Major in Minors

by James Scott Bell

W. C. Fields as Wilkins Micawber; Freddy Bartholomew as David in MGM’s David Copperfield (1935)

When it comes to minor characters, what you don’t want is the bland leading the bland. That’s why I call minor characters “spice.” Just the right amount can turn an average reading experience into a tasty delight. It’s the difference between plain yogurt and Rocky Road, or chicken broth and mulligatawny.

Minor characters, as I use the term, are to be distinguished from Main and Secondary characters.

Main characters are Rick, Ilsa, Laszlo, Louis in Casablanca. They have the most to do with the plot.

Secondary are recurring characters who have some importance to the plot, like Major Strasser and Sam the piano man.

Minor characters are those who appear for various reasons to complicate or relieve matters (comic relief is a great tool in thrillers and suspense). In Casablanca there are a number of these, from Ugarte (Peter Lorre) to the desperate Bulgarian wife (Joy Page) to Carl the waiter (S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall).

A subset of minor characters are those who appear once, necessary to a scene. Taxi drivers, doormen, barbers, and the like.

Consider now the uses of minor characters.

Essential Plot Information

There are any number of times when a main character needs some inside information. The cliché is the shoeshine guy who knows what’s happening on the street.

My favorite send-up of this trope is from the old TV show Police Squad, starring Leslie Nielsen as the cop. He gets into the shoeshine chair and slips Johnny a bill to tell him what’s what. The hilarious part is that while Johnny knows everything going on crime-wise, he also knows everything about everything. So when a priest sits down and asks, “What do you know about life after death?” Johnny answers, “I wouldn’t know anything about it.” The priest slips him a bill. Johnny says, “You talking existential being or anthropomorphic deity?”

It is Ugarte in Casablanca who delivers the MacGuffin to Rick—the letters of transit.

Deepening Main Characters

How a main character interacts with a minor character can reveal a great deal.

Here’s some advice from James “The Love Doctor” Bell. If you plan to get married, observe how your intended treats the server in a restaurant, or the checkout person at the grocery store.

What I call the “Pet the Dog” beat can be used for this. Think of Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive (see my post here). He takes a risk to help a dying boy in the hospital, even though it leads to more trouble.

Or Rick, who helps the husband of the Bulgarian wife get the money they need to buy papers, instead of her having to sleep with Louis to get them. Louis observes this and makes note of it. More trouble for Rick.

Setting Richness

A minor character can lend color to an unfamiliar setting. This is a good addition to description. Seeing and hearing characters in their element adds to the tone and feel of a scene.

In the Harrison Ford movie Witness, John Book (Ford) is a cop who has to hide out among the Amish to avoid assassination and protect the Amish boy who can identify a murdering cop (played by Danny Glover). His interactions with various characters and their ways are evocative:

Scene Tension

Here’s an underused tip: put two minor characters in opposition in a scene as the main character is trying to advance the plot. In Long Lost I have two elderly women who volunteer at the reception desk of a local hospital. As my main character attempts to gain access, the two of them, dubbed Curls and Red by the main, snipe at each other, adding a further obstacle. I got this idea from my great aunts, one a widow and the other a divorcee, who lived together. When I’d visit, they’d put out the See’s candy and give each other little verbal jabs as they recalled family stories.

Plot Juice

Raymond Chandler famously said that if things get slow, just bring in a guy with a gun. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a guy or a gun, but a minor character with something of importance.

Hammett does this in The Maltese Falcon. Spade has had no luck finding the black bird. Then one night a man riddled with bullets stumbles into his office, hands him a bundle, and dies. Turns out the stiff is the captain of a ship and the bundle is, you guessed it, the falcon.

Wrapping Up a Mystery

Sometimes you get to the end of a book and there are plot threads that need to be accounted for (you pantsers know what I’m talking about!). Now what?

Well, a minor character can show up with the essential information. You can create such a character on the spot. But then you have to do something else—go back into the book and find a scene or two to plant this character. Otherwise, it will be a Deus ex machina.

I’ll leave you with a couple of tips for creating memorable minor characters.

