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.

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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.

Your Writer’s Notebook – James Scott Bell

I think it’s fair to say that most writers keep a notebook for when the creative juices start to flow and we’re (usually) well away from the keyboard.  For some of us, it’s a real notebook and, for some of us, it’s a mixture of paper scraps, post-it notes etc. Regardless of the form in which our notes take, we could probably all do with keeping them in some sense of order.

In Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, there is a small section toward the end on the writer’s notebook. It has some suggestions about how we writers should structure our notebooks to get the best out of them.

Bell suggests using a notebook often as it allows you to ‘write when you’re not writing’.  Furthermore, he suggests splitting the notebook into five major sections;

1. Plot Ideas.  Unsurprisingly, Bell chooses to use this section to keep notes about plot. He suggests utilising free-form notes, ideas and scribbles to ensure that we can capture the information when it appears.  Things like ideas for plots, plot developments, and major scenes can be kept here.

2. Characters. Here we can keep straw-men pictures of our current, and future, characters.  Bell suggests that we store certain information, such as a character’s drive, what they want from the story, and what they care about the most.  This can be quite essential information when you’re struggling to decide how your character should react to at important points in your novel. It can also provide a great go-to point when you’re looking to introduce someone new either in the same novel, or a different one.

Bells also compiles listings of names in this section utilising newspaper articles to generate ‘real sounding’ names. He follows a simple process of splitting the forenames and surnames and keeping them in separate columns so new names can be generated simply by choosing a name from each column.

3. Research. This is quite a broad section and is related to anything that you feel is necessary to investigate as part of your novel writing.  Although Bell suggests that internet and e-mail can be used to generate a lot of research information quickly, he also suggests that much of this is transferred / filed in your notebook to enable the notebook to become a one-stop-shop of your novel whenever you’re away from the desk.  Imagine how frustrating it would be to have an idea and realise you didn’t have the technical information you needed on-hand to take it foward.

Another good aspect of keeping research material in your notebook is that it often inspires new plot ideas which, if all kept in the same notebook, means it’s easier to keep everything in a single place.

4. Plot summary. This is different to notes on plot (section 1) as this section relates to what has actually been written so far.  Here, Bell suggests that you keep a record of what work has been compelted (at a chapter level) and summarise it into a few lines.  The benefit of this is that is can help you see where you are in your story, and what you think you may be heading toward.

If this is kept upto-date, then you should have a full summary outline completed just as you complete your first draft.  This can then be used as a guide when beginning that necessary second draft.

5. Questions. It is expected that you should always be asking questions of your story.  These questions can be about almost anything, including plot, character, or research.  If these are kept in a section of your notebook (and especially if they are answered), they can provide a much richer perspective through which to view your story.

As mentioned above, if much of this information can be kept in a single notebook, then your whole toolkit that you need to work on your book anywhere, anytime, can be within arm’s reach.

Nurturing Plot Ideas – James Scott Bell

In my second post on how James Scott Bell suggest we deal with plot ideas, I’m covering how to nurture them (the post on getting the ideas can be found here).

The first thing that Bell suggests is to choose a favourite idea and then choose a hook, line and sinker for it;

  • Hook – this is the main reason that a reader should choose your book over any other after just browsing the covers.
  • Line – the blurb either on the front or rear cover should be able to encapsulate your book idea in just a few sentences.
  • Sinker – this is one (or more) negativities that could bring your whole idea crashing down. Be honest and true with these.

Once you’ve chosen an idea and developed a hook, line, and sinker for it. It’s time to ask yourself a few relevant questions;

  • Has this type of story been done before? The most common answer here is ‘YES’. If so, work out what you can either add, or remove to make the story seem fresh.
  • Is the setting ordinary? Again, consider where you want to set your story without it coming across as cliche or stale.
  • Are the characters you’re thinking of made of old stock? Similar to the ‘type of story’ question, what can you do to bring a fresh perspective to your characters that may not have been done before.
  • Is the story big enough? Bigger may not necessarily mean better, but you should think about whether the elements of your story are big enough to reach a wide-range of readers.
  • Is there some other element you can add that is fascinating? Look at your idea from all angles, tear it apart and put it back together to see if there is something that can be added to make it better.

Once these have been addressed, Bell suggest a pass through of what he calls the Bell’s Pyramid. The premise here is that the pyramid has three levels to it; passion, potential, and precision. Each of these levels must be applied against your particular idea.

