Hide Exposition Inside Confrontation

by James Scott Bell

I left a comment on the first-page Kris critiqued last Tuesday. I suggested the author eschew backstory and exposition, except what was put into confrontational (as opposed to expositional) dialogue. Kris asked if I might expand on that.

Patricia Medina and Bruce Bennett in “The Case of the Lucky Loser.”

First, let’s define terms. Exposition is information, stuff a reader needs to know in order to fully understand what’s going on in a scene and, indeed, the whole book. The key word here is needs. A common mistake, especially in opening pages, is too much exposition in the narrative. That was the problem with the manuscript Kris critiqued. It had a couple of long paragraphs of pure information (an “info dump”). The author thought them necessary for readers to understand what was going on. Not so. Readers will wait a long time for full exposition if they’re caught up in a tense scene. My standard advice is Act first, explain later.

Yet sometimes a bit of backstory or exposition is called for, and the best way to deliver that info is through dialogue. But it has to be confrontational and sound like it’s really two characters saying what they would say in that situation.

Let me demonstrate with an example. In many TV dramas of the 50s and 60s, the set-up was sometimes larded with dialogue that sounded forced, that was there just to give the audience information. Here’s a bit from the old Perry Mason series starring Raymond Burr. In “The Case of the Lucky Loser” we open with a man and woman in a train compartment:

HARRIET: I still wish I were going to Mexico with you instead of staying here in Los Angeles.

LAWRENCE: This trip’s going to be too dangerous, Harriet. It’s some of the most rugged terrain in the Sierra Madre mountains. It’s no place for a woman, especially my wife. It’s almost no place for an amateur archaeologist, either. Thanks for coming with me as far as Cole Grove Station.

Yeesh! What’s wrong with that is called “the false triangle.” The dialogue should sound like two characters talking to each other, like this:

But when the author tries to “cleverly” send the reader information, the transaction looks like this:

The solution is simple: Make the dialogue confrontational. That doesn’t mean it has to be a big argument, though that always works. Just insert enough opposition so there’s some tension. The Perry Mason example could go like this:

“Let me come with you,” Harriet said.

“That part of Mexico’s too dangerous,” Lawrence said.

“It’s dangerous in L.A., too, unless you haven’t noticed.”

Lawrence laughed and stroked her hair. “The Sierra Madres are no place for—”

“If you say a woman again I swear I’ll file for divorce.”


“You’re an insurance salesman, not an archaeologist! The only rocks you should be looking at are in your head.”

“Now, now.” Lawrence looked out the window. “We’re coming into Cole Grove Station.”

“Don’t make me get off,” Harriet said.

“See you in two weeks,” Lawrence said.

Find any dialogue in your manuscript where you’ve slipped into the “false triangle.” Transform that conversation into confrontation. Then look for places where you’ve dropped a paragraph or more of raw exposition. Cut out any information that can wait until later, and see if you can put what’s left into a conversation between two characters.

Say, why don’t we try it now? Here’s a bit of expositional dialogue. Show us in the comments what you can do to make it confrontational:

There was a knock at the door. Molly opened it.

“Well hello, Frank,” Molly said. “What brings my favorite accountant all the way out here to Mockingbird Lane?”

“Hi, Molly,” Frank said. “I wonder if we might have a chat about your tax return for last year, when you got that $35,000 advance on your first novel, When the Wind Whips, from Simon & Schuster. Who says an author has to be in her twenties or thirties to start a career, eh? May I come in?”

“Sure,” Molly said, opening the door for him.

“You could have called,” Molly said. “I would have been happy to drive my Tesla to your office where my friend, Linda, is your receptionist.”

“That’s all right,” Frank said. “I need to take off a few pounds as you can see, so the walk did me good.”

Have fun!

Writers I’ve Learned From: Erle Stanley Gardner

by James Scott Bell

Erle Stanley Gardner

A friend of mine sent me an article about the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner. Since he has been an influence on my own work, I thought I’d do a little reflecting on the man and his method.

