Novel structure – James Scott Bell and my book outlining challenge

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Dragon sconce south door, Westminster Abbey, London, 2016
I’m struggling under the weight of all the story elements I have to understand

I’ve now finished reading James Scott Bell’s SuperStructure. I was a bit sniffy about it in an earlier post and didn’t feel it could apply to me. But now I’ve changed my mind, or at least, moved the furniture round. I’m ready to finalise my story outline and crack on with the writing the middle and end. And this book, along with the others I’ve read, has helped with that goal.

I have trouble identifying the beats or structure elements of stories. I don’t know why. I guess I feel stories more than I analyse them. You just know when it’s time to step up the action. You just know when characters are standing around talking about their relationships instead of moving the story forward (boo, Doctor Who for being guilty of this one – you should really know better and it’s for KIDS who are the sharpest detectors of boring grownups talking boring stuff).

Ahem. Anyway I’ve always just known. Even in my long stories, I just knew. But a novel is more than a long story and I’m finding that out.

For me the best parts of SuperStructure were the parts about the final battle and the end. These are the areas I know least about and where I have the fewest preconceptions.  And reaching these parts in Bell’s book, it all made a lot more sense:

  • The Q factor, that is, the object or person which prompts the hero to decide to fight the final battle, makes perfect sense to me. These are the bits and bobs I throw in for texture at the start, and which I suddenly recall close to the end and use as magical items to support the hero through the last pages, or reveal something he/she needed to understand. I already do this. Go me.
  • The battle, either physical or psychological – yup, got that.
  • The wrap-up which shows how things have changed and the outcome of the battle. Great.

So it was only the middle parts of Bell’s guidance that I struggled with. Antagonists and mirror moments and doorways of no return. Why do I find this so hard? I just don’t know. The concepts I grasp fine. Applying them seems impossible.

Of course it is the middle part of my book I am stuck on at the moment. I know what’s going to happen but I need to move my characters, and the heart of the story, from location A, through a brief sojourn at B, to location C. B and C could become one if that makes more logical sense. I literally have to get them across an ocean and I don’t have a reason for it except that the legend I’m sort of retelling takes place in location C.

So choices.

  1. The easy one – start at location C like the original legend does. I have options here for the kind of settings I want for the early parts of the book. This would be easy.
  2. Hard choice – continue to struggle with why they all up-sticks to C when A and B form their natural setting.
  3. Harder choice – examine why location A is so important to me that I started telling its story at all. Do I even need to continue to my legend of location C? My character could do all the necessary transforming right there at A. It would not be the book I imagined but it might be a better one, using all the things I’ve set up in the first parts of the story to bring about the battle, and the transformation. (Also – that ending has a kind of Book One feel to it. They can go to C in Book Two…)

I wanted to write this story because of my interest in this lead character. The others are less intriguing to me. One of them is practically only the love interest and I’m having a hard time imagining him as more. He needs to be more for the love part to work at all. So maybe I can ditch him? Or, better, plonk him at location A as a minor character, he can show up close to the end to offer a bit of light relief, but the real meat of the story is the lead’s transformation. Plus, obviously, saving the world.

These are hard things to think about, but I must. Apart from anything else, this is all good practice and learning. Also I said I would finish my outline by tomorrow and it’s already today.

Externalising the debate is helpful. Usually I just run through possibilities at the speed of light whilst typing. I like working that way. but it’s good try to new things too. After all, my usual way has not won me any Pulitzers. So let’s see.

One doorway is my character jumping through the first doorway to seek glory and freedom. But the consequences of that jump means there is no going back and the home he left behind is destroyed. OK. So far, so Star Wars. That leads nicely to Act 2.

The second big doorway is when my lead has to decide whether to risk all to destroy the enemy which has pursued him throughout, or use the coward’s way out which has been tempting him all along. Actually that sounds just like one of JSB’s examples. Maybe I’m not so horrible at this after all.

Task one of my two-day-outline challenge is completed. Now for the rest of it.

**Mirror moment. JSB describes this in an interview with KM Weiland as a point in the story when “The character is forced to look at himself. As if in a mirror, only it’s a reflection of who he is at that moment in time. Who am I? What have I become? What do I have to do to regain my humanity? Sometimes, it’s the character looking at the odds. How can I possibly win? It looks like I’m going to die—physically or spiritually. Now what am I supposed to do?” Interview here.

*** Doorway of no return. In his summary of JSB’s two pillars of story structure, Brian Klems describes the doorway of no return as a point where there is no way back for the main character. The first doorway in a novel  forces the character into Act 2.  The lead cannot go home, back to the old world they started in. The second doorway  makes possible or inevitable the final battle and resolution; this is often an event that feels like a major crisis or setback. I’ve paraphrased – the full article is here.


My Biggest Pants Yet – outlining a novel, Part 2

Reading Time: 2 minutes

sefton-vertical-encrustedI read these books last week when I got in trouble with outlining my first novel. Below are my impressions of these books, and what I’ve learned by reading them.

Take off your pants! by Libbie Hawker. This was my first admission that, for a story longer than anything I’d ever written*, I needed help.

Libbie Hawker’s book started out annoying – I dislike the cosy, sparkly tone she adopts – but soon it gets down to solid advice, and her own suggested formula for a satisfying story structure. She uses one of her own books as an example, but also some well known stories. I liked the shape of her outline, but had trouble with her definitions of the Antagonist and Ally, since they seemed to be the opposite of standard explanations of these.

