Book Review: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

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So I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things I need to work on as I revise my book is the plot itself. There is a writer in my group who has a wonderful head for plot, and I’m terribly jealous of his brain. Or maybe it’s focus. I can come up with some good parts, but I like messing with character more, so I don’t get overly complex. Things don’t necessarily flow from one event to the next in an inexorable tide of awesomeness. I want that awesomeness very badly, which means I’ve gone to the source of all knowledge – books. I thought I’d share about one particular book that I found extremely helpful.

There are all sorts of books on plot out there. Some give you strict formulas – at the 1/4 mark you must have the inciting incident, you must have your hero try and fail 2x before moving on to the next part of the book. Some tell you to follow your heart and do what feels right, and you’ll do OK (this is almost always a lie, how can you improve if you don’t recognize things that don’t work?). Others give you long lists of things you can’t do, like NEVER have a unsympathetic main character or if you want to sell like the big names, you’ll stay far away from heavy issues.

I don’t like any of these, I never come away inspired, or even with a tool to use on my own work. I’m a rebellious spirit – if you tell me that at word 23,245 I have to do this or that, I’m likely to shut the book. I don’t believe there are hard and fast rules in art. But neither do the artsy-fartsy books give any concrete pieces of advice to work from. Bell talks about all the things these other books talk about, without getting overly abstract or strict. He walks the middle ground, and boils his advice down to very applicable exercises at the end of each chapter.

Plot is derived from all the other aspects of writing – especially character – and Bell recognizes this and shows how events should flow from character. He does a good job of giving specifics without getting overly narrow – the advice in this book is applicable to just about every genre I can think of. He calls out some of the pitfalls that inexperienced writers often fall into (for example, choosing too complex a plot or an unsympathetic character), but he doesn’t say “never do this.” In fact, he spends some time discussing these sticky situations and offering solutions.

So I give the book a thumbs-up. I imagine the info he gives is relatively basic for the experienced writer, but for someone at my level of knowledge, Plot & Structure gave me a LOT to work with. I’ll be applying some of the exercises to my revision, and it’s already helped me to work out some of the problems my critique group encountered.

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