Beginning Strong Part 2 – James Scott Bell

Many writers are aware of the importance of getting the reader hooked from the first page, even the first line. Yet, Bell still points out some basic points that (I at least) had overlooked.
If we stick to the three act structure, it’s obvious that we begin in Act 1. Here, we’re expecting our work to do the following;

  • Hook the reader
  • Establish a bond between reader and character
  • Present the story world
  • Establish the tone of the novel
  • Give the reader reason to want to turn the page
  • Introduce the opposition

In this post, I’ll cover the final three points above as Bell takes us through and gives us information and advice as to better approach our goals (the first post is here).

Establish the tone of the novel

This is us, as writers, setting the tone for the entire novel early on in the first few pages. By doing this, we’re not only making a promise to the reader as to what our novel is going to be like, but it ensures that the reader will understand what to expect.

One of the most important aspects of tone is that of consistency. As stated previously, setting the tone is providing the reader with the understanding of what the rest of the story will be about. Readers like consistency and being too inconsistent risks you losing the reader. Bell quotes Jack M. Bickham here with some examples of how you can still stall your reader if you’re not careful;

  • Excessive description – Bell already covered this and uses the quote to simply strengthen his own statement.
  • Backward looks – interestingly, this seems to jar against the advice from Bell about using the ‘framing the story’ element for prologues. However, I personally think this is more around the constant use of looking back.
  • No threat – Bickham suggests that “good fiction must start with – and deal with – someone’s response to threat”. Without a threat there is no conflict.

Compel the Reader to move onto the middle

As with the Three Act Structure, your beginning has to ensure that the reader wants to continue onward to the middle (and end) of your book. If you’ve done things right, you should have given them (1) a compelling Lead with (2) whom they bond with and (3) whose world has been disturbed. This should provide enough for your readers to want to step through that first doorway of no return into Act 2.

There is little else in terms of advice from Bell here which comes across as a bit of a cop-out when it has been promoted to a point of interest within the chapter of Beginning Strong. However, I think the fact that Bell has already talked quite a bit earlier in the book about this and the fact that the next chapter is about the middle stages of a novel, he’s simply reserving his advice for later.

Introducing the Opposition

As with the section on moving the reader to the middle of the novel, Bell doesn’t really add anything more to this section other than giving out somewhat obvious advice.

Bell suggests that our readers must know who, or what, the opposition is by the time that our Lead makes the transition from the start to the middle. He even goes on to suggest that the opposition doesn’t necessarily have to be fully established at this point, just that it exists.
There are no examples given here, but I would suggest he’s talking about things like;

  • A serial killer in a crime murder novel – we don’t need to know who he is, or what he looks like for us to know he’s our Lead’s opposition
  • A meteor about to crash into the Earth – again, if our Lead is an astronaut or a pilot of a space-ship trying to protect Earth, then we can understand how the meteor is the opposition without having to fully explain what it is, where it came from etc.
  • A love story where the Lead is vying for affection and yet there is another who has similar feelings for the same girl.

As writers, it is also important that we ensure the opposition is a capable foil for our Lead. In that respect, we must ensure that the opposition is as strong, or preferably, stronger than our Lead. Also, we shouldn’t neglect the fact that our opposition should also be given similar attributes to our Lead, such as sympathy and justifications for his actions. We need to ensure that we don’t fully develop a Lead only to pit him against a cardboard cut-out of an opposition.

Beginning Strong Part 1 – James Scott Bell

Continuing my in-depth review of  Write Great Fiction – Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell..

Many writers are aware of the importance of getting the reader hooked from the first page, even the first line. Yet, Bell still points out some basic points that (I at least) had overlooked.

If we stick to the three act structure, it’s obvious that we begin in Act 1. Here, we’re expecting our work to do the following;

  • Hook the reader
  • Establish a bond between reader and character
  • Present the story world
  • Establish the tone of the novel
  • Give the reader reason to want to turn the page
  • Introduce the opposition

In this post, I’ll cover the first three points above as Bell takes us through and gives us information and advice as to better approach our goals.

Hook the Reader

This is the very first thing your book should do. Without this, everyone will put your book down. One thing that Bell reminds us about here is that our first reader is never a person in a bookshop looking for something to read on a lazy afternoon, it’s almost always an agent or an editor – and they’re much tougher to please than your average reader.

So, how can we convince someone to choose our work over someone else’s?

