What’s this story about? Is anything happening? Why should I keep reading? Why should I care? These are four questions author and teacher James Scott Bell says must be answered as you write a novel, on every page and with every scene. Plot is the main way these queries are addressed. Last week, I introduced you to Bell’s LOCK system of plotting and I how I used it to inform the structure and develop the characters for my unfinished novel, Lies of Omission. Now, to conclude this series on fiction writing, I want to show you how I became more intuitive with plot, structure, and story.
It wasn’t easy. It took a while. But, like producing my character bios, it was a ton of fun.
Bell recommends taking your favorite novels and analyzing them using the LOCK system as a grid. He suggested asking questions such as:
1. What is it about the Lead character that captures you?
2. What is it the Lead is trying to get or get away from?
3. When did the story kick into “high gear?”
4. What was the main opposition to the Lead’s objective? (I’ll also add “who” is…)
5. How did the ending make you feel? Why did it work?
I decided to take his advice—but then I went a wonderfully ridiculous step further. I decided to map out the entire plot and structure of my favorite novel, scene by scene, from beginning to end. I didn’t do this to be able to copy or mimic the author’s work; rather, I wanted to understand why he planned the story the way he did, get a picture of how the pacing of the scenes worked, and determine what I could do to apply his techniques to the story brewing in my cranium for my novel. In essence, I wanted to view my plot with a plot view from another book.
So, during the same three months I used my weekends working on my character bios, I spent my weekday lunches (45 minutes each day through my full-time employer) in Starbucks with a legal pad and my chosen novel, Drink with the Devil by Jack Higgins. Here’s an excerpt of my notes when, typed from pad to computer, ended up at nearly 20,000 words.
Chapter 8 – London 1995
Ferguson, Dillon and Hannah on the way to see the Prime Minister (transition from the previous chapter is completed. The President is to see the Prime Minister, and that’s identified as Ferguson’s sole concern. Narration describes Ferguson’s impatient mood, and details Dillon sitting beside him, and Dillon’s response. Then Hannah is described in detail as she responds to Dillon. Nice, light chatty banter between the three as they ride in the Daimler. Outstanding character redevelopment. Ferguson exits the car to see the PM.) 147-149
Ferguson and Simon Carter see PM (The character Carter, mentioned derogatorily by Dillon in the previous section, is introduced and described here; he’s painted by narration in a negative way. He’s already waiting in PM’s study when Ferguson arrives, and his disdain for Ferguson and his program is mentioned. Ferguson apologizes for being late. Ferguson and Carter banter angrily – Carter against Dillon and Dillon’s security concerns for the President’s visit to the House of Commons; Ferguson defending Dillon and his concerns. PM corrects both, then decides Carter must hear out Ferguson and Dillon.) 149-151
Ferguson, Dillon and Hannah enter the House of Commons (Standing in line, as everyone else has to, the three chat; Dillon talking about the benefits of the HofC and being a member of Parliament. A sergeant notices Hannah. In his dialogue, the sergeant admiringly mentions a past incident of Hannah shooting someone. She remembers his name and introduces him to Ferguson and Dillon. The sergeant gets them out of the long line and through into the HofC.) 151-152
I know it’s a brief sample covering just five pages of the novel itself, but you get the idea of what I was highlighting in my notes. By the time I wrote, typed, and studied my plot view document, I had the intuitive knowledge, paired with my training from Bell’s Plot & Structure, to write the plot and structure of my novel—which I did, before I wrote the first word of the opening scene.
I want to hear from you!
What methodology have you used to develop the plot and structure of your novel or short story?