The First Five Minutes With James Scott Bell- Story Masters Conference

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood.  I’d type a little faster.  ~Isaac Asimov

By: Stacey Purcell

Do you know what one of the first breakout novels was back in 1774? You don’t know? Imagine that.

A man named Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther and it was an instant success. It’s about a young man who falls in love with a beautiful woman who just happens to be engaged to another man. Instead of walking away, he becomes close to her fiancé even though it causes him much pain. Werther loves her beyond all reason and finally cannot take anymore and leaves town. Shortly thereafter, news comes that the couple have married and are quite happy. He is filled with despair and commits suicide. The End.

The German public back in 1774 were so inspired by this man’s love for a woman that it sparked a trend of young men committing suicide to prove their love. Seems a bit self defeating- you prove your love, but you’re dead…..just saying….

Why did James Scott Bell open his part of Story Masters with this story? It was to prove his point that a great plot is the record of how a character deals with death. This got my attention.

The first type of death is the most obvious. Physical death will ratchet the stakes of the conflict happening in your story right into the stratosphere. If your protagonist is willing to push for the gold or is being forced into doing it, the only possible ending is death. Any of the James Bond movies demonstrates this type of problem. James tries to save the world, bad guy catches him and promises a tortuous death, but our handsome spy prevails and saves the world while getting the girl too! Whew!

Professional death is often used when the protagonist is a cop, detective, doctor, lawyer or some other profession that is closely identified with the type of person they are in the story. The stakes for this protagonist has to be that if they go for the win, it will cost them everything professionally. Mr. Bell used The Verdict and Silence of The Lambs to illustrate this. Paul Newman is a washed up drunk of a lawyer chasing ambulances and handing distraught family members his card. He doesn’t have much to lose at this point except being able to practice law. He takes on a medical malpractice suit and discovers that the case should not be settled out of court, but that someone needed to fight for the patient. This washed up old drunk just took on a whole team of high priced lawyers- it doesn’t look good for him. If he proceeds with this case and loses, he will be finished in the legal profession. They will bury him.

The same goes for Clarice Starling who is pitted against Hannibal Lecter.  Because of her superior analytical skills, she is pulled from her FBI training to interview Hannibal. She is aware of the fact that there are people who are waiting for her to screw up and it will end her career. In both cases, the protagonist defies all odds, risks everything professionally and comes out the victor. This creates high stakes and almost suffocating tension for us!


Psychological death can be a more subtle, more sophisticated type of death to consider. For instance, in The Catcher In The Rye, the protagonist is on a journey to find authentic people and if he doesn’t find them, he will die on the inside. We also see this in some love stories. If the lovers aren’t together then they too will die on the inside. (Which may then lead to a physical death-check out poor Werther!)

This is also used in comedy very effectively. James Scott Bell chose The Odd Couple to demonstrate this type of death. Oscar Madison depends on his slobby ways to bring him happiness. He’s a guy on his own, living however he sees fit and loving every second of it. In comes Felix Unger who is the epitome of an obsessive compulsive clean freak and throw in being fragile and possibly suicidal if upset. You have hilarious comedy when they decide to live together. Oscar risks a huge psychological death if he helps his friend after being kicked out of his own house.

Wow. All this was from my first page of notes. What a conference. What great insights to writing.

What type of death will your protagonist suffer? I want to know!

12 Responses to The First Five Minutes With James Scott Bell- Story Masters Conference

  1. The conference was awesome. Man you took fantastic notes.My head’s still swimming with all the good stuff I learned. Your post helped slow the whirling and solidify the facts.

    Thanks for sharing, Stacey.


  2. i was there…thanks for the review!! !An outstanding post!


  3. Linda Pennell says:

    Another terrific post! Well written and very informative. With such good notes from Stacey, it’s like being there! Thanks for sharing what you learned.


  4. jeff7salter says:

    Great stuff! Eager to see the rest of your notes.


  5. Ruth Kenjura says:

    I am so sorry I missed this, wish I could have gone. In the first book my protaganist faces a death of personality. In the second manuscript, the heroine faces the actual death of a friend. (actually there are many deaths, even the villians faces death and commits it over and over) In the third wip it is the death of a relationship that sets the stage for the protaganist, and then she risks losing the relationship with her children for her choices.


  6. Robin Yaklin says:

    The Story Masters said the answer to Bell’s death question should come from within the writer. They suggested journaling what your answers would be and then channeling those emotions, and believe me it does call them up, to enhance fictional characters. Without being too personal, I will say what I journaled was raw and surprising. Definitely worth using.


  7. jbrayweber says:

    I’m exhausted just reading this blog. Well done, Stacey!


  8. Deeanne Gist says:

    It was a great conference and your post was wonderful. Thanks for sharing!


  9. Kristen says:

    All so serious… 🙂 That’s why I stay home and use my time building 2nd grade book report dioramas.

    In answer to your question: My protag’s dying the slow painful death of ineffective plotting… There is no cure, yet still he hopes…


  10. Robin Yaklin says:

    I know it’s been a couple of weeks since you posted this, but I gotta share. While writing yesterday, I took up the notebook of musing, notes to self, etc., and scribbled down emotions I wanted to communicate–resistance and stubbornness. Those came right off the bat. However, my critique partner challenged to go deeper. Unimportance, uselessness, irrelevence slunk to the consciousness. And, voila. At the same time we shouted, “Psychological death!”


  11. Lark says:

    Loved his presentation! Learned a lot and he was very entertaining!


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