James Patterson MasterClass Week 4

Saturday, October 03, 2015
As I was listening to the first lesson for this week—Dialogue—I realized another problem with the way these lessons are presented. I mentioned in my blog on the first week of this class that each lesson was obviously put together from several separate interviews.

Except they’re not interviews. It’s really Patterson chatting informally about writing, a mix of advice, his own process, how he learned something, etc. And it’s presented in a talking-head style. That’s why I said “listening” in the first sentence. I found myself clicking on other tabs in my browser as he spoke because the video wasn’t visually interesting.

So, on to the lesson itself. A character’s dialogue reveals who they are. I have no argument with that. After a few examples, we cut to a different interview where Patterson starts talking about an author (I only know the guy is an author because I Googled the name) and a scene which Patterson believes has great dialogue. But he never states that this is the name of an author or gives us the name of the book it comes from. That part must have been left on the cutting room floor. He then proceeds to quote the dialogue and ends by saying it’s wonderful. He also says it’s comedic, but his delivery was so dry I didn’t laugh once.

A lot of what he says about dialogue you can pick up from any basic writing text. Dialogue isn’t conversation because no one wants all the boring bits that make up most of what people say. Don’t fall into writing “As you know, Bob” dialogue. If Bob knows it, there’s no need to tell him.

As with many of these lessons, it ends abruptly. Again, this is because it’s not one coherent taping session. It would be nice if there were even a brief sentence which said something like, “I hope you’ll be able to take what you’ve learned and apply it to this week’s assignment.”

The second lesson this week is Building A Chapter. He starts with a concept that, in the movies or television, is referred to as the establishing shot. You’d recognize this anywhere. It shows a familiar city skyline, like New York, or the St. Louis arch, or infinite outer space. In other words, let the reader know where they are visually, and with sound and, because you’re writing a novel, you can also include smells and emotions.

I’ve been reading a lot of stuff by beginning writers lately and it’s amazing how many of them forget to include this. Just because you know your characters are talking in a restaurant in Denver doesn’t mean it will be obvious to the reader. The reader, because she lives in Miami, assumes the book takes place in Florida and will be totally pulled out of the story if, several pages in, there aren’t palm trees, but cowboys.

He also discusses point of view here, which is natural because before you can write anything, you have to decide on how to tell it. You have to decide who is telling the story and how intimate the narrative should be.

The section where he describes the first chapter of the first book in The Women’s Murder Club series was another one where I drifted off. This happens, and then this happens, then this other thing happens, etc. just isn’t very interesting. I think it’s supposed to be an example of how to write a chapter, but it’s got none of the “juice” of the actual book. He would have been better off reading the original.

The end of this lesson can be summarized by a quote from Steven James I have hanging on my wall: “Stories are driven by tension, not events.”

Writing Suspense. I’d start salivating here if I hadn’t watched the first twelve lessons, because this is what Patterson does extremely well. But I went into it being very skeptical.

It’s very difficult to talk about Lesson 13 without giving too much away. In some ways, it’s like the others in that there’s a lot of advice I’ve heard before. However, he does say a few things that I think I’m going to find useful. I’ll have to re-watch this video later on and think about it.

And, with two weeks left to go, the next lesson is on Ending the Book. Most of this lesson does not talk about specifics of how to end a book. There’s a lot of generalities about twists (and he gives away not one, but TWO twists in the plots of his own books) and making an ending satisfying. He’s not quite clear on how to do this, summing up with you should analyze the endings of books and movies you like.

And then there’s the very last section, titled The Secret to Great Endings. He opens by saying this is worth the price of admission to the class.

Is it? I’m not sure. The first idea is not new. I learned it from Orson Scott Card years ago. (Hint: It’s called the What If? Game.) The second Patterson just drops on you without any explanation. The video ends. I really would have liked him to give examples here of how he used this technique in a book or two, because it’s hard to know whether his premise makes sense or not without examples or explanation a little deeper than the music ending.

This “Master Class” is starting to remind me of those “in conversation” interviews with authors that have become popular. They give the illusion of a cozy chat with a friend, while not conveying a whole lot of information. I know there are students who are raving about the lessons, both in the forum and the private Facebook group, but I’m not raving. We’ll see if Patterson wins me over next week.

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A Clash of Kings
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