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Week 2: the LOCK system of creating a page turning plot, as well as info on your LEAD
Focus on Fiction 2

June 29th, 2011

This week’s chapter reading continues with the use of plot as a writing tool. A few basics, if understood and applied, will help you come up with a solid plot every time. How far you go from there, is like most things, a matter of plain old hard work and practice.

Your workshop facilitator wishes to acknowledge that this “workshop chapter” is directly lifted in sections from the book Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, F + W Publications, Inc., 2004.

I suggest that each writer have this book in your private writing library. The quoted sections will show you what a valuable asset this book is to an aspiring writer.

This fine writing resource is available at www.Amazon.com .

After analyzing hundreds of plots, Bell has developed a simple set of fundamental principles called the LOCK system.

LOCK stands for





Following is a quick overview. This system might help you in your entire fiction-writing career.

L is for LEAD

A strong plot starts with an interesting LEAD character. Imagine a person on a New York City street corner with a sign that says, “Will work for food”. The premise is not very unique, because nowadays we see that scene often enough.

However, what if the person were dressed in a tuxedo, and had a sign that said, “Will tap for food”. That is a different start to a story….which will probably hold your reader’s attention a bit longer.

The point here is that a strong story starts with an interesting LEAD CHARACTER. In the best plots the LEAD is compelling, and someone we want to watch and whose life we want to experience throughout the entire course of the novel.

This does notmean your LEAD has to be entirely sympathetic.

Bell was browsing through the clearance section of a bookstore, and came across an old paperback copy of Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy. He’d never read the lengthy novel, but he knew of Dreiser’s reputation, and he knew the book had served as the basis for one of his favorite movies, A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff (circa 1951)

Here’s a link to the movie review:

To make long story short, rather than just skimming the novel hunting for similarities, he read all 814 pages of it. He had one of those wondrous experiences where he was sucked in to reading on.

The New York Times once called An American Tragedy the “worst written great book ever”. But something makes it a great book, even though the lead character, Clyde Griffiths, is not a nice guy. We first meet Clyde, the son of fundamentalist evangelists, at sixteen, and then we watch as he descends to the point that he lets his pregnant lover drown.

If you have access to Netflix, Blockbuster, or another video rental place, try to find A Place in the Sun preferably the 1951 version, through there are several other very good versions. As you watch the movie, focus on how the characters move the plot forward.

Why does this plot work?

Because Clyde is compelling, though negative. Because Theodore Dreiser gets us into his head, where we see a car wreck dynamic at work here. Just as people slow down to look at a wreck on the highway, we cannot resist seeing what happens to fully drawn human beings who make an unalterable mess of their lives. A skilled novelist can make us feel that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

This section of Bell’s work uses the simplest model—one LEAD CHARACTER involved in the main plot—for teaching purposes. Mastering this will enable you to approach increasingly complicated situations later, for example, a multi-viewpoint novel. Chapter 8 of Plot & Structure has additional info on more complex plots.


Back to our “Will work for food” guy. What if he tossed down his sign, and pulled off his jacket to reveal a parachute, and began to climb the Empire State Building? Interest zooms. Why?

This character his an OBJECTIVE. A want. A desire.

OBJECTIVE is the driving force of fiction. It generates forward motion and keeps the LEAD from just sitting around.

An OBJECTIVE can take either of two forms:

~~ To get something, or

~~ To get AWAY from something.

Solid Plots have one and only one dominant objective for the LEAD character. This forms the “story question”—will the LEAD realize his or her objective?

You want your readers to worry about the story question, so the objective has to be essential to the well-being of the LEAD. If the LEAD doesn’t get it (or get away from it), this person’s life will take a tremendous turn for the worse.

Here are a few hints for making that objective crucial.

If the objective is staying alive, that always fits the bill. Most suspense novels have the threat of death hanging over the LEAD from the start. Death can also hang over others: Clarice Starling in the Silence of the Lambsis driven to stop Buffalo Bill before he kills another innocent victim.

Not all objectives have to involve death however. The essential thing is that it is crucial to the well being of the LEAD’s sense of well-being.

Consider Oscar in Neil Simon’s play, The Odd Couple which was a popular TV sitcom for awhile between 1971-1975. Oscar is a very happy slob. Nothing pleases him more than smoky poker games, with plenty of beer, and various scattered refreshments, which he feels no need to clean up after the evening is finished.

Oscar, out of compassion, takes in his suicidal friend, Felix, who has just been put out by his wife. Felix is a neat freak, to the extreme. Eventually, this drives Oscar crazy. Oscar is no longer in control of his happiness. If he does not get rid of Felix and his clean ways, Oscar’s ability to be a contented slob in his own home is ruined, and his happiness is gone. The story works because Simon establishes just how important being a slob is to Oscar’s happiness.

If you never saw any of the sitcom, you can check out this movie version, via your best movie rental access. Here’s a trailer to the film, which Starred Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon:

If you’re interested in viewing shorter versions of this often hilarious plot, check out this link listed just below with access to the actual shows, as well as trivia, about the show, Jack Klugman, and Tony Randall.


Now our human fly is half-way up the Empire State Building. We already know he is interesting because he an OBJECTIVE, and with a little imagination you can come up with a reason why this action is imperative to his well-being.

Is there any way to build up the readers’ engrossment level? What if "they” have plans to seize him around floor 65. Or, worse yet, perhaps there’s a sniper at a building across the street that has the man in his sights. Suddenly, things get even more interesting.

The reason is CONFRONTATION. Opposition from characters and outside forces brings your character full to life. If our character moves along his path toward his goal with no complications, we’re robbing our readers of what they want. They want to worry about the LEAD. They want to fret about him and his decisions all the way throughout the novel.

Some wise old scribe put it this way: “Put your protagonist up a tree. Have people throw rocks at him. Then, get him down.”

Throwing rocks means putting obstacles in your LEAD character’s way. Make things tough on him or her. Never let your lead character off easy.


Bell once asked a great sports writer why he thought boxing was so popular. The man smacked his fist into his hand. “POW,” he said as his arm fell like a sack of potatoes.

People watch boxing for the KNOCKOUT, he explained. They’ll accept a decision by the judges, but they’d prefer to see one fighter kiss the canvas. What they hate is a draw, because that doesn’t satisfy anyone.

Readers of commercial fiction want to see a KNOCKOUT at the end of your book.

A great ending can leave the reader satisfied, even if the rest of the book is somewhat weak (assuming the reader decides to stick around till the end). But a weak ending will leave the reader feeling disappointment, even if the book was strong up to that point.

So, take your LEAD through the journey towards his OBJECTIVE, and then send the opposition to the mat for your plot's proudful KNOCKOUT of your lead.

Here’s a link to the Exercises for Week 2

 Exercises Week 2 -- Focus on Fiction  (13+)
Exercises this week center on the LOCK system. First read the article at {item:1789612}
#1789621 by a sunflower in Texas

Complete to suggested activities at your convenience, then if you will, please send me an e-mail with a “bitem” to you response to the exercises you'll create for this acctivity. My e-mail is patrice@writing.com. Happy writing!

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