Signposts on the Way through a Novel: A Review of Super Structure

Amber in tree finalHappy Thanksgiving. I’m grateful for many things, and most recently for finding the right book at the right time. I just finished the first draft of the fifth Mae Martin mystery, and this book on writing is helping me with revisions. My review:

Super Structure is a sequel, following up on the principles in James Scott Bell’s 2004 Plot and Structure. The new book quickly reviews the basic ideas of the earlier one but doesn’t replace it. I strongly recommend reading Plot and Structure first, to fully explore Bell’s LOCK system (Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout) and then build on it with Super Structure.

He has a chatty, casual style and gives his methods and signposts catchy names so a writer is likely to think of them easily without having the book open at her side. The way he words things seems light, but the value of his ideas isn’t. The Mirror Moment is great example. He analyzed successful books and movies and found that almost exactly at the midpoint of the stories, there’s a moment when the lead literally or figuratively confronts himself in the mirror and either thinks about his life, his integrity, his mortality, his choices and his dangers. It’s often short, but it’s deep. This moment is what Jack Bickham in Scene and Structure calls a “sequel.” Inner work that processes what’s gone before and leads to what’s coming next. The protagonist is facing that a threat, and the mirror moment defines not only the turning point of the story but the nature of the conflict in Act III—an inner battle or a physical one.

This book is so short it’s more like a booklet—117 pages in paperback. It’s cheaper as an e-book, but I like my reference books on paper so I can keep them beside me and flip to the section I need for a reminder why I’m stuck and guidance on how to get unstuck.

In both Plot and Structure and Super Structure—especially the latter—Bell wastes a few pages (20 out of 117) selling the reader on the need for structure, which struck me as preaching to the converted, since I had already bought a book about structure. Even so, I don’t regret investing in this slender volume. I’ve read Plot and Structure twice and was heading into a third reading when fellow writers recommended this new book. It was exactly what the plot doctor ordered: a synopsis of the earlier book to refresh my mind and some additional solid steps I can take to strengthen the tension and pace of my work in progress.

Bell is a bit biased against pantsers and admits it, but he still gives them some good pointers. As a half-plotter half-pantser, I like his brainstorming methods. The “mind map” reminds of one of my favorite big-picture plot tools, the mandala method in Jill Jepson’s Writing as a Spiritual Path. Bell encourages improvisation and free flow in playing with ideas for initial disturbances and possible outcomes of the events partway through a book. As he says when he’s trying to sell to the imaginary anti-structure person, structure doesn’t stop creativity. It gives it form.

2 thoughts on “Signposts on the Way through a Novel: A Review of Super Structure

  1. This sounds good; I am normally not a heavy-duty planner; I write first draft in wild abandonment, letting random thoughts flow freely; lately, I have been doing heavy planning and this has led me to a mountain of impediments. When I revise, revise, revise, this may just come in handy. Right now, I have to back track and erase my regiment and revisit my wild, crazy mania.


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