Sunday, April 10, 2016

James Scott Bell, Master plotter takes us to the movies

HALLIE EPHRON: Yesterday I had the great good fortune of
attending an all day workshop given by James Scott Bell (author of PLOT & STRUCTURE and pictured with me, Hank, and Ray Daniel, president of the New England chapter of MWA). 

Perfect timing: I'm in the final stages of writing a novel, about to start revising, and ready to recharge my critical eye with advice from a pro.

For me, one of the most useful pieces of advice is that at the midpoint in the novel, there should be a "mirror moment." The main character takes stock -- he looks at himself in the virtual (or actual) mirror and and asks: What am I? What have I become? What must I become? And in the second half of the novel, what he realizes plays itself out.

During the workshop, I opened my manuscript, marked the midpoint, and took furious notes about how to tweak it to make it a real turning point in the character's arc. 

The great fun of Bell's class is that he uses classic movies to drive home his points about plot. Here are some of the movies he uses:

- The Fugitive
- The Godfather
- Casablanca
- Lethal Weapon
- The Wizard of Oz

Which got me thinking about movies, and how much the great ones can teach us about structuring plots. Here are some movies I'd add to Bell's list:

- The Sixth Sense
- The Usual Suspects
- Pretty Woman
- Memento
- The Shawshank Redemption 
- Field of Dreams
- Thelma and Louise

What movies would you add, movies that have the kinds of plots we all wish we could write?


  1. That's a good list of great movies; perhaps I'd add "San Francisco" . . . .

  2. Thanks for sharing that tip, Hallie. I need it, too! Was so sorry I couldn't attend the workshop, but sons are in town for my launch weekend and I never get enough time with them.

  3. Oh boy am I sorry I missed that day! I love the concept of the mirror moment. Let's see, I'm thinking about KRAMER VS KRAMER, MOONSTRUCK, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, ROOM...

    Give us some more tips!!

  4. The African Queen, The Crying Game, Tender Mercies....

    Thanks for sharing the tips from your workshop!

  5. Great additions to the list of beautifully structured movies.

    Another tip from Jim was about stakes. For the main character what's at stake has to be equivalent to death (physical, or professional, or psychological).

    I agree with that but I'd add it should also be about: Getting it right THIS TIME ... which ties to the all important "Pre-story psychology" that he talks about.

  6. Best movie ever for dialog: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Also for the blend of comedy and tragedy.
    Last night I rewatched Sleepless in Seattle. Your sister did a brilliant job of writing and directing. It's so spare; Not one word unnecessary. And it works.

  7. Serendipity. I love serendipity. After attending a talk given by Anne Lamott on Thursday evening, I came home motivated and inspired. (If you've never been to an Anne Lamott event and have an opportunity - do not pass it up). Then yesterday I listened to an interview Pam Stack did with James Anderson (if you haven't read The Never Open Desert Diner yet - do!!!!) and walked away from that with the words "write the damn story" ringing loudly in my head. So, for the first time in months I am working on my Whimsey #2 novel. And yes, the middle! Dang. Thank you for this.

  8. I love Bell's book, and agree about the "stakes" concept, which, depending on how well you've delineated character, can be almost anything. The example I give when teaching my seminar on suspense is Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, wherein the crucial stakes for the Major are 1) whether he can keep his sister-in-law from selling the other half of a matched pair of historic pistols and 2)whether the village can keep a short-fingered vulgarian from building a development.

    Neither of those will affect his health, wealth or ability to keep living in his comfortable circumstances, but the author makes them SO vital to his emotional well-being that the reader is on the edge of her seat wondering what's going to happen.

  9. Oh! Movies!

    The Smithie and I watched the 2014 British film PRIDE last night. Fabulous. I recommend it for anyone who loves THE FULL MONTY or SAVING GRACE.

  10. Oh, Lucy, he also used MOONSTRUCK, which was SO great.

    I'd add Working Girl, which makes me cry every time. And you know, hilariously, My Cousin VInny which is --although hilarious-really pretty perfectly done.

  11. It's funny, those classes--it's always so helpful to go. I often thing--oh, I got just what I needed! Hallie's at the end of a novel, I'm at the beginning. ANd it was-somehow--perfect timing for both of us.

  12. Ooh, love this. I'm closer to the two-thirds mark (I think) but today I'm going to look at my out line and think about stakes for all the major characters. Of course with a crime novel you have a built-in stake--find/catch the murderer--but I don't think generally that's what readers really care about. Interesting how the same concept is an "ah-ha" for those us in different places in the process...

    Julia, I adored Pride. Highly recommended for anyone who hasn't seen it. And now I want to rewatch Sleepless for the screenplay. And Butch Cassidy for the dialog...

  13. I love being reminded of all these great movies. Julia, I came upon the Pride movie by accident on Showtime and I thought it was amazing, too.

    I would add Chinatown with Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson, The Verdict with Paul Newman, and Broadcast News with Holly Hunter and William Hurt and Albert Brooks.

  14. Argo comes to my mind as a film that built and built, up to a seat-grabbing crescendo of tension.

  15. Twenty years ago I took some film classes, one of which was on screenwriting. The professor made us watch Chinatown over and over and over and over... I hate that film now. :)

    My all time favorite movie is Gosford Park which was written by Julian Fellowes, pre-pre-Downton Abbey, and Robert Altman. Just about every time I view it, there are little nuggets in the dialogue that jump out as having deeper meaning.

    Much love,
    PK the Bookeemonster

  16. Hallie, "Pre-story psychology" — that's a phrase I've been searching for! I wasn't sure what it was, but when I read your quote it was a search no longer aha moment. Will order Bell's book.

    Thank you so much. Great post today, JRWs!

  17. May I insert a TV series as a beautifully plotted and developed script, albeit in parts? The Netflix "Happy Valley" (2 seasons). The character arcs, the plot twists, the core business of creating danger and suspense without having to litter the screen with bodies, really works for me.

    Hank, in tomorrow's Criminal Minds blog, I salute you for your enthusiasm in being a 'student' at the workshop you just attended. Big lesson: We can always learn more but we only will if we open our ears and dive in with no ego. Props!

  18. I love Jim's books and have them all!

    Hitch is a movie I think has so many great elements for anyone studying structure.

  19. Unfortunately, I couldn't attend the workshop and want to thank you for sharing these advices. It was very useful for me too.