Avoid stereotypes. They are usually the first picture to spring to mind because we’ve seen them so many times before. The bartender wiping a glass. The truck driver in boots and cowboy hat or baseball cap. Just take a moment to change things up. Maybe the bartender knits. Maybe the truck driver is a woman who likes dresses. You’re the writer, come up with something new.

Tags of manner and speech. Give each minor character one unique tag of manner and one of speech. Dickens was a master at this. Think of Uriah Heep, always rubbing his hands together and smarmily talking about how ’umble he is. Or Wilkins Micawber, who always uses twenty words when five would do. David describes him as—

a stoutish, middle-aged person, in a brown surtout and black tights and shoes, with no more hair upon his head (which was a large one, and very shining) than there is upon an egg, and with a very extensive face, which he turned full upon me. His clothes were shabby, but he had an imposing shirt-collar on. He carried a jaunty sort of a stick, with a large pair of rusty tassels to it; and a quizzing-glass hung outside his coat,—for ornament, I afterwards found, as he very seldom looked through it, and couldn’t see anything when he did.

That’s how you major in minors.

Who are some of you favorite fictional minor characters? How about in you own fiction?

Discover Your Scene

by James Scott Bell

We’ve often discussed here the different approaches to writing a novel. In dualistic terms, we sometimes use the terms “plotters” and “pantsers.” Or, “outliners” and “intuitive (or discovery) writers.” There are some ’tweeners (“plantsers”), too. Doesn’t matter, as long as the author creates a finished work that’s the best he or she can do.

But that’s on the macro level. Today I want to focus on the micro level—the scene—and make a pitch for the mini-outline.

A scene is a unit of action, usually defined by a single setting and linear time. To work as dramatic action, there needs to be a viewpoint character with a scene goal—the Objective—who is met with conflict—the Obstacle(s). The scene ends with the Outcome, which can be failure, setback, or portent.

The occasional success is allowed, but should lead to more trouble. Like in that great pet-the-dog scene in The Fugitive where Kimble, posing as a hospital custodian, checks a kid’s x-ray and determines he needs the operating room, stat. He changes the orders in the elevator. And saves the kid’s life. Success! Ah, but a doctor saw him looking at the film, confronts him, and calls security. Trouble!

All right, you’re about to write a scene. You know who the viewpoint character is.

You can pants it. Or you can plan it. This is our micro issue.

Some simply start writing, letting the scene unfold in their head as they take it down. Like transcribing a movie playing in the mind.

The other way is to take a few minutes to think about the three Os listed above.

Objective—Who is the viewpoint character? What does this character want to achieve in the scene? (As Vonnegut once said, a character has to want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.)

Obstacles—Brainstorm possible areas of conflict, e.g., another character with an opposing agenda. Or physical barriers (the bridge is out; the building is locked). Make a list, push past the familiar, then choose the best ones.

Outcome—I see five possible scene endings: 1) success; 2) success, but with a cost; 3) failure; 4) failure with a setback (the situation gets worse); and 5) open-ended (we have to wait for the outcome. This is a staple of multiple POV thrillers, cutting away from one scene to another scene with a different POV).

Writing with this mini-outline enables me to pick the best course among many possibilities. It also helps me to avoid clichés and stereotypes, which are often the first things that come to mind when you simply start writing a scene.

In short, I dig up the best nuggets with a few minutes of brainstorming instead of writing a scene, seeing what I came up with, and doing a lot of fixing. I’ll still have things to fix, but I do that with light editing of my previous day’s work. (Whatever approach, it’s the fixing that is the key to writing books that actually sell and not just take up space. That’s why I wrote a new writing book up for a pre-sale deal now.)

I’ll give you an example from my WIP, my next Mike Romeo thriller. I have a scene where Romeo goes to a house that used to be owned by a key witness. His Objective is simple: find out where the guy moved to.

In my head I had Mike knocking on the door and hearing a voice ask what he wants. Mike lays it out, but the voice refuses to answer the question, tells Mike to go away. There’s an Obstacle. Despite his best attempts at persuasion, the Outcome is failure.

That was my first thought, and it wasn’t enough. Had I written it out and moved on, I know I would have been disappointed upon revision.