Opening Lines – here Bell suggests introducing your character early on, even in the first sentence. We should also make something happen, if not happen right away, give the impression that something is about to happen (Bell calls this ‘motion’). Finally, we should steer away from long sections of description that hold up the reader and overloads them with information.

Action – In Medias Res (in the middle of things) is a phrase that most writers should be aware of. It is a statement that suggests inviting the reader to a point where something has already happened. This can be a powerful tool to drop the reader directly into the thick of things without feeling the need to have to explain too much right away.

Dialogue – this is a great tool for immediate action. Dialogue, if done correctly, is able to include elements of characterisation, description, and conflict all in just a few lines. If we can add some raw emotion into it as well, then all the better.

Prologue – these have stood the test of time and, although not as popular as they once were, they are still used by all sorts of writers. Irrespective of their use, Bell states that the most effective prologues do one simple task – entice the reader to move to chapter one! In its own way, Bell suggests that all the rules about beginning strong actually apply to the prologue itself. However, he states that the prologue doesn’t have to introduce the main character, but should link to the overall plot in some way. Bell suggests three primary ways to use prologues;

  • Action Prologue – start off with a big scene which sets the tone and lead to chapter one beginning the main plot (we see this a lot in Hollywood action movies).
  • Framing a story – here, Bell discusses how we can use the view of a character to look back and tell the story leading up to the initial prologue. We should use this kind of prologue to establish feeling and tone around the main plot and show us how the events then have affected the main character now.
  • The Teaser – this is where you can present a scene at the start that is actually going to happen later in the book. This is the middle ground between action and framing. Here you can entice the reader by showing what is going to happen, but you can then affect the outcome by continuing your story past that point.

Establishing a bond with the reader via the lead character

Creating a character is only the first step in establishing this bond. Next, you should understand how you can make the reader bond with the character emotionally. Bell suggests we can do this through four dynamics; Identification, Sympathy, Likeability and Inner Conflict.

Identification – in a simple term, this is ensuring that the lead is like us. It’s giving the readers the ability to liken themselves to the hero in the story. It allows the readers to put themselves in the same situations and conversely, it allows the reader to pop from the pages as a real human being. Bells then goes on to suggest a few things we could do to make our leads easier to identify with, such as giving them flaws and making them vulnerable.

Sympathy – unlike identification (which is empathy), sympathy relates to a reader’s raw emotional attachment to our lead. Here, readers understand our leads through emotion even if they can’t particularly identify with the lead and Bell suggests four simple ways to establish this;

  • Jeopardy – put your lead in a position of imminent trouble. If done right, this can establish sympathy right away
  • Hardship – have some misfortune affect the lead in a way that isn’t complained about but is still inferred.
  • Underdog – who doesn’t love an underdog story? Put your lead against long odds, give the reader something to root for and they’ll keep turning the pages.
  • Vulnerability – allow the readers to worry about your lead. Instil a feeling of vulnerability by suggesting that something big could happen to your lead at any time.

Likeability – if your readers are going to be spending a lot of time with your lead, then there needs to be some reason to like them. Bell suggests helping people, being witty, supportive and engaging as all good attributes to have for likeability. It is possible to write about an unlikeable lead (Bell gives Michael Corleone from the Godfather as an example) but you must compensate in other areas or you risk losing the reader.

Present the Story World

This isn’t just about the setting that your novel is in, but it’s more about is life like for your lead in the world;

  • What is their job?
  • Do they have a routine?
  • Who are their friends?
  • Who are their family?

It is common practice to have your lead actually practising their main job, such as a policeman investigating a murder, or a surgeon performing an operation. We don’t have to use raw exposition here, but it does help to show observations and attitudes of the lead through the narrator so that the life that your lead has in the world is slowly built up.

Work has broken my body clock

Work pays the bills so it must happen, but the current schedule is taking its toll.

However, in those early morning hours when I should be at the keyboard tapping away, I’m either asleep or lounging on the sofa – both mental and physically idle.

I am watching more Mythbusters, I am watching more Peep Show.

But, I’m writing less and I’m reading less.

I need to reboot my body clock either via a very long lie-in or an all-nighter and hope it works.

Plot Ideas – James Scott Bell

In continuing going through James Scott Bell’s book, Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure, I’ve reached the point where he talks about Plot Ideas

Now, I’ve always thought the ideas were the easy part and it was the getting-ideas-from-head-to-page part that made many of us sweat blood and turn the air blue with obscenities.  However, it could be that we’re approaching plot ideas incorrectly.


