Warning: Don’t buy James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish)

I bought Plot & Structure because the issue of how a novel’s narrative moves seems to be understudied by academics, who tend to produce jargon-laden, overly analytical nonsense, and by novelists themselves. I’d really like an equivalent of How Fiction Works, but for an important matter that James Wood disdains (“the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot”). My ideal book would, as Wood says, ask “a critic’s questions and [offer] a writer’s answers.”

Unfortunately, Bell asks few questions and offers fewer answers. This is frustrating to me because, when I started writing, plot was a major weakness. The first two novels I actually wrote to completion had no real plots and thus weren’t very good novels (my Dad pointed out the former and let me infer the latter). Since then I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about plot, and being dissatisfied that I’ve never seen it addressed well elsewhere. Self-consciously literary writers and critics tend to discount it (as Wood does), sometimes to the detriment of their own work.

Genre writers tend to understand plot but either aren’t known to me, critically speaking, or write so poorly on a sentence-by-sentence level that their work isn’t interesting. To me, the best novels combine plot/story and language in a single, cohesive package. That, however, is difficult to do, and the difficulty may explain why we see so many arid academic-feeling novels about, oh, I don’t know, language and pure consciousness and What It Means To Be Alive Today, while so many genre novels with ticking bombs and handsome heroes and buxom heroines who put out surprisingly easily and simple words laid out in simple ways that won’t confuse anyone.

Not only is this dearth annoying because of my own flaws, but because I can’t point aspiring writers to a particular book and say, “Read this.” I can talk about some of my own techniques—I’ve written plot outlines for a number of books I admire, like an artist tracing his favorite paintings in order to imbibe their spirit and technique. With scenes, I’ve learned to ask what each character wants, what stands in his or her way, and why he or she is doing to overcome that barrier. I don’t always have answers—the characters often don’t have them, either—but at least asking the questions provides some structure to what might otherwise be a misaligned mess.

One can’t, of course, separate plot from character, setting, narrating, and other technical features in a novel. It would be stupid to try. But plot is a great blindspot in Wood’s criticism, and it’s a blind spot I aspire to see, or to see someone else seeing.

Bell, however, is blind.

11 responses

  1. Best way to understand plot is to read! I think the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is a great example of a plot that holds, grows, and snowballs its way to the end. I couldn’t put down those books! The plot is just a method of illustrating the idea of female exploitation and abuse. Great, easy, read.

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  2. I found your post because I’m teaching a novel-writing course and for the unit on plot, I use parts of Bell’s book. I agree, though, that it’s awfully thin, and I wish there was something better. I know why there’s not: like you say, literary fiction likes to disdain plot. Novelist and teacher Michelle Hoover has shared her materials from a class she teaches on Plotting the Novel. Here’s a link to the unit on conflict: http://redroom.com/member/michelle-hoover/blog/plotting-the-novel-part-iii-conflict.

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  3. Pingback: The outline’s weight issues | Tufted

  4. I was just about to purchase the book on Plot and Structure, but I felt like having an external opinion. Now reading this makes me really rethink my choice. The book seems to be the only one from a writer who seems well known for his previous attempts at guiding others on the writer’s path.
    I am certainly not one to tell whether, the book should be bought or not. However, I would like to say, it is only by eating the apple that you’ll find out what it really tastes like.
    Thanks for the review, now I’ll eat the apple and see.

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  5. i’ve had this same problem and so many more, and nothing ever really helped me understand what it was i needed to learn or do in order to be able to write my stories. and then about two months ago, i found Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. its more than everything i ever wanted out of a book on writing.
    nothing comes close to the simple and direct clarity and usability of his book. Nothing.

    .jerry cleavers book is a goddamn breath of fresh air. since finding it, i’ve become an extremely prolific writer, writing every day, multiple times per day (waking up early for it, and after work), and loving every minute i spend on it, and looking forward to the next session! it’s never been so easy for me before! ive never had so much fun doing it before either! i’m finally making real progress! i still cant believe how much ive been writing these past two months, compared to all the years ive been trying and failing! i thought i would end up doing the bare minimum of his writing plan, but i start, and then i cant stop, haha.
    i finally feel like becoming a published author isnt a far away dream, its a reality i can almost taste, and ive finally been provided with the tools and methods i needed to work my way towards it!
    it feels so easy! i struggled so much before this book, made so many false starts and lost my fire and had no idea where i was going wrong or why it was dying out. i tried jumping characters and never understood how simple it can really be if you let it!
    im about 40% done my first draft of my first real novel, and i can barely keep up with my own drive and excitement.
    previous to this book, ive never been past 20 written pages in a straightforward sequence before giving up in a fit of frustration and confusion and uncertainty, or getting carried away into other future or past events and not knowing how to connect them.
    this book did away with my doubts and my problems. there is no bullshit fluff. this is solid instruction. i dont have to tell you how tiresome it is to be sorting through the garbage that most books are made out of.

    here’s some golden excerpts (though the whole book is like this, solid wisdom.):