So I brainstormed. First, more Obstacles. I thought about the setting. What else was there? How about a smell? Maybe dust…or smoke…ah! Popping into my mind: the odor of marijuana. The “sweet, skunky” smell of burning hippie lettuce. Where would that come from?

Why, the house next door. I brainstormed who it might be. Not one, not two, but three young guys, in folding chairs by a car they are presumably working on, passing around a pipe.

Mike asks them if they knew the guy who lived next door. Their answers are less than helpful, but sure does make them laugh. Mike tries the house across the street and this time it’s a thin old guy on a lawn tractor holding a hoe like a lance. Reminds Mike of Don Quixote. They guy is a misanthrope, not helpful at all.

So after three Obstacles, the ultimate Outcome was failure. Mike doesn’t get the answer he’s looking for.

What follows is a reaction beat. A full reaction beat is made up of Emotion, Analysis, and Decision. (Many of you will recognize all this as the Swain/Bickham “scene and sequel.”

Which we can go into another time.)

Point is I came up with a scene that works for my WIP, with ideas formed with a few minutes of brainstorming.

So I ask: What is your approach to scene writing? Fly into it? Plan it out? Something in between?

7 Tips For Producing More Words

by James Scott Bell

We all know this to be true: to make serious dough as a writer means a) writing a lot; and b) writing well. This latter consideration is why TKZ has been around as long as it has (and we’re proud to say we are once again a Writer’s Digest Best 101 Websites for writers). We care about our craft and love helping writers get better.

As for writing a lot, most of you know that my best advice is writing to a quota. I’ve done this for 25 years. I keep track on a spreadsheet my daily, weekly, and yearly output. I used to go for a daily quota, but would feel guilty when I had to miss a day for some reason. Now I use a weekly number, and divide that by six days (I take one day off to recharge). If I miss a day I can readjust and add more words to the other days. 

I’ve also made a study over the years of writing efficiency. I don’t like wasting time when I write. I want to get the words out and stories completed. Here are some of the things I do. Maybe a few of them will help you, too. 

  1. Writing Sprints

Sometimes you can sit down at the keyboard and pound out 1,000 words or more in a state of delightful flow. Other times writing seems like walking in snow shoes through the La Brea Tar Pits. On days like that it feels daunting to contemplate 1,000 words. So I break it down into writing sprints.

A sprint is 250 words. That’s all. A nifty 250. Your Ficus tree can write 250 words. Don’t be shown up by a Ficus tree. Just do it.

Then rest. Catch your breath. Walk around a bit. Then come back and do another 250. 

Repeat until your quota is done.

Remember this rule, too: when you write, don’t stop to edit. Keep going. Which leads us to #2: 

  1. Place Holding

Often in your writing you’ll come to a spot where you’ll need to spend time on things like research, coming up with a name for a new character, specific details of the setting, and so on. When I come to such a point I put in a placeholder (three asterisks ***). That way I can keep on writing and later come back during editing time and fill in the info. 

I might be writing along and put in: ***POLICE PROCEDURE. This tells me there’s a specific detail I need to research on that point.

Or a new character comes in. I might use a descriptive word and do the name thing later: ***SNARKY. My placeholder brings me to this spot, I created the name, then do find (SNARKY) and replace with the name.

This keeps me writing “in the zone.” 

  1. Scene Storming

If you take just 2 -3 minutes to “scene storm”—brainstorming with a scene goal in mind—you’ll write a scene with an organic connection to the overall story and, as a bonus, save time in the revision stage. Yes, you’ll need to edit your immortal prose, but it won’t necessarily be a macro edit. In other words, you usually won’t have to throw out entire scenes and write new ones.

To storm a scene, ask three basic questions. 

First, what is the viewpoint character’s OBJECTIVE in the scene? What does she want? If she doesn’t want anything, don’t even think about writing that scene. 

The objective can be external or internal. 