Do I have an idea?

question-mark James Scott Bell has an entire chapter devoted to this which should set some alarm bells ringing if you think plot ideas are easy to come by.  The chapter opens with a bit of a revelation; not all ideas are equal. Here, Bell considers that whilst notions themselves are plentiful, these should then be developed into ideas, and then the best of those taken forwards as plot ideas. Looking back in retrospect, I would consider many of my so-called ideas tucked away in my notebook as being simply nothing more than notions.


Who are you?

man-159771_640 Interestingly, the filter that is used to decide which ideas are best is yourself. Due to this, Bell places an emphasis not just on “write what you know”, but also “write who you are” – developing a plot idea that doesnt really match who you are could be as doomed as writing a plot based on something you know little about.

Example questions to consider are;

  • What are your fears?
  • What are your flaws?
  • What are your major strengths?
  • What are your annoying habits?
  • What is your philosophy of life?


How do i do it?

10270698-mechanical-gears-close-up-industrial-grunge-background In terms of generating plot ideas, many of us still utilise notebooks, scraps of paper or recording devices as a way to capture those little nuggets of inspiration.  However, Bell suggest that there are some ways that we can drive out these ideas onto the page (or screen).

To do this, he suggests that a few rules need to be followed.

  • Schedule a regular time
  • Get yourself into a relaxed state
  • Allow thirty minutes of un-interrupted time.
  • Let your imagination come up with anything it likes and record it all
  • Do NOT censor yourself, don’t try to edit, just pump out the ideas
  • Have fun doing it
  • Save all of your ideas

Bell suggests that this process can be repeated as often as necessary, but he does state that after two or three of these sessions, it is time to nurture the ideas and bring the better ones out into something more…

….which I’ll cover in another post later this week.

Worldbuilding Basics #2 – Drinks

“So, you want to know about drinks? I can show you but it ain’t gonna be cheap though. Still, as long as you spend the coin and the drinks keep coming, you’ll learn a thing or two.”

Poor water. That’s an easy one and you can have this advice for free. It’s all around you; in muddy pools, in rat-infested wells and in polluted streams. Sure, some could walk the few miles to find a cool stream and a fresh drink, but the poor have few possession and cupped hands can only carry so much. If your hero is drinking poor water, he isn’t going to be a hero for long. Instead of fighting dragons, he’ll be fighting diarrhoea, nausea and stomach cramps.

Rich water. Quite a rarity this one. Usually served in some of the more salubrious establishments, or in a nobleman’s lodgings when he’s trying to impress. Often served cool when clear heads are needed, and in glass jugs to display its purity, it’s a good companion to merchants whilst brokering deals. Unlike the poor variant, this water has no smell, nor aftertaste; nature at its simplest.

Weak Ale. A staple drink for many people. Being made from grains and yeast it is not only a refreshing drink, but it provides an element of sustenance. An added benefit of ale is that the process used to make it involves boiling, which makes it safer to drink. Often brewed by the women of the household to ensure the whole family are provided for, a good Ale-wife should be much appreciated. For those men who are single, or those who have been married too long, there are a variety of ales sold throughout all public houses, enough to suit any taste and any coin purse.

Strong Ale. The only difference between the two types of ale is whether the drinker is choosing to walk home, or be carried home; you’ll need fewer drinks, but expect to pay a higher price.

Beer. Another staple of home brewing, even amongst the townsfolk as a whole, beer is another common drink. Made from hops it has a bitter taste, yet can be flavoured by a wide variety of herbs and spices. It has been said that monks, who seem to have little else to do with their time after praying, make great brewers and their beers can be ranked amongst the best.

An often quoted prayer is, “May this man who drinks beer sleep well, for a man who sleeps well does not sin.”

Cider. Made from either apples or pears that have been steeped in water, this is a true farmer’s tipple. Depending on the type of fruit used, the result can range from sickly sweet to viciously sour. This is a relatively cheap, yet common, drink amongst the villages and hamlets to the extent that some farmers will pay their workers in cider rather than coin!.  Understandably, the costs can rise in areas where it has to be imported. Sold in a variety of cloudy, and clear brews, that can be served cold, or heated with spices, it is considered to be quite a flexible drink.

Mead. Ah, alcohol and honey! A combination of the sustenance of ale, the strength and variety of a good beer, and wonderful medicinal properties as well, although it comes at a price. Expect to pay good coin and stick to the clear ones with a slight sparkle on the tongue for best results, drinking bad mead can make a man wake up feeling like he’s been kicked in the head by a horse. We have the monks again to thank for this, seemingly they have little time for anything else after praying and brewing beer!

