Ten Lessons from Plot & Structure

James Scott Bell

May I pop some champagne?
This past week marked the 10th anniversary of Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books). I’m extremely gratified that the book has helped so many writers, because I needed such help when I was starting out. As I explain in the introduction:
I wasted ten years of prime writing life because of The Big Lie.
In my twenties I gave up the dream of becoming a writer because I had been told that writing could not be taught. Writers are born, people said. You either have what it takes or you don’t, and if you don’t you’ll never get it.
My first writing efforts didn’t have it. I thought I was doomed. Outside of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, I didn’t get any encouragement at all.
In college, I took a writing course taught by Raymond Carver. I looked at the stuff he wrote; I looked at my stuff.
It wasn’t the same.
Because writing can’t be taught.
I started to believe it. I figured I didn’t have it and never would.
So I did other stuff. Like go to law school. Like join a law firm. Like give up my dream.
But the itch to write would not go away.
At age 34, I read an interview with a lawyer who’d had a novel published. And what he said hit me in my lengthy briefs. He said he’d had an accident and was almost killed. In the hospital, given a second chance at life, he decided the one thing he wanted was to be a writer. And he would write and write, even if he never got published, because that was what he wanted.
Well, I wanted it too.
But The Big Lie was still there, hovering around my brain, mocking me.
Especially when I began to study the craft.
I went out and bought my first book on fiction writing. It was Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel. I also bought Syd Field’s book on screenwriting because anyone living in Los Angeles who has opposable thumbs is required to write a screenplay.
And I discovered the most incredible thing. The Big Lie was a lie. A person could learn how to write, because I was learning.
Eventually I was published. Then I started to teach what I’d learned. I wrote some articles for Writer’s Digest magazine that led to

my becoming the fiction columnist, and then to the appearance of Plot & Structure in October of 2004.

When there were no ebooks.
Imagine that.
Looking back at the last ten years, I would emphasize the following lessons from Plot & Structure:
1. You can learn the craft of writing fiction that sells.
2. Structure is what enables your story to connect with readers.
3. Don’t just write what you know. Write who you are.
4. Every scene has a purpose, and that purpose can and should be structured for the greatest effect.
5. If you know what effect you want to create, you can learn the techniques for making it happen.
6. Plots will drag unless the protagonist is forced, before the 20% mark, through a “doorway of no return.” This was my biggest contribution to structure studies. It explains how and why a story takes off –– or starts to drag.
7. There are only so many plot patterns. The magic happens when an author puts his unique style, imagination and feeling into the pattern.
8. Compelling fiction is always about death –– physical, professional, or psychological.
9. Act first, explain later. Start with a character in motion, doing something, wanting something. Readers will wait a long time for backstory and exposition if a character is moving.
10. Develop a vision for yourself as a writer. Make it something that excites you. Turn that into a mission. Live your dream.
My great thanks to Writer’s Digest Books and all who have been so complimentary over the years. Your messages, comments, emails and tweets mean the world to me.
Let’s keep the knockout fiction flowing…like champagne!


39 thoughts on “Ten Lessons from Plot & Structure

  1. Great post! I think points 3 and 10 are the two most overlooked. Having that vision and writing from “who you are” place are the keys to lasting success, both from greater satisfaction from your writing and finding and enjoying the best possible readers.

  2. Congratulations, Jim! And Happy 10th!

    Thanks for writing PLOT AND STRUCTURE and continuing to write craft books. Your many books and this blog have been a large part of my writing education.

    And thank you for inspiring so many of us to believe that we, too, could learn to write. It’s an exciting journey. There’s always something new to explore. Keep analyzing films and books and helping the rest of us see what’s under the hood.

    Congratulations and Happy 10th Anniversary!

  3. Jim, One of the first books on writing I bought, and one of the first I recommend to other writers who seek my counsel. Great information from a great teacher. Thanks.

  4. Ten years after…and no eBooks back then. We were probably reading by candlelight, too. I am constantly reading P&S and making relational diagrams. Right now your Middle book has me digging and digging.

    Cheers and have a happy Sunday. See you at BC!!

  5. Jim, congratulations on that tenth anniversary. And thank you so much for your generosity every week in passing on what the knowledge you have acquired over the years. I appreciate it so much.

  6. Thanks so much for this, Jim. #6 resonates most with me as a writer, because for a long time I suffered from the desire to keep my characters from suffering enough, and as such, I failed to lock them into conflict or elevate the stakes of their quests to the life-and-death level. Now, thanks to you, I know to torture my beloved characters for their own good.

    #9 is probably one of the most common notes I give my editing clients, along with the companion advice to “marble” in exposition and backstory a little at a time. What I find often is that writers love building worlds for their characters — and then forget to give them something meaningful do in those worlds.

    “Plot & Structure” (and “Conflict & Suspense”) have been faithful and increasingly dog-eared companions at my writer’s garret (aka, the local coffee joint) for a few years now. They’ve since been joined by “Writing From The Middle.” Thanks for being a cut-through-the-crap guide to discovering my inner craftsman, Jim.

