Clark Chamberlain and Peter Turley review Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. In this review you’ll learn some of the gems found in this book, how to put them to work for you and why this book should be on your shelf.
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Clark: Welcome to The Book Editor Show. Today we’re reviewing the book Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. I’m Clark Chamberlain, and it’s been said that he was the actual hero that inspired Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. The man who’s been there and come back again, my friend and co-host, Peter Turley. Peter, how are you doing today?
Peter: That was quite underwhelming because I was actually all thousand faces of the hero.
Clark: Well, yes, I knew that he had to split it up, to be a thousand faces because it was just too much to pin on one man, but…
Peter: I’m really excited about today’s show. I think this is our first solid book review, I think, is it?
Clark: It is. We did look at The Seven Basic Plots last summer for Chris Boker’s book, Booker’s boke? [laughs]
Anyway, with Chris’s book…
Peter: Well, you’d think we’d know after seven shows.
Clark: I know. After seven shows, we should have that down pretty pat. But yes, this is going to be the first of what we hope will be many book reviews that should really help you figure out what books you should have on your shelf. Or which ones are really going to help you move your writing forward.
Peter: Yes, this is an awesome book. And we chose this one first just because it was so useful, wasn’t it? I think we both already had copies of this and had read it back to front several times, so it was a given that we had to start with this.
Clark: Yes, this is a pretty easy one to grab onto, and I think this is a fantastic book if you’re — certainly if you’re starting writing — but if you already have a manuscript that’s finished, being able to go in and see. It has great helps on how to make your manuscript stronger, to find out what’s not working, and to give you some other good ideas on how to just overall tighten up your book.
Peter: Yes, that’s a good point that obviously I guess essentially it is a writing book. Well, it’s a writing reference, and it is so useful for editing. You can go back and, especially when editing, you could be cutting so much stuff. It really helps you pinpoint, narrow down on exactly what you want to be cutting. Actually that’s not the only, but we’ll get to that later on in the show. But that was a great one, I think, going back and editing, and thinking, “What’s this scene doing?” And learning to break the scene down into its moving parts and really understanding what each of those moving parts did.
Clark: Yes, exactly. And I just really enjoy this. When you just start reading about it, and I love his story, because I think that there are a lot of people out there who are hesitant about writing because of this. There’s this lie. That’s what he calls it, “the big lie,” you have to be born a writer, it’s not something that can be taught. That’s the big lie. And I love that he explained that. Hearing that over and over in his life, and then finally coming to an understanding of how to do this well, and how to write well, and how to put together a story well, and what that was, and overcoming that, and showing that that really isn’t the case for the majority of people.
Peter: Yes. That’s so true, and I think especially — perhaps to amend it a little — that it’s almost not that it can’t be taught, but that it’s inherent in us anyway, that we do fundamentally understand what makes a story, or what contributes to a story. Sitting around fires for thousands of years telling stories, or painting on walls. Probably understanding the three-act structure without even realizing that we understood it. Say you’re in a bar with friends, and someone starts to tell you about something that happened to them that day, you can almost see the bits that they embellish and make a little more dramatic. And then this happened, and then there’s a confrontation. It’s really interesting to know that it is kind of in us all. But yes it’s sort of like, can it be taught or can that just kind of be unearthed, that natural ability?
Clark: Certainly, natural ability is there. And it can be stronger with one person because you know you’ve got it, “oh you should have so and so tell you the story because they tell the story better.” It’s because they know how to punch those moments up and how to add the conflict and how to add the tension to it and bring all of this to bear on the story, which I just think he does such a good job of that in his book. Do you want to go ahead and we’ll just start in with the rest of it?
Peter: Yes, sure, without further ado.
Clark: Without further ado. So to start off I want to talk about one other idea he had and this is so true with any of our writing and the idea that we really want to immerse someone into our story. You know, if someone’s going to take the time to read your book they need to have that immersive feeling, almost as if — they called it the fictive dream.