Wine. There has never been a better drink to wet the tongue as a good wine, and may the gods strike down he who brews a bad one. Borne of the grape in warmer climates, it carries a high price for those who can afford it. The rich can afford a variety of deep, full-bodied reds and light, crisp whites , each suited to particular occasions. For some, good quality wines can still be bought from the right people at the right price but, for the rest of us, the watered-down substitute that many public houses turn out will be the closest we’ll ever get.

Dare I mention the monks again?

Start Writing Fiction – Week 4

Week 3 Review

Some keen-eyed people will notice that this post is late – Week 4 started on Monday.  The reason for this is quite simply that I’m behind on the studies at the moment (as well as blog posts). All work and no play…… 

I’ve found Week 3 particularly interesting as it covers something that is close to my heart; the first draft.   Many of the early topics cover elements such reviewing, redrafting and re-editing.  In all fairness, there probably isn’t that much new information in the course content but the amount of information in the comments section from the students is excellent and certainly allows a much wider insight into these topics through the experiences of others.

One of the good things about the course is it’s ability to cater for those who like to jump ahead, as well as those (ahem) who may fall behind the curve.  Even now, I can see from the timing of the comments on topics that there is still a healthy level of activity on almost all of the week 3 topics this far into week 4.

So, onto the curriculum for week 4;

Writing is Editing

4.1 How You Might Use Your Notebook (Video)

4.2 Why Take Notes and What to Note (Article)

4.3 Research (Article)

4.4 Different Approaches to Research (Discussion)

4.5 The Notebook Habit (Article)


4.6 What is Plot? (Article)

4.7 Developing Your Plotline (Article)

4.8 What If? (Article)

4.9 Writing Character (Article)

Ideas For Stories

4.10 Hooked By Lines and Image (Video)

4.11 Hunches That Matter (Article)

4.12 Writing About Personal Concerns (Article)

4.13 Dramatising Concerns (Quiz)

4.14 Reflecting On Concerns and Ideas (Discussion)

4.15 Extraordinaty Versus Ordinary (Article)

Start Writing Fiction – Week 3

Week 2 Review

Still finding this course quite interesting.  Over the past week, there has been more of an emphasis about characters, writing prompts and also getting used to writing in your notebook (and using the notes in it).  A good example of this is an exercise in writing sentences that begin with “Emma said that…”, also to turn on the radio, listen to the first thing being said, and then to write a short story (500 words) about it.

Although it sounds a bit daft, looking the comments from the other writers, you can see just how creative people can be from such mundane things. Comments on each topic are still in the 1000+ which shows willingness to participate from the other students. I’ve also had a few likes and follows from within the forums so it does show that what you write is being read.

So, onto the curriculum for week 3;

Writing is Editing

3.1 Your First Draft (Video)

3.2 Reviewing and Redrafting (Article)

3.3 Reading Work in Progress (Discussion)


3.4 What is Editing? (Article)

3.5 Editing is Your Friend (Article)

3.6 Editing Practice (Discussion)

3.7 Suggested Edit (Article)

3.8 Editing Big Decisions (Video)

3.9 Editing Summary (Article)

Something New

3.10 Learn Through Writing (Article)

3.11 Generate Something New (Article)

3.12 Share Your Story (Assignment)

3.13 Commenting On Work (Review)

3.14 Reviewing Criticism and Comments (Article)

3.15 Read The Feedback (Reflection)

Are we walking less?

Considering my post a few days ago about how walking can stir the creative juices, I was interested to find a post on the BBC website about how we may all be walking less and less these days.

Click the link to read more about it, but I’ve summarised a few interesting points below;

* Walking is considered a luxury in the West

* Wordsworth, Dickens and Woolf were all walkers

* In the UK, May is National Walking Month

* Prof.  Frederic Gros has written a book, A Philosophy of Walking 

* Nearly 25% of journeys are taken by foot, although only 17% are specifically for walking

* Geoff Nicholson has written a book, The Lost Art of Walking

* Los Angeles is notoriously car-focused.

* Kuala Lumpa has pavements that mysteriously end

* Merlin Coverley has written a book, The Art of Wandering: The Writer as a Walker

* Many people often text whilst walking

* Rebecca Solnit has written a book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

* Key tips include: walking further with no fixed route, go alone, walk mindfully