August 10, 2015

Review: Super Structure by James Scott Bell

James Scott Bell is a popular and successful author, with many novels under his belt.  When he has something to say about writing, I'm generally going to listen.  I recently purchased his book Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story by Mr. Bell and have been reading it over the last few days.  This review will share what I learned from the book as well as my comments about the book itself.  It's important to note that there is much more in the book than I'm sharing here.

There are plenty of people out there, as Bell notes in his introduction, who view any mention of structure as though it implies a kind of "cheating" or "cookie cutter" approach. I disagree.  A story structure like Bell proposes in this book could be misused and treated as a rigid template to which you positively must adhere.  If that's how you view it, you're doing it wrong.  A structure is nothing more than a recommendation that says "Successful stories tend to do these things in approximately this way. Consider doing these things, but ultimately do what serves your story best."

Bell proposes a three-act structure with 14 different "signposts" that your story may pass on the way to its end.  The most critical of these are:

  • Act I
    • Disturbance
    • Doorway of No Return #1
  • Act II
    • Mirror Moment
    • Doorway of No Return #2
  • Act III
    • Final Battle
You can produce a good story with just that minimal amount of structure.  To take the story to the next level, you'll want to look at the full set of signposts:
  • The Disturbance:  (This usually happens early in Act I.)  A change in how things are that affects the Lead character.  It may be something that's missing from the character's life, a conflict that didn't exist before, some kind of trouble that's coming the Lead's way, etc.  It shakes up the status quo for the Lead.
  • The Care Package:  This is a relationship the Lead has with someone else, which causes the lead to show concern (through word or deed) for that person's well-being.
  • The Argument Against Transformation:  This is when the Lead sees that some kind of a change is needed (e.g., quit her job) but refuses to make it.
  • Trouble is Brewing:  This is like a foreshadowing, or a hint of the trouble to come. It reminds the reader that something bigger and worse is headed the Lead's way.  It often comes from something the "villain" is doing (even if the villain's not in the scene in question).
  • Doorway of No Return #1:  This forces the Lead to confront physical, psychological, or professional "death" of some kind.  Once the Lead does something here, he or she can't go back to the way things were before.  The door slams shut.
  • Kick in the Shins:  (This and the following typically occur in Act II.)  After the Lead passes through the Doorway of No Return #1, the character must face a real obstacle.  This obstacle should leave the reader feeling that things are getting worse for the character, and that even worse things may be on the horizon.
  • The Mirror Moment:  There are two kinds of these.  The first is the Lead wondering "What have I become?  What do I have to do to change?"  The second kind is the Lead thinking "I can't possibly win.  I'm going to die."  This moment tells you the core of your story.
  • Pet the Dog:  In the middle of trouble, the Lead takes time out to help someone or something weaker.  This moment shows that the lead has a heart and listens to it.  Ideally, taking this moment exposes the Lead to more danger or handicaps the Lead in some way.
  • Doorway of No Return #2:  The Lead passes through another metaphorical doorway that makes the final battle inevitable.  This is a major crisis or setback for the Lead.  It may lead to some kind of discovery or clue that's useful later.  If so, the Lead should get this information if they've done something to obtain it.
  • Mounting Forces:  (This tends to happen at the start of Act III.)  The villain sees the final battle coming and begins gathering resources and strength to fight it.  This should make the situation look worse for the Lead.
  • Lights Out:  At this point, all seems lost for the Lead.  The Lead believes that winning is probably impossible.
  • The Q Factor:  Named after the James Bond character, this is when something setup in Act I comes back to help the character out (like the gadgets Q gave Bond before he left on the mission).  It might be an inspiration ("you can do it"), an instruction given earlier ("remember that his vision is weaker on the left"), or something the Lead has that has been forgotten.
  • Final Battle:  This may occur within the Lead's mind and heart, outside (a fight or physical struggle), or both.  It's what the story has been leading up to.  If the Mirror Moment is a "What do I have to do?" type, the Final Battle is the Lead actually doing that thing.  If the Mirror Moment is a "I can't win" type, the Final Battle is probably physical.
  • Transformation:  Here we see that the Lead has changed or grown stronger as a result of the events of the novel, and is no longer the same person.
Bell provides much more detail about these signpost events, including examples from popular books and movies, in the book.  I'm not going to do that here.  The examples he provides are detailed enough that you can use them without being familiar with the works involved, although there is a very good chance you'll be familiar with some of them (if not all).  Bell also explains for each signpost above why it works, how plotters and pantsers can use the signpost, and ways to brainstorm ideas for these.

