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

Other ways to engage online:

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Franklin: Writes Structured True Stories

Franklin_review_08212015Jon Franklin. 1994. Writing for Story:  Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner.  New York: Penguin Books (Plume Book).

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Having grown up reading Boy’s Life, Reader’s Digest and Life Magazine, I love a good, real-life story. But as I remember it, even fiction once focused on ordinary life lived extra-ordinarily. The newer idea that fiction would be structured in the manner of an Indiana Jones movie—jumping from one action scene to another—still bothers my sensitivities. Perhaps, this new fictional form reflects a new reality—a life lived with less time, more routine, and impatience throughout.

In his book, Writing for Story, Jon Franklin likewise reminisces about the move away from short story publication with a slightly different focus. Traditionally, these short stories offered aspiring fiction writers an entry point for learning their craft. Back then, young writers could easily write and sell short stories. Today, the non-fiction narrative (NFN) provides a new entry point. Consequently, Franklin views NFN as “a profoundly important event in the history of modern literature.” (27)

According to Franklin, the NFN “combines the appeal, the excitement, and reading ease of fiction with the specific information content of nonfiction.” (26) The NFN likewise adopts the structure of a short story with a complication, development, and a resolution and marked throughout by twists and complications (21-22).

Jon Franklin is a professional writer and has taught both writing and journalism.  He has written a number of books. He received two Pulitzer prizes for his non-fiction writing while working as a journalist for the Baltimore Evening Sun[1]. In Writing for Story, Franklin writes in 10 chapters:

  1. The New School for Writers.
  2. Kelly’s Monster.
  3. The Ballad of Old Man Peters.
  4. Stalking the True Short Story.
  5. Structure.
  6. The Outline.
  7. Structuring the Rough.
  8. Contemplating the Structure.
  9. Polishing.
  10. The Nature of Art and Artists (xiii).

 Acknowledgments and a preface precede these chapters.

Appendices at the end of the book outline NFN stories featured in Chapters 2 and 3. The two short stories—Mrs. Kelly’s Monster and The Ballad of Old Man Peters

illustrate Franklin’s writing points in the chapters that follow.  Mrs. Kelly’s Monster earned Franklin his first Pulitzer prize for feature writing in 1979.

Franklin defines a story with these words:

“A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” (71)

The need for a “sympathetic character” explains why, for example, one sees very few economists starring in television dramas—almost no one considers a brainiac researcher a sympathetic character[2]. Franklin observes that:

“Complications that are more fundamental to the human condition, involving love, hate, pain, death, and such, are very basic to the human dilemma and thus are fair game for the professional storyteller.” (75).

Here is a second reason why economists do not normally appear in television dramas:  the complications they face and solve are typically abstract and not basic, not matters of life or death. When the government shuts down, economists are not typically among the essential personnel required to work the night shift.  By contrast, medical personnel, police, fire fighters, and military personnel are considered essential and often appear in television dramas.

Franklin’s final point is about the resolution of the story:

“A resolution is simply any change in the character or situation that resolves the complication…A resolution, like a complication, can be either physical or psychological, external or internal… A resolution, by definition, destroys tension.” (76-77)

Resolutions are helpful to authors because while complications can exist without a resolution, every resolution has a complication. News stories are often endings without complications and may soon be forgotten.  Resolutions with interesting complications involving sympathetic characters are priceless.  Franklin’s advice?  “Never fixate on just one part of a story.” (78-79)

Franklin offers insight into the perianal question:  does a story have to have a happy ending?  He opines: “successful stories generally have happy endings…[because] the reader’s world has a surplus of sad endings…What the reader really wants is to be show some insightful choices that have positive results.” In a practical sense, sad endings are harder to write successfully so young writers should be wary of them (80-82).

It is hard to capture all the good advice that Franklin offers in a short review. A key takeaway is this—outline the structure of the story and pay attention to transitions that are labored. The problem may be in the underlying structure, not the polish of the writing. Another is to start with the climax, not the opening. Foreshadowing leads to the climax so starting the climax helps clarify what to foreshadow.  A further point is to show emotion, don’t just talk about it.

Jon Franklin‘s Writing for Story is a helpful book for authors which bears reading and re-reading. Even though I write primarily non-fiction, I still write a lot of stories and tell a lot of stories when I preach. Knowing the rules for story writing makes me a better writer. It may help you too.



[2] In fact, The Brainiac is the name of a cartoon villain (

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