Put Your Lead Between Opposite Characters

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

In Write Your Novel From the Middle, I explain a crucial moment in a plot where the lead character must make a choice. It usually involves a moral dilemma, with the character’s realization of who he is and how his flaws affect the characters around him. He then has to make a decision about what kind of person he is going to be: Stay the same and continue to hurt people? Or find his way to redemption?

In the middle of Casablanca, for example, we see Rick being a mean drunk toward Ilsa, who has just poured her heart out to him explaining why she had to leave him in Paris. As soon as she tearfully exits the scene, Rick drops his head into his hands, and we know he’s looking with disgust at himself, as if in a mirror. That’s why I call this the “mirror moment” which usually happens smack dab in the middle of a novel or film. Indeed, it is the moment that tells us what the story is really all about.

Casablanca does something else to magnify Rick’s dilemma—it places Rick between two characters who represent opposite moral poles. On one side is Louis Renault, the corrupt French police captain whose sole purpose in life is holding on to his cushy job and bedding desperate women trying to get out of Casablanca. He isn’t loyal to the French or the Germans; he’s loyal to Louis, and does what he can to keep from rocking the boat.

On the other side of Rick is Victor Laszlo, the heroic resistance fighter. Rick admires him, but isn’t going to help him, even though Louis has announced his impending arrest in Rick’s café. In addition to his avowed detachment, Rick has another reason not to help Laszlo—turns out he’s married to Ilsa, the woman Rick believes betrayed him.

What Casablanca is really about, then, is how Rick gets to the decision not just to help Laszlo and Ilsa, but even to sacrifice his life (potentially) to do it. And in the famous ending twist, Rick’s moral reformation inspires Louis to make a similar choice. It’s “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Hold that thought.

The other night I watched the Paul Newman film, Hud (1963). This superb movie (based on Larry McMurtry’s novel Horseman, Pass By) won three well-deserved Academy Awards: Best Actress (Patricia Neal); Best Supporting Actor (Melvyn Douglas); and Best Cinematography (James Wong Howe). The protagonist is Lon Bannon. He lives on a modest cattle ranch with his Granddad and uncle, Hud, and Alma, their housekeeper.

Paul Newman and Melvyn Douglas in Hud

Lon has just turned seventeen. He’s on the cusp of adulthood. And he’s offered two paths. The first is from his beloved Granddad, who has built his entire life on working hard and doing what’s right and honest. The other is from Hud, whom Lon admires for his way with women and ease at being a “good ol’ boy.” As Hud explains to Lon, “When I was your age, I couldn’t get enough of anything.” Lon is increasingly leaning in Hud’s direction.

Then tragedy strikes the ranch. A herd of cattle Granddad recently brought in from Mexico has foot-and-mouth disease. All of the cows have to socially distance be exterminated. Hud tries to convince his father to sell off the bad cows to unsuspecting neighbors. Granddad, of course, will have none of it. “You’re an unprincipled man, Hud,” he says.

“Don’t let that fuss you,” Hud snaps back. “You’ve got enough for both of us.” Indeed, deep down, Hud would like nothing better than for Granddad to kick the bucket so Hud can take his half of the ranch and do what he pleases with it.

Once again, the mirror moment happens in the middle of the film. Lon and Granddad have gone to a movie together and are having a bite to eat at a diner. Hud comes stumbling in with a woman—another man’s wife. There’s a tense exchange between Hud and Granddad, who clasps his chest and keels over. Hud and Lon get him into a pickup truck and drive him back to the ranch. As Granddad sleeps between them, Lon says:

LON: He’s beginning to look kind of worn out, isn’t he? Sometimes I forget how old he is. Guess I just don’t want to think about it.

HUD: It’s time you started.

LON: I know he’s gonna die someday. I know that much.

HUD: He is.

LON: Makes me feel like somebody dumped me into a cold river.

HUD: Happens to everybody. Horses, dogs, men.  Nobody gets out of life alive.

That “dumped into a cold river” is Lon’s awakening to the stakes. He’s going to have to make a decision on how to live life once Granddad is gone.

Two plot points happen that turn Lon away from Hud. First is Hud’s attempted rape of Alma, which Lon breaks up. Alma has been through the grinder of life, and Lon considers her good and kind. Seeing what Hud tries to do to her disgusts him.