Examples of an external objective:

  • Question a witness
  • Confront a boss
  • Hide from a stalker
  • Get a weapon
  • Avoid being followed
  • Steal the money
  • Gain access to a location

Examples of an internal objective:

  • Figure out the next move
  • Get a handle on emotions
  • Analyze the situation
  • Relive a memory (e.g., flashback)

Next, come up with a list of potential OBSTACLES to gaining the objective. This is where conflict, external and/or internal, develops. Obstacles can come from another character who has an agenda directly opposed to your Lead. Or it can be something physical, like the bridge is out or the car won’t start.

Finally, what will be the OUTCOME of your scene? Success or setback? Usually the latter makes for greater suspense, but occasionally you’ll want a success…so long as it leads to more trouble! 

My favorite example of this is from the movie The Fugitive. Remember when Richard Kimble is posing as a hospital custodian? He’s on the trauma floor when a doctor asks him to help by taking a kid on a gurney down to an observation room. But he knows from what the kid is saying and a sneak look at the x-rays that the kid needs to be operated on, stat. In the elevator he changes the orders and delivers the kid to an operating chamber, saving his life. Success! But he was observed looking at the x-rays by the doctor, and she confronts him and starts calling for security. Now he has to make an escape. More trouble!

So just a few minutes considering Objective, Obstacles, and Outcome will have you writing faster because you know where you’re going. 

  1. Riff like jazz

Now and then I like to riff on an emotional moment within a scene. When I come to a place where a strong emotion is felt by the Lead, I write 100 or 200 words without stopping, finding various ways to describe the emotion. I might use metaphors, memories, smells, colors, whatever comes to mind. I write these really fast, letting the intensity of the moment drive the words. 

I analyze later, and may end up using only one or two lines. This may, at first blush, seem like inefficient writing, since I toss out a lot of it. But in this case it’s worth it, because the lines I use will be some of the best writing I’m capable of.

  1. Write something on your next project

Wait, what? You don’t have your next project ready to go? You need to be more like a movie studio! You have one novel in production (your WIP). But you also have your next “green-lighted” project, the one that will be given your full attention when the current work is finished.

If I hit a snag in my WIP, I let it rest and go over to my next project. I have it set up in Scrivener and look at my scene cards on the corkboard. I’ll choose one that calls out to me and write 250 words or so for that scene. Then back to my WIP.

In addition to your WIP and your next, you should also have several projects “in development.” Everything from one-line ideas to elevator pitches. Give these some thought every week in a dedicated “creativity time.” See my post on “Chasing a New Idea.

  1. Write dialogue only

By writing just the dialogue—and by that I mean no descriptions or action beats—you can generate a lot of words that will help develop the scene. You go back later and insert the other stuff. I know what my scene is going to be about (via scene storming). By just writing dialogue I allow my characters to improvise. It’s fun to hear what they come up with.

  1. Drink stronger coffee

Hey, it worked for Balzac. Of course, his 50-cup-a-day habit led to his untimely death from caffeine poisoning. But he did produce the work!

My tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, of course. Well, a little. I really mean this tip to be: take care of your brain. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Eat salmon and blueberries, nuts and dark chocolate. 

And yes, “the science” says that moderate coffee intake is good for the gray cells, and for other things like reducing the risk of Type-2 diabetes and liver disease. So enjoy a cup or two of joe as you write. Your brain will thank you as your fingers fly across the keyboard. 

Now if you’ll excuse me I have some writing to do on my WIP. If you have any tips that have helped you with writing production, please share them with us!

The Decency Factor

by James Scott Bell

It’s not all bad news out there. The hate-stream does not slosh over every social interaction, though sometimes it seems that way. In the midst of our current crisis there are abundant stories of bravery and heroism on the front lines, and decency and kindness all around.

One such story went viral. A FedEx delivery man brings a package to a doorstep. He sees a note that someone in the house has an auto-immune disorder, so please leave packages outside.

The fellow then goes to his vehicle for some wipes, sanitizes the package, and leaves a little note of his own, ending with “Stay safe” and a smiley face.

My wife and I couldn’t help getting misty as we watched the video. That is the power of a kind act, especially when times are troubled.

In fiction, decency is often shown by way of the “pet the dog” scene. This is where the hero, in the midst of his own vexations, pauses to help someone weaker than himself. It’s an act of basic kindness and thus bonds us even more strongly with the Lead.

