Posts Tagged ‘John D. MacDonald’

“I always like to come up with—I call it the big pop. And the big pop is, How is the novel going to open? ’Cause if you don’t get that right it doesn’t matter what you write after that because no one is going to bother finish reading it. So the big pop is really important.”
—Novelist & screenwriter David Baldacci (Absolute Power)
MasterClass, “Constructing Chapters”

Last week I finished novel The Long Lavender Look and it took the author John D. MacDonald all of two pages to reveal the big pop. Good ole Travis McGee (a character I think George Cooney was born to play on film) is driving at night a little too fast on a back road in Florida when a women darts in front of him and he misses hitting her by “maybe ten inches.” Unfortunately, he loses control of his car and ends up submerging his car in a swampy ditch.

But his life is spared by his passenger and the story is set in motion. So what worked for MacDonald back in 1970, works for David Baldacci today. (He has sold 130 million books.) And the big pop works in movies, too. I’ve heard it called a variety of things: catalyst, hook, and inciting incident.

Whatever its nature, the inciting incident is an event that focuses the future protagonist to take action. Think of the inciting incident as an electroshock. A death, an accident, an inheritance, and love at first sight are all classic inciting incidents. This plot point needs to be powerful enough to disrupt the future protagonist’s life and motivate her to take on the actions needed for the long second act.”
Yves Lavandier
Constructing a Story
Page 81

In my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles my first chapter is on conflict, and on page one of that first chapter I point out several big pops that happen that kick start those stories.

E.T. misses his space ride.

Juno discovers she’s pregnant.

A barracuda kills Nemo’s mother and siblings.

If those three things don’t occur there is no major disruption—no story to tell. No pop.

In the 1956 classic The Searchers, director John Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent take their time time getting to the big pop. They setup a family reunion on the open plains of Texas (though shot in Monument Valley), just a few years after The Civil War ended. The wild west is still wild.

After introducing everyone in the family and showing life in balance, on page 30 of the screenplay a young girl is kidnapped and the rest of the film will be John Wayne’s character trying to rescue the girl. But, especially today, movies don’t usually have that luxury. (The Searchers was an epic tale made just as Tv was starting to put a dent on movie audiences.) Here’s a variety of genres over the years and what I consider their big pops.

A shark devours a girl on a late night swim in the ocean (Jaws)

A sports agent writes a controversial mission statement—then gets fired  (Jerry Maguire)

Jack wins a ticket on the Titanic boat (Titanic)

A special bike is stolen (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure)

A large family goes on vacation leaving a child behind (Home Alone)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Sunset Blvd.)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Bourne Identity)

A kid’s toy makes a noise in A Quiet Place

Works in T.V., too. That Breaking Bad opening is one unforgettable big pop:

The big pop sets up the story’s Major Dramatic Question. Will John Wayne save the girl? And that leads to the climax of the story and (ideally) your Insanely Great Ending.

P.S. William Goldman wrote the screenplay for Absolute Power (based on Baldacci’s novel) with Clint Eastwood in the lead role and directing.

Scott W. Smith

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“Once there is sufficient volume of air involved in this phenomenon, it can sometimes begin, quite slowly at first, to turn in a counterclockwise direction, an effect of the drag of the earth’s rotation, the way a speeding truck will create whirling dust devils along the dry shoulder of a highway.”
John D. MacDonald


Unless someone at NASA is working on their Photoshop skills, the above photo is what Hurricane Matthew looks like as it heads toward Florida. An image worthy of a Hollywood Horror film. And brings back memories of Heath Ledger as The Joker.


Maybe it’s time for someone to remake John D. MacDonald’s book Condominium (about a Hurricane heading toward Floridainto a new movie. (It was made as a TV movie back in 1980.)

P.S. The new trailer for next Pirates of the Caribbean movie Dead Men Tell No Tales dropped two days ago so maybe this whole thing is just a huge Disney PR stunt.


