I started reading William Bernhardt’s Ben Kincaid books back in the mid-nineties. I seem to recall I went on a ‘lawyer’ kick and read him, Steve Martini, and Robert K. Tannenbaum. But years later, Bernhardt made a bigger impact on me with his Red Sneaker Writers series. These slim volumes with the brightly attractive covers, are jam-packed with great writing advice. The first book I read was on Story Structure, and I think it’s still my favorite. Though every one has been both interesting to read and thought-provoking. If I ever get my act together, I’ll add “taught me a lot.”
I’ve read through a couple of them more than once, making notes ( I CANNOT highlight a physical book. I’m incapable of it). Last year, I decided to be a little more systematic and I went through EVERY title, be it Theme, Dialogue, Character – all of them: and I outlined the key points in each chapter. I printed them all out and have a very cool binder. Which, if I ever actually sit down and write a novel, will be of great use.
I’ve read a lot of books on writing – fiction and screenplays. And I’ve come across a lot of useful ideas, suggestions, thoughts, and advice, from folks such as Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman, William Martell, Syd Field, Robert Randisi, Chris Vogler (though I’m more apt to go to the original source material from Joseph Campbell), and James Scott Bell – to name a few without actually looking at my bookshelves. There are quite a few more, but my education would be incomplete without the Red Sneaker Writers books from Bernhardt. He writes in a clear, amusing, understandable, useful, manner. I can’t imagine not picking up at least something from each book. And I think you’re going to learn more than that.
Each chapter ends with a couple Highlights, which I think of as Key Points. An also a couple of exercises to help you move forward. For each book, I took all the Key Points and turned them into an outline. And I spaced them out, so that I can write notes and comments in them. I’m pretty pleased with myself. So what follows is my outline for Perfecting Plot: Charting the Hero’s Journey.
Go ahead and read on through this outline. And check out all the books at his webpage. Plus his other works, of course! You can subscribe to his free Red Sneaker Writers newsletter. I have all of the books in paperback, and they’re worth $7.99 each. The ebooks are mostly $3.99 and I HIGHLY suggest finding one or two that you want to check out and giving them a try. For me, Story Structure (99 cents!!!!), and Character, are the two more ‘foundational’ books, with the others allowing you to build more blocks on the foundation. But you can start anywhere.
PERFECTING PLOT: CHARTING THE HERO’S JOURNEY
I – UNDERSTANDING PLOT
1 – Regardless of what kind of story you’re writing, memorable characters and memorable plot are essential.
2 – All stories are character-driven.
3 – Character and plot are two closely interrelated ways of viewing the same thing: your story.
4 – The plot must be right for the character, and the character must be right for the plot.
II – PAIRING PLOT AND CHARACTER
1 – Your plot must be right for your character, and your character must be right for your plot.
2 – Special abilities or qualities can make protagonists more interesting – and more capable of dealing with the obstacles in your plot.
3 – Never be afraid to take your characters out of their comfort zone.
4 – To prevent series characters from becoming stale, allow them to evolve or develop new abilities and talents they either didn’t have or the reader didn’t know about in previous entries.
5 – The main character is always the protagonist, even if this is a series character who has appeared in many previous books. Don’t allow them to become a guest star in their own book.
III – PLOT IS CONFLICT
1 – Plot is composed of a series of escalating conflicts.
2 – Plot should present increasingly difficult challenges resulting in increasingly difficult problems that are not alleviated until the climax ends.
3 – The protagonist should fail many times before succeeding.
4 – Subplots must relate to, and enhance, the primary conflict.
5 – A good conflict will directly involve a sympathetic protagonist, be meaningful, increase in intensity as the book progresses, and lead to an emotionally satisfying resolution.
IV – THE FACE OF CONFLICT
1 – The protagonist’s story is only as good as the antagonist makes it.
2 – Weak opposition will lead to a weak story.
1 – Readers like to be surprised.
2 – A good surprise will energize the story.
3 – A great surprise lends insight to the story.
4 – The best surprises illuminate the story and cause the reader to see everything in a different way than they did before.
5 – A good surprise should be surprising, organic to the main plot, well planted, fairly foreshadowed, and illuminating.
6 – If surprises occur too frequently, they lose impact.
7 -Some surprises are so outrageous and unlikely that the credibility problem outweighs whatever pleasure might’ve been obtained from the surprise.
VI – THE AGONY OF COINCIDENCE
1 – Readers hate coincidence.
2 – Avoid deus ex machina endings in which the plot is resolved by something that has not been foreshadowed and seems all too convenient.
VII – LAYERING CONFLICT
1 – Conflict can be inner, personal, or eternal.
2 – Inner conflicts take place in your protagonist’s head.
3 – Personal conflicts involve relationships with others.
4 – External conflicts put your protagonist in opposition to a powerful force in the outside world.
5 – The best stories will have all three levels of conflict, and at some level, all three will relate to one another.
VII – UNDERSTANDING YOUR PLOT
1 – There are only five plots.
2 – In the Education Plot, the protagonist learns something, or grows as a person, or comes to see life in a healthier, more positive way.
3 – In the Disillusionment Plot, the protagonist experiences a profound change in worldview, but from a positive one to a negative one.
4 – In the Testing Plot, the antagonist is challenged by incredible, overwhelming opposition, but despite all odds refuses to give up.
5 – In the Redemption Plot, the protagonists redeem themselves for sins, errors, or crimes of the past.
6 – In the Corruption Plot, an initially good person is negatively altered by something that occurs during the story.
7 – The purpose of understanding which plot you’re writing is not to make your work formulaic or cliché, but rather to enhance it. If you know what story you’re telling, you’re likely to do a better job of telling it.
Prior Red Sneaker Writers Posts
I really like this series of ten books. And I think there are things to learn from each of them. Certainly the two I’ve highlighted so far. Check them out!
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made it’s Black Gate debut in the summer of 2018 and has returned every one since.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’ He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.
He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.