Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: Jams Scott Bell

Welcome to Structure Part 8. We have spent the past couple of months studying the fundamentals of what makes up a novel, and today we are going to discuss the actual scenes that make up a novel and how to keep track of them. It is easy to get lost when dealing with a structure as complex as a novel, so I hope to give you a nifty tool to keep everything straight.

As a fiction author, you will often feel like an acrobat spinning plates while standing on your head and juggling fiery chainsaws. There are so many components to keep track of, lest you end up down the Bunny Trail of No Return. Organization is key when it comes to being a successful novelist.

First, let’s talk about scenes.

According to James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, scenes do four things. Bell calls these the four chords of fiction:

The two major chords are: (1) action and (2) reaction.

The two minor chords are (1) setup and (2) deepening.

Back when I used to edit for writers, I was known to draw flies on the page when the writer lost my interest. This became known as my infamous, “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?’” The reader is a fly on the wall when it comes to the world we are creating. Make them the fly on the wall of something interesting at all times. How do we accomplish this?

All scenes need conflict. Conflict is the fuel that powers the story’s forward momentum. “Scenes” that are merely back-story, reflection (rehash of what the reader already knows) or information dump, slow down the story and make the reader either want to skim ahead or put the book down. Bad juju. We want our readers hooked from the beginning until we finally let them go on the last page. How do we accomplish this? We add lots of conflict.

Scenes, according to Bell, need three components, collectively known as HIP—Hook, Intensity & Prompt.

Hook—interests the reader from the get-go. This is why it is generally a bad idea to start scenes with setting. Waxing rhapsodic about the fall color is a tough way to hook a reader. If you do start a scene with setting, then make it do double-duty. Setting can set up the inner mood of a character before we even meet him. Setting should always be more than a weather report. Try harder.

Intensity—raises the stakes. Introduce a problem. Scenes that suddenly shift into reverse and dump back-story KILL your intensity. Cut scenes at meals unless there is a fight. If your characters are in a car, they better be in an argument or a car chase. Also cut any scenes that the sole purpose is to give information. Have a scene that’s sole purpose is two characters talking about a third? CUT!

Prompt—leave the scene with work left undone and questions left unanswered. If your character is relaxed enough to go to bed at the end of a scene, that is a subconscious cue to your reader that it is okay to mark the page and close the book.  There should always be something unsettling that makes the reader want to know more.

Going back to the chords of the writing. Every scene should involve one of your key characters in pursuit of an interesting goal that is related to the overall conflict of the story. Each of these scenes are stepping stones that take your character closer to the final showdown. Most of the time, it will feel like two steps forward and one step back.

Your POV character (protagonist) sets out to do X but then Y gets in the way. Your character then will have some kind of a reaction to the setback.

So we have the major chords I mentioned earlier:

ACTION–> REACTION to the obstacle

Now when we add in the minor chords, it might look something like this:

Setup–>ACTION–>obstacle–>REACTION to the obstacle–>deepening

Setup and deepening need to be short and sweet. Why? Because they don’t drive the story, conflict does. We as readers will need a certain amount of setup to get oriented in what is happening, but then drive forward and get to the good stuff. Deepening is the same. We want to know how this conflict has changed the course of events, but don’t get carried away or you risk losing your reader.

Every scene should have conflict and a great way to test this is to do a Conflict Lock. Bob Mayer teaches this tactic in his workshops and if you get a chance to take one of his classes, you will be amazed how your writing will improve.

The conflict lock is a basic diagram of what the conflicting goals in the scene look like. Here is one from one of my earlier fiction pieces. My protagonist’s roommate has just been taken by bad guys, and protag and the love interest are clearly in conflict:

Jane wants to pursue the trail of the kidnappers deeper into Mexico.

Tank wants to return to Texas and call the FBI.

Even though these two characters are allies, it is clear they want different things. Jane wants to plunge ahead and take her chances pursuing the bad guys who have her friend. The love interest doesn’t want Jane hurt or killed. He wants to take the safer route and let the pros handle the kidnapping. Both have reasonable goals, but only one of them, by the end of the scene, will get his/her way. One path takes Jane closer to finding her roommate. The other ends the adventure.

So how do you keep track of all these elements? The note card is a writer’s best friend. We will discuss different methods of plotting in the future, but I recommend doing note cards ahead of time and then again after the fact. I stole a very cool tactic from screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

On each note card, I write the location, then a one-sentence header about what the scene is about. Then there is a neat little symbol for conflict (><) I use to show who is in conflict in this particular scene. Then I do a micro conflict lock. Who wants what? I also use an emotional symbol to note change +/-.

Characters should be changing emotionally. If your protag enters on a high note, crush it. Enters on a low? Give some hope. If a character is constantly okey dokey, that’s boring. Conversely, if a character is always in the dumps, it will wear out your reader and stall the plot. I also note any facts I might need to keep up with. Has my main character suffered an injury? Lost her weapon? Gained a bazooka and a pet hamster?

