James Scott Bell ~ Revisiting Plotting

James Scott Bell studied philosophy, creative writing, and film, acted in Off Broadway theater in New York, and received his law degree with honors from the University of Southern California. He’s also a bestselling novelist and screenwriter. A former trail lawyer, he’s a winner of the Christy Award for Excellence in inspirational fiction, and is a three-time finalist for that award.

He is a contributing editor to Writers Digest magazine. His book Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books) is one of the most popular books on the market for novelists and screenwriters. He serves on the board and faculty of Act One, the Hollywood screenwriting program, and is an adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University in Malibu. He was recently hired to adapt a bestselling Christian novel for feature film production. In addition, he works as a script doctor, specializing in faith-themed scripts. Jim lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Cindy.

We asked Jim to answer some questions about plotting.

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. For my 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.

I’ve always said, “Beginnings are easy; endings are hard.” Work and sweat over it.

Darlene Franklin ~ Writer’s Pride

Award-winning author and speaker Darlene Franklin resides in the Colorado foothills with her mother and her lynx point Siamese cat Talia. She has two grown children and two grandchildren. She loves music, reading and writing. She has published one book previously (Romanian Rhapsody, Barbour, 2005), as well as numerous devotions, magazine articles, and children’s curriculum. Gunfight at Grace Gulch is the first book in the Dressed for Death series. Visit Darlene’s website.

The first glossy magazine that published an article of mine made a mistake. They sent me a hundred copies. I gave them to my family, my friends, and my friends’ friends. I pressed copies on total strangers! I still have twenty-five left in a box. I was proud, I tell you. Not only did they print my article, but photographs I took as well. Breaking into the market as a writer and a photographer at the same time sustained my love of writing–at least until the next rejection slip arrived.

A few dozen articles and one published novel later, I still thrill to see something I’ve written in print. I no longer give copies to all and sundry, but you can bet that I share my copy until it’s dog-eared.

Such pride flees like the last rays of sunset into the darkness of night. It lasts until a magazine assigns MY idea to someone else or until another writer has more published than I do. That kind of undesirable pride is an addiction, needing constant fixes of praise from friends or acceptances or even kind rejections. Anything less leaves me shaking my head. “Why do I write? Why do I put myself through this?”

Less than a year ago I was flying high. My contest entry, three chapters of a romantic suspense novel, qualified as one of three finalists. I had half a month to polish the remainder of the manuscript. For those fifteen days I worked day and night, rewriting it once, then twice, then three times. The pot o’ gold at the end of the contest rainbow? Publication! I was certain my book was worthy. I counted down the days until the winner would be announced. The bottom line: I “only” placed third. I was crushed.
I felt the same way when my first published book “only” earned me a third place vote as favorite new author of the year in a reader poll.
Ridiculous, I know. Many people could envy my accomplishments. But I can’t seem to stop myself.
At the same time, I castigate myself for wanting recognition. Yes, I should seek publication. As one of my friends says, “God didn’t give you that story to keep it in a drawer.” But I shouldn’t hope that people begin to recognize my name, should I? After all, Solomon listed pride as one of the seven deadly sins. I vacillate between craving recognition and hating rejection.

I was at a promising point in my writing (two assignments completed and accepted for publication), but already wanting the next fix, when I read an interesting statement on pride. In her classic Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen said, “Pride is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us . . . . Success is the idea of God, successfully carried through.”

Pride as faith?

Pride, faith. Faith, pride. Hmm, that reminds me of a verse from the Bible. Paul says, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you . . . We have different gifts.” (Romans 12:3, 6, NIV) To myself I add, “Don’t think of yourself lowlier than you ought to, either.”

Now that’s the kind of prideful faith – or is it faithful pride? – that I want. Pride recognizes the unique gifts that God has given to me, and single-minded faith pursues the work he has set for me to do.
Norman Vincent Peale agrees. “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.”

Writing can bring me joy. I enjoy listening to people; and I share their stories through the written word. Other stories inflict pain, not happiness. Surely God doesn’t want me to write about a childhood filled with abuse, including incest, does He? False pride tells me to ignore that story. But maybe God wants me to share that story to help others in the same pain. So by faith and with pride I write my story.

Other people’s success won’t dim that kind of pride. If anything, it shines brighter. Their success doesn’t change my calling. My faith can grow through their accomplishments. Since God realized his idea in their lives, he will in mine as well.

God tests me on that through my critique group. I joined an online critique group with three other cozy mystery writers. We each developed our ideas and compared notes. Our stories—one set in a Colorado resort, one on a remote Maine island, one in a small Tennessee town, and mine, in a condo community—showed promise. First the Colorado resort story sold. A few weeks later, the editor accepted the island story and the one set in Tennessee. I waited, certain mine would make it four out of four. The editor’s decision? My cozy sounded like a romance. She invited me to submit a second proposal. I did; she rejected that one too. She is looking at my third proposal while my group mates have gone on to multiple book contracts.

