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.
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.