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.

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