Recently I decided to expand my original 10 books project to include more books on creative writing beyond the original list in search of additional insight into the role of research in the creative writing process. Today, I’m taking a look at Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell.
I picked Plot & Structure as the next item on my reading list because after revisiting the list of popular creative writing books on Goodreads, I spotted it in the top ten. It hadn’t been there when I started the original 10 books project, but it’s interesting to see the ways in which that list fluctuates over time so I thought it was worth taking a closer look.
One of a series
Plot & Structure appears to be one book in a series (“Write Great Fiction”) on different aspects of creative writing, each by a different author. Other books in the series include Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress, Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle, Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell, and some others. This is different from other writing books like Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway that aim to cover the entire writing process from first impulse to revision. When I first saw this, my first thought was something along the lines of “money grab.” Sort of like when they split the last Harry Potter book into two movies for no reason so they could make more money off of it. Why divide the writing process up in this way other than to force people to spend money on a set of books instead of one single one?
So I was feeling a little cynical as I started reading but I got over that pretty quickly because while breaking all of these different aspects of writing up in this way does place a burden on an aspiring writer to either buy/borrow all of the books or figure out which one will be most useful, what I ended up liking about Plot & Structure was how in-depth it is and how much time/space Bell takes to really dive in to what makes an effective plot and practical techniques to create such a plot. Normally, plot and structure would be a single chapter (or maybe two) in most writing books but here it’s the star of the show.
Which is to say, there are books out there that focus specifically on storytelling, like Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig. But I find that those books tend to be more philosophical whereas the focus here is strictly practical. This book would be a great one for a writer to use on their own or to be used as part of a writing class, assuming the class focused in some way on plot and structure and wasn’t as concerned with the other elements of craft.
Basically, I liked it a lot.
Looking for research in more recent books
The article I’m writing about the 10 books project identifies a key limitation of the study. Basically, of the 10 books I looked at, only two had been published in the 21st century…and one of them just barely. To be sure, some of the books had had newer editions with updated information but the problem here is that in the last twenty years, a lot has changed about how people interact with information. Because, you know, the internet became a thing. I mean, it existed before 2000 but hadn’t yet pervaded our lives and warped our information world the way it has in more recent years.
An early reader of that article questioned whether more recent books might be more likely to talk about research. I’d already read through Steal Like an Artist and Big Magic and I knew those two books made some allusions to research but that they really didn’t go into any more detail than the older ones I’d already read despite being newer. Still, the fact that Plot & Structure had been published in the last 10 years was a point in its favor.
Plot & Structure does not talk about research in any detailed sort of way, but there are a few references throughout the book. And toward the end, there is a very brief passage which somehow says more about the role research plays in a writer’s work than almost any other book I’ve read on creative writing so far (with the exception of Bird by Bird and maybe On Writing).
Here is that brief passage:
“Authors vary in their approaches to research. Some like to wait until they have a first draft and can see what areas need more study. Others spend massive amounts of time researching before they start to write…Others, like yours truly, do a little of both” (p. 217).
So that probably doesn’t look like much but even by acknowledging that a writer has to do research sometimes, Bell is already doing more than most writing book authors. Posing the question of when that research should happen (before writing the story, during, after, some combination) and offering a tiny bit of information about his own method is a very small version of exactly what I was looking for when I started reading creative writing books to learn about the role of research in the creative process. And that is why this passage pleases me so.
I mean, it’s not much. I feel like there is so much more to say just on the point Bell is making and wish that he had spent more time on it, but at least it’s something.
Specific without being prescriptive
Reading through this book, what I really liked about it was how practical it is. Bell offers a lot of tools here for thinking about how to plot a story, including the LOCK method (lead, objective, confrontation, knockout), which seems like a useful way of thinking about the story you want to tell. He also gives some thoughts on the choice between outlining and not outlining (while making it clear that it’s the writer’s decision which to do) and presenting specific methods for each choice.
It’s a lot. Like, I feel like if you took every step recommended in this book, you would never actually get around to writing your story, which Bell acknowledges from time to time. While you could definitely use this book before you start writing a story, I actually think it might be most useful as part of the revision process, to help you clarify what you’ve already written. I know the entire time I was reading it, I was thinking about some of the stuff I’ve written and whether I could apply some of Bell’s methods to help me bring it into focus. So, there’s definitely some useful, practical stuff here, even if there’s not a lot about research.
I also like that though most of his examples seem to come from male, white writers, he doesn’t value one particular genre over another. He spends a lot of time on mysteries and thrillers because it seems like that’s what he himself writes but also gives tips on romance and literary fiction. It’s nice to see an author of one of these books acknowledge that not everyone wants to be a great literary writer and try to adjust his advice accordingly.
For all the detail Bell goes into, though, he’s not overly prescriptive. He explains the value of the techniques that he presents and shares when he’s used them himself but while, as far as I can remember, he doesn’t come out and say “your mileage may vary” the way Wendig does in Damn Fine Story, he doesn’t give the impression that what he’s describing is the only way to do things, which is nice.
Not for amateurs
All of that said, Bell does occasionally fall into the Browne & King trap of labeling certain techniques as “not for amateurs,” though he doesn’t use that word the way they did. I think in this case, it’s in reference to using more complicated plot structures rather than the straightforward one that Bell details at the beginning of the book. Still, that kind of thing annoys me, even in small doses like here, because I think it discourages discovery and experimentation. But then again I’m not an editor or creative writing teacher who comes across the same errors/failures over and over again, so I guess I can understand where this might come from.
Despite that, though, I was able to overcome my initial cynicism and enjoy Plot & Structure more than I thought I would. I appreciate that it had at least a little something to say about research.