What Writers Can Learn From Casablanca

by James Scott Bell

It’s about time we talked about Casablanca. This classic consistently shows up at the top of favorite movie lists. It has perhaps the most famous ending line of all time. And of course it’s got Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains—not to mention Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet and a host of great Warner Bros. character actors.

I’ve been teaching workshops for a quarter of a century, and back when I started I could assume that everyone had seen Casablanca, probably more than once.

In recent years, however, among the younger set, I can no longer make that assumption. It’s astonishing to me that anyone wanting to write commercial fiction would not have seen this movie. But I have to remember that when I grew up there were only twelve channels on TV, five of which got no reception. The local channels ran old movies. These were our cultural glue. Not so anymore, with a zillion streaming networks and five zillion series to binge on; and TikTok and YouTube vids to take up every waking moment. Who has time for settling in with an old movie anymore?

Well, if you want to be a good writer, settle in with Casablanca. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you do so this afternoon!

The Plot

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is an American expatriate running a café-saloon-gambling hall in French Morocco during World War II. The local police captain, Louis Renault (Claude Rains), keeps tabs on Rick. He allows him to stay open because Rick refuses to take sides in the war, but mostly because Louis gets kickbacks in the gambling room and uses Rick’s Café to procure desperate wives to sleep with him in exchange for exit visas.

All is routine until Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks into Rick’s with her husband, the resistance hero Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). This throws everything off, for Rick and Ilsa have a past…and it’s going to force everyone to take sides, especially when the Nazi major, Strasser (Conrad Veidt), determines to stop Laszlo for good.

Rick, who begins the film by declaring that he “sticks his neck out for nobody” will now have to decide whether to reclaim the woman he loves, or sacrifice all—including his life—for a greater cause.

The Anti-Hero

Rick is a classic anti-hero. While a hero represents the desires and values of the community, the anti-hero stands only for himself. He has withdrawn (literally or figuratively) from the community, either by choice or circumstance.

In an anti-hero story, the Lead is drawn back into the community to deal with a troubling situation. The question at the end is whether he will rejoin the community or return to his exile.

The key to a good anti-hero is “the code.” He has his own code to live by, usually in opposition to community standards.

For example, Dirty Harry is an anti-hero. His community (the police) has standards (little things, like following the 4th and 5th Amendments). Harry finds that too restrictive. At the end of the movie, his extra-judicial tactics have saved a busload of children from a psychopath. Will Harry return to his community? Nix. He throws his badge into the drink. (Studio executives, however, seeing the box office results, recovered the badge and put Harry right back on the force for four more movies.)

Rick has chosen to exile himself in Casablanca after being betrayed—he thinks—by the love of his life. His code is that he will treat his customers fairly but will not stick his neck out for any of them.

So why do we care about an anti-hero?

Because you give him someone to care about. Dirty Harry cares about his partner. Katniss Everdeen cares about her mother, little sister, and a cat.

In Rick’s case, he cares about the ragtag staff in his café, especially his one friend, Sam the piano player (Dooley Wilson). By showing us this aspect of the anti-hero, we hope for his redemption. That’s why we keep watching, or reading, the story.

Structural Beats

Opening disturbance. The first time we see Rick he’s playing chess…by himself! How’s that for an anti-hero visual? He’s interrupted by the smarmy hustler Ugarte (Peter Lorre) who informs Rick that he is in possession of the most valuable items in all Morocco—two Letters of Transit, which will allow the holders to get out of Casablanca, no questions asked. He is going to sell them that very night. This spells potential trouble for Rick, for if the police find out about it his place will get shut down and he’ll no doubt be arrested.

Here I must include one of my favorite movie lines of all time, perfect in defining Rick’s character:

UGARTE: You despise me, don’t you?
RICK: If I gave you any thought I probably would.

In a novel, get your disturbance in the first line, first paragraph, or first half-page at the latest.

Doorway of No Return. At the one-quarter mark we get the event that forces Rick out of his relatively trouble-free existence in Act 1 into the death-stakes conflict of Act 2: Ilsa walks into Rick’s Café with her husband, Victor Laszlo. This forces Rick to deal with his conflicting feelings for Ilsa (love and hate) and how those feelings complicate his isolation. Death is on the line for Laszlo, and perhaps for Rick himself. Indeed, possible death overhangs all the refugees in Casablanca. It’s a closed city, and the Nazis are watching.

Your novel’s main conflict does not begin until the Lead is forced through this doorway. Further, it needs to be before the 1/5 mark, or the story starts to drag.

Mirror Moment. I started to formulate my theory of the mirror moment by watching Casablanca. I moved the DVD to the very middle of the film, and here’s what I found.