    “WANT, OBSTACLE, ACTION: go to them first—always. Check for those elements before you do anything else. If you don’t, and if the problem is a lack of those elements (which it almost always is), you will waste a lot of time and energy working elsewhere and never fix the problem. It’s like waxing your car when it needs a new engine. No matter how much you get it to shine, you’ll never make it run right.
    So, once again, the first question always is, WHO WANTS WHAT? If no one wants anything, that’s the problem. That’s where you need to work. But don’t gloss over it. Don’t decide the character wants and wants enough without taking a careful look at what you have on the page. Do not work in your head. The only thing that counts, the only thing that exists, is what’s on the page. So, find the want on the page and mark where it first appears. Then answer these questions: Does it appear as early as possible? How strong is it? Could it be stronger? Is the character as determined/driven as he can be to get what he wants? Does he feel that he absolutely cannot go on with things the way they are, that things must change or else? (Is he as in love as Romeo or Scarlett or Gatsby, as obsessed as Ahab or Hamlet?) Why does he care? What are his specific and personal reasons?
    Note that the want does not always express itself first. It’s always there, but not visible until it is denied or thwarted, as in Hamlet when his father’s ghost appears or in my Larry scene when I see my wife kissing Larry. Hamlet was not wishing, I hope Dad doesn’t show up and order me to avenge his death. Nor was I thinking, I hope my wife’s not cheating on me. Nevertheless, the want must be there even though it’s buried since it’s satisfied.
    The second question is always WHAT’S THE OBSTACLE? Where does it first appear on the page? Find it, and mark it. Does it appear as early as possible? Could it be stronger? Is it as determined/driven to block the character as the character is determined to overcome it? Could the character do nothing and suffer no injury? If the character can ignore the obstacle and get away with it, you have a false obstacle/false conflict, which means no conflict, no drama, no story.
    Once you have the want and obstacle cranked up to the maximum (without violating the sense of your story—a character can be driven without being as whacked out as Ahab or Hamlet), then it’s time for ACTION. WHAT’S THE CHARACTER DOING TO OVERCOME THE PROBLEM? Is he making an all-out direct attack upon (or defense against) the obstacle? Where does this action first appear on the page? Find it. Mark it. Could it happen sooner? What else could the character do? Could he do more? Is he using himself to the maximum? If not, make it happen. Remember, thinking is action if it’s struggling with and planning how to attack or defend against the obstacle. Remember, the obstacle must counterattack/fight back/resist with equal force.
    Now, if you have WANT, OBSTACLE, ACTION working, it’s very rare that you’ll be in any real trouble. The RESOLUTION, which is simply a matter of a victory or a defeat, should not be a problem if you have a deep want, a threatening obstacle, and a character who is using all he has to overcome the problem. With those elements, the one, two, three of dramatic momentum, working, it’s impossible to have a weak story.
    Want, obstacle, action, and resolution are elements of form. The other crucial concern is not form, but a product of it. It’s EMOTION, and it’s more of an ingredient, a seasoning, that’s all over the place, rather than part of form. But it doesn’t matter what we call it, as long as we’re aware of what the character is feeling at all times. A good way to get to the emotions in the character is to ask what the character’s worries, fears, and hopes are at every important moment in the story. These should appear on every page and often several times on a page and should be expressed through both the character’s inner thoughts and his actions, which are not always the same.
    Anyone who is wrestling with a threatening problem that can harm him or something dear to him will be worried and afraid of what might happen while, at the same time, hoping that he can do something to win out. With such a threat, the emotion is intense and nearly constant and needs to be expressed in the character whenever you have the chance. Go through your story and ask of every line possible, “What are the character’s worries, fears, and hopes?” Remember, emotion is the payoff. It’s where the ultimate connection is made, where identification occurs, where the reader becomes the character. If the reader doesn’t know where the character is emotionally, he doesn’t know where he himself is, and he drifts away from the story.
    The other concern is a matter of technique: SHOWING. Showing is creating the experience, making it happen right before our eyes, word for word, moment by moment, rather than describing it or generalizing about it. Showing is your constant method of presenting your story, your ongoing concern at all times. The purest and most effective form of showing is scene. You need to be showing as much as possible.
    Those are your basic elements—CONFLICT (WANT + OBSTACLE), ACTION, RESOLUTION, EMOTION, SHOWING. They need to be working not only in the overall story, but in every single scene. For every scene and every chapter, you must deal with want, obstacle, action, resolution. Every scene is a struggle/confrontation between two forces, between the want and the obstacle. Every scene has a resolution—not a final resolution, but a scene resolution. In other words, every scene is a little story in itself. And at the end of each scene, things are worse than at the beginning. In stories, things get worse and worse, the plot thickens and complicates, until the final resolution—victory or defeat.
    Romeo and Juliet, for example, is one complication after another. Shortly after Romeo and Juliet are secretly married, Romeo tries to stop his friend Mercutio from fighting with Tybalt, but instead causes Mercutio’s death. In his anguish and fury, Romeo kills Tybalt and is later banished for it. Her lover gone, Juliet is despondent. That’s bad, but to make matters worse, her father proposes that she marry Paris. When Juliet objects, her father flies into a rage and orders her to marry Paris and sets a date for the wedding. Shakespeare heaps one difficulty after another onto the “star-crossed” lovers. Stars are crossed—who crossed them? Shakespeare.
    Things may get better in a story, or seem to, briefly. If they do, it’s only a setup to knock them down and make things even worse—to reenergize the characters and the drama. Each scene needs to end in the mind of the character, who is more upset than he was at the opening and stewing over the new complication besetting him and what to do now. If things aren’t worse at the end of every scene and every chapter, your story is marking time, standing still. If the story isn’t moving, the reader will move away.
    It’s these basic elements that make you or break you. They’re all you need. If you get them right, any other mistakes you make won’t matter. Every story that I’ve seen that failed was lacking in one of these basic elements. So, the first thing to do when rewriting, always, is to go over your story and check for these elements.”

