It’s very easy to pick up a published novel and think this writing lark must be fairly easy – look how many people do it, after all. Indeed, a polished plot with a well-defined structure is a hallmark of a good novel, and it may be this more than anything else to which writers aspire. After all, we may all yearn to write the next Tyler Durden or Lestat, but what good are memorable characters if they have nothing to do?
Of course, if you’ve ever tried to write a work of fiction of any great length, you’ll know it’s far from easy. The professionals make it look simple because it’s their job to do so, but in actual fact, there are a lot of mechanics under the hood of any novel that’s worth reading. Still, before you throw your hands up in despair and claim that you shall never be able to string together a coherent plot, or assemble a strong structure, take pause. As with most elements of writing fiction, someone has taken the sting out of it for you. That someone is thriller writer James Scott Bell, and his Plot & Structure manual should form the cornerstone of your ‘how to’ library.
Plot & Structure is a remarkably easy read, and contains the wisdom Bell has gleaned after writing several successful novels. He uses the book to introduce new writers to his own personal plot system, known as LOCK – Lead, Objective, Conflict, Knock out. It’s very straightforward – you need a strong Lead character (think Maximus) with a strong Objective (to avenge the deaths of his wife and son). Throw in some Conflict (a mad Emperor with a bad case of the green-eyed monster) and you’ll have a real Knock out ending with your lead overcomes it all (our hero defeats the bad guy in front of a huge audience, no less). Ensure you have these elements and you’ll be well on your way to a page-turning plot. For a fuller discussion, check out Tony Noland’s Write Anything post on using the LOCK system.
Of course, the book isn’t just about plot – the clue is, after all, in the title. Bell also focuses upon the three act structure, a concept which would appear to have been around since time immemorial. At its simplest and most crude, the three act structure rests upon a story having a beginning, middle and end, but Bell elucidates upon this principle to illuminate the fact that each act must end with a point of no return. If the hero can walk away at any point then why doesn’t he? Everything in the story must serve the move the plot forward, including the structure. Bell uses the example of Star Wars – Act I ends when Luke’s family are brutally murdered by stormtroopers. There’s no way he can go back to his old way of life, and he must leave Tattooine with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Act II sees him learning the ways of the Force, but it’s not until the death of Obi-Wan that Act III can begin. It is this which forces his hand (no pun intended). Your structure must be the same – each act must have an event which forces the onward trajectory of the plot.
But where do you get your plots? Have no fear, Bell devotes a chapter to a myriad of ways to generate plots. There are lots of methods on offer, and of course there’s no reason why you couldn’t use these for any form of fiction writing. The principle is always the same, even if the intended outcome is different. In this case, Bell is discussing plots for novels. Of course, if you apply his LOCK system and the concept of the three-act structure to whichever plot seems most promising, you’re well on your way to figuring out your first (or next) novel.
This is where a lot of writers differ as to method. Some people like to make it up as they go along, others have a set of important scenes and they simply “write their way” between them, and yet more writers methodically plan out each scene, altering the sequence of events if it serves the plot better to do so. Bell devotes space to the different ways a writer can outline their plot, including the now famous idea of writing scenes on cards that can be re-arranged at will. If you’ve never written to an outline before, it can be an eye-opener to see how much faster you’ll write when you’re not pursuing dead ends, and if you’ve always been an outliner, then maybe you’ll gain some new insights from a different process on offer. None of it is set in stone – it’s just wisdom aimed at helping you get that book from your head onto paper.
Even if you get stuck as you go along, Bell has ways to move the plot along, or get the creative juices going. Again, you don’t have to restrict the use of these methods to just novel writing, but they’re valuable methods for unlocking your work, and may even help if you use them in tandem with the plot generation methods.
As a final note, Bell concludes the book with a chapter on revision and self-editing. He does also have a separate book dedicated solely to this, but it’s nice that he includes it within Plot & Structure, as if he’s so confident that his advice will work for you that you’ll end up with something worth revising. Really, if you do follow his advice, then I don’t see how you couldn’t finish that novel you’ve always wanted to write. He includes exercises at the end of each chapter to put the principles into practice, as well as plenty of examples so you can see how they work in a real piece of writing.
All in all, I actually can’t recommend it enough, and if you’re serious about being a writer, then you really need to read this book.