Let’s start with work ethic. All the great pulp writers had to relentlessly hammer the keys in order to put food on the table. Get a load of this:

When he died, in 1970, Erle Stanley Gardner was the best-selling American fiction author of the century. He wrote 100,000 words a month for some fifty years. His New York Times obituary cited sales of more than 170 million books in the US alone, and reported his paperback publisher saying that in the mid 1960s they sold 2,000 Gardner books an hour, eight hours a day, 365 days a year.

From the 1920s on, Gardner produced an avalanche of pulp stories, novellas, cowboy yarns, science fiction, travelogues and several mystery series, on top of the 80 Perry Mason novels that cemented his fame and fortune, and won him fans such as Einstein (reported to be reading a Perry Mason novel on his deathbed), Harry S. Truman, and Pope John XXIII.

Early on, Gardner pounded manual typewriters. Sometimes his fingers would bleed and he’d tape them up and keep typing. Later he made copious use of the Dictaphone and a team of secretaries. This, I will note, did not result in deathless prose. But Gardner knew what buttered his bread:

“I write to make money, and I write to give the reader sheer fun. People derive moral satisfaction from reading a story in which the innocent victim of fate triumphs over evil. They enjoy the stimulation of an exciting detective story. Most readers are beset with a lot of problems they can’t solve. When they try to relax, their minds keep gnawing over these problems and there is no solution. They pick up a mystery story, become completely absorbed in the problem, see the problem worked out to final and just conclusion, turn out the light and go to sleep.”

Some years ago I decided to read several Perry Mason novels in order. What was it about Mason that caught on in such a big way? The first Mason is The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933). It didn’t take me long to see the appeal. It wasn’t just smarts Mason possessed. All series detectives have that (e.g., Holmes, Poirot, Marple). No, it was his dogged loyalty to his clients and his determination to fight for them to the bitter end. In a letter to William Morrow about the series he was contemplating, Gardner wrote:

I want to make my hero a fighter, not by having him be ruthless with women and underlings, but by having him wade into the opposition and battle his way through to victory. . . . the character I am trying to create for him is that of a fighter who is possessed of infinite patience. He tries to jockey his enemies into a position where he can deliver one good knockout punch.

Even more, Mason was a modern knight, with a code. As the article states:

Central to these novels is the idea of loyalty—Mason’s loyalty to clients and to the truth; Drake and Street’s loyalty to Mason. Such loyalty is integral to the code of King Arthur’s round table, and the Three Musketeers, whose motto is “All for one and one for all.”

Perry Mason—incorruptible, clever, dedicated, dogged—slots nicely into the Arthurian mould. His “grail quest” is the pursuit of justice on behalf of innocents unable to defend themselves; his jousting field is a courtroom. He is never unseated.

My series character Mike Romeo is, like Mason, a knight. When I was a wee lad I used to watch Perry Mason (starring Raymond Burr) with my lawyer father. The other influence from that time was Have Gun, Will Travel which starred Richard Boone as Paladin (paladin, n., a knight, a champion, a legendary hero). I wrote about that influence here.

So thanks to Mr. Erle Stanley Gardner for his example. Now all I have to do is write 100,000 words in the next four weeks…

Is there an author whose work ethic or professionalism has made in impression on you? How is your own writing practice during these challenging days?

Be Productive, Persistent, and Professional

by James Scott Bell

I’ve written often in this space about my admiration for the pulp writers of old. As I was learning the craft myself, I often turned to these writers for inspiration. Not just for their stories, but their practices as well. I found they did three things above all—they were productive, persistent and professional.


The first mark of the successful pulp writer was productivity. They wrote. They wrote a lot. And they usually wrote on manual typewriters, several of them producing up to a million or more words a year.