I’ll give you two examples. The first is from The Fugitive (1993). You know the story. Dr. Richard Kimble is on the run after escaping a prison bus on the way to Death Row. Kimble was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. It was a one-armed man who did it, and Kimble is now in a race against time to find him.

At one point Kimble poses as a hospital janitor so he can access the prosthetics records. As he’s slipping out of the hospital he finds himself waylaid by traffic on the trauma floor.

As he waits for a chance to move he notices a little boy on a gurney, groaning. From the look on Kimble’s face we know he wants to help that boy. He’s a doctor! That’s what he does! But he can’t without giving himself away. A nurse gives a cursory look at the chest x-ray, calling out that the kid is okay.

The supervising doctor comes over, sees Kimble just standing there, and asks him to wheel the kid down to an observation room. So off Kimble goes with the gurney.

As he does, he asks the boy where it hurts. He slips the x-ray from its envelope and holds it up to the light.

He determines that the boy needs immediate surgery. So on the elevator he changes the boy’s orders and takes him to the operating room, turning him over to a surgeon who gets the boy in for the help he needs.

Kimble saved a boy’s life at the risk of being found out. The filmmakers use it for just that purpose. The doctor on the trauma floor saw Kimble looking at the film. She catches up to him and confronts him. Not satisfied with his evasions, she grabs his ID badge and calls for Security.

Thus, Kimble’s “pet the dog” moment has gotten him into worse trouble. That’s using it to the max.

My second example is from Casablanca (where so many great moments come from!) As you know, the movie is about a bitter American named Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) who is allowed to run a café/saloon in this Morocco burg because he’s seen as neutral and uninterested in the war that rages around the world. Rick keeps telling people, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Rick’s Café is packed nightly with refugees making surreptitious deals to get out of Casablanca. Louis, the French police captain who has local control (with Nazi permission), uses the Café to get gambling kickbacks and women. He identifies desperate young couples who need exit visas but don’t have the money to pay for them. Louis then approaches the wife and offers her the papers gratis…in return for sleeping with him.

So in the middle of the swirling plot a young wife asks for Rick’s advice. Her husband is at the roulette table, trying to win the money they need for the visas. But he’s losing. Louis has made his pitch to the wife and she now wants to know if he’ll keep his word. Rick, with a disgusted look, says, “He always has.” She presses Rick, asking him, as a man, if someone loved him very much and did a “bad thing” to ensure his happiness, could he forgive her for that bad thing? Rick, remembering how Ilsa left him in Paris, says, “Nobody ever loved me that much.” He gets up and leaves, telling the wife that things “may work out.”

But then he goes to the gambling room and spots the husband, who is down to his last chips. Rick tells him to place them on 22. The croupier sees what’s going on and sets the wheel so the ball lands on 22. Rick tells the husband to let it ride, and the ball comes up on 22 again. Rick tells the husband to “Cash it in and don’t come back.”

This pet-the-dog moment is observed by Rick’s headwaiter, but also by Louis, who objects to Rick interfering with his “little romances.” This is potential trouble for Rick, because he has just “stuck his neck” out for some refugees, making Louis suspicious of his true intentions.

We don’t need to do any psychological deep dive to understand why the pet-the-dog beat is so powerful. We are naturally moved by acts of decency. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s what Lincoln described as “the better angels of our nature.” It is part, I would argue, of the true American character in times of crisis.

We can show that in our fiction by way of a pet-the-dog beat. Even more important, we can show it in our lives by acting decently, the way a FedEx delivery man did a few days ago.

What act of kindness have you observed or heard about lately? In the past, what gesture of decency made an impact on you?

Scene Writing is Where the Fun Happens

by James Scott Bell

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.


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!

Using the Argument Against Transformation to Strengthen Your Story

by James Scott Bell

Today’s post is for structure fans. If you’re a dedicated pantser for whom any thought of form and function causes you to break out in hives, you have my permission to go play Candy Crush, for we are about to take a deep dive into the skeletal framework of storytelling.