The second point is when Lon and Hud are driving back to the ranch from a carouse in town and find Garnddad crawling on the road. He’d fallen off his horse, and is in bad shape. Lon cradles his head, tells him to hang on, that everything will be all right. Granddad says, “I don’t know if I want it to be.” He looks over at Hud. “Hud’s here waitin’ on me. And he ain’t a patient man.” With that he gives up the ghost.

Hud’s ill treatment of Granddad is the final straw for Lon. He decides to pack up and leave, not quite sure where he’ll end up. Hud makes one last pitch for Lon to stay on.

HUD: I guess you’ve come to be of your granddaddy’s opinion that I ain’t fit to live with. That’s too bad. We might’ve whooped it up some. That’s the way you used to want it.

LON: I used to. So long, Hud.

Lon walks away. Hud goes into the ranch house and grabs a beer from the icebox. He returns to the door to look at his departing nephew. Then, with a dismissive wave, he shuts the door.

That’s the end. Hud is all alone. No one to love him, no one for him to love. In this instance, contrary to Casablanca, the immoral character does not change, and we are shown the tragedy of that choice.

So consider setting your Lead between two characters who represent opposites on the moral scale. This will deepen the Lead’s dilemma and the story as a whole.

Comments welcome. 

+16

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!

***

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.)

+8

Huckleberry Finn’s Transformation

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Hemingway famously declared that all of modern American literature comes from one book, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The novel, however, was controversial from the jump. In 1885 the Concord Public Library banned it from their shelves for being “the veriest trash, suitable only for the slums.”

In recent years Finn has been removed from reading lists for its copious use of the N word, though Twain was portraying a slice of 1840s America in order to expose and shame its prejudices. But this is not a post about that controversy. The interested reader can find a good overview of the dispute in this article.

What I want to focus on is Twain’s use of the mirror moment, and the transformation of Huck. In my book on the subject I assert that knowing the mirror moment tells you what your book is really all about. And that’s certainly true of Huckleberry Finn. (How Twain managed to read my book long before I was born is still a mystery.)

In the middle of the novel Huck has the opportunity to turn Jim over to some slave trackers, for a reward. In the culture Huck is part of this is the “right” thing to do. A slave is someone else’s “property.” Thus, helping Jim escape is stealing. And since stealing is agin’ the Good Book, Huck is in danger of hellfire. So he’s been taught.

But something makes Huck hesitate. He tells the trackers that he and the fellow on the raft (Jim in hiding) have small pox. The trackers make a quick exit.

All this causes Huck to reflect:

They went off and I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little ain’t got no show—when the pinch comes there ain’t nothing to back him up and keep him to his work, and so he gets beat. Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad—I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

So here is Huck asking himself who he is, who he is supposed to be, and deciding for the moment that the best thing is to just not think about it. But he’s teetering toward a transformation of some kind. He doesn’t have the capacity (yet) to completely understand what’s happening inside him. But we know whatever it is it’s at the heart level.

Here is Huck’s transformation late in Act 3. His inner struggle is too much to bear. He wants to feel cleansed, once and for all, so he won’t go to hell. He writes a note to Miss Watson—Jim’s “owner”—and says he’s got her slave and to send the reward money. He feels good for a moment because he’s not going to go to hell now. But then he starts thinking about all that he and Jim had been through:

I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

Huck takes up the letter and suddenly freezes,

because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.

One of the most powerful transformations in all of literature. Indeed, the esteemed Prof. Arnold Weinstein of Brown University calls it “[a]rguably the greatest moment in American fiction.” By ripping up the letter Huck proves his transformation, his breaking free from a false moral prison into nascent humanity. It finds completion in the famous last lines:

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

That’s how you make a classic. A moral dilemma, a mirror moment, a crisis of conscience, a final decision, proof of transformation, and a resonant last line.

Easy, right? Ha!

But, truly, these things can be done in any genre, and will elevate any book. There is plenty of competent fiction out there. But why settle for mere competence?

I’m sure each of you can recall a powerful, transformative ending in a book or movie, one that you’ve never forgotten. Tell us about it.

 

+7

Crystallize Your Novel

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

When I teach workshops based on my book Write Your Novel From the Middle, I usually say that finding your “mirror moment” illuminates the entire book for you. It shows you what the story is really all about, from beginning to end––even if the novel is largely unwritten. So be ye planner or pantser, whenever you find your mirror moment, the path to your completed novel becomes a whole lot clearer.

autumn-imagoThere’s another word to describe what’s going on, and it came to me in an email from writer Bryan Wiggins. Bryan is a serious student of the craft (via Brother Larry Brooks, myself and others). His novel, Autumn Imago, was recently selected as one of only three books to launch Harper Legend, a new imprint of Harper One, a member of the HarperCollins family.

