Monday, February 28, 2011

SDSU Conference: Part 2

Last Monday I wrote about the San Diego State University Writers Conference, including the overall nature of the conference, and a panel discussion of agents talking about the emerging e-publishing paradigm. (click here)

Today I want to extend last week's discussion to share some notes I took at another excellent presentation at the conference, this one by bestselling author and teacher, James Scott Bell. His experience and insights on how to write fiction that will get published are powerful, and carry the extra bonus of utilizing a novel writing/filmic structure approach (i.e., get published and get Hollywood interested).

What I love about Bell is his way of communicating. It feels direct, hands-on, clear, and loaded with valuable content. The presentation was billed as being on Structure.  It was, but Bell made Structure come alive by giving examples of his points that provide content we can relate to in our own novels.  Here's an overview of most of what he squeezed into an hour:

Bell calls his system for structure LOCK.
L:  Lead
O: Opposition
C: Confrontation
K: Knockout

L is the Lead Character.  Readers get into a novel by bonding with the character.  You want to open with a Boom!  Pull readers in right away. The lead character in trouble works well. This will immediately interest readers and get them rooting for the character.
1.  trouble for the character/imminent jeopardy
2.  hardship, not of the character's own making, and the character doesn't whine about it. Example:  Forrest Gump
3.  inner conflict—two voices in the character's head:  a) "you have to do this," and b) fear (usually)
4.  vulnerability:  at any point this character could be smashed by the forces arraigned against her
5.  no wimps.  Can start out there, but must see change very quickly

So, you are shooting for your character to display inner strength and likability.  

Likability often comes from a character who cares about others. Bell suggests a technique for incorporating this characteristic. It is called the 'pet the dog' or 'save the cat' beat. (He spoke in terms of 'beats,' as in music.) This is where the character takes a moment to protect someone else while they are themselves in great jeopardy.

For example, Harrison Ford in The Fugitive: the moment when Tommy Lee Jones' hunt for him is closing in; HF has figured out part of the truth about who murdered his wife and framed him for the crime, and is in Cook County Hospital in Chicago tracking down the proof he needs, with the U.S. Marshalls hot on his trail, when he sees an injured boy on a gurney in the incredibly overcrowded, understaffed hospital. He risks blowing his cover and getting caught by taking an interest in the boy, talking to him and realizing (because he's a great doctor) that this boy will die without immediate surgery. As HF forges a doctor's signature on an order for surgery and wheels the gurney to the surgical suite, the Feds are bursting through the front doors of the hospital in pursuit of him. We LOVE this lead character, who demonstrates his humanity in a moment of personal peril. His act of kindness can get him in more trouble. It raises the stakes and his likability.

O is Objective:  the main goal of the character for the novel. It has to be about impending death. This can be:
1.  physical death
2.  professional death—if the character fails, their professional life will either be over or severely damaged. (For example, Clarisse Starling in Silence of the Lambs)
3.  psychological death—this is the key to category romance, e.g.  If the one great love is lost, that's death.

The Objective can take two forms:  to get something, or to get away from something. The stakes are death. You must make the stakes matter to the character that much. These things have to be thought through before you start writing.

C is Confrontation:  the opposition character. The opposition must be stronger than the lead character. The opposition character doesn't have to be a villain. It can be someone with the opposite agenda (e.g. Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive). But you need to explain the opposition character's justification, so the reader feels some sympathy. Fully justify who they are, be able to crawl into their skin, and ask yourself, why do I love this character?

K is Knockout Ending:  the reader thinks, this is the perfect ending, but I didn't see it coming.

Endings are the hardest things to write because each is unique to the story.

Think of the climax as a final battle:  inside and outside. Inner conflict. Example:  Casablanca—the final battle is inside Rick. He can have Ilsa, but at a moral cost. He makes the moral choice and loses Ilsa, but his reward is he becomes a full person again and rejoins the war effort.

Bell made the point that these guidelines hold true for all dramatic writing, whether genre or literary.

For our part as writers, we all know that guidelines are only guidelines. Great writers break rules all the time, by doing what they do instead incredibly well (Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford's literary novel, Independence Day, comes to mind, in which he opens with a beautiful descriptive passage of setting.) But James Scott Bell's points are very well taken. If we use these guidelines where we can in our work, it (and we) will benefit.

There are many points in Bell's approach that resonated with me. The one that surprised me the most, because I'd never really thought about it, was that the opposition character (antagonist) must be stronger than the lead. That little statement opened up a whole new way of thinking about antagonists for me. How about you? Do you have a favorite writing truth you use to guide a writing choice?




  1. This is excellent Linda! Thank you so much for this post. I missed this session at the conference and it sounds like it was an amazing one. I'm bookmarking this!

  2. You're welcome, Heather. It WAS an amazing session. (As I recall, your excuse for missing it was that you were pitching to an excellent agent who happened to request your entire ms. —I guess you're off the hook for the session :-)) Glad I could share!

  3. Linda, I loved listening to James Scott Bell. Not only is he funny, smart, and dynamic, but he has so many excellent points. I missed his seminar, but bought the CD. I listen to it often. It helps me look back at my characters and story to see if I'm following his suggestions... because they are true and powerful. Antagonist stronger than the lead? I hadn't thought of that before either, but so true. Makes it even better when the Protag kicks a little Antag butt!

  4. Awesome notes, Linda. The point I like here is that the character isn't whining about his hardship. I've beta read books where the character comes off as whiny and I've a hard time reading it. Fortunately, the authors get bored with having a whiny characters, but by then it's too late. An agent would have rejected it if they had request the ms in the current state.

  5. Absolutely, Karlene! Have the protag overcome odds like that, and her stature grows tremendously. Is that CD one of your treadmill listens? Perfect!

  6. Excellent point, Stina. The inner strength has to shine through to make readers want to even know what happens to the character, let alone get excited about the book. Just a peek in the beginning at the determination, intelligence, ability, or even focused anger, that will give the character a fighting chance is all most of us need to keep reading. This is an easy one to mess up for beginning writers. Thanks for the perceptive comment!

  7. Wow, Linda,

    This was excellent. What a fantastic seminar. I put all those points against my present novel, and I am happy to say I have them all.

    Well done and thanks for sharing these pointers with us.


  8. Well done to YOU, Michael! I am impressed you did them all! It was a fantastic seminar, that's true. He seems like a great teacher.

  9. LOCK sounds like a great structure system. I'm bookmaking this for future reference.

    The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell was a great book of his, I really enjoyed it. He is a great author. You were lucky to have been there for his panel. Really wishing I could have gone now! :-)

  10. You would have loved it, Lindsey. I bought The Art of War for Writers after that panel and totally agree—it's an enjoyable and useful read.

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