So this idea that you’re going to be in this dream-like state during this time. Because when we dream it feels real, but we’re there, and so that’s what you want to have is that feeling at the end of a book that you’ve been there and you’ve experienced these things that everyone else in the book has experienced. Because if you don’t, if you come to the end of the book and you close it and you’re just like why did I bother reading that it had some good information in it or it kind of had a couple funny parts but that was it. If they don’t have that full immersion you’re going to miss things and this book is going to help you be able to create that full immersion process.
Peter: Sorry I was like sort of ready to laugh halfway through because I remember just off-air l we had a conversation about whether fictive was a real word.
Clark: I know, so fictive is someone’s real word — it’s in the book.
Peter: Yes. I’m looking at it, it’s definitely fictive. And even in dreaming, we follow the same conflicts, we always dream about conflicts they still have these elements. But also I think that immersion is the key and sort of having all these elements at play that allow the reader to immerse themselves in a story and suspend that disbelief, kind of like you do where you’re in a dream where you don’t realize straight away, if ever, that it was actually a dream. You know it’s the rare occasion where you kind of realize that you’re actually dreaming and you don’t really want the reader to be aware that they’re reading a book, especially when they’re in the climaxes and the throes of the story.
Clark: Right yes it’s suspend the disbelief and keep them there and keep them occupied. He has a system that he developed, he calls it the LOCK system. L-O-C-K and each one of these is a letter that stands for something.
Peter: Yes that’s right and this is one of the great tools within this book that can be used even if you’re not used to outlining plot or structure or anything like that, this can if you wanted to sort have a start at outlining and sort of dip your toes into it then I think this would be the place to start.
So LOCK it’s an acronym: L standing for lead, and it’s mainly that your lead needs to be strong, they need to be powerful, they need to be a well thought out character. Which we all know, but that’s the most important basically in regards to plotting and structuring your novel. Which then moves us into the second one, if you want to talk a little bit about objective.
Clark: Yes, so the objective is the desire that the character is going to have to accomplish throughout the story and we have to have that desire, we have to have that reason. When we talked about MRU’s — the motivational reaction units — that you’re always having a desire and you’re keeping the desire, that they can’t achieve the desire right there but they need to have a desire throughout the story and every scene there should be a reason for them interacting with this. And this helps you clear that up. That you can look at each portion and say, is there desire being achieved here? Is there a reason for this to be written? Having that desire and having that strong desire is there.
So, for instance, new book Hank Hudson and The Anubis which is going to come out in a couple months. The desire is to reunite or find family, it’s to rescue the parents. That is the big desire through the majority of the book. And so those are the types of things, every decision that Hank is making is based on that desire.
Peter: And that’s a perfect example because James Scott Bell in the book says that when you’re considering what the objective is, his advice is that it should be essential to the well-being of the lead. So in your case, finding and saving his family, it couldn’t really be more essential to Hank’s well-being. So that’s a great objective for any character to have.
Clark: So you can find these, and you can take a look at it. That way you can say, is your plot really acting well with the lead character that you’re designing? Is the story making sense?
Because you’re going to have a more difficult time of a person reaching that immersion if things don’t make sense. I’m not saying like you can’t write fantasy. Fantasy, science fiction, all these things, they really shouldn’t make sense, but we surrender our disbelief and we immerse ourselves in those worlds. But they still feel like the decisions that people are making are real. And that’s the important part.
Peter: Yes. And that brings us back to the fictive dream. That almost, even in its fantasy world, it still resembles a world the reader knows just the right amount for it to make sense within that realm.
Clark: Which will take us to the C, which is confrontation. Do you want to take that one?
Peter: Yes. Confrontation, which I’m kind of glad of, because you kind of get sick of hearing the word “conflict,” which is thrown around everywhere. But essentially it means the same, that confrontation leads to conflict, or a form of conflict. It’s basically that opposition that the lead will face on the path towards their objective. And it’s the confrontation that James says that brings the story to life. It’s that old saying that a lead, a main character, is only as strong as his opposition. So the stronger the confrontation, the stronger the lead is going to have to grow to become to obtain the objective, and the sweeter that objective is going to be upon attaining. Which will then lead us to the last part of the LOCK system which is the Knock-out.