    and another:

    “Ah ha! That was it. It made perfect sense. That’s what I needed to do. I went straight home and sat down to write a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I stared at the paper. A beginning? What did that mean, exactly? And what was the middle of a story, and how was it different from the beginning and the end? And the end, that’s what I was having all the trouble with. Damn, I was back where I started.
    At the next class, I asked, “Last time you said to write a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but I’m not sure what they are exactly.”
    “Well,” he said with a little smile, “the beginning comes first. The middle comes next. And the end comes last.”
    Everyone laughed. I didn’t ask again.
    But now I know what they are, and so do you. The beginning of a story is the emergence of the conflict {“want meets obstacle). The middle is the struggle (action). The end is the resolution. They’re already covered by conflict, action, and resolution, so there’s no need to get into terms like beginning, middle, and end that are once removed and unnecessary.
    Then there’s this thing they call character development. I often have people come to me and say, “My plots are good, but my characters aren’t developed enough.” That tells me that the plot isn’t working well either. What does character development mean? How does a character develop? How do we get a sense of who he is? A character is expressed (developed) by the way he handles his problems—how he acts when he’s faced with an obstacle or a threat. Action is character. If you write a story using the model I’ve given you, your character will develop whether he or you want him to or not. He must develop. He must get off his ass and act in a meaningful way no matter what. This story model makes him act, makes him develop.”

    and one more:

    ” Likeable character. Few things are more intimidating than having someone tell you that your character isn’t likeable. And a good way to get stuck is to try to make him likeable. How would you do that? Have him help an old lady across the street or donate money to the poor? Likeability isn’t a technical term. But identification is. Identification we can make happen. A character who is struggling with a threatening problem and is worried and frightened that it will defeat him will cause us to identify. Identifying is liking.
    What about the need to pick a story that’s interesting? One writing book says, “If you’re going to bother to write a story, for God’s sakes, be sure to make it interesting.” The book fails to tell you what creates interest in a story or how to make it happen. The book did not even define “interesting” in a useable way. Be interesting! How intimidating is that? And why be just interesting? Why not be fascinating, captivating, mesmerizing? The answer to “interesting” is the same as the answer to likeability. Identification. If you’ve identified, you’re interested—at the very least. Creating identification (revealing character through conflict and struggle) is what it’s all about. Don’t let yourself get distracted.
    Here’s a list of other concepts we don’t get into and don’t need to get into because the story model we use covers them all: Inciting incident. Plot points. Back story. Through line. Sequels. Verisimilitude. Believability. Beats. Context. Text. Story spine. Story event. Story value. Sequence. Story arc. Character arc. Arch plot. Mini plot. Anti plot.
    How would you like to be loaded down with all that when you set out to create a story? These concepts are the result of examining story from the outside rather than from the inner dynamics of the characters and the conflict.
    That said, if any of these issues that I’m calling unnecessary or burdensome strike your fancy or if you run into anything that sounds like it would make your task easier, try it. If it works for you, it’s good. Just don’t load yourself down with a lot of unnecessary things to do because you feel you’re supposed to.”

    the man is a god.

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  6. Thanks for the advice, Jake, but I’m going to buy Plot & Structure anyway. My reasons:

    1. I have just been reading another book by James Scott Bell (27 Fiction Blunders – And How to Avoid them) and it was excellent.

    2. Bell himself appears to believe that Plot & Structure is his best book on writing.

    3. His book has ratings of 4.6 (Barnes & Noble, from 79 reviews), 4.7 (Amazon, from 297 reviews) and 4.1 (Goodreads, from 3229 ratings). These are excellent ratings and reflect the views of a very large number of people.

    I may also give Jerry Cleaver a go too. I find that the more sources I use, the better view I get.

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  7. The Jerry Cleaver suggestion stinks of spam. I actually learned a bit from JSB’s Plot & Structure book, but prefer his recent Super Structure. I’ve read dozens of books on plot and found you can really over-complicate things. I have spreadsheets and flowcharts for acts, sequences, scenes, arcs… so much so I can’t begin writing because it now appears there is too much to “figure out” before I can start. Super Structure combined with Take Off Your Pants by Libby Hawker have been a breath of fresh air.

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  8. Thanks for the idea about working out the plotline of a novel you admire. I had never considered analysing a book in such a mechanical way, but I can see how it could help with other writing issues, such as character development and “show versus tell”.

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