Rick is dealing with Ilsa’s presence by doing what any red-blooded American man of the time would do—get drunk. It’s after hours at the café, and as Rick drowns his sorrows we get the flashback that explains the backstory of his falling in love with Ilsa in Paris, and their plans to flee and get married. When she sends him a note to say she can’t go with him, for undisclosed reasons, he takes it as a complete betrayal.

We return to his drinking…when Ilsa slips in through the back door. She has come to explain to Rick why she stayed behind. She found out her husband, Laszlo, whom she had thought dead, was still alive. She pours her heart out to Rick. The besotted Rick answers by accusing her of being a whore. Tears streaming down her face, Ilsa leaves.

And Rick, full of self-loathing, drops his head in his hands.

Visually what we see is Rick having to take a hard look at himself, as if in a mirror. Is this what he has become? Is this the kind of person he will remain?

Bogart does it with acting. In a book, you can include interior thoughts. The point is that the mirror moment tells us what the story is really all about—here, it’s about whether Rick will recover his humanity.

Be ye plotter or pantser, very early brainstorm possible mirror moments for your Lead. Come up with four or five or more possibilities. Plumb the depths of your subconscious. Inevitably, one of these choices will jump out and announce, This is it! You’ll be wonderfully pleased at how organic your writing becomes after that.

Dialogue. The script is full of great lines and exchanges. One of the most famous is this:

I’ve always said that dialogue is the fastest way to improve any manuscript. There are techniques you can learn. You’ll find them here.

Proving the Transformation

At the end of Act 3, we finally get the answer to the question raised by the mirror moment. Rick gives up the woman he loves for the greater good. He signs his death warrant by killing Major Strasser so Ilsa and Laszlo can escape on the plane to Lisbon.

The source material—the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s—ends a bit differently. At the beginning of the play and movie Rick bets Louis ten thousand francs that Laszlo will escape. At the end of the play, Rick holds a gun on Strasser until the plane leaves. But then he says, “I have never killed a man” and gives up the gun. He’s immediately placed under arrest by Strasser and marched off to his execution. Just before he exits Louis asks him, “Why did you do it, Rick?”

Rick says, “For the folding money, Louis, for the folding money. You owe me ten thousand francs.” Curtain.

That’s a pretty good ending, with Rick the anti-hero refusing to plead for his life, content with his sacrificial act.

In the movie, of course, there’s a reversal. Rick kills Strasser, but when the French police show up Louis tells them to “round up he usual suspects.” Because the conniving Louis has watched Rick operate throughout, he is finally inspired to recover his own humanity. As they begin to walk away…oh, heck, let’s see it again:

There is nothing so satisfying to a reader as an ending scene that proves the hero’s transformation.

Many a successful writer has written their endings first. Try it. You’ll know what it should feel like if you know your mirror moment. Now write a scene with all the emotional power of a Casablanca. Here’s the thing: even if you change the scene later on, the emotion you create in yourself as you write toward the ending will add power and direction to all your scenes.

Whew! That’s enough for today. Talk it up. I’m traveling today, so my comments may be limited. I’ll try to catch up when my feet are firmly back on terra firma.

How Understanding Songs Benefit Novel Writers

Songs are ancient storytelling forms. Thousands of years ago—long before scripted language evolved—indigenous people got their message across by vocally singing as well as orally telling structured stories. This primal people-connection still resonates and you, as today’s novel writer, can benefit by understanding timeless song-structured forms.

I don’t pretend to be a songwriter or musician. I can barely play the radio, and my only rhythmic venture was a limerick unfit to print. However, I’m a moderately-skilled written storyteller who tries to improve by studying other storytelling venues including songs.

Novels are only one type of storytelling. We find stories in all sorts of artwork. Music, dance, songs, film, and plays come to mind. I think there’re stories to be found in abstract art like ice-sculpting and graffiti-painting. All art forms tell a story, and one of the most powerful connectors is a song.

This piece started the other day when I opened my inbox and Amazon offered me a free three-month subscription to their newest line called Amazon Music. I downloaded the app and checked it out. I was still up at 2 a.m. because this awesome and easy-to-use platform has stuff that took me back… a way, way back. Amazon Music is so good that it’ll make you want to throw rocks at Spotify.

Enough of pumping up the ’ZON. While listening to hours of songs with vocals ranging from Chubby Checker to Reba McIntyre to Celine Dionne to Brian Johnson, I felt a common thread. All their songs—as varied as their voices and lyrics are—have defined structures. I decided to explore this and see how understanding song forms could benefit me as a novelist. Hopefully, what I learned will benefit you, too.

