S2/E36: The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell
Updated: Jun 8
I will confess. I love James Scott Bell‘s books and classes. He not only cuts to the chase (and this book is no exception, weighing in at a mere 110 pages), his writing style makes those pages fly by. But don’t let the conversational tone and Dad jokes fool you. Bell knows his stuff. He’s won an International Thriller Writers Award, has written the #1 bestselling resource for writers, Plot & Structure (published by Writer’s Digest Books), and has taught writing at a myriad of locations (including Pepperdine University) throughout the English-speaking world. You’ve also likely come across some of his articles and columns in Writers Digest.
Besides numerous successful books on writing, Bell’s a prolific fiction writer with dozens of titles across a variety of genres. And if that’s not enough to impress you, how about this from his website: “He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and graduated with honors from the University of Southern California Law Center” (emphasis added).
Bell helps you understand endings by breaking them down in a variety of ways. I clearly won’t be able to cover them all, but here are my…
1. Endings sell your reader on you. If the first pages are about trying to get your reader to give a particular book a try, your last pages are about convincing them it’s worth it to pick up your other books (and to tell other readers about you). The key is what Bell calls simply “reader satisfaction.” Using the old golf maxim, “It’s not how you drive, it’s how you arrive,” he emphasizes that it’s critical that we “leave the reader in a positive emotional state about the reading experience as a whole” (emphasis added). Let’s put it this way. How many times have you heard this, “It was a little slow at the beginning, but once it got going it was really, really good. You should read it!” Okay, how about this one: “It was going great, but it really petered out at the end. You should read it!” I rest my case.
2. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending to be a good ending. In fact, Bell suggests that there are five types (or “shapes”) of endings that work well.
The Lead Wins—AKA Happily Ever After (Think Pride and Prejudice)
The Lead Loses—AKA Downbeat Ending (Think The Great Gatsby)
The Lead Sacrifices—The Sacrifice is the point—almost becomes a new Objective for the Lead (Think Casablanca)
The Lead “Wins” but Really Loses—Often found in Horror novels (Think Pet Sematary or “The Monkey’s Paw”)
Open Ended—Mostly found in Literary novels and/or experimental fiction (Think Catcher in the Rye)
Having some idea of the “shape” of your ending will help guide you when things get hairy in the mushy middle.
3. It is not death that a man should fear… Bell warns us, “If the story doesn’t have death on the line, it’s going to feel flat.” That’s not to say that it must always involve physical danger. He reminds us that there are basically three “types” of death we can use to give our story the kind of suspense and excitement readers crave:
Physical Death—Just what you’re think it is. The threat of physical violence, danger, or actual death.
Professional Death—Again, just what you think. Your protagonist’s calling or job is at risk.
Psychological Death—This is when your character’s heart, ego, etc. is on the line.
Bell digs deeper into these concepts in his book, Conflict & Suspense. Here’s another writer’s review of it.
This is for all of you out there who’ve written and rewritten (and rewritten) that first chapter. Consider giving this bit of advice from Bell a whirl:
“My first piece of advice to you is this: have an ending in mind to write toward. You can always change it along the way, or when you revise. And the way you come up with an ending list to start in the middle.” James Scott Bell
HACK: Music Soothes the Savage Beast
Sometimes there’s nothing scarier than the swirling vortex of a book that seems to have lost its way. When this happens, one of the things that Bell suggests is to revisit your endings with a fresh brainstorming session. He likes to close his eyes and listen to different types of music, letting the various endings play out like a movie in his mind. Later, he jots down notes from the different “mind movies” and plays with the pieces until he finds his optimal ending. Music is a key piece of his Stew, Brew, Accrue, Do, (Woohoo!) technique, which I think all by itself might just be worth the couple of bucks you’ll spend on the book.
I’d also like to mention that Bell suggests a handful of exercises (and only a handful), which he scatters throughout the book. I recommend giving both this book and those exercises a try. They certainly worked for me when I was feeling both stuck and lost in my manuscript recently. They helped me understand the lay of my story’s land, so to speak. There is a lot more in here that I couldn’t begin to cover, but again, Bell does a great job of keeping things streamlined. He knows you’re busy and you’ve got writing to do!
I hope this was helpful! This is the last episode of Season 2 and the last episode for 2020. I’m going to give myself the holidays off this year. (Woohoo!) Be safe, wear your masks, manage your risks, and mostly just hang in there. Maybe give yourself a break where you can, too. Please take care of yourselves so that we can all meet back here in 2021 with Season 3!
Until then. . .
Happy writing, people!
SOME OF THE WRITING BOOKS BY JAMES SCOTT BELL:
IN OTHER DAIR-RELATED NEWS:
Fellow author Robin Knabel and I recently posted a new episode of our podcast, Unsettling Reads. Come check out our spoiler-free review of It Will Just Be Us by Jo Kaplan. Visit www.UnsettlingReads.com to browse our other reviews of books from the crime, fantasy, horror, literary, mystery, sci-fi, suspense, and thriller genres. And a reminder to look for Robin’s short story in the summer issue of The Raven Review!
Consider also downloading a free sample of The Rookie Writer Playbook, which includes a few standard checklists, as well as places to make your own checklists.