Thinking About Structure – Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell

Posted: March 5, 2015 in reading, writing
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Whatever we do in life, we get better by learning from other people. Whether it’s plumbing, writing or how to make the perfect fried egg, even if we don’t agree with them, seeing someone else’s technique can help us reflect on our own. I’m always going to have a lot to learn about writing as a craft – anyone who writes does. So when I see a lot of people enthusing about a writing book, I’m going to give it a go. Several people I respect have recommended James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle, so it seemed like time to give it a go.

You’ve Got to Start From Somewhere

‘Structure is the translation software for your imagination.’ – James Scott Bell

I like having structures to write with. They act as reminders of the fundamentals needed in a story. If they’ve worked well before then following the structures others use can help you to write something better, something more readers will enjoy.

I know some people don’t like the idea of following a structure. They think it constricts creativity. I disagree. I think that structures support creativity, and only becoming stifling when you follow them blindly. To paraphrase Pratchett, rules are there so that we think before we break them. That’s the benefit of using a structure like Bell’s – it means you don’t have to reinvent the plotting wheel, but can spin off from it when you feel that’s appropriate.

There’s no doubting that Bell provides a useful structure. I can see why this book is popular – it presents a clear approach that’s easy to use, ties together character and plot, and should provide the ups and downs a story needs. It’s even got a neat little gimmick to sell it by – that you’re starting from the middle.

It’s not entirely true, but it is a neat gimmick.

One More Option

But this book didn’t blow my mind or provide me with massive new ideas in the way I’d hoped for from the hype. I think that’s because I’m already following a structure much like Bell’s, but from a different source.

Bell’s structure has a lot in common with the seven point story structure favoured by Dan Wells, and which I use for almost all my stories. You don’t really start in the middle, you start by knowing where you’re going from and to, work out what the key turning point is at the centre of the book, and build in turns and pinches from there. The labels are different, and Bell adds some useful details I wasn’t using before, but in many ways it’s the same beast.

If you want to strengthen your plotting this is definitely a useful book. I’ve noted down half a dozen things from it in my notebook on technique, and if I hadn’t already seen Wells’s structure talk it would have hugely reinvigorated my writing. But because of where I’m at, it didn’t entirely live up to the hype.

It’s useful to have a range of structures you can work with, so that you can pick one that suits you. Bell’s writing from the middle is one more useful structure. It’s just not one I’ll be following.

  1. everwalker says:

    Given that I wasn’t blown away by his last book on plot and structure, this doesn’t surprise me. Would you go into the half-dozen ideas that you did find new and interesting in another post?

  2. Steve Hartline says:

    Thanks for this blog with links to structure/plotting. I’ve finished both the book listed here, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and watched the Dan Wells 5 parter on YT. My thoughts on these to come in another blog of my own, but suffice it to say I’m making progress. That was the end game for me.

    • Glad to hear it Steve. One I forgot to mention to you before is Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. However firmly I disagree with OSC on social issues, I’m a huge admirer of this book. It’s less focussed on structure, but if I remember rightly it’s where the idea of MICE quotient comes from, and that’s a good one to understand.

  3. Sue Archer says:

    Thanks for the rundown, Andrew. It’s been one of the books on my list. Looking forward to your follow-up post!

    • Thanks Sue. I’m not surprised to hear it’s on your list – it seems to be everywhere at the moment!

      If you’re looking for books on plotting I’d also recommend Robert McKee’s Story – that contains some really good stuff.

      • Sue Archer says:

        Thanks for the recommendation! I’ve read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and enjoyed it, so it would be interesting to see how it compares to McKee’s as a book based in screenwriting.

  4. […] Thinking About Structure – Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell […]

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