The Three Main Song Forms

In songwriting, form and structure mean the same. They’re interchangeable terms that describe a framework for building time-proven and marketable products. Having said “for sale”, there are endless variations of the three song categories. It’s the same as breaking down the classic beginning, middle, and end novel structures into microcosms.

Think of a song—any song. Let’s go with Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets. It has a mix of all three forms in the tune, and it’s one of the catchiest dance pieces ever recorded. Jolene by Dolly Parton takes a classic form and reverses its structure. And Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is in a form-league of its own. I found a Rolling Stone quote saying this rock opera was so unique that it could only be sung by an entity like Freddie Mercury with God doing backup.

As different as Bohemian Rhapsody, Jolene, and Rock Around The Clock are, they still conform to recognized structures. It’s no different than taking novels like Wuthering Heights, Fifty Shades of Gray, and Harry Potter. Where there’s story, there’s form and structure. Let’s do a dive into the three main song forms with a caveat that I am not a songwriter by any score.

Verse-Chorus Form

This is the simplest and safest songwriting structure, especially in pop music. It’s highly effective at getting the story across. However, verse-chorus is not the oldest form. We’ll get to that in a minute.

There are two distinct parts in a verse-chorus song. The verse is the story and the chorus is emphasizing the message or theme. Songwriters refer to this as the ABAB structure where A is the verse and B is the chorus (which is also called the refrain).

The same thing happens in a novel where the story (verse) unfolds in the narrative through exposition, dialogue, and the treasure-trove of devices available to the novelist while the theme (quiet chorus) unfolds through plotting, characterization, and whatever else a novelist can dream of.

A typical song verse contains lyrics that build on the story. Verse lyrics change as the song progresses. A typical chorus repeats itself. It’s here where the hook or earworm resides. You know. The catchy part—the one that pops-in while you’re having a shower. (Think “Chevy to the Levy” in American Pie)

Good verse-chorus song examples are Penny Lane (Beatles), California Girls (Beach Boys), and That’ll Be The Day (Buddy Holly).

Verse-Chorus-Bridge Form

This is an expansive form of the simple ABAB song structure. Songwriters term it the ABABCB form as it stretches the multi verse-chorus style by adding a musical or lyrical bridge to it. The bridge addition is often called a rift, solo, or a Middle 8.

Part of song structure expansion includes adding extras to the ABADCB form. They include an opening or introduction (intro) that is usually musical without lyrics. Then, songwriters go with one to three verses, throw in a single chorus, add a bridge/rift/solo/ Middle 8, and then finish off with a final chorus and an outro. The ABABCB outro is also known as a tag, coda, or conclusion.

Songwriters say they get more mileage with their music with the verse-chorus-bridge form. It allows a great change of pace from the twang-twang felt in the ABAB structure. Today, the ABABCB song form leads the pack of popularity.

Good verse-chorus-bridge song examples are Hot N Cold (Katy Perry), High and Dry (Radiohead), and What’s Love Got To Do With It (Tina Turner).

Strophic Form

Strophic form is by far the oldest song structure. It’s also the cleanest. It’s been around from the dawn of time and led to the early church hymns.

The only part in a strophic-structured song is the verse. That’s it. Sure, some songwriters clever it up with a hidden chorus built into the verse or slip in a rift as an interlude. But, purists stick with the strophic program when they really want to put story over strings, symbols, and saxophones.

Strophic songs can be simplex or complex. In pure form are children’s lullabies like Hush Little Baby. Put a little flare to a strophic structure and you get the incredibly annoying It’s A Small World. Or, you can stretch strophic style to the magnificent Amazing Grace.

Some of the finest songs ever written fall in the strophic category. They are timeless treasures telling tragedy and triumph. As a rule, strophic-structure songs are much longer than ABAB and ABABCB forms.

Good strophic song examples are Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald (Gordon Lightfoot), Maggie May (Rod Stewart), and Mack The Knife (Bobby Darrin).

Analyzing Actual Song Forms

This piece wouldn’t be fun without grabbing an ABAB song, an ABABCB song, and a Strophic song and having a look at what makes them tick. Doing this can make you relate to your novel structure, and we can always improve on that—at least I can improve on mine. Here are three highly-successful songs that use common songwriting forms.

