The Decency Factor

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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?

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Scene Writing is Where the Fun Happens

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Using the Argument Against Transformation to Strengthen Your Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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!

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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.)

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