James Scott Bell gives us the elements of compelling storytelling in his book Plot and Structure. His introduction motivates the reasons for good storytelling and encourages a lifelong process.
Chapter one covers what a plot is, the types of plots, the distinction between literary and commercial plots, and an argument for formulaic writing that produces excitement. He says, quoting the dictionary: “Plot – a plan as for designing a building or a novel.” The function of the plot is to connect with readers though the story. Story is what sells books to readers. Plot and structure help you tell the story. Quoting Hitchcock: “a good story is life, with the dull parts taken out.”
Bell advocates what he terms the LOCK system. The Lead is vibrant and compelling, someone to watch throughout the novel. The Objective is something which the Lead wants to get or get away from. Solid novels have one dominant Objective. Whether the Lead achieves the Objective is crucial to their wellbeing and is the “story question,” the driving force of the novel. Opposition characters and forces Confront the Lead to thwart them from the Objective. Confrontation provides the reader with emotional involvement in the story. Finally, the novel’s ending should be a Knockout. It should satisfy the reader and keep them coming back for more.
Chapter two covers the structure that holds a plot together. If plot is about the elements of a story, structure is about the timing of those elements. Story structure has beginnings, middles, and ends; three acts. The beginning is about the Lead, the entry point for the reader. It also presents the story world, establishes the tone (epic or farce? action or character progression? fast or slow?), compels the reader to move on to the middle, and introduces the opposition.
Middles are for confrontation where physical, professional, or psychological death hangs over the Lead. This is the place where subplots blossom. It creates a sense of inevitability by weaving plot strands in and out of each other and continuously surprising the reader. The middle also: deepens character relationships, keeps us caring about what happens, and sets up the final Knockout confrontation and resolution at the end. Ends tie up all significant, unresolved plot strands and provide the reader with a feeling of resonance. ‘Resonance’ is something beyond the confines of the book (i.e., its meaning in the larger sense).
Finally, chapter two broaches the concept of the disturbance and two doorways. The disturbance is anything that disturbs the lead’s ordinary life. It is the first threat or challenge to the status quo. However, the lead can still return to normal life. That’s where the first ‘doorway of no return’ comes in. This doorway sends the Lead irrevocably into the confrontations of the second act. The second doorway leads to the knockout ending that achieves resolution and resonance.
Chapter three covers methods for creating plot ideas. Chapters four through six dive into beginnings, middles, and ends.
Chapter seven describes the elements of scenes. Scenes typically take place in one location and time frame. They consist of action, reaction, setup, and deepening. These four chords can dominate the scene or compose portions of a scene called beats. Action and reaction naturally follow each other. Setup creates the circumstances and/or conditions for later scenes. Deepening enriches the reader’s understanding of a character or setting.
Scenes must have a Hook, Intensity, and Prompt (HIP). The Hook grabs the reader at the outset of the scene. Dialog, teaser, or action are good hooks into a scene. Description that is brief and sets a mood can also be a hook. Intensity is a building sense that more is at risk, could be lost, or found out. The writer creates this tension through conflict. The conflict can be stretched for all it’s worth by the interplay between action, dialogue, thoughts, and description. Scenes end with Prompts to read on. Prompts can consist of: impending disaster, portent, mysterious line of dialog, a suddenly revealed secret, a major decision or vow, announcement of a shattering event, a reversal or surprise, or a question left hanging.
Chapter eight discusses complex plots that interweave several subplots with the main plot. A subplot can be thematic, dealing with something the Lead needs to learn, which deepens the plot, lends meaning, and is a place to make a statement about life. Characters carry your themes. Each subplot follows the LOCK method. The subplots can be serial or parallel and each must work on their own.
The next seven chapters dive into the finer points presented in the first eight. This is not so say that you can skip the later chapters. Important principles and techniques are revealed in them. Two appendices summarize the book at a high level and describe how to create back cover material (or a blurb) for your book.
Bell uses movies and well known books to illustrate plot and structure techniques rather than esoteric (to me) literary references. His goal is to teach effectively and not to show how well read he is (and, by implication, how the reader isn’t).
Although portions read like a pep talk, the folksy presentation is not long winded and usually has a point or serves as introduction. The book seems converted to eBook format in a somewhat haphazard way (section and subsection titles in perplexing font sizes, rote use of indent everywhere including bulleted lists, only a logical table of contents). This is likely the publishers doing given the economics involved.
However, weaknesses aside, I strongly recommend the content of James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure for new and struggling novelists who want to sell books.