ABAB Song Form — Bad Moon Rising (John Fogerty)

I see the bad moon a-rising
I see trouble on the way
I see earthquakes and lightnin’
I see bad times today

Don’t go around tonight
Well it’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise

I hear hurricanes a-blowing
I know the end is coming soon
I fear rivers overflowing
I hear the voice of rage and ruin

Well don’t go around tonight
Well it’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise, all right

(guitar bridge/rift/Middle8)

Hope you got your things together
Hope you are quite prepared to die
Looks like we’re in for nasty weather
One eye is taken for an eye

Well don’t go around tonight
Well it’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise

Don’t come around tonight
Well it’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise

ABABCB Song Form — Hotel California (The Eagles)

(horn/guitar/drum intro)

On a dark desert highway
Cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas
Rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance
I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night

There she stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinkin’ to myself
‘This could be heaven or this could be hell
Then she lit up a candle
And she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor
I thought I heard them say

Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place such a lovely place
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year any time of year
You can find it here

Her mind is Tiffany-twisted
She got the Mercedes Benz, uh
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys
That she calls friends
How they dance in the courtyard
Sweet summer sweat
Some dance to remember
Some dance to forget

So I called up the Captain
“Please bring me my wine”
He said, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969”
And still those voices are calling from far away
Wake you up in the middle of the night
Just to hear them say

Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place such a lovely place
Such a lovely face
They livin’ it up at the Hotel California
What a nice surprise what a nice surprise
Bring your alibis

Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
And she said, “We are all just prisoners here of our own device”
And in the master’s chambers
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast

Last thing I remember
I was running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax”, said the night man
“We are programmed to receive
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave”

(long guitar bridge/rift/outro)

Strophic Song Form — The Times They Are A Changing (Bob Dylan)

(short harmonica intro)

Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’ (chorus)

(short harmonica bridge)

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’ (chorus)

(long harmonica bridge)

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’ (chorus)

(short harmonica bridge)

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’ (chorus)

(long harmonica bridge)

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’ (chorus)

(short harmonica outro)

Let Song Forms Benefit Your Novel Writing

Songwriters, like novelists, know rules need followin’. The three-form rule is basic to writing gold-record songs as the three-act rule is to penning blockbuster novels. Some things work, and these three forms or structures are proven.

The basics—guidelines more than rules, they say—and they say it’s okay to break the rules as long as you know what you’re doing when you break them. I agree, and from what I observed in the three ABAB, ABABCB, and Strophic styles, they are full of rule breaking. And I think Fogerty, Felder/Frey/Henley, and Dylan knew exactly what they were doing when they did so.

Your novel writing is your personal craft. It’s your expression and it’s your freedom of individuality. Go ahead and break the rules if you want. Just like the songwriters do. But, understand what conventional structures are before you color outside the lines.

What about you KZ writers? What’s your experience with story form and how songwriting applies to your work? And you KZ readers? What do you see in similarities between songs and novels? Please feel free to comment!


Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and exhausted coroner, now an energetic crime writer and indie publisher. He’s also an avid song-writing student and wishes he could write like Bob Dylan instead of sing like him.

Check out DyingWords.net which is Garry’s website and popular personal blog. He’s also out there on Twitter. Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia on Canada’s west coast where he spends non-writing time putzing around the Pacific Ocean.

The Evolution of Your Hero


Two weeks ago James Scott Bell wrote a terrific post on hero passivity, and how to handle it (carefully) in a novel. Which in a nutshell is this: in general you should avoid it, because it’s absolutely a radioactive story killer if handled wrong.

The mistake, and the temptation that leads to it, is to get too caught up in the intention to write a character-driven story (a noble goal, but like trying to run a marathon, you need to understand the role of pace), and a facet of that character is passivity in the form of lack of motivation, lack of courage, lack of direction or simply lack of interest.

Sooner or later, you need to give your hero something to do.

This issue is an example of how story structure touches and drives everything. 

This includes character arc, the beginning of which can indeed be a viable context for your protagonist’s passivity (which may be the very thing that gets them into trouble).  Nay-sayers on structure handle this differently, and yet end up – at least when the story finally works – aligning with where structure seeks to take a story in the first place.

Which is why mastery of story structure is perhaps the most critical phase of an author’s development. Because everything in the story connects to and is informed by structure.

When someone tries to tell you that’s not true… run.

Showing your hero in a passive context can actually be a good thing…

… provided you understand when and where to allow passivity to show itself.

Some stories begin with the hero simply not yet having fully collided with a forthcoming problem or situation (which absolutely needs to happen, and at a specific place in the story sequence), while others show the hero actually contributing to that problem by virtue of being passive (like, for example, someone in a relationship being cold toward their partner, resulting in… well, you know, all kinds of issues).

But be careful with this.  Because passivity can get you – the author – in a real pickle, too.  Stories are nothing if not a vicarious experience of a central hero-centric problem/situation (plot) for the reader.  Just don’t suck on that pickle for too long… because it’s toxic if you do.

