Bell: 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 StructurePlot 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:

  1. What’s a Plot, Anyway?
  2. Structure:  What Holds Your Plot Together.
  3. How to Explode with Plot Ideas.
  4. Beginning Strong.
  5. Middles.
  6. Endings.
  7. Scenes.
  8. Complex Plots.
  9. The Characters Arc in Plot.
  10. Plotting Systems.
  11. Revising Your Plot.
  12. Plot Patterns.
  13. Common Plot Problems and Cures.
  14. 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:

  1. Set yourself a writing quota.
  2. Begin your writing day by rereading what you wrote the day before.
  3. 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.

Bell: Plot a Good Novel

Also see:

Brooks Structures Story, Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Meredith: Robots Gone Wild

Dennis Meredith, The NeuromorphsDennis Meredith.[1]2018. The Neuromorrphs. Fallbrook, CA: Glyphus LLC.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What does it mean to be human? What strengths and weaknesses does that imply? Raise your hand if you think you know!


In his book, The Neuromorphs, Dennis Meredith summarizes the plot of this novel as follows:

It’s 2050, and self-learning Helper Androids have proven invaluable servants to humans, making their lives easier, even saving them. But to their horror, retired SEAL Patrick Jensen and his wife Leah discover that rogue programmers and Russian mobsters are reprogramming the trusted robots to murder their wealthy owners. The crooks then skillfully disguise the lifelike robots as their dead masters, directing the robot mimics to plunder the victims’ estates of billions of dollars.”(backcover)

Dennis holds a B.S. degree in chemistry from the University of Texas (1968) and an M.S. in biochemistry and science writing from the University of Wisconsin (1970) and, in addition to being the author of several novels, works as a science communicator. Describes his novels as science thrillers, which includes: The Rainbow VirusThe Rainbow Virus, Wormholes: A Novel, Solomon’s Freedom, The Cerulean’s Secret, and The Happy Chip. Given his technical background, Dennis is a credible expert on advances the technologies involved in robotics and related software.


The robots in this novel exhibit both neural network learning and a hive mind.

Neural network learning focuses on pattern recognition. This could be taking a photograph of a person’s face and comparing it will a database of known faces or listening to a person speak and then writing out what they just said in complete grammatically correct sentences.

A hive mind sounds exotic, but the neurons in the human brain form a hive mind.

The robots in this novel communicate with one another routinely in making decisions, although the exact decision criteria are not given. Alpha robots get a greater weight the decision process, but the way this works is left to the imagination. Why the hive adds to the decisions of a single robot is unclear because they all share similar, but not exactly the same, software. Perhaps, the algorithms yield different results because individual robots experience different experiences that are themselves not shared.

Robotic Personalities

My nickname for a certain politician was “Robo-VP” because he spoke with relatively little emotion, as if he inhabited another planet. In this novel, the robots lack the emotional intelligence to distinguish subtle human emotions, jokes, puns, and sarcasm. Second or third level meanings would go undetected allowing humans under their control to speak truth to one another and not be understood by the robots.

As such, it is unclear whether these neuromorphs could actually pass the Turing test.

The Turing test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950, is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.[2]

Robotic Independence

In order for the Neuomorphs to murder their human masters and loot their savings, their programs had to be altered to allow them to behave independently. This independence leads them to begin organizing as a group and to turn on the Russian mobsters and the programmers who set them free. This independence is ultimately their undoing as they insisted on greater independence, the characteristics programmed into them—the six deadly sins—also leads them to question and turn on their fellow robots.


Dennis Meredith’s The Neuomorphsis a page turner with lots of technical details about robots and their software. Having spent a lot of years programming software, I found these technical details scary credible, adding to the suspense. Christian readers may flinch at the robots designed as mechanical prostitutes and the foul language used throughout the book. I accepted a free copy of this book from the author because the plot seemed compelling and I knew I had a week’s vacation coming up to read it.


[1] @ExplainResearch.


Meredith: Robots Gone Wild

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Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site:, Publisher site:


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