James Scott Bell needs no introduction. But I won’t let that stop me.
Jim is the author of the modern classic within the craft niche, Plot and Structure, a perennial bestseller that has influenced tens of thousands of writers. He has several other craft titles out, as well, including two recent books that he has independently published (something we cover in the first question of this interview).
The most recent of those is Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story,” and it’s terrific.
If you know anything about me and my work, you’ve already noticed the common ground. In fact, when I went to China last summer to support the release of Story Engineering there, one of the other three U.S. books being released was, in fact, Jim’s Plot and Structure (we share the same US publisher, as well).
Here are some of Jim’s thoughts on craft, structure, story planning and the mental game we all play as storytellers.
SF: My first question has to do with you, the A-list author of traditionally published writing craft books (in addition to being a successful novelist, first and foremost), a brother-in-arms in the structure wars (given that your breakout writing book was “Plot & Structure,” published in 2004 and still a major player in the niche)… with all that going for you, here you are publishing shorter-form ebooks that are tackling the major questions of craft and scratching out a living as a writer.
My question… why? Why the move away from traditional publishing in this niche toward your own independent brand?
JSB: With the writing books, I’m a hybrid. I’m working on a new book for Writer’s Digest, but because of publishing schedules that won’t be out until 2016. Meanwhile, I am always digging into the craft, and short-form books on particular issues are a tremendous way to tackle certain subjects. These types of books can’t be published traditionally because of the cost involved. They’re not big enough to sell at the kind of margin a traditional print run needs.
SF: “Super Structure” struck me as the quintessential “let’s end the planner-pantser debate and really talk about what works and what doesn’t” guide. In my own work (which topically overlaps with yours on these issues… which is fine by me, I like to think of this is unanimity rather than competition), I say that the end-game, the things that need to be in play within a novel that work by empowering the story are EXACTLY the same whether you plan them or pants them.
JSB: Right. I always say in my workshops, if you’re a pantser, then pants away! Just know that at some point you’re going to have to think structurally, and if that’s at the end of a messy first draft, so be it. But if you want readers, if you want reach, if you want a successful fiction career, you can’t ignore what enables readers to connect to story, and that’s structure. I like to say that structure is translation software for your imagination. It takes all the heart and passion and creativity you have inside you, and puts it into a form that readers can relate to.
Structure is not something that will kill your creativity, as some argue. Indeed, it gives your creativity direction, and you can choose any number of directions for your story.
SF: What has been the pantser push-back experience for you (I get hate mail, but mostly I get thank you notes from former pantsers), and how does this new book address those who just can’t accept that structure is impartial in this regard, and that is isn’t remotely a creativity-killer?
JSB: Well, I make clear in the book that the issue is not pantsing v. plotting. It’s structure v. experimental. If a writer wants to go anti-structure, that’s fine. Go for it. Just know it will limit your audience.
What I think the real “anti-structure” people are rebelling against is the pre-novel outline. They don’t want to be told that you HAVE TO outline a book completely before you write it. I’m with them in that! As your earlier question indicated, you can go any way you want to with your drafting habits, free-form or planned. It’s just that no matter what your preference is, at some point you have to think structure.
SF: I love how you’ve taken three part structure and broken it down into 14 functional, mission-driven, sequence-specific milestone moments and sequences. I found this really accessible. But because it’s specific, what will you say to someone who accuses you of once again (meaning, me and you and those who agree with us) pushing a “formula” onto writers who want to do their own thing without feeling the need to line up with anyone’s notion of what needs to come next within a novel?
JSB: What I stress in the book is that these are “signposts.” They help you drive in the dark. They are there if you want them, but you can ignore them if you like. And if you drive off a cliff, they will come to you with a tow line, haul you back onto the road, and point you in the right direction.
So if you’re pantsing along and you don’t know what to write next, you can use my book as a road map. You can find a signpost, and write toward that.
If you’re a minimal planner, you can use the book to map out the main points you want to hit. Or the first half of the trip, and leave the rest of it to plan after you get to the halfway point.
Or you can use it to draft an entire novel, and that novel will be guaranteed to have the strongest foundation possible.
Again, it’s very flexible, but also offers guaranteed strength. I don’t advocate any one way of approach.
SF: We’re both aware there’s a book out there entitled “Story Trumps Structure,” by a pretty credible author. When I read that title I thought it must be an allegorical route to explain how a story should be built (my first thought was that he must be kidding, to be honest), but when I read the book I discovered two things: the author sticks to his guns, he treats three-act “structure” and all the micro-structures within those three acts like anathema… and then, approaching it through a completely different lens (the lens of “write it how you want to write it, just feel your way through it, pay no attention to the structure guys yelling at you from the sidelines”), he proceeds to lay out precisely how and why structure – the very same structure you and I advocate – actually works, through the building of reader empathy, inserting stakes and drama and showing the hero reaction and attacking and confronting, leading to resolution… all of which IS structure. Thoughts on this?
JSB: Well, I haven’t read the book, but I know the author and read an article he wrote about it. And as you say, he really does believe in the three-act structure, just uses different terms and comes at it a different way. What this view is really railing against is “outline insistence.” As I stated earlier, I entirely agree with that. There’s no one way of getting the material out of your head and onto the page. However, I would caution that insisting that the only way to draft a story is the “free form” way is itself harmful. Because the signpost scenes, especially the one I call the “mirror moment,” help a writer come up with killer story ideas that otherwise might be missed.
The better approach, in my view, is to use a map for the journey, the signposts, and learn how to write freshly and creatively inside actual scenes. Your map does not have to be fully fleshed out, either. But it can be. And that’s okay, too. Many of the most successful writers of fiction outline their novels extensively.
But I’m not against a free-form, feel-your-way-through drafting process if that’s what makes you comfortable. A better title, therefore, would have been “Flow Trumps Outlining,” which is an argument you can make.
But story doesn’t “trump” structure. It never has. Structure actually unleashes story power. Structure is story’s best friend.
SF: Has writing all this craft material taken your mind and focus off of your fiction, or has it energized it?
JSB: Oh, it always energizes me. Some guys like to pop the hood on cars and tinker around and build hot rods. I like to pop the hood on fiction and tinker around and build hot reads.
The thing that really jazzes me of late is the “mirror moment” I mentioned earlier. I wrote another little book about it, called Write Your Novel From the Middle. That’s now one of the first places I go before I start writing.
SF: What’s next for James Scott Bell?
JSB: I just re-released my legal thriller series, the Ty Buchanan books. I’m now working on a new series of thrillers, two stand-alones, two novelettes, and a new craft book. I’m not lacking work.
Many thanks to Jim for joining us here, as he has in the past. I highly recommend his work… both his craft books and his fiction. There’s good reason he’s one of the most respected voices writing about writing today.
Coming up soon: an interview with breakout romance author Heather Burch, and a guest post from our friend Art Holcomb. If you haven’t signed up to receive Storyfix posts via email (it’s free, of course), use the Feedburner link in the right column (uppermost) so you won’t miss anything.
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