And that’s where structure will guide you.

In her book “The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By”, Carol S. Pearson is credited with bringing us life’s hero archetypes, four of which align exactly with the sequential/structural “parts” of a story.  (For those who live by the 3-Act model, know that the 2nd Act is by definition contextually divided into two equal parts at the midpoint, with separate hero contexts for each quartile on either side of that midpoint, thus creating what is actually a fourpart story model; this perspective is nothing other than a more specific – and thus, more useful – model than the 3-Act format from which it emerges.)

Those four parts align exactly with these four character contexts:

Orphan (Pearson’s term)/innocent – as the story opens your hero is living life in a way that is not yet connected to (or in anticipation of) the core story, at least in terms of what goes wrong. 

And something absolutely has to go wrong, and at a specific spot in the narrative.

The author’s mission in this first story part/quartile, prior to that happening, is twofold: make us care about the character, while setting up the mechanics of the dramatic arc (as well as the character arc) to come.  There are many ways to play this – which is why this isn’t in any way formulaic – since within these opening chapters the hero, passive or not, can actually sense or even contribute to the forthcoming storm, or it can drop on their head like a crashing chandelier.  Either way, something happens (at a specific place in the narrative sequence) that demands a response from your hero.

Now your hero has something to do, something that wasn’t fully in play prior to that moment (called The First Plot Point, which divides the Part 1 quartile from the Part 2 quartile).  In this context, and if your chandelier falls at the proper place (in classic story structure that First Plot Point can arrive anywhere from the 20th to 25th percentile; variances on either end of that range puts the story at risk for very specific reasons), you can now think of your hero as a…

Wanderer – the hero’s initial reactions to the First Plot Point (chandelier impact), which comprise the first half of Act 2 (or the second of the four “parts” of a story).  The First Plot Point is the moment the story clicks in for real (everything prior to it was essentially part of a set-up for it), because the source of the story’s conflict, until now foreshadowed or only partially in play, has now summoned the hero to react.  That reaction can be described as “wandering” through options along a new path, such as running, hiding, striking back, seeking information, surrendering, writing their congressman, encountering a fuller awareness of what they’re up against, or just plain getting into deeper water from a position of cluelessness and/or some level of helplessness.

But sooner or later, if nothing else than to escalate the pace of the story (because your hero can’t remain either passive or in victim-mode for too long), your hero must evolve from a Wanderer into a…

Warrior – using information and awareness and a learning curve (i.e, when the next chandelier drops, duck), as delivered via the Midpoint turn of the story.  The Midpoint (that’s a literal term, by the way) changes the context of the story for both the reader and the hero (from wanderer into warrior-mode), because here is where a curtain has been drawn back to give us new/more specific information – machinations, reveals, explanations, true identities, deeper motives, etc. – that alter the nature of the hero’s decisions and actions from that point forward, turning them from passive or clueless toward becoming more empowered, resulting in a more proactive attack on whatever blocks their path or threatens.  Which is often, but not always, a villain.

But be careful here.  While your hero is getting deeper into the fight here in Part 3, take care to not show much success at this point (the villain is ramping things up, as well, in response to your hero’s new boldness).  The escalated action and tension and confrontation of the Part 3 quartile (where, indeed, the tension is thicker than ever before) is there to create new story dynamics that will set up a final showdown just around the corner.

That’s where, in the fourth and final quartile, the protagonist becomes, in essence, a…

Martyr (Pearson’s term)/hero – launching a final quest or heading down a path that will ultimately lead to the climactic resolution of the story.  This should be a product of the hero’s catalytic decisions and actions (in other words, heroes shouldn’t be saved, rather, they should be the primary architect of the resolution), usually necessitating machinations and new dynamics (remember Minny’s “chocolate” pie in The Help?), which ramp up to facilitate that climactic moment.

This is where character arc becomes a money shot.  Because by now everything you’ve put the hero through has contributed to a deep well of empathy and emotion on the reader’s part.  This is where the crowd cheers or hearts break or history is altered, where villains are vanquished and a new day dawns.

Instinct, Intention or Accident?

Too many writers aren’t in command of the difference.  You can be, and you should be.

In this context these three options don’t refer to your hero, they refer to you, the author of the story.  All three modes may play a role in how a story comes together, but the good news is that you don’t have to rely on any single one of them.  Armed with a deeper knowledge of craft, you get to choose which to harness, and when.