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  • Passion – this is the base of the pyramid and should underpin the rest of the levels. Here, we’re looking at how much passion you have as a writer to take your ideas further. If the idea itself doesn’t give you that hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling, then chances are it won’t for your readers. More importantly, if you’re not that invested in the idea, then you may never actually finish the novel.
  • Potential – here we’re asked to look at how much of a reach our idea would have to an external, and commercial, audience. Looking at it from a publisher’s side, would you consider this idea / novel to be able to recoup the costs expended in getting it to the shelf? Doing research is important here, as well as genre as we all know some genres sell better than others (I’m looking at you, Crime).
  • Precision – this is quite the simple one. Here, we’re asked to be precise in what you need to drive your particular goal forwards. Once you’ve decided on what you’re doing, you shouldn’t deviate from that goal. Furthermore, you should actively remove anything that may impact on that.

I think it’s fair to say that none of this advice is particularly earth-shattering. However, I think it’s also fair to say that we all can sometimes miss the obvious and, if this advice does nothing more than remind us to do some of these things, then I think it can be worthwhile.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

The Three Act Structure – 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 The Three Act Structure (I’ll call it TAS from now on).

What is it? Well, basically it’s splitting your story up into three specific sections, or Acts, usually the beginning, the middle, and the end (who thought it was that easy?). If you thought that wasn’t difficult, guess what? You probably also follow the TAS in your day-to-day life;

  • you’re born (Act I),
  • you live (Act II),
  • you die (Act III).

Want something a bit less general? How about an average day?

  • you get up (Act I),
  • you work (Act II),
  • you sleep (Act III).

The book does cover some higher level thoughts about how mystical the number three is, and how a triangle is the strongest shape in nature, but generally the TAS is used because it works.

How does this relate to my writing? As with any structure, there are some parts that need to be adhered to. I wouldn’t call them rules as such, possibly suggestions. If you can learn to keep your writing within the ‘suggested’ structure, you have a better chance of your reader finishing your novel. The TAS has been tried and tested many times and, whilst there are opportunities to be flexible with your writing and remain within the constraints of the TAS, the further you move away from it, the less chance you’ll have of holding your reader.

In the TAS, Act I is where you will normally present the problem; something is lost, someone has died etc. Act II is how your character deals with the problem; you search for something, you investigate a murder. Finally, in Act III, the problem gets solved, the murderer is caught, and the book can end.

clapperboard_ACT1

Bell suggests here that there should be at least four tasks that Act I needs to undertake;

  • Present the story world. That is, describe the setting or context.
  • Establish the tone the reader will rely upon. Set the readers expectations on what kind of plot is about to develop.
  • Compel the reader to move on to the middle. If you don’t do this satisfactorily then the story will stall – I think everyone has at least one book on their shelf that they just couldn’t get into..
  • Introduce the opposition. What is it that is going to prevent our lead character from succeeding?

clapperboard_ACT2

Act II is really the middle of your story. It’s the bit that covers all of the confrontations , where you begin to weave your sub-plots, and also where the real ‘meat’ of your story is. Picture a sandwich – we all love bread, but it’s the filling inside that makes a sandwich what it is. In this Act, Bell suggests that the following should be addressed;

  • Deepen character relationships. Make sure your characters blossom and grow in this section.
  • Keep us caring about what happens. If this isn’t done correctly, your reader will lose the ability to care about the outcome which often ends in the book being put down.
  • Set up the final battle that will wrap things up at the end. Your Act II can rise and fall many times but you should always be working towards that grand finale. No Deus Ex Machina here!

clapperboard_ACT3

Act III is the ending. It’s here that we bring all of our resolutions to an end; if something was lost, it’s generally now found, if someone died, we should now know who did it. Just a few things here that Bell suggests;

  • Tie up all loose ends. Act II was where you weaved all your sub-plots to give your story a much greater feel to it. Well, Act III is where you need to make sure you’ve covered everything off now.
  • Give a feeling of resonance. If you’ve managed to portray a sense of deep meaning to your story in Act II, then Act III is where you get the chance to keep that feeling going long after the last page has been turned. Ever finished a book and left it in your lap for a few minutes whilst you just sat there with a smile on your face? Well, that’s resonance and someone just nailed Act III.

Bell does a very good job of portraying what he talks about with examples from both films and books. However, for all of the examples used in this section, I personally found just a couple of his diagrams gave me a better understanding of what he was trying to portray.

