Tag Archives: James Scott Bell

Book Review: Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, By KM Weiland

There are many fine books on how to structure a novel. James Scott Bell’s classic, Plot & Structure, comes to mind. Add to the list author and blogger KM Weiland’s latest book, Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.

Weiland takes an analytical approach to the topic, but writes in clear prose and uses examples from film and literature to re-enforce her points. The book is divided into three parts: story structure, scene structure, and sentence structure. Like Bell, Weiland advocates the three-act story structure. She takes the reader through the various plot points that propel the story forward. She also covers topics like effective beginnings, opening chapter pitfalls, introducing characters, stakes and setting, and when to bait the hook and when to initiate the inciting incident.

One of the best aspects of this book is the detailed explanation how to handle the third act. This is where books succeed or fail. Weiland presents a comprehensive analysis of the climax, resolution and effective endings. “The Climax is where you have to pull out your big guns. This is a series of scenes that needs to wow the reader. Dig deep for your most extraordinary and imaginative ideas,” she writes.

She advises writers to set up the ending by foreshadowing it. “Inevitability and unexpectedness are the two key ingredients necessary in every perfect ending. And yet they’re incompatible…The trick to successfully combining inevitability and unexpectedness rests primarily upon two different factors: foreshadowing and complications,” she writes.

While the section on story structure is worth the price of the book alone, Weiland offers a detailed discussion of how to build effective scenes in the following section. Weiland breaks down the Scene (capital S) into two segments: scene and sequel. The scene is the action part and consists of three elements: goal-conflict-disaster. The sequel is the reaction part of the Scene: reaction, dilemma and decision.

Some of the insights I found most compelling included:

“Character and change. That’s what story is all about. We take a person and we force him onto a journey that will change him forever.”

“Readers love action (whatever its manifestation), and authors can’t create a story without it. But without character reactions, all that juicy action will lack context, and, as a result, meaning.

This book is an essential resource, especially for new writers.

KM Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction. She is the author of six novels and another excellent craft of fiction book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Her blog, Wordplay, is an excellent resource for writers.

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Character Study: Breaking Bad’s Walter White

Memorable characters in fiction possess one essential quality: complexity. Fiction writers can draw valuable lessons from watching the progression over five seasons of the main character Walter White in the AMC Emmy Award-winning series, Breaking Bad. Characters don’t get more complex than Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston.

White’s evolution from a down-on-his-luck high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer to a drug kingpin might strain credibility, but series creator Vince Gilligan pulls it off brilliantly. At first, the viewer sympathizes with Walter’s plight as he goes into business with a former slacker student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) cooking and selling methamphetamine. The motivation behind the meth business is Walter’s desire to pay for his medical treatment and leave a nest egg for his wife and family after he is gone.

In his excellent craft book, Plot and Structure, author James Scott Bell discussed the three-act structure. Bell stated that writers at the end of Act One must thrust their main character into the main conflict by having him walk through a door through which he could never return. This is manifested by key decisions the character must make that put him to the test. For example, a character must kill another person to protect himself, even though it violates his moral code. Walter White walks through many such doors and each time, he loses much of his former self.

What viewers discovered as the series progressed was that there were two Walter Whites: the downtrodden school teacher and faithful, nebbish parent, and the bright, driven chemist who hungers for power and respect. This hidden side of Walter is embodied by his pseudonym, Heisenberg, which came from the physicist whose uncertainty principle meant that the presence of an observer changed what was being observed.

For a period of time, Walter White leads two lives: the dying parent struggling to keep it together with his family and the grim, determined drug lord, decisive and cunning. It’s an absorbing character study. As the drug trade puts Walter and Jesse in increasingly dangerous situations, Walter’s true nature emerges. The meek high school teacher becomes a ruthless, win-at-all-costs maverick who still wants to hold onto his family, though his activities put them in grave danger.

As the New York Times critic A.O. Scott points out in a lengthy piece on Breaking Bad, Walter White justifies his monstrous behavior again and again. “Walter is almost as good at self-justification as he is at cooking meth, and over the course of the series, he has not hesitated to give high-minded reasons for his lowest actions,” Scott wrote. “In his own mind, he remains a righteous figure, an apostle of family values, free enterprise and scientific progress.”

It’s a fascinating character study that every fiction writer should examine.

What characters from contemporary television and film do you find most memorable?

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First Revisions: Shaping the Mound of Clay

You finished your first draft. Hurray! You’ve set it aside for a period of time to gain distance and perspective. It’s time to dive back in for that first round of revisions. Not so fast.

