Bell, James Scott. Plot & Structure.

Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2004.

I’ve been writing fiction, mostly bad, since elementary school, which was nearly sixty years ago. I decided in college that while I knew I had some innate talent, it wasn’t sufficient that I could support myself by writing. That may have been a lost opportunity or it may have been recognition of reality, but while I have, in fact, sold a couple of things over the years, and while I’ve done a considerable amount of academic and career-related writing, when it comes to fiction I’m mostly a hobbyist.

Still, I’ve always enjoyed reading about the craft of fiction-writing and I own a couple of shelves worth of books on the subject. Bell is one of those people whose how-to books on writing make the rounds by enthusiastic word of mouth, so I finally sat down with this one to see if what he had to say was as useful as advertised.

Those who write about writing fall into several categories. There are the literary guides, like John Gardner and David Lodge, who often are academics, for whom fiction is a High Calling, and who tend to regard financial success with some suspicion. Then there are the workaday professionals, like Lawrence Block and Stephen King, who produce voluminously, who take their work (but not necessarily themselves) seriously as work, and who will tell you about the nuts and bolts of the craft. And then there are the inspirational speakers, like Bell, who devise all sorts of formulae and plans, who use phrases like “secrets of success” and “plotting systems,” and who invent acronyms for their methods. Lodge and Gardner are worth reading for philosophical reasons, and King and Block for practical reasons. I’m not sure, frankly, what the point of reading Bell is.

I’ll say here that Bell does actually have some useful points to make, especially in his assertion that the classic three-act structure for drama also still applies to nearly every modern novel. And he’s more interested in producing books that sell and that most people will want to read, as opposed to Great Literature. But he often takes a didactic approach that grates. Writing successive complete drafts, for instance, with heavy revisions of each, is no longer as necessary as in the olden typewriter days. Writing on a computer screen, it’s the easiest thing in the world to back up and recast a sentence, or a paragraph, as it occurs to you. A natural sense of style helps, of course, but I don’t know many younger writers who produce an entire novel in first draft before sitting down to a complete re-write. Yet Bell doesn’t even suggest there are any alternatives to the traditional multi-draft process. Of course you have to write separate complete drafts, he seems to say, and of course you have to divide writing from rewriting.

While Bell certainly has written and sold more novels than I have, I think he’s doing the novice writer a disservice in his strict and formulaic attitude. Now I’ll have to go and read a couple of his own books to see if he practices what he preaches.

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Published in: on 24 May 2014 at 1:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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