Adventures in storytelling by Bob Rector



The obvious answer is, nothing. Yet audiences laugh all through my play Letters From the Front, set during World War II.


No, I wasn’t being frivolous or disrespectful when I wrote it. The primary themes of the show are what you might expect – separation, loss, fear, loneliness. The primary theme is about the fragile and precious nature of life. So what’s so funny about that?

Again, nothing. But in our darkest or most frightening moments we humans turn to humor as a pressure-relief valve – like laughing on a roller coaster when you’re sure you’re about to die. That’s what humor is in drama, a pressure-relief valve. Gotta have it or the drama explodes. Not a pretty sight.

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away I roadshowed Gone With the Wind to small towns that did not have a movie theater (don’t ask, long story). In the process I saw this four hour film over 100 times. And was enthralled every time, fascinated by its sheer storytelling mastery, thanks to the genius of David O. Selznick. There were others like him: Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, all master storytellers who understood how important humor was within a drama.


Disney, in fact, had a motto: for every laugh, a tear; for every tear a laugh. The more intense the drama, the sharper the humor must be. Gone With the Wind dramatizes the fall of the Old South, an entire culture collapsing, and with it, people’s lives. The film is a carefully woven tapestry of tearful, terrifying, and poignant scenes. Yet each of them is offset with pressure relieving comedy scenes that bring howls of laughter from the audience. Without those scenes, this classic film would be unbearable to watch.

When I started writing scripts for film and TV, I never forgot these lessons. Because of the subject matter, Letters From the Front was a difficult play to write. The horrors of WWII are well established in the audiences minds even before the curtain goes up, so I often relied on the pressure relief of humor to make the story palatable. Judging by audience response at hundreds of performances, it worked. Thank you Mr. Selznick, Mr. Disney, Mr. Capra. What wonderful teachers you were.

Humor. It’s one of the most powerful tools the dramatist has in his/her arsenal. Why is it then that so many are reluctant to use it? A character with humor is endearing and human. One without it is tedious and wooden. A narrow escape from death is given greater punch if accented with humor.

I’m not suggesting that a character pause in the middle of a tensely dramatic scene and break into stand-up comedy. That’s called gags and they’re usually inappropriate in a drama. Especially sight gags, which are the domain of the screen and usually die on the page. For humor to work in drama it has to have a human element. And it needs to reflect the main themes of the story.

In Gone With the Wind Rhett abandons Scarlett on the open road with Yankees swarming all around so that he can join what’s left of the Rebels. Scarlett says heatedly, “You, sir, are no gentleman!” To which Rhett replies, “A minor point at such a time.” Funny. Human. And directly reflective of the movie’s theme. That kind of irony is high on the list of what makes humor work.

Surprise is even higher. When a character says or does something opposite of what the reader/audience expects, it usually elicits a laugh, or at least a grin. In Groundhog Day Bill Murray asks the owner of the bed-and-breakfast, “Do you ever have deja vu?” She replies, “I don’t know, I’ll check with the kitchen.” Surprise. Funny. And again, directly reflective of the movie’s theme.


The examples I’ve used are from movies, not books (Gone With the Wind was based on a book) but the principal is the same. The elements of good storytelling are the same whether on screen or page. My book Unthinkable Consequences is a tense romantic thriller. Inherently it is a melodrama. To make the characters and story more human, I tried to offset the melodrama by generous helpings of humor. Those of you who have read it can tell me if I succeeded.

Okay, that’s my two cents worth. I would love to hear your comments on how important you think humor is to a dramatic work, whether it’s a thriller, love story, adventure, or literary novel.

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It is with great pleasure that I introduce to you the very talented author/artist Claude Nougat. Not only is she a gifted storyteller, she also provided invaluable editing advice to me while I was in final preparation of my manuscript for Unthinkable Consequences.


Claude you are an accomplished author with several books in release, but before we start discussing your word-craft, tell us a little about your background.

I guess you could say I’m a world citizen, I really don’t have roots anywhere. Born in Belgium, raised in Sweden, Egypt, Russia, France, Colombia and finally reaching the US when I was 17 – picking up on the way many languages and forgetting them in turn. What’s left is French, Italian, Spanish and of course English that I learned attending classes at the American Embassy in Moscow. My formative years as an intellectual took place in America, at Columbia U. I graduated in economics not because I particularly liked the subject but because my father felt that studying anything else would be a “waste of time” (what I really wanted to study was paleontology, I love old bones…) Once out of school, I travelled the world over for the United Nations, giving management advice to aid projects in difficulty, a fantastic job. It put me in touch with so many different people – a very enriching and full experience that lasted 25 years till I retired in 2003.