This post was prompted by an email from a reader of Super Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. The gist of the email is below, reproduced with the sender’s permission:

I’m planning a book that is plot-driven rather than character-driven, so as I look at developing my “Mirror Moment,” I know it’s going to be more about digging deep and finding the strength to face physical and/or psychological death (like in The Fugitive), rather than a specific need to change. I wondered how the twin plot points of “Argument Against Transformation” and “Transformation” worked in that case (since there isn’t an actual transformation)? Are those beats skipped in a plot-driven story?

This is a very intelligent question, and told me immediately that my correspondent has a real grasp of structure and what it’s supposed to accomplish.

He rightly points out there are two kinds of arcs for a main character: 1) he becomes a better version of himself; or 2) he remains the same person fundamentally, but grows stronger through the ordeal. (Note: both of these arcs can be reversed, resulting in tragedy).

In books or movies of the first kind, such as Casablanca, you’ll often find a compelling beat, which I call “the argument against transformation.” It’s a setup move which defines the MC’s journey and pays off nicely at the end, with actual transformation.

Thus Rick, at the end of Casablanca, has transformed from a loner who has withdrawn from the community into a self-sacrificing member of the war effort. Remember at the  airport, when he’s explaining to Ilsa why they can’t go off together? “I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do you can’t be any part of.”

And two minutes later Rick proves his transformation by shooting Major Strasser right in front of Louis, the French police captain.

Early in Act 1, we have Rick’s argument against such a transformation. That is, he states something that is the opposite of what he will come to believe—and be—at the end. He says it two times, in fact: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Another example: At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has learned, “There’s no place like home.” But early in Act I, she argues against that notion. She tells Toto there’s got to be a place they can go where there’s no trouble, a place you can’t get to by a boat or a train. A place “behind the moon … beyond the rain …” (cue music).

That’s the first kind of transformation. But my correspondent was asking about the second kind, where the character does not change inside. Here’s what I wrote in response:

In the kind of story you describe, there is a transformation—from weaker to stronger. The hero is forced to survive in the dark world, and must become more resilient. So at the end he is not fundamentally a different person, but is a stronger, more resourceful version of himself.

In thinking about your question, it seems to me that the “argument against transformation” in a “getting stronger” story corresponds to what my friend Chris Vogler labels “Refusal of the Call” (in his book The Writer’s Journey). One example Chris uses is Rocky. When Rocky Balboa is first offered the chance to fight Apollo Creed, he says no. “Well, it’s just that, you see, uh…I fight in clubs, you know. I’m a ham-and-egger. This guy… he’s the best, and, uh, it wouldn’t be such a good fight. But thank you very much, you know.”

Implicit in that refusal is his belief that he’s not strong enough.

The transformation beat comes at the conclusion of the final battle, usually in the form of some visual that shows the stronger self. In Rocky, he’s got Adrian in his arms and adulation from the fans.

In The Fugitive, the argument against transformation is shown cinematically. After Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives on the scene of the train derailment, we cut to Kimble running through the woods, his face etched with fear. In a book, you could put in Kimble’s inner thoughts about it. I know an operating chamber, not the streets! How am I going to survive?

The Mirror Moment is what holds these two ends of the spectrum together, which is why it is perfectly situated in the middle of a book. The protagonist has a moment when he’s forced to look at his situation, as if in a mirror (sometimes there’s an actual mirror in the scene!). He either thinks, Who am I? What have I become? Will I stay this way? (Casablanca); or, There is no possible way I can survive this…I’m probably going to die! (The Fugitive).

Now, if you pantsers have made it this far without your heads exploding, I congratulate you, and offer this word of comfort: you don’t have to think about structure before you start a project, or while you’re writing it. Go ahead, be as wild and free as you like!

But when the time comes (and it always does) when you need to revise and figure out why something isn’t working—and what you can do to make it work—structure will be there to help you figure it out.

Because story and structure are in love, and there’s no argument against that!


Gilstrap Watch: John reports that the surgery “went great.” He feels, naturally, like he “took a beating,” but expects to be “fine in a week or two.” Huzzah! (For those who don’t know what this is about, see John’s post from last Wednesday.)