The Last Fifty Pages with James Scott Bell
This week we have another great interview guest, a legend of the screenwriting craft. His next book, The Last Fifty Pages, is available for pre-order and will be available on 18th February.
James Scott Bell’s books on screenwriting and novel writing are some of my favourites in the genre. They’re punchy, full of actionable tips, and cover a broad range of topics within the storytelling niche.
Mr Bell was kind enough to let you know all about The Last Fifty Pages and why a story’s ending is so critical. This is going to be a must-read for any of you who want some guidance on how to perfect your novel or screenplay’s ending.
By the way, if you missed last week’s newsletter in which I interviewed K.M. Weiland, you can find that post on my website here.
1) So your latest book, The Last Fifty Pages, becomes available on February 18th. Congratulations and thank you for writing it! Could you tell us more about this book, and what inspired you to write it?
There are some good craft books out there on how to open a novel. One of them is called The First Five Pages. I thought we needed a book on endings, and the natural title that jumped out at me was The Last Fifty Pages.
What initially got me thinking about doing a book on endings was the popular TV series LOST. After the first season, I was skeptical that they could ever find a way to end the series satisfactorily. I remember tracking Twitter the night of the concluding episode, and it was mostly disappointment, if not outright hostility. That’s because beginnings and cliffhangers are easy. Endings are hard. But endings are also the most crucial aspect of a completed novel. You can do everything else great, but if you let down the reader at the end it ruins the experience. But if you satisfy them, it means you’re building a career. As Mickey Spillane put it, “The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”
2) You must have researched many different story endings for this book. Where do you think most movies and novels go wrong with their endings?
I have a chapter in the book on common ending mistakes. The most infamous is deus ex machina, Latin for “God from the machine.” It means someone or something (like a big coincidence) getting the hero out of the trouble of the final battle. It’s a mistake because the hero has to win the final battle through his own strength of will. Otherwise, readers feel cheated.
Another mistake is the talkative villain. You know, he has the hero in his complete control, is about to shoot him, then takes five minutes to explain his motives and his plans. Just enough time for the hero to cut the rope binding his wrists, or for the cops to arrive.
An ending must be pleasantly surprising. That means it isn’t predictable. But it also must seem, on reflection, to be inevitable. That’s not easy to do.
3) I’d like to hear about your writing process for The Last Fifty Pages, and also whether you tried anything different with regards to routine, research process, and things of that nature?
All of my writing books come from my own experience, methods, experiments, and study over the years. I didn’t do anything differently for this one. I usually create a file in Scrivener and begin jotting down ideas, thoughts, techniques. I use examples from novels, so that was my research. Eventually I began to organize the material in a logical way, then completed the writing.
With non-fiction, I use the William Zinsser method (he was the author of On Writing Well) and try to cut out clutter so the thoughts are clear. My goal is to help writers, not confuse them.
4) You’ve written a wide variety of great books on the writing craft that are rightly regarded as must-reads in the space, my personal favourite being How to Write Dazzling Dialogue. What inspired you to write these books alongside your other work?
Before Dazzling Dialogue you couldn’t find many books on the subject, and the ones I did read weren’t as helpful as I would have liked. So I started teaching a workshop on dialogue, with the techniques I’d developed. The response was overwhelmingly positive, so I wrote the book.
I write these books because I love teaching the craft, and am just as excited about these tools and techniques as when I first found them.
5) Finally, I’d love if you could share your three favourite pieces of writing and storytelling wisdom with my readers—particularly ones you might have picked up in researching and writing The Last Fifty Pages
Wisdom! Ah, that rare jewel. Let me see.
One, great characters alone do not make a plot, or even a good book. It is only when a character is challenged by plot, with life and death stakes, that true character is revealed. (By the way, there are three kinds of death—physical, professional, psychological. So any genre can be life-or-death. Even comedy.)
Two, someone once said a story begins when you strike the match, not when you lay out the wood. I like that. Start your novel with a disturbance to the character’s ordinary world. Even if you are writing literary fiction, doing this will bond you to the reader out of the gate like nothing else.
Three, when in doubt, make more trouble. If a scene is lagging, start an argument. Or, as Raymond Chandler once suggested, bring in a guy with a gun!
Let’s all thank our guest for his valuable time today!
Posted on: 8th February, 2019
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