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

November 17, 2011

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!