In a post last week I wrote about James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle. Afterwards, AC Macklin raised a rather sensible question whose answer I had skipped over – what were the things of value I learned from this book? In my enthusiasm to talk about the book in general, I missed the useful details. So here they are…
Explaining the Value of Structure
There’s a quote from the book that I included last week – ‘Structure is translation software for your imagination.’ I think that quote, and what it represents, are very useful in understanding the value of structure.
Structure isn’t there to tell you what story to write or what ideas to discuss. It’s there to help you turn those ideas into something coherent and accessible, to fit your story into the form you’re writing in, whether it’s a novel, a screenplay or a haiku.
Bell raised a set of interesting questions to make sure you’re covering the important things in the first act of your story:
- have you given readers a character worth following?
- is there a disturbance to their life early on?
- do you know the death stakes of the story? – this doesn’t have to mean literal death, but what physical, emotional or professional destruction the character is threatened with
- is there a scene forcing the character into the confrontation of act two, and is it strong enough that the character can’t resist getting involved?
These are ideas I was already familiar with, but Bell’s list provides a great sanity check, a way of making sure that the elements are in place to make the story compelling.
Bell refined my thinking on the midpoint. In Wells’s seven point structure, this is the moment when the protagonist becomes pro-active. For Bell, it’s a point where the forces arrayed against the protagonist seem so vast that if they go on they will almost certainly face physical, psychological or professional death.
These are quite different things to build the centre of a story around, but what strikes me is that they’re both about the need to make a decision to act, whether by switching from passivity to pro-activity, or by deciding to act despite the danger.
I think that combining those two could make for some incredibly powerful central story moments.
A good character arc is almost always about change. Bell points out that this change needs to be proven by the character’s actions, not just something they think or talk about. By working outwards from inner revelation to actual acts, you prove far more effectively that the character has changed, both to the reader and to the other characters in the story.
The need for characters to have flaws is common advice. Bell suggests a refinement of this, that if you can it’s good to give your central character a moral flaw that is hurting others.
OK, that’s a potentially very dark point, but it’s similar in value to that point about proving change. A moral flaw that hurts others is more substantial – it has real consequences, not just internalised angst, and it matters to other characters. It’s a much more substantial flaw.
The single most useful thing I got out of this book wasn’t about structuring my stories, it was about pitching them. The pitch structure Bell provides consists of three sentences:
- Your lead character’s name, vocation and initial situation.
- ‘When’ + the main plot problem.
- ‘Now’ + the death stakes.
Despite years of being told I should have elevator pitches for my projects at work, I never got the hang of pitching. But reading this gave me such a clear, simple structure to follow that I immediately went and tried it out on the stories I’m writing. So, for the book I’m currently working on:
Dirk Dynamo is enjoying a life of learning with the gentlemen adventurers of the Epiphany Club. Joining an expedition to find the Great Library of Alexandria, Dirk finds himself on the island of Hakon, where colonial life is not what it seems. With monsters in the jungle, conspiracies in the mansion and ninjas dogging his trail, can Dirk and his friends find the first clue to the Library before they meet a deadly fate?
OK, I didn’t actually use the words ‘when’ and ‘now’, but the essence of the structure is there. And I don’t know about you, but I’m more excited about my book after seeing it summarised like that. That’s most of my blurb right there.
On Writing Life
Finally, there were two points that I wrote out on cards and stuck to my desk to remind myself of their importance
- when writing becomes drudgery go do something else for a while
- daydream about the rewards of your writing, however intangible, to keep you motivated
I struggle with motivation a lot. These were good reminders of things that I know in principle but often forget in practice.
Worth the Reading
The focus of my previous post on Write Your Novel From the Middle probably seemed down on the book, because I was disappointed after hearing it raved about. But as I also said in that post, there was stuff of real value in there, and I consider it time and money well spent. Just not the game changer it’s sometimes sold as being.