I could see what she was getting at, but I couldn’t pin these definitions on any of my characters. Did that mean I was trying to write a novel without either of these? I didn’t think so, but I couldn’t make it stick.

I liked her iteration of the ‘Drive for Goal>Antagonist Attacks!>Thwart>Revisiting Main Character’s Flaw>New Drive For Goal’ flow. I can totally see how that could lead the reader through a series of increasingly Bad Things until the main character is forced to address their Flaw, challenge the Antagonist, and be changed by the outcome. I tend to do this anyway, but I don’t think I use the Antagonist/Ally double-whammy she describes. So this book was interesting but I’ve yet to get a handle on applying its ideas.

Super Structure, by James Scott Bell. James Scott Bell proposes a different structure, based around the main character experiencing a disturbance in their status quo, and then being propelled through two ‘doorways of no return.’ I like this simpler idea, but then got stuck again trying to identify my doorways. Is it when my character runs away recklessly seeking glory? Is it when his home is destroyed by the bad guys? Is it much, much sooner, when he first arrives at the strange village? Aarrgghh. (But see my later post on this – Sef)

Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them. Ronald B Tobias’ book is a little different. It suggests you identify your story as one of his 20 basic types of plot, and then use the corresponding deep structure. My plot is easily identified as a quest (hurrah – I can ignore the following 19 chapters) but then again I got tied up in trying to match anything in my book to any of the stages Tobias insists are fundamental.

Lessons learned about structure: think about structure when you first brainstorm your ideas. That way, instead of shoehorning your existing plot into a structure-shape and assessing if it works, you can be starting from an empty system which you can fill with your inspiration. I never thought I’d say this, but maybe I need some slightly smaller pants after all.

To be continued…

Jump back to Part 1


My Biggest Pants Yet – Outlining a novel, Part 1

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Biggest Pants yet - outlining a novel
Antony Gormley’s statues have no pants at all. Is it time to take off my own metaphorical trousers?

Where I come from, pants means knickers. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about outlining my novel.

In Lancashire, (and also in, you know, America) pants means trousers. Flying by the seat of them is a style of writing beloved of those who like to be spontaneous, creative, freeform. They are known as pantsers and are often set up in opposition to plotters, who prefer a more orderly approach. I don’t believe these styles are mutually exclusive, but it’s a handy label. I am a pantser, and I am also someone who wants to write a novel. That’s what this blog is about. I put on the pants in January 2016 and they are huge.

It’s now June. And for the first time in my life, the pants are not comfy.

I started with a story outline of my usual kind: a wobbly line drawn in a notebook, with a couple of high and low points labelled, like a cross section of the Lancashire Dales. Peaks were my main characters’ triumphs; valleys, their terrible defeats at the hands of the enemy.

Later I added a few pages of mind map, connecting the various scenes I had in my head (and also, now, in Scrivener*) and trying to invent the ones I would need to make it all work logically.

Two weeks ago with a large Don’t Know now blockading Part 1 and Part 3 of my story, I went out and found these books:

Take off your pants! by Libbie Hawker. This was my first admission that, for a story longer than anything I’d ever written**, I needed help.

Superstructure, by James Scott Bell. This had so many stars on Amazon that it was an obvious choice for someone with a novel to write and a pants problem.

Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald B Tobias. This book has been on my shelf for twenty years I’d never read it. Time to open it up.

The Hollow Boy (Lockwood and Co), by Jonathan Stroud – well, I needed cheering up, and Stroud’s scary, funny, thrilling tales are a sure thing for that.***

Some detail on each of these books is in Part 2, but the bottom line is this: they didn’t help me outline a novel. Or rather, they didn’t help me with this novel. I will certainly be trying their methods for future stories, particularly some of the genre fiction I have lined up in my mental Must Write list.

My stories have never had any of these suggested structures. Reading these books left me panicking. Am I no good at all? Am I only made to enjoy the work of other writers, who can create a Mirror Moment (JSB) or show their character Girding Their Loins (LH)?

Every part of me answers No to these questions. I can write, I do write and I will write. I will work this out. I will stare at my wobbly cross section of the Dales until I figure out what is on that big peak in the middle, and how my lead will tumble down it, cursing, into the valley below.

So that’s where I’m up to. I’m sitting in enormous pants, with a complete idea for a book except some detail about the middle, unable to make my ideas fit other people’s. I’m not so arrogant as to think I have nothing to learn from established authors and screenwriters. Perhaps I am only hopeless at identifying a story’s structure (this does ring a faint bell from my English degree).

The only conclusion I’ve reached so far is that when I do figure out how story structure works for me, I’m going to write it down and put it in a book.

Jump to Part 2

*I have a separate post on Scrivener, the writing software used by many authors and bloggers. I’m roadtesting it for my first proper novel, plus also trying out WordPress and having a personal blog for the first time. Because obviously writing a novel won’t occupy my entire life.

**Longest original story. I have fanfics which go on and on. They needed some outlining too, but I did it as I went along and it worked out fine. Probably because all the hard worldbuilding, characterisation, premise and motivation had been done for me.

*** The Hollow Boy was awesome. I devoured it in three sittings, ignoring my childcare and dinner preparation duties, and reading it on the train when a keen professional might have been doing a bit of unpaid overtime. I’m in love with Lockwood, and desperate to know the cause of the ghost Problem, and how the narrator, Lucy, will manage after the cataclysmic events at the end of this book. It’s part 3 of the Lockwood series and I already have part 4 on pre-order. Stroud is an amazing writer! I bet he understands story structure.