Getting those initial revisions right is crucial to your success. How well you do may make the difference between a publishable manuscript and a deeply flawed work.

Picture that first draft as a mound of clay. There is a shape to it, but it needs definition. Maybe it’s a pyramid, but you picture a house surrounded by a picket fence, or a high-tech spaceship. The first revision is your best opportunity to shape the manuscript as you work toward the final draft.

You may have the urge to plunge in and start re-writing scenes, reinventing characters, and adding new dimensions to the story. That’s only natural, but first you should put on your reader’s glasses and go through the entire draft. Make notes in the margin or use the Comment feature of your software program. Circle typos and grammatical mistakes, but don’t get hung up on grammar or spelling. Focus on the big three: story, character, theme.

Some helpful questions as you read through your draft are:

  • What is the story really about?
  • What does the main character want, fear? What is the main character’s goal? Is it clear to the reader?
  • What is standing in the main character’s way of achieving the goal?
  • Is the central conflict evident to the reader?
  • Is there enough tension and uncertainty?
  • Does the main character engage the reader?
  • Why should the reader care?
  • Is the story plausible (note I didn’t write ‘believable’)?
  • Are there any scenes that can be cut?
  • Is there a theme? Is it apparent to the reader? How well-developed is the theme?

Don’t make any revisions until you’ve read the entire first draft. Then go back and read your notes or comments. A couple of things should become clear: where the holes in the story exist and where the theme needs to be embellished.

James Scott Bell, in his book, Plot & Structure, urged writers to get through the reading of the first draft as quickly as possible. “Do not get bogged down in details at this point,” he wrote. “What you want is the big picture, the overall impression. You can take very brief notes if you wish, but try not to slow down for any considerable period.

“You should work from the big issues down through the small ones,” he wrote.

When I reviewed the first draft of my novel, Small Change, I discovered I had started the story in the wrong place. It wasn’t a simple fix, either. I made the agonizing decision to eliminate the first four chapters, which, among other benefits, trimmed down an unwieldy manuscript.

Once you’ve reviewed your notes and comments, it’s time to go to work. Take on the big changes first, as Bell advised. Fix the story. This will involve changes to the characters. Pay attention to the way the story flows as you work. Mold that piece of clay.

The second draft is where you discover your story, hone it, strengthen your characters, shore up the weak spots, trim the fat. In most instances, you won’t have your final draft, but you’ll be a lot closer.

How do you tackle that first revision? Do you dive right in or read the manuscript?

 

 

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You’ve Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

I finally finished the first draft of my novella, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media. This one took only seven months, but it was a novella.

A writer who finishes a first draft may experience a giddy desire to dive right in and begin revising the manuscript. After all, the writer should keep the momentum going, right? No. Writers must resist this urge. Take a break from your first draft. Walk away. Really. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Stephen King advised in his classic craft book, On Writing:

“How long you let your book rest—sort of like bread dough between kneading—is entirely up to you,” King wrote, “but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks.” The layoff gives the writer distance and perspective.

“With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development…It’s amazing how some of these things can elude the writer while he or she is occupied with the daily work of composition.” For King, the most glaring errors have to do with character motivation. For every writer it will be different.

Here’s what James Scott Bell wrote about first drafts in his classic craft book, Plot & Structure: “Your first draft needs a cooling-off period. So forget all about your novel and do something else…All the while, your first draft is cooling in the recesses of your brain, where a lot of good stuff happens, unnoticed.”

When a writer finishes a first draft, it’s a cause for celebration. It’s a milestone. The writer should give himself a round of applause. Have some chocolate or a glass of your favorite beverage. There’s no empirical data to support this, but I would assert that most novice writers never get through the first draft. It’s an achievement.

Here’s what I do after finishing a first draft:

  • Do something nice. Give yourself a reward. Buy a new book or a CD.
  • Work on something completely different for the next four to six weeks. Try a short story. Try something in a different genre. Consult your ideas folder.
  • Read that bestseller you’ve been meaning to check out. Read it again with an attention to how the author told the story.

When the writer comes back to the first draft after an extended break, she will see the work in a new light. The writer will instantly spot all the flaws and the brilliant passages. The writer will see elements of the story that don’t work, scenes that don’t sing, or perhaps characters that don’t come alive. The writer may well discover the story starts in the wrong place. That dramatic scene on page 75 is the real beginning. The stuff that came before is just back story. The writer may see a character she loved when she created her, but after review, this character just gets in the way of the core story.

