Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What's the bad guy up to?

There's a passage in Michael Connelly's Echo Park that is directed to writers who might be reading the book.
Bosch suddenly had an idea about that but decided to grind it over for awhile before acting on anything. He put the questions aside for the moment and got up to refill his coffee mug. He was using a real coffee mug he had brought down from the Open Unsolved Unit because he preferred it over Styrofoam. His mug had come from a famous writer and television producer named Stephen Cannell who had spent time with the OU unit researching a project. Printed on the side of the mug was Cannell's favorite piece of writing advice. It said What's the bad guy up to? Bosch liked it because he thought it was a good question for a real detective to always be considering as well.

This got my attention. Michael Connelly who created Harry Bosch was giving writing advice from Stephen J. Cannell who created The Rockford Files, Adam-12, Hunter and just about any other program worth watching on television.

Obviously, Connelly thought this was an important tip, one he found useful in his own writing. How did he come to possess it? Since he refers to it as Cannell's favorite piece of advice, I guessed it came from a public lecture or interview. Most public events find their way onto the internet, so I googled Stephen J. Cannell.

I found more than a tip. I found Stephen J. Cannell's Free Online Writing Seminar at If you click on the link, you will find it at the bottom of the page.

It's a five part seminar. The tip that Connelly thought important enough to pass on to us through Harry Bosch can be found in Part IV under "Tricks Of The Trade." It's offered as a solution to a problem many writers have -- a sagging middle. Here's Cannell's explanation for why it's a problem.
Because Act Two is the hardest act to plot, most people give up on their ideas in Act Two; "This isn't working." "This idea sucks." Most of the time the reason we break down plotting Act Two, is that we tend to "walk" with the hero because we identify with the protagonist. We walk through the story inside his or her head.

Act Two is where the antagonist's plan is revealed, or, if not revealed, we at least see the effects of the plan. Things happen to the protagonist that we may not understand, but, at the end of the story, we can go back and say, "I should have known."
Once we get past the complication and are into Act Two, we sometimes get stuck. "What do I do now?" "Where does this protagonist go from here?" The plotting in Act Two often starts to get linear (a writer's expression meaning the character is following a string, knocking on doors, just getting information). This is the dullest kind of material. We get frustrated and want to quit.

Here's Cannell's tip:
When you get to this place, go around and become the antagonist. You probably haven't been paying much attention to him or her. Now you get in the antagonist's head and you're looking back at the story to date from that point of view.

Of course, you may still write the story in the protagonist's point of view, but you have plotted it from the antagonist's point of view.
"Wait a minute... Rockford went to my nightclub and asked my bartender where I lived. Who is this guy Rockford? Did anybody get his address? His license plate? I'm gonna find out where this jabrone lives! Let's go over to his trailer and search the place." Under his mattress maybe the heavy finds his gun (in Rockford's case, it was usually hidden in his Oreo cookie jar). His P.I. license is on the wall. Now the heavy knows he's being investigated by a P.I. Okay, let's use his gun to kill our next victim. Rockford gets arrested, charged with murder. End of Act Two.

See how easy it works? The destruction of the hero's plan. Now he's going to the gas chamber.

Plot from the heavy's point-of-view in Act Two; it is an invaluable tip.

Easy for Stephen Cannell and Michael Connelly. For the rest of us, it will require a lot of practice, but, if this is how Cannell and Connelly write, you can be sure I'm going to try it. Now, if I could just find a coffee mug with that great piece of writing advice to keep me focused, What's the bad guy up to?


Unknown said...

Great advice, Mark. Thank you. That just solved a problem for my new book.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Yes, good advice, Mark. I'd like to order one of those cups. :)

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

It truly is a good idea--I might even use it for the one I'm writing.

Marilyn a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Mark, but you're always full of stuff. The good kind, of course.

Earl Staggs

Chester Campbell said...

I'll jump on the wagon with the band and give my thanks, too. It's a great piece of advice, Mark, and I'll try to remember it when I get to Act Two. If I can ever get started on Act One.

Morgan Mandel said...

I love being the bad guy. It's lots of fun. Actually, it's easier for me to be the bad guy than the good guy in a book because my imagination can take me further with the bad guy.

Morgan Mandel