Scott W. Smith

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“The etymology of freelance is exactly as it sounds. In medieval days if you were a ‘free lance’ you were a knight without a lord. You were a mercenary. And I loved the idea of going to Hollywood without an agent, without a manager, without a publicist, without a lawyer, and booking as much work as I could. I didn’t care about the work. I didn’t care about the quality of the work.  I didn’t care if it was infomercials. I didn’t care if it was books on tape. I didn’t care if it was sitcom or talk shows, it didn’t matter—I did it all. Or tried it all. And got my share. And by 1995 I’d had dozens and dozens of jobs in Hollywood, and in New York, and feeling kind of arrogant in the way you do when you think you’ve figured out what most people haven’t. And so I was freelancing. And many, many jobs—eight months on, four months off. I’d pattered that whole part of my career after John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee. A guy who took his retirement in early installments. And I just loved it. And American Airlines was one of maybe 300 jobs that I Forrest Gumped my way into.”
TV host/narrator Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs, Deadliest Catch)
Podcast interview with Tim Ferriss

I’ve been a fan of Mike Rowe’s for a while, but John D. MacDonald & Travis McGee—fuhgeddaboudit. Discovered those cats over three decades ago. In college I even did a report on MacDonald for an American Lit class. No one told me that you weren’t supposed to write about a pulp fiction writer of detective stories. (Besides now that we know that William Faulkner lied his way through his non-fiction classic Travels with Charlie— MacDonald is holding his own these days—long after his death.) Stephen King said MacDonald was, “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.”

Now if George Clooney would just play Travis McGee in a film or two that part of my life would be complete.

What I also love about Rowe’s above comments is it just shows a great degree of hustling to have the kind of success he’s had. Rowe also said he’s not the one to tell people to “follow their passions” but to follow the opportunities that come their way—and take their passion with them.

And here’s a nice bookend comment (also from a Tim Ferriss interview):

“I love being a storyteller right now. I love being a content creator, being a filmmaker, a director, whatever you want to call it, because there is a place now to tell all these stories. Whether it’s 90 minutes, or 30 minutes, or 20 minutes, or 10 minutes, or three minutes. Like we made an amazing bunch of movies a few years ago called Focus Forward that GE paid for where we basically made these 3 minute short films about innovators around the world. People who were doing incredible things. And each one of these movies were three minutes long and they were powerful. They’re so beautiful and inspiring and now they’ve been seen by a 100 million people around the world.”
Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me
Podcast interview with Tim Ferriss

Related posts:
‘Art is Work’—Milton Glaser
Stephen King’s Doublewide Trailer
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Iowa Kutcher on Jobs/Work


Scott W. Smith


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“I had no notion of becoming a writer,” is how writer Walter Mosley describes his life before reading the following two sentences:

“He was looking at me and neither his eyes nor his gun moved. He was as calm as an adobe wall in the moonlight.”
The Long Goodbye, written by Raymond Chandler

“It took Raymond Chandler to show me something that I already knew but had never been aware of. Adobe walls in the lunar light of the southern California desert had the most passive demeanor—they were the ideal of peacefulness. Then the writer contrasts this nearly absolute tranquility to an armed and dangerous man … For the first time I understood the power of language to reach beyond the real into the metaphysical and into metaphor. Those 24 words alerted me to the potential power of writing.”
Author Walter Mosely who’s published 34 books and won the O Henry award, a Grammy, and PEN Lifetime Achievement Award
The Two Raymond Chandler Sentences That Changes Walter Mosley’s Life written by Joe Fassler in the Atlantic

“Everyone knows who Raymond Chandler is and I began reading him in the late ’40s when I was writing westerns. And I remember thinking, ‘why don’t I switch over to things like the kinds of stories that Raymond Chandler’s doing?’”
Author Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty)
On receiving the Raymond Chandler Award

“He wrote like a slumming angel and invested in the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a gusto and imaginative flair.”
Reference about Raymond Chandler by crime fiction author Ross Macdonald who created detective Lew Archer (The Moving Target)

“What [Quentin] Tarantino may be most renowned for is his focus on highly stylized modes of speech. Greatly influenced by the likes of film noir/pulp fiction writers Dashiell Hammond, Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, Tarantino elicits vivid responses from his audiences by incorporating mundane banter about ubiquitous popular culture subject matters.”
Michael Peters
An Analysis of Quentin Tarantino and His Films

“Your clothes should be jazzy, very jazzy indeed, Steve. To be inconspicuous in this town is to be a busted flush.”
Raymond Chandler, The King in Yellow 
A short story by Chandler, and worth noting because the name author John D. MacDonald called the famed houseboat in 21 Travis McGee private detective novels was The Busted Flush. (Though the character McGee won the boat in a poker game, some consider it a nod to Chandler by the writer MacDonald.)

And here’s a different kind of Chandler influence from the trailer for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) written and directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin:

That’s just what I could come up with in a breif search online. Do you know of other writers who were influenced by Chandler?

Scott W. Smith

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