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Saturday, June 22, 2013

James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure

DISCLAIMER: I took a full sixteen double-sided handwritten pages of notes culled from my highlights on my Kindle. So much of the below is paraphrased from Bell's words. When I knew it was a direct quotation, I indented same. Any personal opinions of mine appended herein should be obvious.

Now for the best parts.

Here's another how-to book regarding the art of our craft which is recommended reading for all. There is something for each author in this text.

Bell starts off his book with an apt quote:

I have the typewriter and I have white paper and I have me and that should add up to a novel. William Saroyan


Then Bell proceeds to tell us to write fresh, which is the key to originality, which lies within us and comes from who we really are. See my earlier post this month where I really took off on this concept. But Bell summarizes it to mean we should pick an issue we care about, not some mediocre idea that births no emotions. Robert Ludlum said, "I think arresting fiction is written out of a sense of outrage." So the author is seen as a moral voice. Use yours.

Write about what you are passionate about, something you are burning to tell. Playing it safe leads to flat writing. What does your novel ultimately mean? Every story has a meaning. So does every author. Good artists create out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life...that is worth pursuing.

If you stay true to your own awe, your books cannot help being charged with meaning. That's not just a great way to write, it's a great way to live.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? This should be the facile part as we are all individuals. However, I find it hard letting loose, not protecting my ideas and words from my internal editor much less the awaiting critics.

Character first, Bell says. I happen to agree as a pantstering character-driven author type. Obsession by its nature pushes a character to action. So give your main character an obsession and see where it takes him or her. The stronger your characters, the better your plot as the lead provides access to the plot. [Or as I argue below, character = plot.]

The most compelling fiction has death hanging over the lead. It could be physical death or a psychological death to his very well-being or could be a professional death as in "you'll never work again in this town."

If needed, use every human emotion to stir your readers. Also, when writing "hot" as Bell calls it, you will have plenty to say, no writer's block on your horizon. To help you out, here is a compilation of various feelings found via the internet:

  • anger
  • fear
  • envy
  • shame
  • pity
  • indignation
  • surprise
  • wonder
  • happiness
  • courage
  • amusement
  • modesty
  • pain
  • pleasure
  • caution
  • respect
  • love
  • hope
  • faith
  • confusion
  • disgust
  • confidence
  • contempt
  • grief

As per Plot and Structure, Bell notes the first reaction is an emotion. The character then considers (internal thoughts) followed by a decision which leads to action (including dialogue) he undertakes. Plus we all have doubts and inner conflicts. Even if we feel we must win, lack of confidence often bubbles to the surface.

Bell states we love the underdog who overcomes (think Rocky), plus a lead who sacrifices his objective for the better good is also beloved (think Casablanca). Bell offers this wonderful overview of the two types of sacrifices: one is of CHOICE and involves the moral courage to sacrifice his personal goal whereas the other is of BATTLE and requires physical courage to sacrifice his safety.

I love his three rules: (1) act first, explain later; (2) even when you do explain, give only 10%; and (3) set your info/backstory inside confrontation. Another should be his later axiom: keep the readers worried.

Something must matter in every scene. So think of the worst thing that could happen to your lead from the outside, from the inside and even from the world (example: war, strike, famine, plague, hurricane, etc.). Bring to light his dark secrets. Or one of his loved one's. Add more complications in the form of another character, another subplot, a romantic element, etc. A scene needs conflict or it is dull.

Cutting almost always improves your book. Great final editing tip. Another nugget of wisdom from Bell is his "last page resonance" theory. We must affix a feeling to the reader's soul with our final words. This leads to sales of our next books. A fast-moving story is a good thing; one that lingers inside the reader long after is another.

I love themes and Bell concurs stating characters carry theme. Always. So develop yours (may have to be after the first draft is written), decide what is the take-home value for your story? The lesson or insight? The new way of seeing things? Theme emerges without effort in your plot. Bell feels the character arc is part of the subplot. I would have to differ with him here. To me, it is the plot. Maybe because I'm character-driven as an author that I see it this way.

Bell also believes the classics prevail due to their unusual penetration into human character, keeping them fresh and alive. That what makes a plot truly memorable is not all the action but what the action does to the character, what changes he makes. [Which proves my point above about the character arc is the plot.]

However, Bell continues by stating when characters grow they deepen the plot. A strong character arc will enhance any plot. In Bell's words, the plot is the action happening externally while the character arc takes note of what's going on internally. I see it more as action/reaction, cause/effect. I say potato, he says...

Speaking of produce, he has a great layers (as in onions) approach to our core selves. The layers get softer (easier to change) as they move away from our central idea of self. From outer to inner, they are opinions, dominant attitudes, values, core beliefs, then our self-image at the very center.

Here is another great quote, about one of his beloved characters in his Left Behind series, courtesy of Jerry Jenkins:

I didn't kill him off. I found him dead.

That is priceless.

Since I'm a pantster taking dictation from my main characters, or a hybrid plotter at best, I do some of Bell's plotting instruction. I'm also a fan of the Snowflake Pro software, which starts off with a one-sentence summary of my book, then a one-paragraph version, then a back blurb version, on to some of the major plot points as set forth by Campbell, then graduates into chapter summaries which are then written out as first drafts.

Only I've been known to do the process backward. Writing first drafts totally by the seat of my pants. Works for me. For my lead characters, I like the adjective + noun descriptor tied to one emotion and maybe an archetype. All to keep me on track as I follow my characters around.

I really enjoyed Bell's approach to revision as something to strengthen my novel. Addressing clarity issues, dragging middles, cuts to be made and additional info/action needed. Remember to use contractions in dialogue and to employ transitions to avoid jerkiness.

Bell lists some of the main plot patterns and discusses each: the Quest, Revenge/Justice, Adventure, the Chase, One Against (hero type), One Apart (the anti-hero), Power (at a moral cost) and Allegory.

Here's another gem from Bell: the craft of writing is largely solving problems. You write; then you solve.

At the end of this wonderful collection of writing tips is the homework to set aside eight to twelve weeks for. It's a study of your particular genre, and I'm anxious to start mine. But I'm the eternal student and love assignments such as these. Bell even has a back cover blurb formula to go by.

This book is worthy to sit among your private collection at home. Take a weekend to read the whole of it. Then take another couple days to find the salient points for your particular style. Make a checklist and keep it by your writing desk. Best wishes all!

Denise Barker, author + blogger + copy editor

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