Bryan wrote:

In my story, my protagonist, Paul Strand, is a ranger in Maine’s remote Baxter State Park. Paul has turned his back on his nuclear family after it was shattered by the death of his sister, years before. Circumstances conspire to bring them to the park where Paul struggles between the isolation that has protected him from the wounds of the past and the intimacy that stands as his only chance for the healing that can make him whole. Paul battles those opposing forces throughout the book, but Middle provided me with a way to look at the central turning point in the story that helped me shape the “before and after” of his spiritual catharsis for maximum effect. That scene takes place during a rainstorm in a lean-to at the top of a mountain. There, Paul must decide whether or not to abandon his recovering addict-brother, or to give him the second chance that Paul doesn’t believe he deserves. The Mirror Moment helped me crystallize not only that crisis for Paul, but also helped me sharpen my larger narrative with the clear focus that helped earn the book a publishing contract with one of the “Big 5.”

I like that word, crystallize. It means to assume a definite shape. When Bryan’s character reached that decision point, he was looking at himself (as if in a mirror) and asking, What kind of person am I going to be? The shape of the story became discernable. That’s always a great feeling.

Bryan went on to say:

For a story structure freak like myself, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to simply surrender to the organic power of writing when the muse begins to sing. But as an analytical writer at heart, I’m always looking for a sharp instrument that I can also apply more directly to my work. Your book has proven to be such a tool.

I love story structure freaks. But I also tell writers that when they write they shouldn’t think about “rules” or “guidelines.” Just write! (“…simply surrender to the organic power…”) But then, afterward, put on the analytical hat. Fix what you can, learn how to fix what you can’t (via craft books, workshops, editors, teachers) and absorb. I always come back to the golf analogy. Don’t think of the 22 most important tips about your golf swing as you swing! Just play! Do your thinking after the round. And if you keep messing something up, go visit a teaching pro.

What will happen is this: you’ll get all those lessons into your “muscle memory,” and they’ll be there for you next time you play (or write!) Bryan went on in his email about writing the second book in his planned trilogy:

As I’ve been outlining, free-writing, and scene-writing my way to the middle of this sequel, I’ve been conscious again of “the magical midpoint moment” of my tale that Middle illustrates. My goal in this novel is to craft a character who demonstrates the drive for success meant to resonate with my readers, but to also show how that force can corrode the compassion for others that should always temper such ambition. Middle has again pointed to a critical mid-manuscript turning point between two opposing forces in my story. In this case, it’s a critical choice Wolf must make about whether or not to propose marriage to his lifelong friend (the girl next door) not for love, but to advance his career. As Middle suggests, that vantage point is providing me not only with one of the big, dramatic beats of my plot, but a perspective for tuning the entire thrust of my story before and after that point for maximum dramatic effect.

Let me add that if you know you’re writing a trilogy, you can have mirror moments for each book, and one for the entire series. There are mirror moments in each of the Hunger Games books, and one big one for the trilogy (hint: it involves Katniss’ inner argument about whether to bring a child into the world).

So I thank Bryan for his email, and the chance to share some of his writing process. You might also be interested in an early blog post by Bryan when he felt “lost” writing his first novel, and how he fought through. It’s called “Eighty Thousand Mistakes.”

To sum up about crystallizing your novel:

  1. When you write, write.
  1. At some point, brainstorm your mirror moment. It’s subject to change, of course, but I think you’ll find one that feels right. Let it be your guide.
  1. Visit the Lead’s pre-story psychology in light of the mirror moment. Flesh out the moral flaw. Why is it there? What happened in the Lead’s backstory that made him this way? (E.g., Rick at the beginning of Casablanca. Why doesn’t he stick his neck out for anybody? Because he was betrayed (he thinks) by the only woman he ever truly loved.)
  1. Brainstorm the transformation at the end (wherein the character overcomes the moral flaw, or has grown stronger). Come up with a visual that proves the transformation. (One of my favorites is in the film Lethal Weapon. Riggs is suicidal, has been carrying around a hollow-point bullet to blow his brains out. At the end, he shows up at Murtaugh’s house on Christmas and presents the bullet—with a ribbon on it—to Murtaugh’s daughter. “Give it to your dad, okay? It’s a present for him. Tell him I won’t be needing it anymore.”)
  1. Finish the novel, let it sit for a few weeks, then start the editing process. What you’ll find is that the issues you have in re-write are not with the central story, but in how you tell it. In other words, because you went to the mirror, the story will have a definite shape. It will be crystallized. Now smooth out edges, deepen characters, sharpen dialogue, tighten scenes.