    Looking forward to meeting you at Bouchercon.

  7. Always recommend ‘Plot and Structure’ when questions pertaining to plot, and, well, structure arise. Good title by the way.

    Best learning experience I rcvd. was your suggestion of making scene cards for six novels of the type one planned on writing. I did ten, which helped greatly to understand story flow. Thanks

  8. Just yesterday I recommended Plot and Structure to a young college student when she came to my book signing to talk writing. I also recommend it when I make comments in a contest entry.

    I started writing 35 years ago and every month I devoured Laurence Block’s column in Writer’s Digest. And I read every John D. MacDonald book I could find. Now I read your books and posts. Thanks.

  9. Happy Anniversary, I’ve owned a copy for several years, in fact when my house burned, this book survived because it was at work where I was re-reading it with a highlighter in hand. I take it out and read it every so often and introduce it to fellow writers struggling with writing their first novel or getting a novel published. Thank you for following your dream and helping the rest of us believe we can too.

  10. I attended the COFW Conference this weekend where you were the Keynote Speaker. I thoroughly enjoyed the talks you gave. We didn’t have enough time with you. We laughed, we learned, What more can we ask – but more time with you. Thanks again. Barb Heintz

  11. JSB:
    One thing absolutely can’t be taught, nor should anyone try to teach it: the itch to write. That’s what sustained you all those years (and sustains me), that’s why you seized on the injured lawyer’s story, that’s why you took action and got help.
    I own Plot and Structure, and continue to refer to it. If I beat the odds and am around in ten years, I’ll still be recommending your book to others.

  12. Happy book anniversary! I’m now plotting my NaNo novel, and guess what I’m using? Yep, my well-worn dog-eared copy of Plot and Structure. I’ve told countless writers about your book and how helpful it is. I refer to it every single time I’ve started a new manuscript.

  13. I agree wholeheartedly about “the big lie.” Writing is not a gift bestowed on some by the gods, it’s a set of skills that can be learned, practised and improved.
    Equally important to discovering you “can” learn, is the honesty to realize you should. I know too many would-be writers who think they already know everything they need to know, and bridle at the idea that they could learn anything.
    If you already know it all, how can you learn to be better?

  14. Ten years, quite a milestone, congratulations (smiles).

    And so much encouragement, in sharing, that writing can be learned.

    Esp liked,

    “I discovered the most incredible thing. The Big Lie was a lie. A person could learn how to write, because I was learning.” – proof in the pudding of personal words, thank you!

  15. Plot & Structure has kept me writing! In the beginning of my writing journey, I’d read many books on writing, mostly grammar, writing inspiration, how to get started, etc. Your book delivers much more, because it addresses what we need to actually complete a novel.

  16. Hi Mr. Bell,
    This is Leonard, Basil’s time travelling cousin. I just returned from a visit to 2643 AD and you will be quite interested to know that greatest among the universities of the Great Northern Triagon is the highly acclaimed Jamscobelle High College and School for the Mastery of Literary Wisdom.

    I did not know what the name meant, until one day while chasing an escaped Copernimunk who had escaped my time machine in the wrong century, I happened to charge into the main hall of Jamscobelle’s massive building, called the Plotten Structure, and I ran into the statue of the great philosopher Jamscobelle upon whose principles the school was founded. As I picked up the statue, I had been running quite fast and they really should bolt down things like that, I got a good look at it’s face.

    Wouldn’t you know it? The similarity was striking. Once I cleared most of the Copernimunk’s remains off of it, it was as if I was staring at your profile picture, except for the Copernimunk guts hanging from the ears.

  17. Highly Educational Footnote:
    Copernimunks: A bio-engineered species of talking chipmunk created in 3304 CE by the Biological Logical Foundation for the purpose of information retention, application and rapid theoretical problem resolution.

    Somewhat like a pocket smart device from the 21st century, Copernimunks are capable of storing vast amounts of data, and accessing even more via the “Chipmunk Psychic Symbio Network”. They processed information and were able to deliver it in a conversational style to their owner. They can observe and make rational decisions on the fly concerning the previously considered data as well as include new, related but previously unknown to be connected data.

    While popular among intelligentsia there were a couple of difficulties, especially with the more advanced models.
    1. They talk very, very fast
    2. They tend to stutter when nervous
    3. They like to run and make their owners catch them
    4. They lack the upper body strength to catch life-sized bronze statues of famous historical figures that are knocked over onto them by their often frustrated and sometimes clumsy owners
    5. They are easily squished into bloody goo by heavy things, like life-sized bronze statues of famous historical figures
    Otherwise, they are well worth the investment, especially if you purchase the optional “Slowem’ Down A Bit” verbal processor.

  18. Hi James, I can’t get enough of your books! They grab me, toss me around, and won’t let me go. Your new book, Writing from the Middle, is what inspired me to finish my first romance novel. I especially love your advice about writing who you are. The plot changed 360 degrees. 🙂 Keep on teaching!

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