"Plot & Structure," James Scott Bell

Pros: Detailed; specific; creative; incredibly helpful
Cons: None
Rating: 5 out of 5

Review first posted 6/7/2005
Review book courtesy of F&W Publications

A couple of years ago I reviewed William Noble’s Conflict, Action and Suspense. That book had some good points to make, but it also had some problems–overblown examples, flawed assertions, easily-dated material, and some relatively dry text. In contrast, James Scott Bell’s “Plot & Structure” (from the “Writing Great Fiction” series from Writer’s Digest Books) is designed to help in many of the same areas, but it has a greater scope and suffers from none of the flaws that Noble’s book does.

Bell starts from the assertion that anyone can learn to craft a good plot. Whether you prefer to plan every detail of your stories in advance or fly by the seat of your pants, you can still learn all the elements of an engaging story and use them to draw your reader in. Bell has spent a great deal of time analyzing the plot structures of those books that consistently draw people in, and he has come up with a number of systems, theories and exercises which he shares in this book.

And I discovered the most incredible thing. The Big Lie was a lie. A person could learn to write because I was learning.

Bell addresses just about every aspect of plotting I could think of, from “What’s a Plot, Anyway?” to generating ideas, dealing with beginnings (and middles, and endings), handling individual scenes, crafting complex plots, integrating character arc into plot, different systems of crafting plot, revising plots, plot patterns, plot problems, cures for plot problems, and even checklists to go through to make sure you’re remembering everything as you write your book.

This is a very nuts-and-bolts kind of book. My last favorite writing book was extremely inspirational and very much the opposite (Heather Sellers’ Page After Page), so maybe it’ll surprise some people that I’m so enamored of this one, too. However, I don’t believe that only one kind of writing instruction or thought–abstract/creative vs. nuts-and-bolts/practical–is “right”. Both methods have their places in a writer’s life, and I’ll go out on a limb and say that I think both of these authors would agree with me here. These are both very balanced books. Neither one insists “this one way of writing is right for everyone and everything else is wrong!” Both understand that different people work in different ways, but they also both understand that everyone could benefit from trying new things. Both authors are of the belief that writing can be taught, and that writers willing to pour their heart and soul into learning their craft can most definitely learn and improve.

One of Bell’s major contributions to plot theory is his “LOCK” system, which stands for Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knockout. In order to have a gripping plot you must have a lead, he must have an objective, there must be confrontation, and the ending must have “knockout power.” There are a million-and-ten possible variations on this simple structure, but this basic idea alone can help a struggling writer to get a grip on the basics of plot.

Bell uses examples from classic and popular fiction (everything from “Gone with the Wind” and “Catcher in the Rye” to various Dean Koontz novels). He has a strong and interesting voice–perhaps not as wildly entertaining as Nancy Kress (but then who is?), but definitely enjoyable. Unlike Noble’s book Bell’s doesn’t drag, nor does it read like a dry textbook.

Just walk around thinking about your draft. Be careful not to bump into walls or other people.

I highly recommend “Plot & Structure” for anyone who writes or plans to write fiction. It’s been a while since I sat down to write fiction, but this book makes me want to sit and work on a novel right this moment. It’s clear, coherent, practical, and immensely useful to any student of the craft.

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