Super Structure - The key to unleashing the power of story

James Scott Bell’s book defines a novel’s key story elements using five ‘tent-poles’ and fourteen ‘signposts’. James stresses that every novel should be about death, either in physical or symbolic form. The ‘death’ can be physical, professional, or psychological, such as an emotional internal struggle. If your novel isn’t about life or death James believes that the stakes aren’t high enough. We would highly recommend buying the book to make the most of this planning method.

If you keep to just seven points it will ensure you won’t drift into describing unimportant back story and subplots. Try not to overthink things, let your subconscious mind describe your story swiftly.

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Summarise your story in three sentences:

Describe your character, vocation, setting.

Describe the doorway of no return. When x happens...

Describe the death stakes. Now x...

Define the five tent-poles:

1. Act 1:

2. Act 1:

3. Act 2:

4. Act 2:

5. Act 3:

Define the fourteen signposts:

Start with trouble and describe how that threatens the protagonist. Have immediate conflict of some sort.

The protagonist has a relationship with someone that he or she really cares for and will fight for. This humanises the lead character and engenders sympathy. This relationship has started before the start of the book and will touch on the character’s flaw.

The protagonist doesn’t want to change, he or she doesn’t recognise their flaw and would rather have the status quo.

There is a hint of trouble to come. Mysterious events, gathering clouds, we feel there is a bigger conflict to come...

There is no going back. The protagonist has to confront death or overcome it, or they will die.

Soon after step 5 the protagonist must face an obstacle that is death threatening. This can be an emotional jolt or a deepening of the stakes. This step instils confidence in the reader that the rest of the book will be worthwhile reading.

The protagonist takes a look at him or herself in the mirror and has to decide to change (and face their flaw) or die. It’s a good idea to brainstorm this stage when starting any new novel.

The protagonist stops in the middle of their own troubles to help someone weaker.

major crisis or setback or some kind of clue or discovery (Though this must NOT be discovered through coincidence). This signals the end of Act 2.

Building momentum and ensuring the protagonist’s forces are aligned for the final battle.

The protagonist can’t possible win. The reader is biting their nails.

The Q in this case is the emotional impetus set up in Act 1 that comes back in Act 3 to provide inspiration or instruction. Sometimes this is physical help. Fear makes the protagonist run but the Q factor makes him or her stay. TIP: Brainstorm Q factors for Act 3, then go back and write the scenes to plant them into Act 1.

The whole point of the novel. The resolution should be based on the mirror moment.

The final notes. The tidy up. Tie this to the mirror moment. Readers have worried about your protagonist - this is the answer.