Bell: Plot a Good Novel

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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?

Introduction

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).

Organization

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).

Anthropology

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.

Assessment

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

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

 

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Warren Writes to Grow Characters

susan_may_warren_review_10282016

Warren Writes to Grow Characters

Susan May Warren.[1] 2016. The Story Equation. Minneapolis: My Book Therapy.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What makes the character in a novel come to life? Why do some readers behave like crack addicts with lives consumed in reading? Why do some writers obsess with feeding this addiction, like wannabe drug pushers, and, in the process, finding fame and fortune? While these groups encompass a lot of people, my own interest is more personal—as I write my own memoir, how am I to understand my own character development? These questions brought me to focus on Susan Warren’s book, The Story Equation.

Introduction

Warren writes:

“How well your readers connect with and care about this character determines the success of a story. In other words, if they’re emotionally gone on the journey with the character, suffered with and experienced the joys and triumphs of the character, as well as learned the lessons and truths, only then have you, the author, done your job.” (10)

She calls her method for accomplishing and maintaining this connection the Story Equation (13), which she describes as a multi-tier recipe (33-34). Her emphasis on the inner journey rather than the outer journey of her characters (plot) helps place her method in the genre of inspirational fiction.

Outline of Technique

In broad strokes, Warren sees a story having four acts, each with its own emotional purpose, which she describes as a character change journey (16).[2]

Act 1

In act 1, the author introduces the main character who confronts an inciting incident. She writes: “your key job is to help readers identify with the character, feel his journey, and triumph with him” (19). The character’s biography should be revealed through stories that illustrate character but do not slow the action (20-21). The inciting incident challenges the character both to step out of his normal routine and to grow out of the previous mindset.

Act 2

In act 2, our character meets obstacles that must be overcome; otherwise, the story dies as our hero melts before the challenge. Warren calls the motivation to rise and overcome the obstacles a noble quest (23).

Act 3

In act 3, our character must fight to overcome both internal and external obstacles (25). Warren writes:

“at that moment we are forced to confront the lies we believe, our broken behaviors (flaws), and our fears. This is called the Black Moment Effect … [and] we see the truth.” (26)

This Black Moment Effect is critical in inspirational plot development because the character must see that to triumph, he must sacrifice to overcome the lie that has held him back—the person he was must die in order for him to move forward and both become a new person and triumph against his obstacles (27).

Act 4

In act 4, we witness the character’s triumph. To show change, a character must “make a Grand Gesture, sacrifice something, engage in a Final Battle” (28). Because changes remain difficult, it can be no less complicated or dramatic for our characters. The whole point of an inspirational novel, however, is to show that change is, in fact, possible but it cannot happen without sacrifice (27).

Multiple Passes Through Text

In case you thought writing inspirational fiction was easy and straightforward, Warren makes two more passes through these four acts. First, the focus is on the internal journey; second, the focus shifts to the external story (plot) structure; third, the focus shifts to how the internal and the external story relate to one another. Warren refers to this second pass as the Story Equation, which she defines with an acronym (LINDY HOP);[3] she refers third pass as the character change journey. Clearly, it would take a small book to explain her approach adequately, even in a review.

Susan May Warren grew up in Wayzata, Minnesota, studied Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota,[4] and spent eight years working in missions in Siberia, Russia. She is the author of numerous books[5] and works as a writing coach. She is also a great speaker and very approachable person.[6]

Assessment

Susan May Warren’s The Story Equation is an intriguing book—easy to read, but worthy of deep reflection. I found myself adding new chapters to my memoir, as I reflected on my own life’s journey. Her insights into the human condition are profound, leaving me curious to read more of her work. She is also readable, illustrating points on character development with movie examples, such the internal life of Benjamin Martin from the film, The Patriot.[7]

Footnotes

[1] http://www.SusanMayWarren.com, www.MyBookTherapy.com, and www.LearnHowtoWriteaNovel.com.

[2] Because stories are typically said to have three acts, she divides act 2 into two parts: 2A and 2B. For simplicity’s sake, I stick with four acts in this review.

[3] LINDY HOP = Life, Inciting incident, Noble quest, Disappointments, Y in the road, Help, Overhaul, and Perfect ending.

[4] As an undergraduate at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, the graduate school at University of Minnesota tried to recruit me at one point but I told them that I had enough cold weather in Ames! Later I regretted turning them down, because it was a great school.

[5] For a list of books, either check with Amazon.com or visit her official website, cited earlier.

[6] I met Susan at a conference sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers fellowship in Woodbridge, Virginia on October 22, 2016.

[7] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0187393/videoplayer/vi100139289?ref_=tt_ov_vi

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