Clark: Yes. Knock-out, right there. I love it how he describes it, that if you go to a boxing match you want to see someone get knocked out. Certainly the match can end in a technical knock-out where a decision is made by the judges on who scored the most points, but honestly, people want to see the knock-outs.
Peter: Yes, especially if you’ve paid.
Clark: Right. Yes, especially if you’ve paid to go and sit down and watch the fight. And that’s just the same way in the book — we want to see something big happen. We want to see the explosion, the large climax, everything that has gone into this. Because if we’ve built this right, we have good lead, you’ve got a good desire to get the objective, and then they’ve got this great confrontation in front of them all the time. If we fail at delivering that knock-out in the end, and it kind of just all falls apart. Having a strong ending is so integral to getting someone to share your story afterwards. Because that’s the last moment you have to seal the deal and say, “This is an awesome story. From start to finish, this was amazing, and you’ve got to see the ending of it.”
Peter: Yes. I’m just going to really work this fictive dream thing right the way through the show. It’s almost though like when you’re waking up from the dream, it’s the last bit that you remember, isn’t it, that stays with you. When we dream, we feel emotions, and you wake up with the taste of the most recent emotion still left in you. And that’s kind of like the knock-out, isn’t it, that’s the last thing you take away, and the feeling and the resolution and the highs and the lows. Everything that it’s made you feel is still there, and the bigger that pay-off, like you just said, the greater the share-ability of the story.
Clark: Right. Because that’s what it is. I’ve now seen Captain America Civil War twice. I’ll be seeing it a third and fourth time this next week probably.
Peter: No spoilers.
Clark: I’m not going to give any spoilers away but I’m just excited to talk to people about the show. If they’ve seen it, I’m excited to sit down and talk about it because the story is so well put together. Everything is there, and the ending is huge pay-off. When you’re going into Civil War you’re getting exactly what they were selling you outside. And that’s awesome. Whereas, and I’ve already complained a lot about…
Peter: I’m going tomorrow. I’m sold.
Clark: Yes, you do. You need to go, absolutely you need to see this. But another movie that had two superheros fighting it out had no pay-off, it was just a terrible ending. And it just made me not care to share the stuff except for saying, yes that really sucked.
Peter: Yes and it’s funny you say that because of the reactions of people that went to see that — we’re talking about Batman v Superman.
I didn’t go to watch it and I’m a huge Superman fan, and I was really, really, really excited about it. And I just didn’t bother. Because of people that I trust around me, were just so negative about it. And that’s the power of word-of-mouth, isn’t it?
Clark: It really is. And that’s what you need to be able to do with your writing. If you’re going to ever be able to establish this large tribe of readers and people who are sharing your work, then you have to develop it in a way that it’s shareable. And this ending is important, this knock-out ending is so important.
Peter: Yes, it really is. I think just before moving on, this is going to be clear anyway, but in the book he kind of differentiates between plot and structure. Because I know especially starting out, that was a question I had. I sort of wondered, what’s the difference? Are they not the same thing, just a different way of saying the same thing? Is it like tautological? But he describes plot as the elements that make up the story, and structure as the timing of those elements. Now I know that Ray Bradbury kind of suggested that… I think he was famously a non-outliner, he didn’t outline. I think this is mentioned in the book actually, that may be where I’ve read this. And he said that plotting was actually just looking back at the footprints in the snow and you only really see the plot once it’s been written. This book flies in the face of that and says you can kind of plan those footprints. But I think that distinction, of plot as elements, and structure as the timing was a great way for me to get my head around what was what and how I was going to start to put these pieces together.
Clark: And for myself, we all have different ways of looking at some of these things, and I think James does a really good job in this book with that. Because I’ve had that same issue, “what does that mean?” And so for me, plot, for a long time I’ve looked at plot as those outer problems that come along in the story and not necessarily the inner problems that are being driven home. But to get into the structures, he talks about two structures in here. The three-act structure and then also, is it the mythical structure?
Peter: Yes, the mythic structure.
