Some things I learned from… James Scott Bell


Some things I learned from…

James Scott Bell

If you ever have the opportunity to hear James Scott Bell speak, take it! He’s an incredible teacher, and I took pages upon pages of notes — that I’m now skimming through, wondering what on earth to share with y’all! Let me tell it, it’s a difficult task because there’s SO MUCH great stuff to choose from. So here goes — I’ve cherry-picked just a few of the many things I learned at James’ workshop at our RWNZ 2014 conference on Friday, 15th August 2014:

Writers aren’t writing about love or lust, we’re writing about death.

There are three kinds of death:

  1. Physical death, when the stakes are literally life and death for a character (e.g. Jack Reacher)
  2. Professional death (i.e. the character’s role in life), when the stakes are loss of a professional life (e.g. legal thriller, police procedural. Paul Newman in The Verdict)
  3. Psychological death, when the character must resolve internal conflicts or life is “over” in a spiritual sense (e.g. Catcher in the Rye)

Romance taps in to psychological death; if the hero and heroine don’t end up together they are diminished. In a romance, the reward for the hero’s sacrifice is usually the heroine.

Lead characters: No wimps! At the very least, the character must show the capacity for change. The lead character must do something proactive/show strength of will.

Types of leads:

  • Positive lead/hero; represents values of the community
  • Negative lead; opposed to values of community, attractive through power they wield
  • Anti-hero; has his own moral code

How do you get readers to be intrigued enough by a character to keep reading?

It’s crucial to establish a reader bond via: sympathy, likability, vulnerability.

1) Sympathy – establishes emotional bond with the reader:

  • trouble (via threats to the character or challenges)
  • hardship (thrust upon the character via external forces
  • underdog (character faces long odds)

2) Likability

  • “care package” – shown to reader via a pre-existing relationship (e.g. Katniss Everdeen cares deeply for her younger sister). Readers like those who are shown to care deeply for others.
  • “pet the dog” – reader is shown the character pausing to care for someone weaker (e.g. Katniss helping Rue)
  • determination – shown to the reader via lead character’s inner conflicts
  • competence – create scenes where character shows competence (especially in an unusual field) and create opportunities for the competence to come into play
  • wit

3) Vulnerability – the reader is aware something bad could happen to the lead character at any time.

“The cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat, is.” ~John Le Carre

“A plot is two dogs and one bone.” ~Robert Newton Peck

A novel begins when you strike the match, not when you lay the wood; start with a disturbance, the lead character facing some kind of change or challenge.

“SUES”: Something Unexpected in Every Scene (that enhances the reader’s experience).

“Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.” ~Mickey Spillane

And speaking of endings….

  • Stew (about the ending, think hard)
  • Brew (make free-form notes and put them in logical order)
  • Do (then write the ending)

James Scott Bell, RWNZ 2014







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