Tag Archives: Plot structure

Great Scotts

Cover of "Plot & Structure: (Techniques A...

LoveOfLastTycoonI read a chapter from these two Scotts back to back, and was impressed with how well they meshed.

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.


Gone Girl

GoneGirlQuiz. Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn was:

A.  full of clever dialogue and witty prose
B.  a work of structural genius
C.  a painful example of how not to end a story
D.  all of the above

D, dudes. D. Dang, damn, darn. Dogged, as my grandmother would say.

This was one of those books that had me running late because I couldn’t put it down. I sat over an hour in a tub of cold water, not realizing I had turned into a frozen prune because it was just that engrossing.

Until the end. Ugh! Flynn describes the bizarre relationship of Amy and Nick Dunne as “almost enjoyable, like gnawing on a cuticle.” That pretty much nails it. I chewed my fingernails down to the quick over how good the story was, only to be left with the dead weight of keratin disappointment in my gut and a bloody mess on my hands.

But there are 3,000 Amazon reviews covering that disappointment, so let’s focus on the good stuff, shall we?

There is some killer prose in here. Amy shares my ironic disdain for the happy world of television marketing:

The TV goes to a commercial for air freshener. A woman is spraying air freshener so her family will be happy. Then to a commercial for very thin panty liners so a woman can wear a dress and dance and meet the man she will later spray air freshener for.
Clean and bleed. Bleed and clean.

And when Nick should have been mourning, he had this bitingly sarcastic thought about his missing wife’s “tenacious worry streak”:

Amy could spend an entire evening out fretting that she left the stove on, even though we didn’t cook that day. Or was the door locked? Was I sure? Because it was never just that the door was unlocked, it was that the door was unlocked, and men were inside, and they were waiting to rape and kill her.
I felt a layer of sweat shimmer to the surface of my skin, because, finally, my wife’s fears had come to fruition. Imagine the awful satisfaction, to know that all those years of worry had paid off.

That’s not to say there weren’t dialogical snags. A man “left with his dick in one hand and a wild story about a frame up in the other” is witty enough. But a second guy finding himself in the exact same predicament a few pages later renders both dicks and storytelling only 50% virile. As a teacher I must remind everyone that 50% is failing. (Hopefully for their own comfort, neither of those men had ragged cuticles.)

But more good stuff! Another great tactic was changing the point of view between Amy and Nick every other chapter. The way the end of one narrative would connect to the beginning of the next was especially appealing. Nick would say, “I saw my wife on the floor of our kitchen… her head bashed in.” And the next chapter would begin with Amy saying, “I have never felt more alive in my life.”

“I wonder then if I have made a very big mistake.”  —  “I made a mistake.”

“Poor Amy.”  —  “Poor me.”

Her choice to link the chapters like this ensured that I would keep turning the pages to find out what happened next. I don’t know how in love with the unreliable narrator I am in general, but this story absolutely depended on both narrators being completely untrustworthy. And switching back and forth provided plenty of opportunities to go overboard with the little insults and injuries Flynn enjoys stacking up like a tower of not-quite-square blocks. We just know it all has to come crashing down eventually.

For example, a little thing like repeating “just one olive” was so endearing to Amy (“it was one of our many inside jokes”) while it left Nick mortified (“she brought it up over and over just to embarrass me”). We’ve had it happen so many times: he’s trying to compliment me and I think he’s being snarky. I’m joking but he takes it as a dig. He leaves his nail clippings on the coffee table and I take it as a personal attack. We each assume we know what the other is thinking, and we are both dead wrong.

Flynn has mastered the art of taking all of those misunderstandings that happen in any normal relationship and knotting them up into an impossibly tangled mess that wraps around your mind and won’t let you go. It’s an uncomfortable read because it hits a little too close to home sometimes. Could our relationship go that far off track? It’s like the proverbial train wreck— you don’t want to see it but you can’t look away. And you drive off shuddering, thinking that could have been us.

It’s too bad about the ending. Like getting a manicure that smudges before it’s dried. You’re left with a “meh” sort of feeling when really, the writing is polished and the story shines almost all the way through.

I heard Reese Witherspoon picked up the rights to produce a movie. It’ll be interesting to see if she can turn the ending into a satisfying nail biter.

A couple of six packs

Tonight is my weekly 3 hour binge writing session. Punk and the kids will be gone, the house will be quiet, the beer will flow like wine… and I don’t have a clue what to write.

Finally in Is Life Like This?, I am directed to organize 6 key scenes:

  • opening
  • first plot point
  • midpoint
  • second plot point
  • climax
  • finale

Yay, right? It’s almost like outlining!

Except I feel like a kid who’s been told “you can go outside and play,” only to discover I’m allergic to grass. I just got out of jail, but there’s no one to pick me up and drive me away. I finally finished my chores and can go to the ball, but by the time I get there it’s last call and Prince Charming is soused.

DrunkPrinceWhew, glad I got those horrible metaphors out of the way.

Dufresne’s next suggestion is to add texture to the 6 scenes (which I haven’t even chosen yet because I’m so stinking confused about what the heck this novel is even about anymore).

By “adding texture,” he means to look at each scene and ask 6 questions:

  • what is it doing? advancing plot, revealing character, expressing theme, establishing tone, amplifying earlier images?
  • what event is happening?
  • what is “the controlling emotion”?
  • how is it structured? (the scene itself, or how it fits into the overall structure? IDK)
  • add setting details
  • where’s the tension? heighten it.

Wish me luck.