James Scott Bell

Crested Butte Coverage Continues and Other Goodies

Just when you thought I was done, head to Janet Lane’s site. She has blogged on part of James Scott Bell’s talk that I didn’t touch on here.

And speaking of conferences, contests and other alliterations, check out these opportunities:

The WriteOn Free Online Conference will take place August 10-12, 2010. It will be attended by HOSTS of agents and authors. For the complete schedule, go to the WriteOn website.

The 2011 Missouri Writer’s Guild Conference will be in St. Louis this year. Marcie Posner from Folio Literary Management and Kristin Nelson from the Nelson Literary Agency are just two of the many agents in attendance. I’m delighted to say one of the Masters Class presenters will be Jeannie Lin from All That You Desire. The conference will be on April 8-10, 2011, so save your pennies.


I just heard about this tonight, or I would have posted all of this together:

The 2010 Montezuma All-Iowa Writers’ Conference will be held in Montezuma, Iowa at the Montezuma Community School on Saturday, September 18 from 9 – 5, with registration starting at 8:30. It’s an all-day event where you can learn writing tips, get advice on how to choose a publisher and learn new ways to market your work. Iowa authors scheduled to attend and inspire include: Donald Harstad, Shirley
Damsgaard, Kathy Bacus, Leigh Michaels, Tamara Siler Jones and Kali Van Baale. Admission is only $25! If you have ever dreamed of writing a book, this is a must-attend event. Email debwrite [@] zumatel.net for more details or look them up on Facebook at Our Front Porch Books Publishing Company.

Details and a registration form will soon be available at http://www.ourfrontporchbooks.com/. Many thanks to Tammy Jones for posting this information!

Day 1: James Scott Bell’s Tools for Dialogue

Yes, this was a back-to-back talk given by Mr. Bell after which, my brain exploded. I’m still picking up pieces.

This is one small portion of his talk and since it doesn’t require diagrams, I thought I could share it without too much difficulty. (He does like diagrams.) Each of these tools are things we need to practice in each scene that has dialogue – and that means every scene for most of us.

1. Orchestration of Conflict: Keep the possibilities for conflict coming. Mr. Bell mentioned a scene in “Casablanca” where we see Rick, the Frenchman and the Gestapo agent talking about the war, Rick’s stance, etc. Throughout the scene, there’s an unspoken, but rising threat from the Gestapo.

2. P.A.C.: This stands for
P=Parental or authoritarian style of motivation.
C=Childlike, emotional motivational style.

Mr. Bell mentioned how you can watch the dialogue between Oscar and Felix in “The Odd Couple” go from one character being the authoritarian, to the adult to the child and how, given different situations, Oscar and Felix change roles. This keeps the scenes believable, dynamic and snappy.

3. Curve the Language: Write a line of dialogue, then swap words out and make it more threatening.

4. Turn Exposition into confrontation within dialogue. For the sake of a quick demonstration, please forgive me for using an excerpt from my own ms. The following scene has been posted here before. It’s a confrontation that happens between my villain (Hu Xiongli) and a minor character who is the head of the Butchers Guild:

“Tell me, Guild Master, has Tong Zhang written requesting money and food yet?”

“He has.” Wu crumbled more of his rice cake into the waiting mouths below. “You ought to know I cannot deny a guild member his rights-“
“I do. How long have you held your office, Yang Wu?”
Wu stiffened. It was the slightest of reactions. A flick of rice cake. A tic of facial muscles. Yet the implied threat was received. Now the enticement.
“You can deny him whatever you wish,” Xiongli said. “He is a traitor to the Empire and should be denied.” Silence reigned for a moment as Xiongli let his words sink in. Then he turned to Wu again and allowed the painted, friendly expression to return to his face. “You and your guild would be compensated.”
“A traitor to the Empire is still not a traitor to his guild, Lord Hu.”
“Ah, but if he is not a traitor to his guild, then what Empire does the guild serve?”

I do not baldly state anywhere in this scene what the threat to Yang Wu is. I leave that to the reader’s imagination. However, thanks to the scene’s setup, the reader is aware of recent capital punishments and an assassination attempt on Xiongli’s life that’s made him both bloodthirsty and jumpy. Both men are tense and each line is designed to show their struggles and desires as well as convey the importance of the guild.

5. Avoid Direct Response Dialogue: Don’t do things like: “Sally, do you want ice cream?” “Yes, Daddy. I want ice cream.” Answer questions with questions, non sequitur responses, etc. For example, “Sally, do you want ice cream?” “Why did you kiss Mrs. Tanner, Daddy?”

6. Go with the flow. Use dialogue without tags and beats. It’s liberating.

7. Minimize dialogue. When revising, copy and paste to a new file, then compress. Add beats for dialogue, and make sure your characters talk the way people really talk. We don’t always say, “Do you want ice cream?” Sometimes we’ll say, “Want ice cream?” or “Want some?” Yes, I am ice cream-obsessed.

8. Silence. Don’t make every response audible, but make your beats meaningful.

9. Tags. Mode and feelings should be evident from your verbiage. Beats go before dialogue. This helps identify the speaker, for one thing.

I remember trying (and failing) to understand Chemistry and despairing because my future father-in-law was my instructor and I so wanted to impress him. Years later, I confessed my confusion and he was disappointed I hadn’t said something at the time. He had other methods of explaining chemistry. He said if I hadn’t understood one approach, I might have grasped a different one. To me, James Scott Bell’s talk was helpful because I need to remember to THINK about these things as I write and not write by “feel.” What about you? Is approaching writing from this angle helpful?

Day 1: James Scott Bell On Plotting

Folks, if you ever get a chance to hear Mr. Bell speak, run, don’t walk. He’s not only an entertaining instructor, he makes even the most difficult concepts easy to digest.

I can’t convey everything he discussed because I never learned to take dictation and my notes are consequentially spotty in places. But I did manage a few gems:

On plotting: Plot should always have death as the ultimate stake:

  1. Physical death is obvious and probably the most commonly used obstacle
  2. Professional death – lose the case, lose your profession. He used “Silence of the Lambs” as an example.
  3. Psychological death – we become less of a person if we lose. I use this to a degree in my story as my character is tempted to kill someone who has betrayed him – someone he looks on as family – but he can’t do it because family is what my hero is about. To kill this beloved traitor means the villain has won and my hero has lost what makes him who he is. So instead, he forgives the traitor and adopts him instead. However, there’s still physical death at stake in my novel.
    The place where you see Psychological Death as a stake most often is in Romance.
    In a Romance, the lovers must obtain their loved one or they become less than who they otherwise might be. Check out “Pride and Prejudice” and you’ll see it. I had one friend comment this morning that it’s a sad commentary on our society that we have to obtain someone else to be fulfilled and complete and that’s not what I’m getting at. It’s not a commentary on society particularly. It’s a comment on Romance in that modern Romance is required to have a happy ending. If it doesn’t, it’s probably a tragedy or the first part of a series. It’s not a Romance.

Hope that’s insightful to you all. As you can see, it did make me stop and think about my work and what the stakes are. What sort of death do your characters face?