Truly, successful storytelling exceeds the sum of these three states, so listen to all the voices in your head that contribute to the way you build the arc of your character: yours, those of your characters (that’s a metaphor, by the way, because when a character “speaks to you” that’s just your story sensibility weighing in), and the sum of the learning you have accumulated from venues like this one, and the books the authors here have written to show it to you.

(image by Esther Dyson)

Seven Questions You Must Answer Before Your Thriller Will Work

The playing field upon which writers wrestle their stories to the ground is defined by genre, confined by boundaries, littered with principles disguised as rules and complicated by waves of conventional wisdom colliding in workshop conference halls like peals of ominous literary thunder.

Established pros regard these questions as pillars of the novel, internalizing them to the extent they become second nature. They know that until those questions have compelling answers, the writing process isn’t over.

How one pursues these answers is up for grabs.

Answers to these questions may come prior to a first draft, or somewhere along the drafting process itself. Both are simply different paths toward the same destination, one that doesn’t care how you get there but will shred your story if you stamp the word “FINAL” onto the cover page before you do.

Here, then, are those seven questions in an introductory context. I’ll dive deeper into each in future Kill Zone posts.

1. What is conceptual about my story?

Every novel has a premise, for better or worse. But every premise does not necessarily have something conceptual within it. They are separate essences, and both are essential.

The goal is to infuse your premise with a conceptual notion, a proposition or setting that fuels the premise and its narrative with compelling energy.

The hallmark of a concept is this: even before you add a premise (i.e., a hero and a plot), something about the setup makes one say, “Wow, now that sounds like a story I’d like to read!”

2. Do I have an effective hook?

A good hook puts the concept into play early, posing a question so intriguing that the reader must stick around for an answer. It provides a glimpse of the darkness and urgency to come. It makes us feel, even before we’ve met a hero or comprehend the impending darkness in full.

3. Do you fully understand the catalytic news, unexpected event or course change that launches the hero down the path of his/her core story quest?

Despite how a story is set up, there is always an inevitable something that shows up after the setup that shifts the story into a higher, more focused pace. In three-act structure this is the transition between Act 1 (setup) and Act II (response/confrontation), also known as the First Plot Point, which launches the dramatic spine of the story.

Once that point in the story is reached there is no turning back, either for the hero or the reader.

In any genre it is easily argued that this is the most important moment in a story, appearing at roughly the 20th to 25th percentile mark within the narrative.

4. What are the stakes of your story?

Thrillers especially are almost entirely stakes-driven. If the hero succeeds then lives are saved and villains with dire agendas are thwarted. Good triumphs over evil and disaster. If the hero fails people die, countries crumble and evil wins.

The more dire the impending darkness, the higher the stakes.

5. What is your reader rooting for, rather than simply observing?

In any good novel the hero needs something to do – a goal – which can be expressed as an outcome (stop the villain, save the world) and a game plan (what must be done to get to that outcome).

A novel is always about the game plan, the hero’s journey.  The outcome of the quest is context for the journey.

Great thrillers invest the reader in the path toward that outcome by infusing each and every step along the way with stakes, threat, danger and obstacles the hero must overcome.

It is the degree of reader empathy and gripping intrigue at any given moment in the story that explains a bestseller versus an also-ran.

6. How does your story shift into a higher gear at the Midpoint?

In a novel, pace is synonymous with change, unexpected twists that the hero must confront. I’ve mentioned the First Plot Point already, but nearly as critical is the Midpoint context shift, which as the name implies occurs squarely in the middle of your narrative.

Here the astute author pulls back the curtain of the hero’s awareness, or if not, then at least the reader’s comprehension of what is really going on. It is a reveal, a true twist, because now we know that things weren’t quite what they seemed.

From here the hero proceeds with more proactive intention, rather than the previous phase of stumbling through the weeds of not knowing.

7. Do you have an ending?

Many organic (pantser) writers claim to not know how their novels will end as they begin to write. Fair enough, that’s a process, one that works for many who use their drafts to discover and vet possible ideas and outcomes.

But before a draft will work at a publishable level, the author must know how the story will resolve, which leads to yet another draft once the best possible ending becomes clear.

If the writer does not do that next draft, and if they stamp FINAL onto the draft that finally nails an ending… well, this explains a great many of the rejections that befall otherwise excellent authors.

Because the ending becomes context for a draft that works, beginning at page one.  Foreshadowing, setup and pace become impossible to optimize without knowing how it all ends.

Story planners develop an ending before they start, allowing them to pepper the narrative with foreshadowing and on-point exposition that avoids side trips and pace-strangling narrative lulls, as well as fewer exploratory drafts. Drafters use their story sense to discover their end game, then go back in and cut out the fat, adding tasty bits of foreshadowing and necessary setup as required.

