Bell: How to Plot a Good Novel
James Scott Bell. 2004. Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Stories spice up sermons. The pastor’s name, the sermon text, or the admonition may be a bit hazy Sunday afternoon, but you probably remember the stories told. Stories help us make sense of life and they give it meaning. So what is a story?
The heart of a story is its plot, according to writer James Scott Bell in his book, Plot and Structure. Plot is the power grid that makes it [the story] happen (6) and connects the readers with the text by answering questions, such as:
- What is this story about?
- Is anything happening?
- Why should I keep reading?
- Why should I care? (7).
Bell focuses on writing a commercial novel where plot is especially important. Literary, stream-of-consciousness, and experimental novels place less emphasis on plot, but plot sells the commercial novel (7).
Elements of Plot
Bell advises that plot consists of 4 basic elements:
- Lead. A story must be about someone. The main character is the lead.
- Objective. The leading character needs an objective: a desire or want.
- Confrontation. The leading character encounters opposition and outside forces that frustrate obtaining the lead’s goal.
- Knockout. All good stories need a knockout ending.
Bell’s book focuses on these 4 components of plot or the LOCK (lead, objective, confrontation, and knockout) system (10-13). Plot takes place in the context of characters, dialog, settings, and scenes (17-20). Bell reminds us of Alfred Hitchcock’s axiom: a good story is life with the dull parts taken out (20).
Bell writes his book in 14 chapters:
- What’s a Plot, Anyway?
- Structure: What Holds Your Plot Together.
- How to Explode with Plot Ideas.
- Beginning Strong.
- Complex Plots.
- The Characters Arc in Plot.
- Plotting Systems.
- Revising Your Plot.
- Plot Patterns.
- Common Plot Problems and Cures.
- Tips and Tools for Plot and Structures.
Before the chapters is an introduction entitled: Putting the Big Lie to Sleep where he addresses the myth that writers are born, not made. After the chapters are 2 appendices which give authors a to-do checklist and a format for writing your “Back Cover Copy”.
Outline or Not?
Interestingly, Bell divides the fiction writers’ world into “outline people (OP)” and “no outline people (NOP)”, a division that he admittedly straddles (152). He honors this division, for example, in his chapter 10 on plotting systems where he offers advice to both camps on how to strengthen the weaknesses of both. He states: be true to yourself, but try a little of the other guy’s method (154). For both camps, he advises: use the LOCK system and write your back cover copy (155). For NOPS, he advises:
- Set yourself a writing quota.
- Begin your writing day by rereading what you wrote the day before.
- One day per week, record your plot journey (156-158).
For OPS, he advises use of an index card system to record scenes and LOCK elements (158-69).
Bell’s anthropology is insightful. Bell characterizes identity as a target built around the core self. The rings around the core self are: beliefs, values, dominant attitudes, and opinions. Changes affecting inner circles spill over requiring changes in outer circles. Outer circles are accordingly easier to change than inner circles (143). Changes in Ebenezer Scrooge’s character, for example, require visits from three ghosts—the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future—who remind Scrooge of his true self and how the years have chipped away at it (142-148). The redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge brings tears to our eyes because each of us have likewise taken that journey.
Bell is an engaging writer who offers a lot of examples from movies and novels to make his points. Movies like Casablanca, A Christmas Carol, and Gone with the Wind offer excellent examples because most readers are already familiar with the plots and major scenes. These examples make Plot and Structure a surprising page-turner which I suspect most authors (and wannabe authors) will enjoy.
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.
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