I happen to know that you are also a very talented painter. Do you find that it compliments your skills as a writer? If so, how?

Painting and writing seem to call on diametrically opposed segments of the brain: the mode of concentration is totally different – painting is more intuitive, it sort of “happens” on the blank canvas. You could argue that a book also happens on a blank page, but it is a long haul, not like a painting that can be done in a few hours. A book can take years in the making – my first one (now out as “Luna Rising”, a Sicilian family saga) took 30 years in the making, from the first moment I thought of it (when I walked into a dusty men’s club in Sicily full of old men playing backgammon – they all looked like ghosts) to its most recent incarnation (now out in a brand new edition). A painting only takes a few days, in that sense, a painting is more like a short story or a poem…

Two of your works that I truly enjoyed are Crimson Clouds and Forever Young. Give us a brief description of each.

So happy you enjoyed them! “Crimson Clouds” is about the anxieties of restarting one’s life after retirement. Robert, the protagonist, in his early 60s, a brilliant manager, he’s still young and attractive and has a lovely and much younger wife who’s carved out her own success as a dealer of contemporary art. But when he decides to renew with a childhood dream of being an artist and produces paintings that are dreadfully academic (a little like my own!), his wife is horrified. They fight over art but what is at stake is their marriage and they separate. He goes to Italy, has some love affairs but his wife wants to save their marriage and comes back to him…


“Forever Young” is set 200 years from now, when the Earth is dying and only the ultra rich, who can afford the costly and exclusive Age Prevention Program (APP), enjoy a perfect life in their gated communities, looking young till the day they drop dead. The book has three major characters, forming a love triangle: Jamie, a young investigative journalist from the World and US Post (the New York Times and Huffington Post rolled into one), his partner Lizzie, a professional golf player (she’s a descendent of the mythical Tiger Woods), and Alice, a beautiful Swiss nurse and an outsider: she yearns to join the APP and is in love with Jamie. There are two options to survive the extinction of life on Earth, both opened only to APP members: fly to another pristine planet similar to Earth or take refuge in Antarctica, the last virgin continent, and wait for the end to come, getting ready to re-settle the Earth afterwards. What will our threesome do?

Why do you write?

Tough question. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t write!

What appeals to you most about crafting a story?

The suspense. Digging into another person’s head. Figuring what happens next. If I know ahead what’s going to happen in my story, I don’t feel like writing it at all. I’m my own first reader!

What writers have inspired or influenced you most and why?

All the classics, especially the Russians – I consider Gorki’s Dead Souls an absolute masterpiece, it’s got everything I love, the characters, the social comments, the way a light is thrown on society – much more effective than any sociological critical essay. The same can be said of Bulgakov’s The Master and Marguerite: literally insane fantasy and the most effective and devastating comment ever made about Communism and men’s tendency to fall into dictatorship. But I also like the French, Voltaire’s Candide and Camus’ novels for the same reason I like Gorki. Also the English, in particular the sci-fi masters, Aldous Huxley and Orwell though this is an area where there are lots of remarkable American writers too, from Frederik Pohl to Philip K. Dick and most recently, Hugh Howey. Actually, there are lots of amazing writers alive today from Penelope Lively to William Boyd, David Lodge, Louis Begley, Deborah Moggach, Tracy Chevalier, Siri Hustvedt…

If your writing was music, what would it sound like?

Good God, I have no idea! I guess, cool jazz…

What comes first for you, plot or character, and why?

Character, no question about it. The plot comes next, it develops out of a character’s strengths and weaknesses, yearnings and fears. The setting is often what challenges the characters and pushes them to their (internal) extremes but the challenges also come from relationships between characters.

Tell us a little about how you formulate your plots.

I don’t formulate them at all. I have a general idea and jump in. As I write, it all unfolds in front of my eyes like a film.

Talk a little about themes. At what point in your writing process do you address them?

Never. I don’t believe in writing with a theory in mind that you want to develop. The themes come naturally as a side-effect of the plot and characters. Forever Young really deals with major issues threatening life on earth but I hope that doesn’t show. The intention is to entertain, not teach or preach.

Tell us a little about how you create your characters.

Observation. People around me are warned! But most of all, I draw characters from my own inner self. Whatever looks logical for the character, given who he/she is, gets written down. The characters dictate the creation, not the other way around. I’m sure you know what I mean, because I can see that’s how you create your characters too.

Which characters have you created that are most vivid to you, or continue to reside in your heart?

The young man in Luna Rising, he is stuck in his life, he hates it and he’s trying to get out of it. Obstacles on his way, coming from the ghosts in his family, are so numerous that he is forced to become a hero or…die! Contrary to a lot of my readers who disliked Kay, the wife in Crimson Clouds, I actually love her. That’s why I rewrote Crimson Clouds (now the second edition of what was originally called A Hook in the Sky). I wanted to make it clear that for her, winning back her husband is a huge undertaking and he’s constantly cutting her down. So I added whole sections to the book giving her side of the story. And I also love Alice in Forever Young: she’s the outsider who should be in, but is constantly left out. But that doesn’t discourage her, she’s a brave, determined woman – at any rate, that’s how I think of her and painted her (at your behest!) and I’m thinking of using that portrait as a book cover…


You definitely should! Talk to us a little about writing good dialogue.

Bob, I think that’s where you’re the master! In any case, I follow your system: see the people talk, hear them talk (go in a trance if necessary!), take time to speak the dialogue out loud, and you’ll hear it when it’s too long or repetitive or useless. Then, there’s only one solution for it: cut, cut, cut!

I agree. For every line of dialogue that makes it on the page, I probably toss a dozen more. Do you have personal, social, or political convictions that worm their way into your writing? If so, give an example.

I suppose I do though I try very hard to not let them “worm” their way in. Yes, because they can be truly worms that punch holes in the plot. I am convinced that much of contemporary art is not good and I guess that worked its way into Crimson Clouds (mainly in the form of fights between Robert and the women in his life who are all contemporary art fans). Likewise, I’m convinced that income inequality is a major evil of our time and it’s become one of the premises of the brave new world you find in Forever Young.

What do you find most difficult about the craft of storytelling?

Avoid repetition. Not talk down to the reader. Realize that they’re bright and don’t need to be either lectured to or have to be told anything twice. So again, I cut!

Amen! Talk to us about your greatest “Ah-ha!” moment when you read over a passage or chapter and said, “Wow, that’s really good!”

Are you speaking of my own work? I don’t have such moments, ever, when it comes to my own writing! Other people’s writing, yes. Right now I’m into Siri Hustvedt The Blazing World and there are a fantastic succession of such awe-inspiring moments! Just to quote one (out of a dozen or more) when she describes the protagonist’s father: “Harriet’s father was physically awkward, prone to self-conscious pats of his daughter’s arm or quick, hard hugs that were more like speeding collisions than expressions of affection…He liked to expound to us on philosophy…He believed in tolerance and academic freedom…But it is not what is said that makes us who we are. More often it is what remains unspoken.” That last sentence is fantastic!

Many writers create different working environments or conditions that help them focus on the job at hand. Tell us about yours.

Nope, sorry to disappoint. No special environment. I work wherever and whenever I can, in between womanly tasks like cooking or making beds. I leave the gardening to my husband!

We’re in agreement, although I don’t make beds. Don’t see the point. What frustrates you most about being a writer?

The marketing. I hate book promotion but it’s a necessity – especially in today’s environment, with millions of books available on Amazon with just a computer click.

Yes, I think most writers would agree with you on this. Do you think male and female writers approach storytelling differently? If so, how?

I never thought it was a gender thing. For me, it’s not and I don’t believe there’s any gender determined difference. Character-wise, sure. I should think we’re all different in the way we approach work, whether it’s writing, painting, music or economic analysis.

If a young person just starting their working life said to you they wanted to be a writer, knowing what you know now, what would you say to them?

Hey, that’s a tricky question! I don’t think of myself as a guru… On the basis of my own experience, I would say, be ready for the long haul, chances are that your first book won’t make a ripple. So don’t get bitter about it, it happens to all of us. Be ready to befriend your competition. Actually, a lot of writers see other writers as rivals and that’s totally wrong. Writers are terribly different from one another, there’s space for everybody, and we can help each other!

Great advice, Claude. As always, I enjoy your stimulating views on writing. Thank you for participating.

Check out Ms. Nougat’s Amazon Author’s page at: — visit her blog at:

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Posted on April 2, 2014 by P. C. Zick

Welcome to Author Wednesday. Today I’m pleased to introduce, Bob Rector, whose book Unthinkable Consequences is a fast-paced thriller with lots of sensual romance. I’ll be reviewing the book on Book Review Friday so I won’t say much more than the book was a wonderful surprise.


Welcome, Bob. It’s pleasure to interview you today. Let’s start with my favorite question for my favorite authors. When were you first able to call yourself a “writer” or “author?”

From the first day I started working in TV in March of 1970. I was hired to write, direct, shoot and edit music film shorts (they weren’t called videos back then) for pop artists of the time – a one-man band. I had to deliver a finished 2-12/ to 3-1/2 minute film every day so I learned how to formulate plots and characters fast. Usually the scripts were hand written on notebook paper. I made approximately 100 films for the shows “Now Explosion,” and “Music Connection,” and learned more about storytelling during that time than if I’d taken a college writing course.

You learn quickly on that type of deadline. I know I did as a reporter, and it wasn’t nearly as demanding as writing shows. Do you have a particular theme in your writing?

If I gave thought to messages or themes before I started writing, I’d never get anything written. Most of my writing has been assignment based, but when it’s not, it comes from a story on the news, or an incident I personally witnessed, or a comment somebody made. It plants a seed in my imagination and I’m off and running. As the work develops, messages and themes occur naturally.

Who has most influenced your writing?

In my genre, Raymond Chandler and his disciple John D. MacDonald. Their dialogue sparkled, their writing style was clean and sparse, and their characters not only had muscles and beauty, but heart too. You could also throw in Erle Stanley Gardner.

Do all your books have a common theme or thread?

I guess the most common theme in my work is redemption. Stories are usually about conflict and that usually arises from people not being very nice to each other. At a certain point in the story, they have to become aware of that then seek, and hopefully achieve, redemption. It makes us root for them. If they don’t make an attempt, they’re pretty shallow characters.

That’s always a favorite of mine. Do you have a favorite character that you created?

Paula, the main character in Unthinkable Consequences, is my favorite. I didn’t know if I could immerse myself into a female character to the extent required. This is not meant to be derogatory in any way. To state the obvious, men and women think and act differently. I wanted Paula to be completely believable, especially to female readers. It was scary, but also fun, getting into her head. Luckily I had many close gal friends, my wife first and foremost, who were willing to drop the veil and help me keep Paula honest in her femaleness.

I’m sure she was fun to create. You did a remarkable job of portraying this trapped canary in the world of the 1950s of Palm Beach. Now that I’ve mentioned Florida, how does setting play a role in your books?

Having worked in visual mediums most of my life, setting, or location, is extremely important to me. Unthinkable Consequences takes place in South Florida in the late 1950s, and it literally could not have taken place anywhere else. I know, I tried. I think setting should visually (even if it’s in the mind) reflect, and often amplify, the action, mood, and passions of the story. I needed a place that was still somewhat wild and primitive, hot and sultry. The Keys provided that.

Yes, I agree. What kinds of techniques do you like to use in your writing?

I’m big on pacing and narrative thrust, probably because of my years working in film. And I work hard not to let the reader get ahead of me. In TV, we were always aware of the viewer sitting there with the remote in his/her hand. Lose their interest and their off to another channel. I never forgot that and I think writers should keep it in mind too. Imagine that your reader has a remote in their hand.

What’s the best thing said about one of your books by a reviewer?

When Claude Nougat reviewed my book, she said, “He has produced a thriller-romance that is not merely an unusual love story but a deep excursion into the psyche of one very tormented woman – something of an exploit for a male writer. The only other writer who manages to portray a woman’s anxieties as brilliantly (that I know of) is Flaubert. But what Bob Rector has done, is give us a thoroughly modern version of Madame Bovary. His Paula is a fascinating character – and equally explosive.”

I can see why that would bring some cheer to the writer’s heart. How did you choose the title and has it been the title from the beginning?

No. The only project I’ve ever worked on that the title never changed is my play “Letters From The Front” – and if I could change it, I would, but it’s been out there too long. Before my book became Unthinkable Consequences, it was “Pathetique,” “Wages of Love,” “Into the Fire,” and “The Woman Who Did Just As She Pleased.” As the manuscript developed, none of these seemed exactly right. It was my wife, Marsha Roberts, who came up with Unthinkable Consequences, and I knew it was right the minute she said it.

It’s a great title and very appropriate. How long do you estimate it took you to take the book from an idea to a finished, published?

About twenty years. Seriously. It started as a film project but it was during a very busy time in our lives. We were building a business and raising a family, so the project kept getting shoved onto the back burner. Plus finding the money to produce it was out of our reach. At a certain point I decided to convert it into a novel and finally about 8 months ago I found time to attack it full time.

I think only another writer can understand how a book can be in the musing and fuming stage for years. I’m glad you found the time to get this one down on paper. Is the book traditionally or self-published?

It’s self published. If that option wasn’t available, I probably wouldn’t have spent the time completing it. Having been in the entertainment business all my life, I know all about ‘gate keepers.’ My wife had self published Confessions of an Instinctively Mutinous Baby Boomer a little earlier and had significant success.

Two writers in one family? That’s quite an accomplishment. What is the message conveyed in your book?

Be careful what you wish for.

What is the best thing someone could say about this book?

That they thoroughly enjoyed reading it and loved the characters. That’s the equivalent of a ‘standing-o’ in theater.

Let’s go back twenty years. How was it conceived in your imagination?

It was an observation brought about by sexual awareness. I was twelve in 1959, the same year that Unthinkable Consequences takes place, living in hot, sultry Florida. I began to notice an undercurrent among women in the their late thirties, early forties, mostly mothers of my friends who were wives of successful businessmen, professionals, professors, etc. They had everything – nice homes, clothes, all the latest household gadgets, because it said their husbands were doing very well. But many of these women were restless and seemed (to me) to be pacing about like lionesses in gilded cages. There was a sexual tension to it that I was just starting to pick up on. But this was 1959, a very different America, especially for women. My imagination went to work and I wondered what would happen to one of these women if they made a break for it. It percolated in my mind for many years and finally started finding its way onto paper, as a script at first, than as a book.

You captured that time and feeling and setting very well. What other type of research did you do in the writing of this book?

Extensive. I packed up the family and drove down to Palm Beach and Key Largo. I took tons of photos, visited with Chambers of Commerce and Visitor Centers, scouted locations even to determining where Paula would shop for groceries, and just talked to locals, trying to pick up their colloquialisms. And of course, I spent hundreds of hours in libraries and doing internet searches. I wanted every detail to be right. To me, that’s what brings a story to life.

Who or what is the antagonist in your book?

A thug named Red, a former fighting partner of the lead male character, Kurt. Bad guys are the most fun to write because you can pull out all the stops.

Yes, they are. Without giving us a spoiler, tell us a little bit about your favorite scene in this book.

Paula, the main character, has a major confrontation with her son Billie who has just started college and is spoiled and self centered as only a teenager can be. Paula goes into the meeting with high hopes of reestablishing a bond with her son, but it quickly falls apart, leaving her devastated. What Paula does to redeem herself with him is so sacrificial that readers can only yell, “No! No! Don’t do it.”

I agree. In some ways, I hated that scene because I surmised what he might do, and I just wanted her to drive away (in her own car!). What else do you want readers to know about your book?

That it’s for you, not me. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Then I thank you. You accomplished your goal. Do you listen to music while you’re writing?

I’ve never been able to listen to music and write. Too distracting.

Where do you write?

As long as I have access to a keyboard attached to a computer, I don’t much care where I write. Marsha and I spent many decades on the road so I learned to crank out scripts wherever we were. When battery operated laptop computers arrived, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Now I could even write in the car during those long, five or six hundred mile days.

How does your immediate family feel about your writing life?

They’re very supportive. It’s all they’ve ever known me to do.

What do you do during your down time?

I don’t have down time because I don’t work. I’ve never worked. I don’t understand the concept.

That’s good! I heard someone say it’s only work when you’d rather be doing something else. What book are you reading right now?

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart – for perhaps the 4th or 5th time. It makes me aware of the magic that is always around us, if we just know how to get in touch with it.

I love that book, but haven’t read it in many years. Do you set your books in the place you live?

I did once, for a screenplay that was never produced, but it was more for expediency than anything else.

One last question, if a movie was made about your success as a writer, who would play you?

Well it would have to be George Clooney, wouldn’t it?

Certainly. I don’t know why I asked! It’s been delightful having you here today, Bob. I hope you’re working on something else these days.

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