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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

James Scott Bell ~ On Plotting

James Scott Bell studied philosophy, creative writing, and film in college, acted in Off Broadway theater in New York, and received his law degree with honors from the University of Southern California. A former trial lawyer, Bell is the Christy-award winning author of Deadlock, a thriller about the Supreme Court, and coauthor of the bestselling Shannon Saga series. Bell makes his home in Southern California with his wife, Cindy, and their two children.

What are the pros and cons to plotting vs. seat of the pants?

As I explain in Plot & Structure, there are NOPs (No Outline People) and OPs (Outline People) and hybrids. The OPs love the security of knowing where the story is headed. The trade off is a resistance to the story taking on organic life, having the characters head in a direction you didn't plan on.

This is what the NOPs love, the act of daily discovery. But the trade off here is that it may be a lot tougher getting to a coherent ending.

I am somewhere in the middle (NOOP?) I do like to know where I'm headed, but I always allow my characters some breathing room.

What is a common plotting mistake many fledgling writers make?

Perhaps it's in thinking that plot is about incidents only. But without great characters, deep and multi-faceted, there's no blood in it. Nothing pumping. Readers bond to plot through character.

Can a plot be as simple as knowing where you want to start and how it ends, but not quite knowing how you're going to get there?

E.L. Doctorow once likened writing to driving in the dark with your headlights on. You know where you started and where you're going to end, but along the way you can only see as far as the headlights. Then you drive there, and can see a little further.

What you need is a functioning "story engine." In my book I talk about the LOCK System, which provides that. Then you have enough "juice" to fill a novel.

What makes for an engaging plot?

The LOCK elements are Lead, Objective, Confrontation and Knock-out ending. Every one of these must be pressed to the max to make the plot work. When I teach writing, I tell the students that if they master only these four elements, they'll never write a weak plot. From there, it's all a matter of growing as a writer.

I've heard a novel should have three major set-backs for the Protagonist. Can you elaborate?

Set backs are good, and the more the merrier! I always try to follow what I call Hitchcock's Axiom. Alfred Hitchcock once said a great story is "life, with the dull parts taken out."

No trouble = dull. So I want lots of setbacks for my Lead, little ones and big ones, interior and exterior. I do like to have a major one in the middle somewhere that raises the stakes.

How does the plot differ between a plot-driven book and a character driven book?

It's a matter of feeling. You feel in a character driven book that the interior life of the Lead is the most important thing. The pace is more leisurely. But a great plot won't work on all cylinders if the characters don't engage, and have some change happen.

I was thrilled to see the ending of my WIP fits into one of your ending theories: the Protagonist doesn't get what she wants, but the result is good. Talk about endings for a moment.

There are five basic endings. Lead wins, Lead loses and we don't really know (the ambiguous ending is found mostly in literary fiction). Then, Lead wins but at a moral cost; and Lead loses, but with a moral gain.

One of the most famous endings of all, Casablanca, is of the latter type. Rick wants one thing above all, Ilsa. But if he takes her (wins) it will be at a moral cost. He will be taking another man's wife, and also harm the war effort, as the husband is a great resistance leader.

So Rick sacrifices his own want at the end. He loses Ilsa. But his moral gain is that he's found himself again. He's found a reason to live, to rejoin the war effort, not to mention the "start of a beautiful friendship" with Louis, the French police captain.

Now why is this so powerful? Because it's the central story of our culture—sacrificial death and resurrection.

I've always said, "Beginnings are easy; endings are hard." Work and sweat over it. For my latest novel, Presumed Guilty, I re-wrote the ending about 30 times, even getting to the point where I was changing just a few words. Nobody said writing was going to be easy…but it's worth it.

Plot & Structure a book that needs to be in every writer's library.

Click here to buy.


  1. Mr. Bell,
    Thank you for taking the time to answere these questions. I love the Hitchcock quote. I think I need to not only add your book to my pile of how-to-write books, but also read it. God bless!

  2. Thanks Ane for bringing us this and thanks Jim for taking the time to do it!

    (Great teaser for the book btw.)I have Plot & Structure and am reading it in small chunks to fully digest it. Excellent resource and Ane won't stop bragging on Glimpses of Paradise so I'm jut going to have to get it.

    Thanks again you 2!

  3. Gina, I read Glimpses of Paradise. It was great!

  4. I took Jim's major morning track at Mount Hermon in April. He's an excellent, interesting teacher and a really nice guy. Oh, and he also writes fascinating songs. :)

    Thanks for this interview, Jim and Ane.

  5. Really ... if you don't have a copy of Plot & Structure, you need to get one. If I could only have one writing how-to book, this would be it. And it's not the type you read once and that's all you want to read. I go back to this book time and time again to remind myself of the elements of good storytelling.

    I've been a fan of Jim's novels for years now as well. Glimpses of Paradise is a great read for historical fiction lovers. If you're more of a suspense/legal thriller type, check out his latest Presumed Guilty or Sins of the Fathers. Another great read that is a little less intense (but no less well-written) is Breach of Promise.

  6. Thanks.

    I really appreciate the time and wisdom you shared!

  7. Plot and Structure was one of my first writing books. Then one day I was in the library and noticed Jim's name on the spine of a book in the inspy fiction section.

    I thought I'd check it out to see if this guy really practiced what he preached. LOL - Did he ever!

    That book was Glimpses of Paradise. The scuttlebutt I hear is that it's destined to become a classic.

    I believe it - it's that good. Thanks, Jim, for one of my all-time favorite books!

  8. I'm with Ane! Plot and Structure was the third book I bought about writing!

    I can't find enough good things to say about it. I review it often.

    Thanks Ane and James for a great interview!

  9. Excellent! Love that book. Meeting JSB at Mt, Hermon was one of my highlights that week. What a humble and caring person. There I was a nobody and he made me feel like I counted. He even let me pick his brain about omniscient POV on the last day at lunch. What a guy...what a writer!

  10. Jim, this is one of the BEST books I've read on writing! I recommend it to everyone. Thanks for a great interview!


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