Archives For scenes

This week I want to tell you about my author crush on James Scott Bell. I met Jim when he was teaching at a writer’s conference, and we hit it off. Turned out we had mutual friends, we stayed in touch, we taught at more of the same writer’s conferences, and became friends. Then he wrote Plot and Structure for the Write Great Fiction series for Writer’s Digest Books – I loved it so much that I told everyone I knew, “You need this book!” He recently wrote Revision and Self-Editing for the same series, and I’m saying it again – you need this book! My so-far favorite of his novels is Presumed Guilty. And his newest book, Deceived, comes out next month. Jim is an awesome writer, an awesome writing teacher, and a truly awesome guy! I hope you check out his work and his web site and become a fan, too!

The John Huston Secret
by James Scott Bell

The legendary film director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; The African Queen) once remarked that the secret to a successful film was three great scenes, and no weak ones.

Simple yet powerful.

Great scenes make memorable fiction. Scenes where the combatants are operating to the full. Passions run high, stakes higher, what happens in the scene affects the rest of the story in a big way.

Weak scenes don’t have anything like this. They feel like fluff or filler. No one is really going after anything. There’s a lot of sitting around, small talk, waiting, reacting.

In your novel planning, think about potential big scenes. Jot some notes about them, think about where they might land in your structure. A climactic scene near the end is a good place to start. If you can come up with something memorable right away, it’s a scene to write toward. That’ll give you a through line to guide your plotting.

When the first draft is done, look for weak scenes. Always be asking yourself this question: is there any place in my manuscript where a tired, overworked editor can feel tempted to put the manuscript down?

Cut that scene. And keep cutting until there are no more weak scenes.

Next, find three scenes to elevate into greatness. This doesn’t mean the rest of your book will have mediocre scenes. No! Every scene must work on its own, adding to the whole. Every scene needs tension and a strong readability quotient.

But three scenes should be elevated relative the the rest.  These scenes need to be packed with conflict, emotion and surprise.

All three. Conflict. Emotion. Surprise.

Conflict is the engine of fiction, of course. Crank up the conflict. How?

Through emotion. Make sure the readers sees the stakes to the inner life of the character.

Finally, give us something surprising, the unexpected set back, twist, revelation or new question raised by the events.

Let’s take John Huston’s screenplay of The Maltese Falcon. The script has no weak scenes. And for me, at least three stand out.

Spade’s first meeting with the Fat Man, Gutman, is one of them. Spade has gone to Gutman to find out about this black bird everyone’s interested in. In addition to the conflict and emotion involved, there
are two surprises I like.

First is Gutman himself. He is (especially as portrayed by Sydney Greenstreet) a unique antagonist, enormous, well dressed, speaking odd little bromides: “I distrust a closed mouth man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice.”

Then, at the end of the scene, Spade pulls a bluff by pretending to lose his temper. The sudden switch catches both Gutman and the audience by surprise.  When Spade slams the door and walks out, a little smile creeps across his face.

Two other scenes stand out.

One is the scene in Spade’s apartment with Brigid (Mary Astor) and Cairo (Peter Lorre) present, and the cops arrive. High emotion, and Cairo screams because Brigid has attacked him. Then, with the police present, she kicks Cairo. It’s a surprise, because it’s so unlike her to lose her cool, and act like a school girl.

The other great scene is the last one, where Spade tells Brigid that she’s going to take the fall. The emotion is evident in Spade, because he is drawn to her. But he also knows how bad she is.  He won’t play the sap for her. It must have been a surprise for the original audience to see a woman take the fall like this. Brigid was the first real femme fatale in the movies.

Give us three scenes like that in your novel, and no weak ones. That’s the secret.

James Scott Bell is the award winning author of several novels of suspense and historical intrigue. His fiction has been compared by Booklist and the Los Angeles Times to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, two of his favorite authors. A former trial lawyer, Jim has been the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest Magazine and an adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University.

Intro note: Sadly, this is Jordan’s last scheduled blog with Routines for Writers. What an informative month we’ve had picking her brain about how to improve our writing craft, particularly in the context of scenes! Thank you so much, Jordan! I’ve enjoyed getting to know you through your book, these blogs, and the emails we’ve sent back and forth. Be sure to stay in touch! Now here’s Jordan:

Ah, final edits. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? As if not only will we know the minute we’ve reached the end of our work-in-progress, but will have to do little more than correct a few typos and massage a few paragraphs. I wish it were so.

As an editor I see two common problems: The writer assumes she is done before she really is. Or, the writer can’t let go of the project and edits it to death. More commonly I see the former. We feel done because writing can be exhausting work—building all those people with complex lives and stories takes a lot of imagination and elbow grease. But revision is where the work really begins, I’m afraid.

Editing should be a process of several, if not many, drafts. So for me, the final edit stage for me is the last wave of many that have gone before it.

When you believe you are truly done with your manuscript—meaning you have a complete story, with solid characters, a beginning, middle and end, and a plot that makes sense, you can edit in waves:


· Identify vignettes. These are scenes that don’t contribute to your plot or character development, in which nothing new is revealed or learned. Just pretty little tangents and asides or character flashbacks. Cut these, or transform them into scenes.

· Scene:Summary ratio. Next, check your scene to narrative summary ratios. Is there still too much “telling” that could be modified into action and dialogue, or cut altogether? Have you taken too many omniscient liberties to “tell” large passages of descriptive info?

· Scene integrity: Look at the structure of each of your scenes. And I do mean “each.” Do they all begin and end in the right place? That is to say, do they launch in a way that compels the reader, and end in a way that keeps the reader hungry for more? Are they too short or too long?

· Scene types: Notice the kinds of scenes you’ve got. Do you have too many dialogue-heavy scenes? Too much intense action? Not enough? See if you can’t lend some variety, if so, by softening or tightening up the intensity and variety of scene types as needed.

· Character Shift: Has your character undergone a shift or change of some kind, learned something or become better by the end of your novel? If not, you’ve got work to do. Is his or her voice distinct and compelling—a stand-out character that will be unique and unforgettable?

And finally, at the very end of the larger edits, then you go through in smaller waves:

· Sentence variety. Not too many sentences of the same length.

· Repeating words, clichés. Cut redundancies. Scout out clichés.

· Dialogue tags/adverbs. Transform your adverbs into actions. Where people do and say things “angrily,” “hungrily,” and “desperately,” instead make sure their actions and words clearly convey that they are angry, hungry and desperate.

· Bulky, or prose-cumbersome sentences: Elide unnecessary words. Condense and pare out unnecessary metaphors, similes and descriptive words.

If you want a handy cheat-sheet, the last chapter of my book Make A Scene is devoted to assessing your scenes.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld is a fiction writer, freelance journalist and editor. She is the author of the books, Make A Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time (Writer’s Digest Books) and Write Free! Attracting the Creative Life with Rebecca Lawton ( Jordan is also a contributing editor & columnist to Writer’s Digest magazine. Her articles have also appeared in such publications as, The San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times, The Writer and more. Her book reviews are regularly featured on The California Report, a news-magazine produced by NPR-affiliate KQED radio.

Visit her blog: