Every writer needs to build their tool chest. We build them out of observation and practice and, sometimes, reading books about writing.
Bell gives us a starting kit, but it’s up to us to fill out the rest of the box. And then the tool chest. And then the tool shed. And then the tool garage. But! For now, the gift of tools that Bell has handed to us, tied with a bow:
Show and Tell
This is kind of like the screwdriver set of writing tool kits. You will use this for everything, because so many items use screws, from hardware to toasters to furniture to those things that hold your license plate onto your car.
Every single scene you write will by necessity resort to the distinction between showing and telling, and figuring out when one is better than the other. Hint: if you’re describing how your characters are feeling, instead of showing us their reactions, you’re probably doing something wrong.
Particularly on a revise run, this will be a necessary tool.
Soap Opera Technique
This I would call the hammer. Yes, yes, when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail blah blah, but the idea of not resolving threads too soon has good merit—if you don’t overdo it.
Free-form journaling about your plot just before you get in your words for the day. Yes, extra words, but they don’t need to be coherent or fit into the story, and they can buy you the inspiration you need to get through your daily words.
I know that inspiration hits me on about the 100th word, and that usually the first 100 words need to be deleted. So this is a technique I’m definitely going to try.
Guy With a Gun
This is an old adage: when your plot is getting you down, add an unexpected element, like a guy walking in with a gun. It doesn’t have to be a guy with a gun; what if a strange, creepy text shows up on the mobile? What if your character is suddenly downsized? What’s the worst thing that could happen at this point in time?
These are the pliers you sometimes need in tough spots.
Chapter Two Switcheroo
It’s an odd thing I’ve noticed as well, but very often the first chapter you write is a bit insipid, because you’re still trying to get all the pieces in place. It’s the second chapter that starts more in medias res. This can mean anything from switching the order of the chapters (as Bell suggests) or even dropping the original chapter one in favor of numero dos.
I think this is one of the more Bell-specific tools, and it’s a good one (unless you’re in the throes of NaNoWriMo or a deadline).
Basically, Act I of a three-act story will determine if you have enough story to power through all the way to end. Once you finish the first act, you should do the usual distancing exercise (don’t look at it for a few days) and then cold analysis (using much of what Bell and others have taught you, or what you’ve taught yourself).
One of the reasons that first drafts suck is because we write down what first comes to mind—which is often full of cliches. Remember: tropes are neither bad nor good; it’s cliches that are bad.
You don’t want to do what the audience expects (or at least, not all of the time). What Bell calls “unanticipating” means brainstorming possibilities for a scene, and not just accepting the first idea that comes into your head.
An Excuse To Buy Books, Read Books, and Then Buy All the Index Cards Because You Will Need Them
Bell calls this, “How to improve your plotting exponentially,” and this is the tool that many people will balk at. This is because using this tool requires a. lot. of. hard. work.
This is what may be thought of as a quicker version of retyping a novel or story ((Not your own.)), namely:
Buy 6 books to read.
Schedule a time for your 8 to 12 week program. And yes, your words must also be gotten in.
Read one book, purely as a reader, from the audience point of view. Then spend a day thinking about the book, as if you were going to write a review. Make notes. This is the enjoyable part.
Repeat for the other books.
Buy one pack of index cards, and go back to the first book. Go through every scene, using one card per scene, noting: setting, POV character, 2-line scene summary, scene type. I’d add HIP as well. Make sure to number the index cards because you do not want to get these out of order.
Buy five more packs of index cards, and repeat for the other books.
Treasure your index cards, because they can be used to quickly reload a book into your brain. For one book, scan through each index card and let your brain naturally load the book into RAM.
Repeat for the other sets of index cards.
Lay out one set of index cards on the floor, and try to group them according to the various structures that Bell has taught you in the book. (Three acts? Disturbance, first door, second door? Hero’s Journey? Or maybe this is a book that plays outside of the three-act structure, which is invaluable all by itself?)
Repeat for the other sets of index cards (optional? But I think it’d be best to do it for all the books).
That is how you “retype” six full books in a reasonable amount of time.
Inverting the Rifle Rule
If you’ve never heard of Chekhov’s Gun, it’s an example of a trope:
“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Like many things that go forward in time, there’s an interesting twist if you work backwards: how does a writer determine there should be a rifle in chapter one? Because a character needs to blow the head off another character in chapter three.
The best part about planting is that a writer isn’t bound by the rules of time when inserting their plant. Whether it’s the first draft, the rewritten draft, or the revised draft, you can plant whenever you like. Just make sure the rifle is there by the time the final draft is in, though.
Did you really have to put this in, Uncle Bell? But… there is merit in what you say. Pour yourself out in the first draft, and don’t let your inner editor attempt to herd the stampeding buffalo.
A more structured form of journaling that doesn’t have to be done just before your daily words. While the journal mentioned earlier should inspire you into the moment, this journaling is more analysis (raising all those “Why?” questions and perhaps answering them) and notes (research, plot developments, character developments). If you can add to this before you go to bed, so much the better.
This is actually an excellent use case for Evernote, as it has a smashing iPhone app. My iPhone’s turned into my notebook for random crap, why not make it organized random crap?
Genre Plot Tips
I don’t think that, outside of Thriller and Mystery, that Bell has a firm grasp on other genres, but that’s just me. I’ll take them anyways, though.
Was It Worth It?
Yes. Yes, Plot & Structure was definitely worth it. While I’m not a fan of everything that Bell writes, there’s a lot of insight to be had for those who are tangling with plot for the first time. Is this NaNoWriMo-suggested reading? Totally.
And about that 6 book program. It sounds insane, doesn’t it? Am I going to do that?
… yes, actually, I am. I see the merit of the idea, and I know what he says is true: that this will give me experience that will accelerate my storytelling growth.
Ah gods, this is like writer boot camp, even more than NaNoWriMo ever was. WHEN YOU ARE A WRITER, EVERY DAY IS HOMEWORK.
STAY TUNED ON AJ READS. I’m going to read Self Editing for Fiction Writers next before I embark on this crazy trip of crazy.
Plot & Structure has a GoodReads page, where you can find places to buy the book. I naturally suggest the Kindle edition, which has a great linked table of contents, plus well-defined nodes and no typos.