I believe that God will realize his idea in my life. It may not be a “cozy.” Maybe that isn’t my calling, although I love reading mysteries. Maybe it’s one of the other proposals waiting on editors’ desks even as I write. Maybe it’s something new that I haven’t tried yet.
Faith sustained me through that dry period, when words seem as sparse as water in the desert and no one wanted my work. My calling doesn’t come from the market, but from God. If an article never sells, I have still succeeded.

So I will write. Write out of pride that God has words to deliver through me. Only me. Write out of faith that what God has called me to do is worth doing. By writing, I please my greatest audience–the Father who gave me the gift. His delight strokes my soul with all the encouragement I will ever need.

Being Bleak

By Mike Duran

Mike’s stories have appeared in Relief Journal, Coach’s Midnight Diner, Forgotten Worlds, Alienskin, Infuze Magazine and Dragons, Knights and Angels, with articles in The Matthew’s House Project, Relevant Magazine and 316 Journal. Mike is currently part of the editorial team for the Midnight Diner’s second edition and contributes monthly commentary at Novel Journey. He and his wife Lisa live in Southern California, where they have raised four children. You can visit him at mikeduran.com.

“What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?”
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony was one of the least watched in recent years. Variety reported that Oscar ratings fell to an all-time low, with an alarming 20% falloff. While some speculated it had to do with the writer’s strike, most believed it was the Best Picture nominees, a decidedly dark bunch. Of the five films, only Juno carried much levity (and even then, it involved a pregnant teen contemplating abortion and the dysfunctional adults in her life). The rest, including Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, were not nearly as optimistic about the state of humankind. Whether it was a robotic serial killer, a ruthless oilman, a corrupt attorney, or an adolescent liar, Hollywood rendered a cinematic unfurling of human depravity at its best. Where is Frank Capra when you need him?

Really, it’s not that surprising. Bleak is becoming fashionable these days. The last several decades have witnessed more music, films and books with an unapologetically grim streak. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance, is about a father and son trekking across a post-apocalyptic wasteland, fleeing marauding gangs and resisting the urge to cannibalize. The exceedingly cheerless book only won the Pulitzer Prize. Children of Men, one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2006, portrayed a world of infertility, withering under the weight of its physical and existential barrenness. And somewhere along the way, Batman became The Dark Knight and the Joker went from Jack Nicholson’s clownish caricature to the late Heath Ledger’s sinister psychopath.

Even a cursory survey of pop culture reveals a bent toward bleak, a trendy morbidity that infuses our worldview and lifestyle. Gothic culture revels in black and our philosophers accommodate by fashioning nihilistic wardrobes stitched with the thread of despair. Perhaps Thom Yorke, lead singer for the band Radiohead, sums up the Zeitgeist of our generation best when, in the song Bodysnatchers, he intones,

Has the light gone out for you?
Because the light’s gone for me
It is the 21st century

Maybe more than any other, the 21st century is about the light going out.

This trend towards bleak creates an interesting dilemma for the Christian artist and author. On the one hand, Christian art has come to mean anything but bleak. Allen Arnold, Senior Vice President of Thomas Nelson Fiction, in a interview on Novel Journey this weekend, was asked to define Christian Fiction. He said,

By and large, Christian Fiction has its own man-made, restrictive rules for content and character development. Much of it forces a “precious moments” or G-rated worldview that isn’t comfortable with the mystery of God…or with many other things.

Sadly, this “‘precious moments’ or G-rated worldview” is fairly prevalent in the subculture of Christian art. Like a twisted rendition of Groundhog’s Day, we reincarnate happy endings ad nauseam, unable to break the cycle, no matter how disconnected from reality they are.

Nevertheless, even the most buoyant believer must admit that the world is a bleak place. The nightly news is full of stories about terrorist bombings, celebrity overdoses, global warming, corporate corruption, political scandal, senseless crime, genocide, infanticide and suicide. Real life, as opposed to the Precious Moments version of life, does not always have a happy ending.

Furthermore, the Bible pulls no punches about the corrosive state of human depravity and the dismal future of our own making. The apostle Paul wrote:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God… (II Timothy 3:1-4 NIV).

Terrible times. Brutal people. Geez, what a gloom merchant!

But Paul’s not the only negativist. Jesus used similar language in describing the end of the age when He said,

“…there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive…” (Matthew 24: 21-22).

Sure the Bible ends with a celestial city wherein the saints go marching in. But along the way, it describes a society in collapse barreling toward a realm of hideous torment, a spiritual sanitarium where human souls exist in perpetual agony. Hell is as much a part of the Scriptural record as is Heaven, and without it the Story is incomplete.

And who better to write about Hell than those who know the whole Story?