Bell states that the TAS actually comes from film and drama and, as such, there is a formula devised that allows it to be used to its fullest extent. That is, the transition from Act I to Act II should take place around 1/4 of the way through the film, or thirty minutes into an average two hour film. It’s quite clear from the diagram but the transition from Act II to Act III should happen at a similar distance from the ending, around 3/4 of the way through, or ninety minutes into an average two hour film.

film structureWhat is interesting here is that Bell suggests the formula should be changed within a novel, seemingly because of the differences in time taken to watch a film, or read a book.

Here, Bell’s formula is that a novel’s transition from Act I to Act II should be around one-fifth in, after the first sixty or so pages of a good novel. The distance from the end of the book for the Act II to Act III transition can remain the same at one-quarter, however Bell does suggest this can be slid to the right slightly.

novel structureBy doing these changes, you are making sure that your novel won’t drag at the beginning and also that your rise toward the grand finale of your novel is well paced. If you know roughly the length of your novel and you want to try sticking to the TAS formulation then you can work out when you should be moving away from the beginning toward the middle and, similarly, when you should be tying up those subplots and working toward that feeling of resonance.

A point to note is that Bell does touch on the use of Mythic Structure, or The Hero’s Journey, and expands on how it fits quite nicely within the template of the TAS. However, he only covers it lightly, and uses Star Wars as an example (which is one of the most famous). Due to this, I’d rather pick this particular topic up at a later date and probably collate a few things before I take that particular plunge.

In the meantime, I’m going to start watching a few movies with a stopwatch and see if I can spot the transitions between the Acts.

Plots Made Easy – the LOCK System

I’m currently reading Write Great Fiction – Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and I’m finding it a great mixture of tips and advice that is backed up with plenty of film and book examples. Even though I’m going to summarise quite a few of his points over the next couple of weeks, I’d definitely recommend buying this book for yourselves. Support the writers that support the writers 🙂

Behind every locked plot is a story waiting to get out.

The LOCK system is a set of principles that have been developed from analyzing many plots – James did the work so you don’t have to (although I’d recommend reading your next novel with the LOCK system in mind and see how it relates to that book’s plot.)

LOCK is short for Lead, Objective, Confrontation and Knockout.

Can he kick it? Yes, he can!The principle behind Lead is simple; every strong plot must have a strong lead character that is both interesting and draws us in. The lead character must be able to carry the plot throughout the novel and be compelling. After all, the lead is often the main reason we continue to read the book; we want to see if he succeeds or fails. We can only do that if the lead has drawn us in and has compelled us to stick with him. That’s not to say that our lead should be perfect – if written well, we can accept imperfections as we all know no-one is perfect. However, we shouldn’t display too much negativity otherwise we risk the reader failing to empathise with him.

 

What? Where? Why?The next principle is Objective. Here we take the lead character and give him something to do, something to want, something to avoid. Basically he needs a desire. This desire should be what drives our lead on which, in turn, drives the plot on. The objective presents the desire to the reader than then poses the questions; will the lead character fulfil his desire? Or will he fail? Objective’s can involve both life and death, they can relate to achieving a particular goal, or just resolving a situation; any one is fine as long as it ties back to the lead character.

 

Get  through that, why don't you!Confrontation is next. Here we have our lead character, he is compelling and we want to know more about him. We’ve given him an objective – will he save the day? Will he get the girl? However, what the plot needs now is confrontation. We want to pose that question against the objective, and then put that at risk be it via some kind of conflict. After all, if we know the lead character can simply achieve his objective with no risk, where’s the fun in that? We need our lead to have to work for his objective; we throw obstacles in his way, we have conflicts along the way; there are ups and there are downs.

 

fist-308801_640  Finally, we have Knockout. James’ refers to a boxing match in his book when he talks about something having knockout power. Everyone hates a draw, so you need to make sure your book ends in a knockout! At this point in your plot, you’ve drawn the reader in, lead him through a journey of confrontations as the lead character works towards achieving his objective. The last thing we want to do is disappoint the reader right at the end. There are some stories that don’t end as expect but, if they are written well, then it can be done. However, most readers will expect a grand finale.

 

As I said above, this is really just a brief summary of the LOCK principles.  James Scott Bell goes into these in more detail in his book providing a number of examples.  He also goes into greater detail for those plots that have more than one lead character (I’ll cover that bit when I get to it).

If you want to know more, Amazon (UK) sell the book here