Bell: The Emotional Journey is the Journey


James Scott Bell. 2015. Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story. Woodland Hills: Compendium Press

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Words take new meaning in a new context.

I used to imagine a thought experiment in which a man sits of stool in a small room. Each of the four walls around have a different scene painted on them. One scene might be a beach; another a desert; a third a burning city; still another a dining-room table set with Thanksgiving dinner. Even though the man on the stool does not change, our perception of him does as the camera moves to picture him against a different backdrop.

As I gain more experience as a writer, my perception of writing books changes like the man being photographed on the stool. Points previously glossed over take on new meaning. So I keep reading new writing books.


In his book, Super Structure, James Scott Bell begins:

“In Write Your Novel from the Middle, I provide a brief outline of Super Structure. This book fleshes out each of those steps, and provides tips and techniques for incorporating them into your own writing.” (1)

After a few pages, he writes:

“I like to think of Super Structure as signpost scenes or beats … [Driving down the road] if you know what the next signpost is, you won’t get lost or drive off a cliff.” (7)

For Bell, some aspects of structure have to do with the plot, as with a three-act play (8-9), while other aspects have to do with emotional transitions, like Bell’s LOCK system or his fourteen sign posts.

Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout (LOCK)

Bell’s LOCK acronym summarizes his sign posts: Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout. The writer must bind the reader with the lead character, make the character’s objective (a struggle with physical, professional, or psychological death) obvious, show the character overcoming an opposing force in confrontation, and resolve the conflict in a final knockout battle (19, 23).

Fourteen Sign Posts

The fourteen sign posts offer make the emotional journey in a novel more obvious:

Act 1

  1. Disturbance
  2. Care package
  3. Argument against transformation
  4. Trouble brewing
  5. Doorway of no return #1

Act 2

  1. Kick in the shins
  2. The mirror moment
  3. Pet the dog
  4. Doorway of no return #1

Act 3

  1. Mounting forces
  2. Lights out
  3. Q factor
  4. Final battle
  5. Transformation (39-40).

Of particular interest to me was his description of a care package. No villain, however villainous, is completely devoid of attachments. Showing that he cares about someone or something close to him (an existing relationship) is important to demonstrating that he is an emotionally complete individual and bonding the reader to him. A pet-the-dog moment reinforces this point, but with someone or something not so familiar (a new relationship). A pet-the-dog moment is one way, for example, to introduce a new character (78-79).

Explaining all of the allusions here is beyond the scope of this review. Needless to say, Bell does a good job of bringing in memorable movie scenes to illustrate his points. The term, pet-the-dog moment, arrives from a scene in a Dirty Harry movie where Cliff Eastwood’s character withdraws from a gun fight to pet a stray dog. It is a totally unexpected move on his part that shows his humanity—we learn that Callahan may hate criminals, but he is not totally heartless—he loves dogs. The scene also dials down the heat on what would otherwise be a fairly intense moment.


On his website, we read:

Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and at numerous writer’s conferences in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and graduated with honors from the University of Southern California Law Center.[1] 

In addition to his writing books, he is known for writing thrillers, television appearances, and legal work.


James Scott Bell’s Super Structure is a helpful guide to writing a novel, particularly thrillers. His writing style is light and lively accented by his frequent allusion to scenes from well-known movies. As a longtime Bell fan, I found the book a helpful reminder of many of his points, my way of internalizing his writing method while picking up material unique to the book.



Bell: The Emotional Journey is the Journey

Also See:

Bell, James Scott.  2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2008. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Review).

Bell, James Scott. 2009. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cinninnati: Writers Digest Books (review).

Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)

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