Bell’s chapter introduced a simple plotting strategy he calls the LOCK system.
Not that he’s the only one who has a lock on it– doesn’t Robert McKee define plot as a guy who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it? But Bell explains nicely what a novel’s plot should do. I especially appreciate his focus on the reader. It’s important to remember our audience! If the story is lackluster, the reader won’t take a shine to it.
Here’s a key to the LOCK:
- L is for Lead: the hero’s got to be good, because we have to watch him throughout the entire book. He can’t just sit there. What if all Jay Gatsby ever did was have an occasional cocktail and a bit of polite conversation? Snoozer.
Our Lead’s got to be active, dynamic, maybe even crazy. Anything but boring.
- O is for Objective: he’s got to want to get, or get away from, something. Something big. Potentially life-threatening.
- C is for Confrontation: “If your Lead moves toward his Objective without anything in his way, we deprive readers of what they secretly want: worry.”
If your lead has no problem, you’ve got a problem.
- K is for Knockout: “send the opposition to the mat” and kick your reader’s butt with a super strength ending.
Fitzgerald, in his final unfinished novel, contributes a perfect illustration of the system. The hero of The Love of the Last Tycoon is movie mogul Monroe Stahr. Stahr’s an interesting Lead because he has an Objective, reacts creatively to Confrontation, and at the end of the conversation delivers a satisfying Knockout.
Since it was a work-in-progress, there is no final knockout; Fitzgerald didn’t live long enough to deliver one. But it’s a striking first draft; no doubt he would have nailed the ending.
The following snippet from Episode 8 is a microcosm of the LOCK system in play. In the scene, Stahr hears the complaint of his disgruntled employee, writer George Boxley. The “two hacks” Boxley’s been teamed up with “seem to have a vocabulary of about a hundred words,” and are ruining his dueling scene with their “unnatural dialogue.” Stahr responds:
“Suppose you’re in your office. You’ve been fighting duels or writing all day and you’re too tired to fight or write any more. You’re sitting there staring—dull, like we all get sometimes. A pretty stenographer that you’ve seen before comes into the room and you watch her—idly. She doesn’t see you though you’re very close to her. She takes off her gloves, opens her purse and dumps it out on a table—”
Stahr stood up, tossing his key-ring on his desk.
“She has two dimes and a nickle—and a cardboard match box. She leaves the nickle on the desk, puts the two dimes back into her purse and takes her black gloves to the stove, opens it and puts them inside. There is one match in the match box and she starts to light it kneeling by the stove. You notice that there’s a stiff wind blowing in the window—but just then your telephone rings. The girl picks it up, says hello—listens—and says deliberately into the phone ‘I’ve never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.’ She hangs up, kneels by the stove again, and just as she lights the match you glance around very suddenly and see that there’s another man in the office, watching every move the girl makes—”
Stahr paused. He picked up his keys and put them in his pocket.
“Go on,” said Boxley smiling. “What happens?”
“I don’t know,” said Stahr. “I was just making pictures.”
Boxley felt he was being put in the wrong. “It’s just melodrama,” he said.
“Not necessarily,” said Stahr. “In any case nobody has moved violently or talked cheap dialogue or had any facial expression at all. There was only one bad line, and a writer like you could improve it. But you were interested.”
It’s fun that Fitzgerald’s hero diminishes the importance of dialogue in a scene filled with snappy banter.
Scott Bell says the three things you need to spice up your plot are characters, setting, and dialogue. Scott Fitzgerald knocked them all out.