But while Rome burns, many of us are busy fiddling about Shangri-la, sanitizing our stories with the utmost care, bleaching them of the bleakness that is so intrinsic to human experience, drifting further and further out of touch with a world grappling with its own moral and spiritual disintegration.

Contrary to the self-help gurus, Jesus was not a “positive thinker,” a first-century Zig Ziglar with a briefcase full of feel-good witticisms. In fact, many of Jesus’ tales did not have a happy ending. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is one such story. The poor man has his sores licked by dogs and yearns to eat the crumbs from the rich man’s table. He dies and is carried to Abraham’s side. But the rich man is hardly so lucky. He dies and dwells in a place of torment, longing for just a droplet of cool water. When that is withheld, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brethren of this place of inexhaustible anguish. Jesus ends the story with Abraham’s grim assessment, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (vs. 31).

That’s it? No redemptive summary? No Precious Moments denouement? Alas, the curtain closes on a man in perpetual agony, with brothers probably on the way to meet him.

It appears Jesus purposely did not lighten the tone of this story. He forgoes the G-rating in hopes of scaring the hell out of His listeners. Whatever redemptive interpretations occur happen outside the actual parable; the Lord appears content to simply illustrate a very grim reality.

Must rosy resolutions always follow bleak stories? Apparently not. But the Gospel is about hope, you say, the salvation of sinners, the promise of Heaven. Amen and amen! But against the promise of Heaven is the possibility of Hell. And in some ways, until we are willing to elucidate the horrific consequences of life without God, we cannot hope to accurately persuade the reader to appreciate the impossible Other. The Christian artist must do both.

In his poem, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot writes,

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock…

Depicting despair — the “stony rubbish,” the “heap of broken images,” and “the dead tree” — is as much a part of the Christian artist’s calling as is portraying hope. And, in some ways, until we grapple with the wasteland, we cannot ponder “what branches grow” or invite one into the “shadow under this red rock.”

Sunday Devotion: Thanks to Teacher

Janet Rubin

My daughters and I have just finished reading a book about Helen Keller. The biography took us all through Helen’s life: her babyhood bout with scarlet fever which left her deaf, dumb and blind; her lifetime friendship with teacher Anne Sullivan, who opened up the world of language to Helen, teaching her words by signing them into Helen’s hand; the determination that enabled Helen to learn to write and speak and even attend Radcliffe University; her friendships with famous people like Mark Twain; and her extensive work to raise money and awareness to help provide education and opportunities for the blind. We followed up our reading with a viewing of the 1962 film “The Miracle Worker,” starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. My daughters and I were utterly amazed, trying to imagine a life without sight or sound, and wildly impressed at the things Helen was able to accomplish with neither.

One part of Helen’s story impressed me like no other. After Anne Sullivan’s death, Helen wanted to write a book about her. Teacher had invested her life completely in the endeavor of being Helen’s eyes and ears, even going to college with Helen, spelling the professors’ lectures and the words to all the required reading into her hand, doing hours of reading for Helen even as her own eyes failed. Helen was deeply thankful and wanted to document all that Teacher had done, so she began writing, which for Helen meant using a typewriter. She’d done a great deal of work on the manuscript when it was destroyed in a fire. There was no back-up disk, no extra copy. Only ashes. I couldn’t begin to imagine the sense of loss. Yet, seven years later, Helen began work again on this book she eventually titled simply, Teacher, and it was published in 1955. Helen wrote many other books and articles, about herself and her passion for helping the blind.

And I’m left thinking, what have I to whine about? What are my excuses? I have eyes that see and ears that hear. I have a laptop, a myriad of writing resources, and an on-line network of contacts to help me. I have no physical limitations. I don’t need to be desperately dependant on another person to help me understand what is going on around me. However, spiritually, I am dependant. And I do have a teacher. The Holy Spirit is the one who enables me to see spiritually. Without His guidance, I am just as blind and deaf as Helen was. But with His guidance, I have understanding and I am able to share what has been revealed to me through my writing.
God didn’t give Helen Keller the gifts of sight, hearing, and easy speech, but He gave her a sharp mind, a strong and generous spirit, and a sense of determination that enabled her to do great things..and a great teacher. He gave us each whatever we need to do what He has called up to do. Am I limited if my computer crashes? If my writing ability doesn’t equal that of the best-sellers? If I lose my sight? No. I have my life and I have my Teacher.

Lord, Thank You for my senses. Thank you for the life of Helen Keller and her example of a great attitude. You have given me much, the greatest gift being spiritual sight. You are my Teacher, and without you I am lost in the dark. Forgive me for trying to do this without You sometimes. Please help me to be thankful and diligent in using the tools you have given me to share the truth I have been so blessed to see with others. Amen

“Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.” Helen Keller

“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.” Helen Keller