by James Scott Bell
Writer's Digest Books
I've seen a lot of writers referencing this book and I had it on my shelf (with a bunch of post-it tags marking various pages, which is always a good sign), so I thought it was time to let you know what's on those pages.
What does the book address?
The book starts with the basics: What is plot? What is structure? Each gets a chapter where it's discussed at a pretty basic level. This segues to how to find ideas to write about. Most experienced writers have no problem coming up with things to write about, but our ideas aren't always complete or compelling enough to support a novel-length story, so I see some potential value here. Another chapter deals with how to craft an opening for your story. Openings can be tough (at least they are for me) and any tool for helping here is always welcome. Next comes chapters on middles, endings, scenes, complex plots, character arc, outlining, revisions, plot patterns, and common problems and cures.
You can easily find entire books that deal with each of these subjects in great depth, so the question becomes: Does this book have value? Does it have anything to offer writers who are beyond the novice stage? I believe it does.
Though there's not much that's going to be new for a serious intermediate or advanced writer, Bell presents each issue in a way that provokes thought. For instance, the three things that he says you need to give the reader in Act 1 are:
- A compelling lead character
- Whom the reader bonds with
- And whose world has been disturbed
I do like what he says about exposition in the beginning of a story: most of it can be cut away with impunity and not lose the flow of the story. He goes on to give the three rules he lives by:
- Rule 1: Act first, explain later. Begin with a character in motion. Readers will follow a character who is doing something, and won't demand to know everything about the character up front. You then drop in information as necessary, in little bits as you go along.
- Rule 2: When you explain, do the iceberg. Don't tell us everything about the character's past history or current situation. Give us the 10 percent above the surface that is necessary to understand what's going on, and leave 90 percent hidden and mysterious below the surface. Later in the story, you can reveal more of that information. Until the right time, however, withhold it.
- Rule 3: Set information inside confrontation. Often, the best way to let information come out is within a scene of intense conflict. Using the characters' thought or words, you can have crucial information ripped out and thrown in front of the reader.
Again, basic stuff, but good stuff.
If you're like me (and I'm curious to know if how-to writing books elicit a similar reaction in you), when I'm reading a book like this, I usually have a particular story in the back of my mind. As I read about different approaches to something like how to open a story, I'm mentally trying that approach in my head to see if it strikes sparks. I wonder would this hook the reader better than what I'm doing now? Or would this give the story more depth? Or how would this opening resonate with the ending?
So I would recommend this to novice writers. For more experienced writers, I would say it's a good way to review what you already know and, if you're looking for something to stimulate ideas for how to handle stories, it wouldn't hurt you to have this, but it's not something that you absolutely must have.
If you've read this, what's your opinion of it?
If you'd like to see reviews of other writing sources, go here.