the 8:20 ferry. He would have to hurry to make it.

End of chapter. We want to read on. After what this guy’s been through just to get ready for work, we hope he’s day’s going to get better.

It’s not, of course. This is Michael Crichton. Things are about to get a whole lot worse for Mr. Tom Sanders.

This strategy will work whether you open in a home or office; in a car or on a boat; in a coffee house or Waffle House.

Just decide to be mean. Mess up your character’s day.

Do you have happy people at the beginning of your manuscript? What can you do on page one to make sure they don’t stay happy?


Getting Inspired to Write


by James Scott Bell

While I am a firm believer in the adage that to be a writer it takes an iron butt, and also that a pro can’t afford to sit around waiting for the Muse, I do believe in inspiration. Just like a football team gets a locker-room speech, so the writer can use the occasional boost in motivation.

That’s why I like writing quotes. Over the years I’ve collected hundreds of them. I glance at them from time to time and, depending on my particular writing challenge of the moment, I usually find a quote that speaks to it.

Today, I thought I’d share a few of them with you, along with some annotations.

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid. – Leonard Bishop

You get what you dare, baby, and if you want big, you dare big. – Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop was a novelist and author of one of the first craft books I ever purchased, Dare To Be a Great Writer. I still love that book and have it sticky-noted all over the place. Here, Bishop advocates the setting of high standards. I join him in saying, Go for it! Look at your own work and assess it according to what I call “The 7 Critical Success Factors of Fiction”—plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning—and determine to kick each of them up a notch in your writing.

One needs natural talent, much physical energy (which calls for a strict regimen of diet and exercise), and the resilience to bounce back after the most shattering disappointment and frustration. – L. Sprague de Camp

L. Sprague de Camp was a writer from the golden age of science fiction, the America of the 1930’s, and continued writing until his death in 2000 at the age of 92. He was the author of over 120 science fiction and fantasy novels, and several hundred short stories. The kind of writer I admire, one who worked hard at his craft and kept producing pages. Why? Because if he didn’t, he didn’t eat.

Let’s talk about talent. You do need some, but in my opinion it is the least important of the attributes for writerly success. It’s taking the talent you have to the highest level you can that counts.

So does bouncing back. The writing life has myriad ways to disappoint, frustrate, and even anger you. The trick is never to take any setback lying down. Get up and keep writing.

You have to evolve a permanent set of values to serve as motivation. – Leon Uris

Leon Uris’s books have sold over 150 million copies worldwide and have been translated

Leon Uris

Leon Uris

into 29 languages. There has to be a reason for this.

Values may be the heart of it. Uris was a Marine in World War II, and thus his novels have a certain fundamental nobility. Uris’s protagonists are full of passion for justice, and often involved in wider battles for freedom. Battle Cry, Exodus, QB VII, and Trinity each reached the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

What are you most passionate beliefs? Transfer that fire to your protagonist. What would he die for? If nothing, he’s probably not that interesting.

At every significant juncture in a story, consciously look at the situation from the viewpoint of every character involved – and let each of them make the best move they can from his or her own point of view. – Stanley Schmidt

Stanley Schmidt is the science-fiction author of such books as Newton and the Quasi-Apple (1970), Lifeboat Earth (1978) and Tweedlioop (1986). From 1978 to 2012 he was the editor of Analog, the noted SF magazine. Schmidt knows story.

Here he emphasizes a key rule of the craft, that of “maximum capacity.” Every character should be in the story for a reason, and the reason must matter greatly to that character (see the previous entry). When shove comes to slap, the characters all should be thinking how they can get their licks in. Don’t ever let the opponents of the Lead operate half-heartedly, lest the readers feel cheated. Don’t ever let the allies of the Lead just “hang around.”

Take a look at your WIP and assess the drive of each major character. Now turn those into overdrive.

Keep working. Don’t wait for inspiration. Work inspires inspiration. Keep working. – Michael Crichton

The best cure for not writing is writing. The best antidote for the writing blues is writing.

Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton

The best thing to do if you can’t face the blank page or screen is . . . write!

But what about the writers block deal we’ve been talking about here at TKZ? Is that real? Only if you don’t attack it by typing or moving a pen.

You don’t have to write on the project that’s stalling you. Work on something else. Have several projects going.

Isaac Asimov had a number of typewriters around his apartment, and when he was stalled on one project he’d get up, stretch, and walk to another typewriter, with a page in it, on some completely different subject, and he’d type some more.

So if you stall on your WIP, work on something else. Anything. Write your obituary. Truly. How do you want to be remembered? This is a great way to focus the mind and get your life in order.

Journal. Talk to yourself on paper or screen.

digiorno-1Heck, you can even be creative with your grocery list. Make it a thing of beauty. Turn it into a series of mini-essays, on the questionable identity of beets, and the pleasures of DiGiorno Pizza.

Once the brain starts cooking with words you’ll be back in the flow in no time.

Do you have a favorite writing quote? Let’s hear it!