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.