Seven questions… leading to a novel that works.

When you read about an author who went though 22 drafts to finish (sometimes bragging about it), know that, for 21 of those drafts, having less-than-stellar answers to one or more of these questions is the reason.

Just as amazing are authors who, armed with a keen understanding of these questions and an even keener sense of what works and what doesn’t, nail their novel in two or three drafts.

Your process is your process.  When these questions drive the criteria you apply, how you get to “final” no longer matters.

Now your process, whatever it is, has a checklist to work from in this regard.


This is Larry Brooks’ first Kill Zone post.  He’ll be posting here every other Monday.  See the About TKZ page for some backstory on his writing books and his novels.

How to Write Act II

american-act-ii-microwave-popcorn-tub-9866-pA couple of months ago I released Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story. I’ve received many nice emails and comments about it, but recently two people asked me the same question. And it’s a good one, so I thought it worthy of a full post. Here’s a clip from an email (used by permission):

I’ve often noticed that writing books get a bit too abstract at times about theme, as if it’s something impossible to hold onto or grasp. But you are so clear by making it come across so smoothly in the super structure points. There is something very smooth about your approach. I felt very grounded as I read.

This is a small point that I’ve wanted to ask a teacher for some time because I’ve noticed this situation in other structure layouts: Why is it that Act II, which constitutes at least half of the entire story (actually > 55% if Act I is 20% and Act II is 25%), have relatively fewer super structure points (i.e., Kick in the Shins, The Mirror Moment, Pet the Dog, Doorway of No Return #2). There are 4 in Act II to guide the writer for 55% of the story but 10 to guide the writer for the other 45% (Act I and III combined). And yet we’re often told that the hardest part of writing a novel or screenplay IS Act II. Is it the hardest partly because it’s harder to teach in terms of structure, etc.?

That’s an excellent and insightful question. It does seem counter-intuitive to suggest in a book about structural signposts that the least number of them occur in longest section of the novel.

But, in point of fact, this is exactly how it must be.

First of all, what is Act II all about? It’s about the Lead’s confrontation with Death. Death can come in three guises: physical, professional, or psychological. That’s what makes the stakes high enough for the reader to care about what’s going on.

Act I prepares us for this death struggle. To get readers to care about what happens, we have to bond them with a Lead character, show something of the ordinary world, have hints of trouble to come … and then we have to find a way to force the Lead through that Doorway of No Return. Why force? Because no one wants to confront Death unless they have to! (Or unless their name is Evel Knievel.)

That’s why there are several important structural beats in Act I.

Okay, now the Lead is in the dark forest. To survive and get back to the castle, she’ll havekinopoisk.ru to defeat the forces arrayed against her. If you want a perfect illustration of this, think of The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is taken from her ordinary world and thrust into a contest to the death, in an arena filled with obstacles and opponents.

Now, keep these two points in mind:

1. There are innumerable actions the Lead can take to gain her objective, to survive, and to ultimately defeat the opponent.

Standing at the edge of that dark forest, the Lead might: go left, go right, go straight ahead, follow a sound, run from a sound, climb a tree, make a weapon, start a fire, form an alliance, fight off a monster—whatever it is, you, the author, get to choose.

2. Each subsequent action will, in some way, be a reaction to what’s just happened.

If the Lead breaks her leg, she won’t be running in the next scene. If her love interest decides to walk out on her, she won’t be singing a happy tune.

You may also find that a character refuses to do what you want. In one novel I tried to get a wife to go away to her sister’s house, but she would not do it. I’d planned for her to go, I tried to push her out the door, but no soap. So I had to readjust, and in this case the character was right!

In short, a more “open” Act II enables us to respond to the story as it takes shape.

This is true, by the way, whether you like to outline or whether you prefer to wing it.

Further, you don’t need as many signposts because your scenes should have an organic logic to them. Act II is largely made up of the Lead’s battle plans. We know what the objective is: defeat death! In The Hunger Games it’s physical death; in The Catcher in the Rye, it’s psychological death; in The Verdict, it’s professional death.

So the Lead, in Act II, takes an action to gain a foothold in this battle. And suffers a setback.  Now what?

She forms a new plan, takes a new step, reacting to and learning from the last one.

In this way you have a natural, logical, clear and compelling “plot generator.” You don’t need as many signposts to do that.

If you ever feel “lost” in Act II, just go back and check a few things:

• Are the stakes death?

• Is the Opponent stronger than the Lead?

• Is your Lead using strength of will to push forward?

• Is there an easier way for your Lead to solve the problem? (If so, figure out how to eliminate that possibility)

Then brainstorm a few questions:

• How can things get worse for the Lead?

• What’s the worst thing that could happen to the Lead?

• Can a new character come in to complicate matters even more?

• What are the enemies of the Lead doing “off screen”? That is, what actions are they taking while the reader is reading the current scene? (This is a great way to come up with plot complications.)

Soon enough, you’ll be back on track with plenty of ideas for organic scenes, rising and falling action, throughout Act II.

Then, at some point, you have to get the Lead through another doorway, into Act III, where the final battle takes place. There are more signposts in Act III to guide you through this section. That’s because you can’t dilly dally. You’ve got the Lead going over a waterfall. You’ve got to get him to safety, fast.  The Act III signposts have a shorter space between them, which is exactly what you need.

Make sense?

I think it was Isaac Asimov who said that he knows the beginning and the ending of his novels, but then has the “fun” of finding out how to get from the one to the other.

So go go have some fun.

And tell us how you approach Act II in your own novel writing. What challenges do you find? How do you address them?

“Story. Dammit, story!”

John D. MacDonald typingIn his introduction to Stephen King’s first collection of short stories, Night Shift, John D. MacDonald explains what it takes to become a successful writer. Diligence, a love of words, and empathy for people are three big factors. But he sums up the primary element this way: “Story. Dammit, story!”

And what is story? It is, says MacDonald, “something happening to somebody you have been led to care about.”

I want to home in on that something happening bit. It is the soil in which plot is planted, watered, and harvested for glorious consumption by the reader. Without it, the reading experience can quickly become a dry biscuit, with no butter or honey in sight.

Mind you, there are readers who like dry biscuits. Just not very many.

MacDonald reminds us that without the “something happening” you do not have story at all. What you have is a collection of words that may at times fly, but end up frustrating more than it entertains.

I thought of MacDonald’s essay when I came across an amusing (at least to me) letter that had been written to James Joyce about his novel Ulysses. Amusing because the letter was penned by no less a luminary than Carl Jung, one of the giants of 20th century psychology.   

Here, in part, is what Jung wrote to Joyce (courtesy of Brain Pickings):

I had an uncle whose thinking was always to the point. One day he stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you know how the devil tortures the souls in hell?” When I said no, he declared, “He keeps them waiting.” And with that he walked away. This remark occurred to me when I was ploughing through Ulysses for the first time. Every sentence raises an expectation which is not fulfilled; finally, out of sheer resignation, you come to expect nothing any longer. Then, bit by bit, again to your horror, it dawns upon you that in all truth you have hit the nail on the head. It is actual fact that nothing happens and nothing comes of it, and yet a secret expectation at war with hopeless resignation drags the reader from page to page … You read and read and read and you pretend to understand what you read. Occasionally you drop through an air pocket into another sentence, but when once the proper degree of resignation has been reached you accustom yourself to anything. So I, too, read to page one hundred and thirty-five with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way … Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter …

Now, I’m no Joyce scholar, and I’m sure there are champions of Ulysses who might want to argue with Jung and maybe kick him in the id, but I think he speaks for the majority of those who made an attempt at reading the novel and felt that “nothing came to meet them.”

I felt a bit of the same about the movie Cake, starring Jennifer Aniston. When the Oscar nominations came out earlier this year it was said that Aniston was “snubbed” by not getting a nod. I entirely agree. Aniston is brilliant in this dramatic turn.

The problem the voters had, I think, is that the film feels more like a series of disconnected scenes than a coherently designed, three-act story. The effect is that after about thirty minutes the film begins to drag, even though Aniston is acting up a storm. Good acting is not enough to make a story.

Just as beautiful prose is not enough to make a novel. Years ago a certain writing instructor taught popular workshops on freeing up the mind and letting the words flow. The workshops were good as far as they went, but this instructor taught nothing about plot or structure. Finally the day came when the instructor wrote a novel. It was highly anticipated, but ultimately tanked with critics and buyers. And me. As I suspected, there were passages of great beauty and lyricism, but there was no compelling plot. No “something happening to someone we have been led to care about.”

Of course, when beautiful prose meets a compelling character, and things do happen in a structured flow, you’ve got everything going for you. But prose should be the servant, not the master, of your tale.

Let me suggest an exercise. Watch Casablanca again. Pause the film every ten minutes or so, and ask:

1. What is happening?

2. Why do I care about Rick? (i.e., what does he do that makes him a character worth watching?)

3. Why do I want to keep watching?

You can analyze any book or film in this way and it will be highly instructive. You’ll develop a sense of when your own novel is bogging down. You can then give yourself a little Story. Dammit, story! kick in the rear.