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

Indeed, perhaps the most prolific author of all time, Frederick Faust (better known by his pen name Max Brand) wrote 4,000 words a day every day for about thirty years. How on earth did he do it? Especially since he drank whiskey all day and then, when finished with his fourteen pages, settled down to his serious drinking? (I do not recommend this method.)

Pulp writers had to be productive. They had to put food on the table, especially during the Depression. They were often being paid a penny a word. (Erle Stanley Gardner figured out that if he used a character’s full name in dialogue attributions, it was an extra penny. Thus, you’ll see his Perry Mason stories filled with: “Come in,” Perry Mason said. “Hello,” said Paul Drake. “Shall I stay?” asked Della Street.)

Be productive. Set a weekly quota of words. What can you comfortably do? Up that by 10% and keep track of your daily output on a spreadsheet. Review and adjust your quota every year.

“The most critical thing a writer does,” said the late Robert B. Parker, “is produce.”


In the pulp days, if you wanted to break into a market, you had to overcome hundreds of rejection slips. In the 30s and 40s, the golden age of pulp, most magazines had headquarters in New York. Many a writer moved to the Big Apple so they could walk around and knock on doors and meet editors personally.

While they waited for a break, they continued to write and cop “hobo soup” at the automat. (That’s where you’d get a cup of hot water and dump in a healthy dose of ketchup, salt & pepper, and stir, then crumble in saltines—all these ingredients were free.)

Now, with digital self-publishing a viable option, you don’t have to wait to be published. But in most cases you’ll have to wait to make significant headway in the market. How long will it take before you start seeing more than coffee money come your way? That all depends on how productive you are (see above) and if you operate like a professional (see below).


The pulp writers approached writing as a job. They had to. They didn’t have time to sit around cafés gabbing endlessly about theories of literature. So they studied the markets, figured out what worked in those markets, and learned how to make their own writing better.

You can do the same. Study markets, expand your craft, and keep writing and adding your own spices.

When pulp writers sent in a manuscript, they made sure it was typed cleanly. When they talked to an editor, they made sure they spoke cleanly, for burning bridges was a fast route to the soup kitchen.

They had egos, sure, but they kept them in check because publishing is a small world. On occasion they’d push back on an editor messing with one of their stories, but they tried to keep it respectful. It was a good thing Twitter did not exist in the 1930s.

Professionalism still matters. Even if you self-publish, readers will pick up a vibe about you, stretching from the design of the books themselves all the way through your social media footprint.

So be wise about your profile, remembering what Erle Stanley Gardner said: “I serve the reading public.”

So should you. Which is why I’m happy to announce a new book, one I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s designed to teach the secrets of the great pulp writers, everything from how to be more prolific to the best plotting methods to my exclusive Start-a-Plot Machine.

HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is available now. Here’s where you can get it:





A final word on pulp fiction. A certain class of literati has sniffed at its very existence. I even read one jeremiad that claimed commercial fiction writers have “sold their souls” to the “devil” of profitability, and how can they even look at themselves in the mirror?


Well, I continue to shave in the morning and my mirror is clean, and I delight in what a successful pulp writer named William Wallace Cook (writing under the pen name John Milton Edwards) wrote over 100 years ago:

The tale that moves breathlessly but logically, that is built incident upon incident to a telling climax with the frankly avowed purpose to entertain, that has no questionable leanings or immoral affiliations—such a tale speeds innocently an idle hour, diverts pleasantly the harassed mind, freshens our zeal for the duties of life, and occasionally leaves us with higher ideals.

An honorable goal, I would say.

So, TKZers, how are you stacking up on the three Ps—productivity, persistence, professionalism?

Avoiding Reader Burnout by Texting the Gods

(c) Copyright 2017, Random House Books for Young Readers

I’ve been repeatedly having the same vaguely disturbing conversation in person and via email with a number of individuals recently about books and reading. The topic is variously referred to as “reading fatigue,” “book burnout,” and “reading slump,” among other terms. The complaint centers upon the perceived feeling that new books being published are “all” following the same pattern. Elements of that pattern would include 1) “the placement of the word ‘girl’ in the title; 2) the unreliable first-person narrator; and 3) a missing child/husband/sister who seems to suddenly reappear with an inability to explain their absence.

