Plot and structure are the way to your reader’s heart By Sheila M. Averbuch

Mastering plot and structure can take a lifetime, so there's no time like the present to get to grips with these story elements. SCBWI Southeast Scotland gave writers the chance to do just that in Edinburgh Central Library on 6 February. 

Author Christina Banach led the sold-out workshop, using the plot and structure techniques of bestselling suspense writer James Scott Bell, as well as drawing on her own experience of these techniques in writing her YA novel MINTY. A gripping debut about the unbreakable bond between twin sisters, MINTY was shortlisted for the prestigious Crystal Kite award in Europe last year.
Minty By Christina Banach

 Our SCBWI Southeast Scotland network events are usually well-attended, but we’ve never seen tickets for an expert workshop disappear so quickly. We were bursting at the seams of the Edinburgh Central Library Boardroom, where we even had to turn away writers who'd shown up on spec for spare seats. The enthusiasm and the concentration were palpable in the room as 24 of us sat captivated by Christina’s intensive three-hour presentation.

It’s important to remember, she advised, that these techniques are not a paint-by-numbers formula or a straitjacket. Rather, in James Scott Bell's words, the elements of plot and structure together act like "translation software" that allows your richly imagined story world to be understood by the reader, because you're presenting your story in the most satisfying way.

 Taking as her jumping-off point the statement that "all fiction is about trouble -- about conflict and suspense," Christina explained the difference between plot (all the things that happen in the story) and structure (deciding where to place those incidents to make the story most accessible to the reader). My favourite shorthand way of remembering this was the maxim Christina shared: "you imagine a story, but you build a structure.”

 The three-act structure and why it matters

 After analysing the elements of James Scott Bell’s famous LOCK system (Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knockout ending), we did the first session handout, an exercise to identify LOCK elements in our own stories. Christina's presentation was proving even more enthralling, however, so we voted to bring the other exercises home and spend the rest of the session listening to her distillation of key plot and structure techniques.

A critical part of the afternoon was the breakdown of three-act structure: the pillar elements that support any story and prevent a saggy middle – where stories often flag in interest and pace at their central section.

 These pillars include the original disturbance in the hero's ordinary life, followed approximately 20% of the way into your story by the first "Doorway of No Return," which makes it impossible for the hero to go back to his or her normal life. Later, at around 75% way through the story, we typically find a Second Doorway that sets up the final confrontation with the opposition and could involve a huge setback for the main character.

 We also looked at the key instant of self-reflective insight for the main character – the Mirror Moment – which James Scott Bell brilliantly summarizes in his WRITE FROM THE MIDDLE book, as well as the final battle with opposing forces.

 Christina not only presented these main elements of structure, but also dug deep into what makes these elements necessary, along with specific examples in well-known stories and films, and in her own novel MINTY. We also looked at Christopher Vogler's mythic structure (from THE WRITER'S JOURNEY: MYTHIC STRUCTURE FOR WRITERS) and how that lines up with the three-act structure.

 "Be mean. Be quite wicked."

 One of the most striking parts of the afternoon was Christina's emphasis on presenting trouble to the main character. Christina recommends not only persecuting your main character, but actually brainstorming every possible kind of suffering, and prioritising your list. This rock-throwing may go against the grain for us writers who love our characters, but Christina says there’s no way around it in order to create tension and present the most satisfying reading experience.

 "You must be mean -- really quite wicked," Christina said. "Really stretch yourself to do this.”

 Throughout the afternoon Christina stressed the need to grab and hold reader interest. "They have a huge number of competing demands of their time, and at any point they can put your book down – that's what you want to avoid," she said. The secret to holding interest is not only to use elements of plot and structure correctly, but also to make sure the bond between reader and your main character is created early and continuously strengthened.

 “The best stories are about some form of death” 

 A truly vital insight the writer must develop is to identify what James Scott Bell calls the death stakes: the overhanging threat that would devastate the main character, be that the threat of physical death, psychological death (dying on the inside), or professional death (“my career is over”).
James Scott Bell 

 Bell, who kindly cheered on this SCBWI Southeast Scotland workshop from a distance via Twitter, told me that he saw a significant difference in his own writing after he’d grasped the key elements of plot and structure, especially death stakes.

 “Before understanding structure, my screenplays (back then) didn't take off,” he said. “Discovering the Doorway of No Return was my contribution. Regarding plot, I needed to understand the structure of scenes. When I got that, things started falling into place. Finally, realizing the best stories were about some form of death made the stakes properly high.”

  If you want to feed your brain with Bell’s techniques – and I recommend you do – his key works  include PLOT AND STRUCTURE, WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE and SUPER STRUCTURE. For a taster, WRITE FROM THE MIDDLE is a great way to get started, but no bookshelf should be without PLOT AND STRUCTURE. Bell also offers a Knockout Novel course online that’s allied with his PLOT AND STRUCTURE techniques.

Our huge thanks go to Christina and also a warm thanks to James Scott Bell for his insights and support. Watch out for more news from the SCBWI Southeast Scotland network in the coming months. 

Sheila M. Averbuch writes for middle-grade readers and is co-coordinator of the Southeast Scotland network of SCBWI British Isles with M. Louise Kelly. Sheila won SCBWI’s Hook pitching competition 2015 and is represented by Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency.


  1. Sounds sooo useful. Please can you come & repeat the workshop in London, Christina?

  2. Ditto. Wish I could have been there. Sounds fantastic. Thanks, Sheila.

  3. Ditto. Wish I could have been there. Sounds fantastic. Thanks, Sheila.

  4. My head was so full after this event! Lots here to chew on. Christina thanks again. - Sheila

  5. Sounds brilliant and some how, I'm not surprised! Well done team Scotland!

  6. Really great event... I need that workshop! Please can you come to London, Christina?

  7. Lovely post, Sheila; thank you. So glad that you found the workshop interesting. A massive thanks, too, to James Scott Bell for his wisdom and generosity. Sue and Frances, I'd be more than happy to run the workshop in London.

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