Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish by James Scott Bell (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2004. 240 pp)

James Scott Bell attended the University of California, Santa Barbara and studied writing with Raymond Carver. He graduated from the University of Southern California law school. He teaches novel writing at Pepperdine University and has published numerous articles and books in many genres.

New Year’s Resolution

While many will wake up on January 1, emerging slowly from the drunken revelry surrounding the final day of 2015, they’ll don some running shoes and get to work at that weight loss resolution. The changing calendar offers opportunity for something new. When better to enact a habit than on a day off after ample reflection of the choices of the past year?

As for me, I’ll probably not be getting my jog on. I definitely should. But, fitness has never been my kind of resolution.

Instead, I want to use my resolutions on passions and new ideas. To wit, I love writing and I have always wanted to commit to crafting something of length. Thus, I resolve to awake a little earlier every morning and write toward something creative.

With this goal, my desire has pointed me toward books on writing. Therefore, James Scott Bell’s book on writing, Plot & Structure, provides much influence for my goals.

On Writing

A handbook for the aspiring writers among us, Plot & Structure offers tips and insights around exactly that, plot and structure.

Bell’s key foundation for writing a good plot situates on what he calls the LOCK system. It includes an interesting lead character:

“The point here is that a strong plot starts with an interesting Lead character. In the best plots, that Lead is compelling, someone we have to watch throughout the course of the novel” (10).

The lead character needs an objective:

“Objective is the driving force of fiction. It generates forward motion and keeps the Lead from just sitting around.
An objective can take either of two forms: to get something or to get away from something” (11).

Any story operates around a confrontation:

“The reason is confrontation. Opposition from characters and outside forces brings your story fully to life. If your Lead moves toward his objective without anything in his way, we deprive readers of what they secretly want: worry. Readers want to fret about the Lead, keeping an intense emotional involvement all the way through the novel” (12).

And of course, there ought to be a knockout ending:

“Readers of commercial fiction want to see a knock out at the end. A literary novel can play with a bit more ambiguity. In either case, the ending must have knockout power” (13).

No matter the genre of the story you desire to write, these four elements require addressing.

Learning to Break the Rules

My interest in story surrounds the way in which you can break the rules. When I played in a band, I often wanted to write music that sat on perimeter of structure. As a musician, the only way you can play with the rules and break them selectively is to know the rules intimately.

Even though Bell leans toward the commercialized fiction that doesn’t quite connect with my forte, receiving a better understanding of the rules helps mightily in my quest toward a writing resolution.

For this reason, Plot & Structure succeeds in its educational aims.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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