It is true that publishing industry generally is reactive and not proactive. We all remember The Da Vinci Code. That book became a sub-genre unto itself. It seemed for a while as if every other newly published book concerned a hunt for an ancient relic that, depending on what it was and who was hunting it, would destroy, save, or enslave the world. Going back a bit further, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and John Grisham’s The Firm revived the popularity of the courtroom thriller, though it’s not as if that sub-genre ever really went away, once Erle Stanley Gardner had taken that beachhead in the 1930s with his Perry Mason novels.

There is some method to publishing’s madness, based on the proposition that if the public likes a certain type of book then it will want more of the same. I don’t recall a research  ever calling me and asking, “If you went to the library tomorrow, what type of book would you look for?” My answer would be “bound,” but that’s beside the point.

What does this mean for budding authors? My best advice is to not follow trends. If someone writes a book about an alcoholic housewife on a train who suspects that she has witnessed a murder being committed, and it becomes a bestseller, write your book about something else. Flip the script. Write about a recovering alcoholic who is as reliable as a Fossil Haywood and who, while doing some backyard gardening,  believes that she sees someone being murdered on the LIRR. I’m only kind of kidding. Do something different, because by the time you write your book and find an agent the publishers will probably be looking for something else. As for readers: if you’re tired of new books, look for an author who is new to you, or go back to the past and seek out something in your favorite genre among the mountains of books that have been published in the past sixty years or so. You can also seek out a couple of go-to authors. When I do my own reading, and nothing seems to please me, I pick up one of Timothy Hallinan’s fine novels, or an Elmore Leonard book, or start working my way through James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux canon, among others, to shake me out of my doldrums. Reading is good for you. You don’t want to stop.

Whatever you do, whether you are writing or reading or both, please don’t develop the impression that there are too many books. One of the blessings in my life is my association with bookreporter.com. I started reviewing books for Carol Fitzgerald’s website twenty years ago, and one of the many happy results of that relationship is that I receive new books of all sorts on an almost daily basis. Some of them are outside of my interest or demographic or whatever you wish to call it, as was one which I recently received entitled Greek Gods #squadgoals by Courtney Carbone, a children’s book editor and author. I thumbed through it and was totally lost — I don’t get the whole ‘#’ thing, or tweeting, Instagram, Pinterest, and the rest,  and probably never will — but the premise of the book was interesting, if incomprehensible to me in execution. It tells the stories of Greek Mythology from the point of view of the participants while assuming that they had smartphones and could text one another. I passed the book onto Samantha,  our (almost) eleven granddaughter. Samantha lives in the same city as we do, and as a result — another blessing — we get to see her frequently. I left Greek Gods at her place at the kitchen table. She came over for a visit, picked it up, and was entranced. She put her phone down, ignored the computer, turned off the flat screen, and started reading it from beginning to end, laughing all the way and sharing passages with us. Samantha is no stranger to books. She is working her way through that wonderful Warriors series by Erin Hunter and the likes of R. L. Stine, Chris Grabenstein’s Mr. Lemoncello books, and a host of others. This doesn’t happen by accident. Her father —my son — is a reader himself, and makes sure that she gets to the library and a local children’s bookstore pretty much on demand. I was happiest, however, about Samantha devoting full focus to Greek Gods. Whether she will at some point down the road pour over Edith Hamilton’s classic work on the subject, in the same manner in which those wonderful Classics Illustrated comics led me to H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and yes, Fyodor Dostoyevsky,  remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that from Samantha’s perception there won’t be too many books, or not enough interesting ones. There simply won’t be enough time to read them all.

Back to you. What book or series would you want to read right now, time and availability permitting? For me, it would be Richard Prather’s Shell Scott series, in the original paperback editions. You?