Let’s look at an example from the movies. Romancing the Stone.

So the card might look something like this:

Jungles of South America (Location)

>< Joan (protag) and Jack (love interest/antagonist)

Joan wants a guide to get her to Cartejena, Columbia to trade the treasure map for her sister.

Jack wants to recapture the exotic birds he lost when the bus crashed into the back of his truck.

-/+ Joan finally convinces Jack to take her to Cartejena. (Note she started on a low. She was lost, in a crash and far away from Cartejena. She ends on a high note. Jack agrees to guide her to her destination)

Joan and Jack decide to go to Cartejena (decision), but then bad guys arrive and start shooting at them (prompt).

Yes, Blake Snyder’s system is designed to keep up with all the scenes a movie, but it can do wonders for novelists, too. When I finish my first draft, I go back and make set of cards. Using this system makes it painfully clear what scenes are in need of a total overhaul. If I can’t say in one sentence what the scene is about, then I know my goal is weak, nonexistent or unclear. Too many people in conflict? Conflict might be muddy. Go back and clarify. If there isn’t any emotional change, then that’s a big red flag that nothing is happening–it’s a “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?'”

If I find a scene that’s sole purpose is information dump, what do I do? I have three choices. 1) Cut the scene totally. 2) Fold it into another scene that has existing conflict. 3) Add conflict. Note cards also make it easy to spot bunny trails–goals that have nothing to do with the A or B plot.

This tactic can help make a large work manageable. If you are starting out and outlining? Make note cards for each scene and who you foresee being in conflict. If you already have your novel written, but you want to tighten the writing or diagnose a problem you just can’t see? Make note cards.

Keeping organized with note cards is an excellent way to spot problems and even make big changes without unraveling the rest of the plot. There are, of course, other methods, but this is the one I have liked the best. Note cards are cheap, portable and easy to color code. For instance, each POV character can have a designated color. Using these cards makes it much easier to juggle all the different elements of great novels—characters, conflict, inner arc, plot, details.

Have any questions? Are there other methods that have worked for you? Please share so we all can learn. What is the biggest challenge you face when it comes to plotting? I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of November I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique is Joel. Congratulations! Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!

Happy Halloween! Today, I have a special treat for you guys. We have been talking about structure for the past few weeks and one of the greatest resources available to writers is James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure. But, we can talk more about structure tomorrow. Few holidays offer such a rare opportunity to rufie & coerce….um, interview successful writers like Jim. Who needs a legitimate appointment for an interview when you have Snickers loaded with Rohypnol?

They fall for it every time!

For those who don’t know, not only is Jim an awesome writing teacher, he is also a very successful fiction author, and, before he was a writer, he was a lawyer. Thus, he brings a unique perspective to the fiction table through the P.O.V. of *drum roll* …a zombie. Now you guys understand why Jim was perfect to kidnap interview for Halloween.

Me: Jim, you awake?

Jim: Ow. My head…

Me: I have Red Bull and some aspirin…if you cooperate.

Jim: Am I in a van? I AM. Wait…this is the same van that abducted Jim Rollins isn’t it?

Me: Hey, I can’t help it you guys keep talking to strangers with candy.

Jim: Fair enough. You could just ASK for interviews, you know.

Me: But then what would I use this van for?

Jim: Good point.

Me: Okay, I want to talk about your new book PAY ME IN FLESH. Aside from having to eat brains and human flesh, what makes Mallory Caine different from herself after zombification?

Jim: Other than those minor matters, she doesn’t have a soul. She doesn’t feel at home in the world. She feels that forces outside her are trying to control her, and if she doesn’t reclaim her soul before some zombie killer gets her, she fears she will spend eternity in hell. The stakes, in other words, are kind of high.

Me: Wow. Great answer. You are very coherent for someone who’s been drugged and duct-taped to a bench seat.

Jim: Law school training *shrugs*

Me: What are your “world rules” for this series and how do they differ from standard zombie rules? For example, what is the explanation for the zombies retaining their mental faculties?

Jim: One nice thing about paranormal “rules” is that you can make them up as long as you’re consistent. I mean, zombies were not flesh eaters until George Romero. Before that they were simply mindless and controlled. I combined all of that, but with the proviso that a zombie with a strong enough will can resist being controlled. Mallory is strong-willed, for sure. She is fierce and intelligent and witty. But there’s something else going on, too. A greater scheme of things she is only slightly aware of….

….Can I get something to drink? I feel like I have a sock in my mouth.

Me: Oh, yes, well you did have a sock in your mouth. Sorry I picked the fuzzy pair. You can have something to drink…after the interview.