The good news is that in most cases, a writer will finish the first draft of her next book sooner than the first. Here’s how long it has taken me to finish my first drafts:

First novel: Small Change, 12 months, 126,000 words (final draft was 103,000 words)

Second novel: Color Him Father, 8 months, 117,000 words (still in draft)

Third novel: Bonus Baby (National Novel Writing Month novel), 30 days, 53,000 words (still in draft).

Fourth novel, Life of the Party, 7 months, 56,300 words.

How long does it take you to finish a first draft? Do you gain speed with each novel?

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Break the Rules at Your Own Risk

A couple of bloggers recently posted essays about the need for writers to be flexible in adhering to some of the rules of the craft of fiction. These posts raise a key question: when is it acceptable for writers to break the rules?

Anna Elliot, in a post on Writer Unboxed, put it this way: “When I’m wrestling with plot, I don’t consciously follow any of the ‘approved’ basic plot structures.

“I suppose I’d have to say that in my own writing I tend to rely on something closer to basic, gut-level instinct. I try to dig deep into what makes my characters unique, what exactly about them made me so intrigued with them, so determined to tell their story. And then…instinct takes over.”

Writers should read every good craft book they can. Some of the best are: Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, On Writing by Stephen King, Write Away by Elizabeth George, and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Before they can break the rules, writers must understand them. Writers must know the various types of structures, character development, theme, tone, setting, and plotting.

Which rules should writers consider breaking?

Structure. Writers can select from a number of tried-and-true structures: three-act story, hero’s quest, journey. They’re popular because they work, but these structures may not be appropriate for the story you are writing. Examples of award-winning novels with unusual structures include Jennifer Eagan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Eagan’s novel is a series of loosely related short stories with some common characters and a thematic thread that runs through the work. Niffenegger’s novel features a non-linear narrative and a main character who travels through time. It’s at first a little confusing, but the story quickly grabs the reader.

Characters. Does the narrator always have to be the main character? In William Stryon’s Sophie’s Choice, the narrator, Stingo, is not the character who undergoes the most dramatic change; he is the reliable lens through whom the story of Sophie and Nathan is told. This can work, but it’s a risky strategy.

Narrative point-of-view: Some stories have multiple point-of-view characters. This is usually done because the author needs to tell specific scenes from a specific character’s point-of-view, or when there is a complex plot involving multiple characters. Some stories alternate between first and third person. I’m not a fan of this technique, but it can work.

Genre-crossing. Some stories just don’t fit into one genre. Agents and publishers advise against mixing genres in the same story and for good reason. It’s difficult to market a book that doesn’t fall within a single, defined genre. But your story may not fit into one genre. That shouldn’t stop a writer from writing the story she needs to write.

Which rules should writers never break?

Grammar, sentence structure. Some people are fans of incomplete sentences. Use them sparingly, for dramatic effect. Bad grammar in dialogue is okay, but not in a narrative, unless it’s part of a character’s tone.

Character development. The main character must be complex, interesting and a person for whom the reader can make an emotional connection. Writers should never strive for flat, one-dimensional characters.

Tension and conflict: Boredom and tranquility are never a good substitute for tension and conflict, which are essential for propelling the story forward.

Clarity. As a reader, I don’t want to work to figure out where the story is in terms of time and place. Unclear, muddled writing and overly complicated plots will cause me to put down a book every time.

Anna Elliot’s advises writers to read all genres and “with a critical eye. Try to peel back the story to its bones and understand why the author made the choices they did. Identify what worked for you in the story and what didn’t.”

While writers can bend some rules, they should always be mindful of them. Writers can experiment during the drafting process, but when it comes to the editing process, get those craft books out.

What kind of rules should writers break? What are the rules that should never be broken?

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Developing a Written Outline–Part II

The previous post discussed why writers should prepare written outlines for their novels. Let’s look now at what an outline should include. Writers differ on the length and scope of an outline, but it should include these elements:

  • Title of the novel.
  • Premise or idea behind the story. This doesn’t have to be detailed. It could be one sentence. For example, the premise for the Harry Potter series could be this: an orphaned boy escapes from a cruel childhood to discover he is a celebrated wizard who must take on a powerful evil wizard.
  • A list of the characters. For the main character, the writer should identify her strengths, weaknesses goals and motivations. The characters should include those who will help the main character and those who will try to stop her.
  • Identification of the main character’s goal, quest or dream and the obstacles in the way.
  • A sequence of major events in the story, which should have conflict and tension.
  • A climax to the story, followed by resolution.
  • A satisfying ending that ties up the loose ends.