Then let people read it. Then fix it some more.

This is called growing as a writer.

Which, as the Geico commercials say, is what you do!

+11

Embrace Growth – Guest USA Today Bestseller Colleen Coble

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

twilight-cover

I’m delighted to have USA Today bestseller Colleen Coble as my guest on TKZ. Colleen is an award-winning author with over 2 million books in print and she writes heartfelt and suspenseful romantic mysteries. I’m enjoying her latest Twilight at Blueberry Barrens and I’m a big fan. NYT bestseller Brenda Novak has given it high praise and Publishers Weekly gave Colleen a prized starred reviewPlease help me welcome her to TKZ.

***

You know the best thing about writing? You never arrive. There is always something you can improve on. Writing isn’t static, and it’s thrilling to know a better, bigger book can be yours to create. So how do we embrace the process of change in our books? Here’s what works for me.

1. Determine what drives your writing:
I think we all figure out fairly soon where we belong in the landscape of the writing world, and what type of story grabs us and doesn’t let go. Part of the evolution of my brand of romantic mystery involved embracing who I was as a writer and letting that strengthen each new book. Readers often tell me I’m way too friendly and outgoing to write about murder. I think they believe only brooding, unsmiling people can write about something so dark. They miss what drives me to write what I write—justice. I look around the world and see no justice, but I can make sure justice prevails in my novels.

Why do you write? The biggest, strongest stories involve something very personal to you. Depending on your personality, it can be cathartic or daunting to let your characters deal with an issue that’s been challenging to you, but it’s always worth it. Put down your guard and let the reader in. Writing should never just be your job. That’s a trap that career novelists can fall into, but the next novel should always be because you have something to say not because you have a deadline!

2. Figure out your strengths:
Don’t assume your strengths are as strong as they can get. An expert at pacing? Flex your fingers and keep the reader up all night. Good at integrating setting into the plot? You can immerse the reader even better with the next book. Great at characterization? You can build an even more compelling character in the next book. The status quo is never enough for the next book. Strive for something bigger and more compelling.

3. Pinpoint your weaknesses:
We all have areas where we are weak. My timelines can get fuzzy, and because I’m a seat of the pants writer, the train can get derailed. But even a pantser like me can get better at thinking through key turning points that lead to a stronger book. There are great writing resources out there to help you with your weaknesses.

This blog and others like it are great resources. There are tons of helpful writing books out there to help shore up where you’re weak. Jim Bell is a long time friend, and his book, Write Your Novel From the Middle, literally transformed my writing even though I’d written well over 50 novels by the time I read it. Never stop learning how to write better. Study up on how other authors do it well. When I wanted to write more suspenseful books, I read excellent suspense like my friend, Jordan Dane’s. I literally devour every book by an author I think I can learn from.

4. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
I remember when chick lit was all the rage. My buddy, Kristen Billerbeck, wrote a chapter to show a friend what it looked like. When I read that first chapter, I knew she’d found her real voice in first person/present tense, even though she’d written over 20 novels by that time. Let your voice evolve and strengthen as you gain more confidence in your ability.

I decided to do more points of view in Twilight at Blueberry Barrens, and I think it worked to build the suspense. After trying something, you can always go back to the way it was if it didn’t work for you.

Discussion:
How has your writing evolved from book to book?

colleen-2012-black

Best-selling author Colleen Coble’s novels have won or finaled in awards ranging from the Best Books of Indiana, the ACFW Carol Award, the Romance Writers of America RITA, the Holt Medallion, the Daphne du Maurier, National Readers’ Choice, and the Booksellers Best. She has over 2 million books in print and writes romantic mysteries because she loves to see justice prevail. Colleen is CEO of American Christian Fiction Writers. She lives with her husband Dave in Indiana.

http://colleencoble.com
https://www.facebook.com/colleencoblebooks/
https://twitter.com/colleencoble

+6