EVENT REPORT SCBWI Masterclass on Plot and Structure Techniques

Vivienne DaCosta reports back on Christina Banach’s London Masterclass, which looked at adopting the plot and structure techniques set out by bestselling author James Scott Bell.

Do you consider yourself a pantser? Do the words ‘plotting’ and ‘structure’ leave you cold? Then like me, you are in need of a plotting and structuring workshop. Luckily, I managed to get a ticket for Christina Banach’s London Masterclass on Saturday 16th September in The Theodore Bullfrog Pub. Following on from her successful class in Scotland in February, it was one of the most sought-after Masterclass tickets of this year.

Adopting the plot and structure techniques set out by bestselling author James Scott Bell, Christina Banach (author of Crystal Kite-nominated YA novel, Minty) delivered a detailed workshop on how to write the best novel we could.

Christina Banach shares her insights on knotty plot problems and how to avoid them. Image Credit: Alison Smith

Christina began by sharing a quote she always turns to when writing:
‘A good story is life, with the dull parts taken out.’ Hitchcock’s Axiom

After explaining the difference between plot (the elements of your story) and structure (the timing of the elements), Christina introduced us to the LOCK system and broke it down into easier descriptions:

Lead - our main character. For the story to really capture the reader, our main character has to be interesting. The reader must be intrigued by their dialogue and circumstances enough to want to follow them on a journey.

Objective - what does the main character desire? Is their objective internal or external? Will their lives take a tremendous turn for the worse if they don’t achieve their objective?

Confrontation - obstacles need to be put in the character’s way to make it really tough for them to complete their journey. No one wants to see their character with an easy life. Readers expect to fret over the main character.
‘No Happy People in Happy Land’

Knockout - the ending has to be good enough to sell your next book - it needs to be explosive. This will help you to develop your readership.

Christina explained that the LOCK system provides the rules to write by. Alongside these rules you need to implement the spices that make your book stand out from all others. The spices are your unique characters, setting, dialogue, and scene selection.

During the session, we spent a long time discussing the Three-Act Structure, which creates the backbone of your story. Christina pointed out the doorways between the acts, which allow the character to move from one act to another. These doorways are known as ‘the point of no return’. Your characters must be forced through them and will not be allowed to return.

We also looked at the emotional bonds between the reader and the character. These need to be built up quickly to give your reader a vested interest in your main character. This can be achieved in three different ways:

Empathy - the reader needs to be able to identify and empathise with the character. In order to develop this as a writer, you need to look inside yourself.

Sympathy - this needs to be sprinkled in carefully as you don’t want the reader to feel manipulated into liking your character.

Likability - you can give your character flaws, but on the whole the reader needs to like them.

‘Plotters’, ‘pantsers’, and ‘tweeners’ get to grips with some plotting exercises

The pinnacle moment for me during the Masterclass was the discussion on the mirror moment. This is when your character reaches the most important signpost of their journey. They can see both directions of their journey, and are confronted with the truth and what they need to do in order to achieve their objective. They have changed from the person they were when they started their journey.

One of the popular segments of the afternoon was how to avoid a saggy middle within your story. For readers to want to read more, they need to be continually worried about the main character. Christina presented three things that would help to keep the reader interested:

Raising the stakes - make the situation life or death. The stakes have to really mean something to the character. They can be physical, professional, or psychological.

Stretching the tension - either physically or emotionally. The best way to do this is to slow the tension right down. Work your way through the situation beat by beat, as though you were watching it in slow motion.

Trimming the dullness - by looking at each scene you write, analyse whether there is enough conflict to keep the reader interested. Does the tension flow?

These were just a few of the techniques taught during the fact-filled workshop. Thanks to Christina Banach for giving us such a detailed introduction to James Scott Bell’s techniques. If you would like to know more about the methods outlined within the session, I would highly recommend purchasing one of James Scott Bell’s books. On the back of this wonderful workshop, I’m now presently working my way through his bestselling book, Plot and Structure. For a compact version of this, Write Your Novel From the Middle is an ideal starting place.

If you haven’t attended one of the SCBWI London Masterclasses yet, then I would highly recommend it. They are a great way to inspire you, as well as providing the insights and expertise of some of the UK’s finest children’s writers. It also gives you an opportunity to network with other SCBWI members. Watch out for next year’s schedule of classes, which will be announced at the Winchester conference later this year.

*All images are credited to Alison Smith

Vivienne DaCosta
is the owner & editor of Serendipity Reviews, a book blog which she has successfully run since 2009. Voted as one of The Guardian’s Top Ten YA book blogs of 2015, as well No. 3 in Veulio’s Top Ten Book Bloggers of 2016.
You can find her on Twitter @Serendipity_Viv


A. M. Dassu is a member of the Words & Pictures editorial team. She manages the Events team and SCBWI BI events coverage.
Contact her at events@britishscbwi.org

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