Common types of outlines include:

  • Chapter outline—a few sentences or paragraphs on each chapter
  • Scene outline—short descriptions of each scene.
  • Narrative outline—an account of what happens in the book.
  • Index card outline—writing scenes or scene ideas on index cards

Outlines can be short or detailed. A writer colleague of mine uses a device called a “structure table,” a grid with columns and rows. Such a table could be organized in a grid with these columns:

Chapter/Scene/Characters/Setting/Action

Some writers organize tables where one of the columns is Motivation. Some create storyboards and some authors write scenes on color-coded index cards. Some write a long narrative describing all the action in the present tense.

Mystery writer JA Konrath writes long outlines. “My outlines are very detailed,” he wrote in A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. “They run between 30 and 40 pages. I go chapter by chapter, and list who is in each scene, what information needs to be revealed, and what the conflict is.

“I write outlines in present tense, and give each chapter a paragraph or two,” he wrote.

Konrath estimates it takes him a solid week of eight-hour days to produce a 40-page outline. “But once I do it, writing the book is easy, because I already got all the hard stuff out of the way.”

James Scott Bell, in his excellent book, Plot & Structure, discusses a variety of plotting systems, ultimately concluding writers must choose the system that works best for them. He cautions, however, “If certain foundational elements are missing, the story is going to sag. You can avoid major problems by some focused thinking about your story before you write.”

As I mentioned, I am more of a “pantser,” but I have used an outline for each of my novels. My outline for Small Change became moot when I made the main character 14 years old instead of 10 at the start of the book. That’s the beauty of writing. You need to have the flexibility to change your mind when something’s not working. If I were to rewrite my original outline it might start out like this:

Chapter 1

Introduce John Sykowksi, the main character, and his family at the lakeside resort in Wisconsin where they spend a week each summer. In the opening scene, John, who is 14 years old, is uncomfortable when their neighbor, Mrs. Crandale, asks him to rub suntan lotion on her back. [This foreshadows the most dramatic scene in the first half of the novel]

So what’s the correct answer regarding outlining? There is none. Whatever system works for you is what you should use.

Here are some good resources on outlining:

Paperback writer

Creative Penn

Snowflake method-Randy Ingermanson

Larry Brooks discussion on outlining

What is your outlining method? Have you changed your view on outlining as you’ve grown as a writer?

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Plot and Story: What’s the Difference?

When I started writing fiction, I used the terms “plot” and “story” interchangeably. I later learned there are big differences between plot and story. Recently, Writer’s Digest magazine brought together three story masters to discuss story structure. James Scott Bell, Donald Maass and Christopher Vogler shed light on the differences between plot and story.

Bell, the best-selling suspense writer, said it well. “Plot is the arrangement of story incidents. It’s a simple concept, but within that one must then use all aspects of the craft to create freshness and originality,” Bell said.

He continued, “The reason plot and structure are so crucial is that this is how readers are wired to receive a story. To the extent you ignore them, you frustrate readers and reduce the reach of your book. For some that may be what they want to do. Experiment. It’s a free country, so no problem—just as long as you understand the consequences.”

Here’s what noted literary agent Donald Maass had to say: “Plot, to me, is shorthand for the sequence of external, observable events that comprise a story. It’s the things that happen. And unless things happen it’s hard to give a story impact.

“What many authors need are stronger events,” Maass said. “Most pull punches, underplay and basically wimp out. Strong story events feel big, surprise readers and evenshock them. There are ways to do that deliberately. One is magnifying events, both in their outward, observable sense and in their inner impact. For instance, you can work backward to make a certain event a protagonist’s worst fear. Better still, you can take something a protagonist must do and make it something that character has sworn *never* to do. Or you can work with an event’s consequences, finding unexpected damage to inflict or unlooked for gifts to give. There are lots of ways to make events strong. A string of strong events is what we call a great plot.”

Read the full interview here.

Think of a novel as a home under construction. The plot is the frame. The story is the finished house. Carrying the analogy one step further, the characters are the foundation. Stories are about people—flawed people who go on a journey and emerge on the other side fundamentally changed.

Stephen King admits he doesn’t plot his novels. In his book, On Writing, King shared his thoughts on plotting:

“I distrust plot for two reasons: because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow…”

On Writing, by Stephen King, page 163

When I come up with an idea for a novel, I sit down and identify about a dozen major milestone events that will move the story forward. You could call this plotting. I agree with King to the extent that as I am writing a novel, I often discover ways of getting from Point A to Point B that I had not envisioned. I’ve also discovered that Point B isn’t the place I want to end up, and that’s okay too. That’s the “spontaneity of real creation” King spoke about.

Do you believe in plot or do you agree with Stephen King? How extensively do you plot your novels?

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