Clark: Yes. And so these are a couple of great ways to be able to frame in the story, and talking about that timing and where elements are going to fall into place. I’m sure you’re familiar with the three-act structure. Basically there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the things that happen in between there. He uses the example of the doors. So the first door that the character that’s your lead has to walk through is the decision to enter in to the main action of the story. And that would lead between the first act and the second act. Then the second door is between the second and third act, and that’s the point of no return, that they’re committed to everything and leading up towards the climax.
Peter: Yes, it’s interesting phrasing them as doors because I know later in the book, it talks about if it’s missing something and it needs enriching or deepening. He says to kind of have a disturbance event that then creates two doors as a way to figure out where your plot really needs to go. But those doors, I think essentially they’re kind of a way of talking about turning points. I think that’s maybe how some of us understand them. But it is really interesting because a door kind of suggests choice, that a turning point doesn’t really suggest choice to me. And I think it prevents you from neglecting character, because the characters, I would say, do have a choice. As you’re going through and you’re writing or you’re editing, and it’s important to consider, “Is this choice or this door consistent with that particular character?” So it kind of like rewired my brains a little, reading this book.
Clark: Yes, because you do, you want to have choice every step of the way. From the beginning to the end, that it needs to be the lead character making the choice to continue on with the story. Because what happens when you have what I would call the plot, this outer problem coming in and dragging the lead along, then that’s the ones that don’t feel true, and it feels mechanical, that this stuff is just happening, regardless of whether the lead of your protagonist was there or not. And if you have them faced with choices all along the way that they can choose to stay or go and we can take a look at “Star Wars,” with Luke Skywalker. Spoiler alert. Anakin will die. I don’t know if you knew that.
Peter: Oh my god.
Clark: I’m sorry. I know. If a movie is from the ’70s, I think you should’ve had time to take. But anyway… So he makes a decision, “Hey, I’m going to stay at home, and I’m not going with you, Ben, because Uncle… I can’t even think what his name is.
Peter: Lars, was it?
Clark: Yes, Lars is the last name. Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen. So help Uncle Owen on the moisture farm. Ben’s like, “All right, that’s fine.” And then we come back to the place you’re going to drop Luke off, and aunt and uncle are dead. And so now we’ve got another choice to make. And he makes a choice, “Hey, I want to pursue this. I want to learn about the ways of the Force. I want to understand who my father was, all of this. I want to follow you, Ben.” And that was the choice to move in. Because he could have still said, “You know what, oh my goodness, they’re dead. Now I’ve got to take care of the farm. I’ve got to find out how this happened, and all of this.” That’s the choice that he could have made. And so that’s what you want to be able to do is set up choices for your character.
Peter: I want to see that film.
Clark: Yes, you should see it. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Star Wars?
Peter: I want to see the one where he stays on the farm.
Clark: Oh, where he stays on the farm! Yes. Yes, that would be a good story.
Peter: We could do a fan fiction. Farmer Luke
Clark: Farmer Luke, Ben takes off on his own. Farmer Luke stays back behind, handles the business. Creates a farming empire there on Tatooine. All along the way of your story, though, you want to be presenting choices. Now clearly when the reader gets to the end and looks backward, there’s only one choice that could have been made all along. Each of those choices made sense. And that’s the only choice that could’ve been made. But you still want to give the feeling of choice.
Peter: Yes, that’s it. And we don’t mean that bit to sound easy, because I think that’s the difficult bit, isn’t it? Sort of where the upcoming door or turning point is, we don’t see it so it’s a surprise when it happens. But then once it’s been traveled through, it seems completely inevitable. You’re like, “Oh, of course that was the way it was going to turn out.” And then getting that element of surprise is the real tricky bit, but we’ll get there.
Clark: We’ll absolutely get there. Were there any other of the structural elements that you wanted to cover?
Peter: I think maybe to just touch quickly on the action-reaction, set-up and deepening?
Clark: Oh yes, yes. He calls this the four chords of a scene. And I think this was pretty cool.
Peter: Yes. That was just a… Again, essentially I think if you take anything, take the LOCK system, and use that and apply it to something you’ve written or something you’re going to write. But this is just another way to look at scenes, or the story as a whole, and the first one is action. So that’s something that happens or it’s an event. And then reaction is simply how that’s made the character or characters feel about the event. It helps particularly in the writing processes kind of like beats and ways to know what should logically come next. So after an action, there’s going to be a reaction to that.