Jim: Fine. You see, Lucifer has decided to set up war headquarters in Los Angeles. Which means: stuff happens. She’s caught in the middle, caught between worlds—the world of the living and the dead, and the world of demons and angels and talking owls and ancient gods coming to LA for a confab.

Do you have a thing for kidnapping authors named “Jim?”

Me: Maybe. Back to my questions. How high (or low) is the rate of decay? Will Ms. Caine begin to lose body parts throughout the series?

Jim: Mallory has to take care of her skin, because it is subject to drying and falling off. She has to put special cream all over herself each day, and ingest shark cartilage. Her jaw will sometimes become loose and she has to knock it back in place. When she is knifed or shot, it leaves a mark. Eventually she could look like a dart board if she’s not careful.

Me:  Are zombies able to reproduce? Will Ms. Caine have an affair that results in a zombie baby?

Jim: One of the poignant subtexts is Mallory’s desire to have children and be married, but now, in her present condition, she can’t be either. When she gets close to a man she’s attracted to, she can’t help but think what his brain might taste like. It makes her sad and angry at the same time. Is there a chance she can ever get out of this condition? She keeps hoping, but hope is beginning to run thin unless she can find out who is behind her condition.

Me: Fantasy readers are notoriously picky and clannish. What are you offering to entice them over to your “camp”?

Jim: Something different. It’s good to stretch the genre a little bit. This has never been done before: a zombie legal thriller series with a first-person voice and hard boiled attitude. It really lets me combine a bunch of things I love into one narrative.

Also, these are not throw away stories in the legal department. Real questions about law as it would apply to paranormal beings is a great field for exploration.

For example, in PAY ME IN FLESH Mallory defends a vampire hooker accused of murder. A few questions arise: if they county locks her up, is she entitled to blood as a civil right? If she can’t come out in the daytime, doesn’t that mean the trial has to be held at night?

And so on. And when we get into a courtroom, I bring my trial experience to the pages. How would the questioning of a vampire? What expert witnesses would be brought in? How would a judge rule on points of evidence law?

Me: As a former attorney, how much of this is a reaction to the way people tend to treat lawyers in general?

Jim: I haven’t really thought of it in those terms. I did like the original spark: some people think there’s really no difference between lawyers and zombies! And I just felt a zombie was entitled to be a sympathetic lead character for change.

Me: In a comment on a recent interview, you mentioned J.J. Abrams, the director. Why was his the name that popped into your mind then as opposed to, say, Jerry Bruckheimer or even Joss Whedon?

Jim: That was in response to someone who said, “I think Zombie Lawyer in LA is one of the best high concept premises ever. I can already see the movies: Sandra Bullock as the lawyer, Scarlett Johansson as the vampire hooker and George Cloony as the Deputy DA.”

I said, “From your keyboard to J. J. Abrams’ ears.” Why Abrams? His record speaks for itself. He’s an outside-the-box guy.

Me: All the best fiction, be it written or film, teaches. What lesson do you want to teach with Mallory Caine as the instructor?

Jim: I actually don’t want to state the theme here. It is being developed all through the series. It will be much more satisfying for readers to get to it themselves.

But as for Mallory the character, her dedication to bringing justice to her clients is her passion. That’s what made the early Perry Mason books so popular. Mason was a fighter. So is Mallory Caine.

Me: Shaun of the Dead or Dawn of the Dead, and why?

Jim: Shaun, for sure. I like funny.

Me: For me to let you go, I need you to answer one key question.

Jim: What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Me: No, that was for the “Other Jim.”

Jim: Hmmm, and I’d been studying up on that just in case.

Me: Forget the swallows. If the answer is “42” then what is the question?

Jim: Life, the universe and everything, of course.

Me: I recommend tucking your body into a ball. The landing is easier.

Jim: Wha–? *door opens*

Me: NICE landing!

All right, I hope everyone enjoyed my interrogation interview with nationally best-selling author and awesome writing teacher James Scott Bell. Just so you know, no actual authors have been harmed during these abductions interviews. Oh, sure maybe there was a tad bit of psychological trauma, but just think of it this way. If they write what they know, their writing can only improve after such an experience. So think of this less as a “hostage situation” and more like…research.

Tomorrow we will resume talking about structure, and, if Jim forgives me for the whole “I drugged you then abducted you in a scary panel van” we might have him back to talk about writing and craft. I feel good about him returning, since everyone knows that writers are total masochists.

I hope all of you will run out and get a copy of PAY ME IN FLESH and EVERY WRITER needs a copy of Plot & Structure, especially those of you who might be new to the craft.

Do you guys have any questions for Jim? I can pass them on at my parole hearing. Any other authors you would like me to abduct interview? No, I will not abduct Bob Mayer. Research demonstrates that Green Berets only fall for the Free Candy thing 50% of the time. Too risky.

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

I will announce the winners for last week and last month tomorrow.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left.