Apart from the structure advice, the biggest take-away for me from the book was Bell's suggestion that you will want to brainstorm lists of possibilities for many of the signposts above.  Often, the ideas that pop into our head first are the least original and most cliched.  The more ideas we come up with, the more likely we'll hit on something original that really helps the story.  For example, you might brainstorm all the possible Q Factors that might help the Lead out during the Lights Out moment.  The more you come up with, the more likely you'll hit on something that surprises the reader.  You'll also want to brainstorm possible opening lines and possible ending scenes for the same reason.

At the current Kindle price of $2.99 at the time of this writing, Super Structure provides a lot of good writing information and advice on story structure.  If you're struggling with story structure, it's an inexpensive way to learn more about it.  I expect to refer to my notes from the book for some time.

August 3, 2015

Review: Character Prompts by and 21x20 Media

The Character Prompts Android app by (21x20 Media) is designed to give you a randomly-generated character suitable for use in a short story or novel.  The tool generates a new character by choosing randomly from the following characteristics:

  • Role in the story
  • First name
  • Last name
  • Age
  • Current residence (city, state, and country)
  • Career and income level
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eye color
  • Hair color
  • Face shape
  • Skin color
  • Distinguishing feature
  • Nationality
  • Bad habit
  • Style (clothing style maybe?)
  • Trait
  • Hobby
  • Favorite saying
  • Twist (something odd about the character)
  • A question (for you) to answer about the character

When the app is first launched, it displays a splash screen like the following:

As indicated on the screen, you can shake your phone or tablet to generate a character, or you can swipe a finger across the screen.  When you do, you'll see the basic characteristics of your randomly-created character:

This screen displays the character's role in the story, first name, last name, age, residence, and career/income information.

Tapping the "Physical" button will give you physical information about the character:

This information includes the character's height, weight, eye color, hair color, face shape, skin color, distinguishing feature, and nationality.

Tapping the "Info" button gives more details about the character:

This gives us the character's bad habit, hobby, favorite saying, and two less-well-explained characteristics called "Style" and "Trait."  I suspect that the Style trait refers to clothing style, since these are some of the random values I saw in a few runs:  Vintage, 80s, School Girl, and Masculine.  Traits include things like Worldly, Passionate, Chaste, Cowardly, and Noble.

The "Twists" button gives us a unique personality twist or characteristic of this character:

Other twists I saw in a few trial runs of the app included:

  • Has chronic pain
  • Is highly allergic to strong perfume
  • Suffers from vertigo
  • Is highly allergic to mold
  • Suffers from migraines
  • Diagnosed with prostate cancer
Finally, the last button ("Questions") gives you a question to answer about the character:

Presumably, you could use these questions (which will change if you swipe the screen over them) to get to know your character a little better.  A few of the questions asked by the program were:
  • If your character could try something new, what would it be?
  • Does the character prefer apple juice, orange juice, or berry juice?
  • How would the character spend an hour of free time?
  • What is the character's favorite movie?
  • What is the character's favorite food?
  • What is the character most proud of?
On any of the pages of character information, swiping your finger across it will generate an entirely new page of character traits.  This can be a little annoying if, for instance, the tool has generated a character who lives in India but has an African sounding name, and you'd like it to give you a more Indian-sounding name for them.  Swipe across the Basic information page and it will generate a new role, name, age, residence, etc.  It would be much better if you could tap on just the element you'd like to re-do and have only that element change.

When you've generated a character you like or want to keep, you can tap the button in the upper-right which looks like a black circle with a white star inside and a plus sign written on it.  When you do this, that character's information is saved in the "Fav's" list that you can access in the button on the lower left corner of the window.

You'll notice three other buttons at the top of the window.  The first would appear to be a settings button that looks like a gear.  When I tap this on my Nexus 6, I get a black screen like this:

If you tap the button that looks like a piece of loose leaf notebook paper, you'll get a text window that you can use to edit saved information, such as the question I saved earlier:

Here you could write the answer to the question for your character and email it to yourself for use in another document or application.

Tapping the "?" button (presumably help) on my phone generated another black screen:

I assume that on some phones this might provide information about the software or suggestions on how to get the most out of it.  The big black block, though, isn't so much helpful as it is confusing.


This is a $2.99 application (at the time of this writing), so you'll have to decide if it's worth the money to you.  Having played around with it for a little while, though, it doesn't do anything for me.  I can imagine it being useful in generating characters for a writing practice, but it's a bit too random at that to suit me.  It gave me a 65-year-old character who makes $370,000 a year collecting recyclables, is 4'11" tall, weighs 243 pounds, and who dresses like a school girl.  I can see a character like this fitting into a comedy or crazy flash-fiction story, but have a hard time seeing him fitting into many serious stories.