Clark: And then the second two portions of these chords. And we’ve talked about action and reaction before, and with the motivational reaction unit, the MRUs, and I think that we’re talking the same thing in both of those, the book and then this. And that’s really things that you should definitely put into your tool box, because it’s fantastic to be able to use those. The second two chords, are the set-up and the deepening. So the setup, there are things that you’re going to have to do to set up the reader to be aware of or to be prepared for what’s coming next. Now if you’ve got a world where you need to explain a magic system, it has to be a setup so that you can see this taking place and happening. And how do you do that without it being this exposition that’s super boring and you’re just explaining all this stuff as the narrator. Some of the ways that he suggests to handle this, is that when this is happening that you add in a problem into the scene. Like you could be talking about the magic system with the teacher and the student but then there could be an argument that’s taking place in between this. That something else is going on that’s adding more tension to that moment so that you have this great scene where you’re setting up things to make sense later or preparing for a later scene that’s going to occur but this is still interesting.
Peter: Yes and that’s almost like slight of hand kind of distraction isn’t it where they’re actually giving some kind of exposition but there’s a scene taking place as well and you almost miss the fact that something is being set up and that makes it seem inevitable later down the line.
Clark: Yes exactly. Then the second one — I’m a big fan of deepening and this idea that you’re deepening the characters, you’re adding in what he calls flavor and spice to the characters lives. But that there should be moments where you’re taking a moment to really deepen the meaning of the character, what the character likes, who the character is. And not there’s necessarily the protagonist, but it could be secondary characters, it could even if you’re having point of view from the antagonist, all these moments where you can make them be more alive, where you can engage the reader more with an emotional impact. Like for instance you know it’s something that the character’s going through that maybe the reader might go through and you can target that well.
Actually we have the download on our website right now that you can click on that talks about being able to engage emotionally with your reader. And these are some important elements of that is that you’ve got to take the time to deepen the character in order to do this. It doesn’t happen in the fight scene. It doesn’t happen in the getaway. It doesn’t happen in the argument. It happens in a lull, in a moment that you can take a step back and kind of take a breath.
Peter: Yes. It’s the around the campfire moment really, isn’t it? I know we’ve got an upcoming show where we’ll talk more about world building. This applies to that kind of in my head, that that’s what I immediately think of. And the deepening is where you’re hinting at something larger. You’re hinting at a larger world. You’re hinting at a character’s past, or you’re making it richer. There isn’t just the plot that you’re currently in. There was something before and there’ll be something after, and there’s other stuff all around that just needs to be … And I think he refers to it as the spice because it should be used lightly, just hinted at. But it’s an essential part, really, isn’t it, if you don’t want something to seem entirely 2D.
Clark: Exactly. Because you’re just developing the full immersive experience. And this is part of that, that there’s in the dream world, in the fictive dream you’ve got to have those moments, right, to where you’re actually experiencing something. You’re feeling something, you’re smelling something, you’re engaging other senses and you’re deepening the world that you’re sitting in. And that’s what it’s all about, right there.
Peter: And I think that, and LOCK, they are the real big takeaways from this book. But it was a great read. I come back to this loads. I’m not a big fan of scribbling in books and highlighting them and everything. But this one, I had to. There’s so many useful nuggets and rules and exercises that you’re going to want a highlighter in your hand when you go through this book.
Clark: Yes. Talking about exercises, at the end of the book there’s a great one on writing your back book cover, and coming up with that, and trying to really see if you understand what your story is about. I thought that was pretty cool.
Peter: Yes. And essential. And I was in a lesson on, I was learning about script writing and that was hammered home then, that if you’re unable to have a one-sentence pitch, or a back cover blurb, then you’ve not nailed down your idea enough to start writing. And he says that, as a little advice to people who don’t like outlining, then he just gives two pieces of advice if you want to do a mixture of both, which is to use the LOCK system, and to write a back cover. Because by simply doing that, you know at least that the basic elements of the story can work.
Clark: I totally forgot, I wanted to bring up one other thing in here. He’s got a section of problems and cures, and I think this is really good, especially for those of you who have a manuscript done, who are ready to take the editing process to the next level. And one of them I think is just fantastic, and it’s the idea about curing the flat scene. You’ve got these scenes in your book that just are kind of dull, and not much is happening, and so he suggests that you read through the scene until you find what he calls the hot spot. Once you’ve found the hot spot, you circle that. That’s where this scene actually has something of interest to it. And then you start working backward from the hot spot, sentence by sentence, and you start removing everything that’s not related to the hot spot. And anything that’s unnecessary, you just get rid of it, and then all of a sudden you’ve shortened that scene up to where it’s just hitting the important part, the hot spot of that. And if you don’t have a hot spot in a scene, then you remove the scene entirely. If it doesn’t have a point of being there, then it needs to go.
Peter: Yes. The subtitle to the book is “Techniques and Exercises For Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers From Start to Finish.” So the main sort of angle he’s trying to take here is engagement, and by taking away those non-essential parts of scenes, you’re decreasing the chance that the reader’s going to disengage with the story because you’re kind of just left with the best bits. And he even goes as far as saying that if the scene doesn’t have a hot spot, the scene itself should probably be cut.
Clark: Yes exactly, you know, if it doesn’t do anything for the story…
Peter: That’s brutal isn’t it?
Clark: Yes. And it is, and it hurts, right? But this has to happen. Also I would say, that this is the reason why you should have an editor working with you. Because you’re close to it and you say, “Well I know that it doesn’t really have a hotspot but it’s important because of this.” Because really: it’s important because the author loves it, it’s hard to get rid of it because you’ve put effort into it and it’s something that you care about it. But really if you could have another set of eyes that says, “You know what, your story will be stronger if you remove this entirely.” It’s slowing down the plot, it’s that plot-hole that’s bumping the person back out of the dream-like state that you’ve created. Sorry, the fictive dream with which you’ve created.
Peter: Yes and not just hotspot but he also talks about inner tension, doesn’t he, and outer tension? And if the scene is missing these hotspots or the tension, and like you just said, sometimes it can take another pair of eyes to maybe be like, “this scene is flat or it’s falling flat.” Maybe you felt excited writing it, maybe you could see the tension but it’s not clear enough, or there’s too much in here that’s diluting the tension.
Clark: Exactly. Because that’s what you just want. You want to have a strong book that hooks a person from the beginning, takes them through to the end, gives them an emotional impact at the end, what he calls “the knock-out” and it’s going to make them want to share it. That’s what you want. Unless you don’t want that. You know, if you want to have a book that’s boring that no one wants to read, you could not do this stuff.
Peter: If you want to write about moisture farmers on Tatooine then…. I’ll read it.
Clark: I think… Yes. You’ve got at least one. I would read that book too. So you’ve got two people there. And I think there could be a lot of hotspots on Tatooine.
Peter: Yes. [Laughs]. I see what you did there.
Clark: Yes see what I did? The desert if you haven’t seen Star Wars. So alright. You have anything else to add on this? This has been a lot of information here on this book.
Peter: Only that if you want to buy one writing reference book to help you understand plot then start with this one. It’s a great one.
Clark: It really is. And again, this is Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. Should be able to find it at any of your local book stores, of course Amazon, Barnes & Noble if you’re online. It does have an eBook as well as print and if you like to do the highlighting and things, be like Peter, get the physical copy of it for sure.
Peter: It’s a must.
Clark: Well if you like the show please let us a review on iTunes, a plus on Google or a like on YouTube and if you’re an editor who would like to be a guest on the show stop by thebookeditorshow.com and drop us an email. Remember, stop by the bookeditorshow.com because like I said we’ve got this fantastic worksheet that you can download to help figure out exactly how you can engage your reader better emotionally and that’s absolutely free, just come on there, it’s right on the front page you can click and download that. I’m Clark Chamberlain and from my co-host Peter Turley, keep writing, keep learning and build a better book.