How to Write Best-Selling Fiction
James Scott Bell is an award-winning novelist and writing instructor. He is a winner of the International Thriller Writers Award and the author of a best-selling book on writing, Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish. He received his BA in Film Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and his JD with honors from the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. A former trial lawyer, Mr. Bell now writes and speaks full time.
Mr. Bell is a prolific author. His works include the Mike Romeo thriller series (Romeo’s Rules, Romeo’s Way, and Romeo’s Hammer), the Ty Buchanan legal thriller series (Try Dying, Try Darkness, and Try Fear), and the novels Your Son Is Alive, Don’t Leave Me, Blind Justice, and Final Witness. He has written several popular writing books, including Just Write: Creating Unforgettable Fiction and a Rewarding Writing Life; Conflict and Suspense; and The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Mr. Bell has also published How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript; Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between; Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story; How to Write Pulp Fiction; and How to Make a Living as a Writer.
Mr. Bell served as a fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest. He has taught novel writing at Pepperdine University as well as in writing seminars across the United States and many parts of the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
01: Tell Me a Story
Mr. Bell introduces you to the seven critical success factors of fiction and shows you how best-selling writers put them into practice. He explores literary genres through the success of best sellers written by authors such as Harper Lee and Gillian Flynn. He then challenges you to see if you have what it takes to be a best-selling author, as he outlines the 10 characteristics that a serious writer must possess. Discover why he surprisingly counts talent among the least important of the traits.
02: Anatomy of a Best Seller
What is a novel? Looking at examples from writers including John Grisham, Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, J. D. Salinger, Suzanne Collins, Thomas Harris, and more, Mr. Bell analyzes first what makes a novel, and then, what makes a novel successful. He also provides his own insights by looking at the role luck plays in creating a best seller. Learn how you first must “master the pyramid” before you can “try your luck on the wheel of fortune.”
03: Developing Ideas
Jump-start your creativity with a selection of fun exercises, including “What-If Moments” and “The First-Line Game.” Mr. Bell cites best-selling authors such as Alice Sebold and Mickey Spillane to demonstrate the importance of creating unique elements: a twist, a character, a setting, a relationship. Find out how to create the ever-important elevator pitch.
04: The LOCK System: A Foundation for Your Novel
Using a proprietary system of his own invention, Mr. Bell introduces you to the foundational principles of a successful novel: LOCK (Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knockout). He’ll demonstrate how famous authors such as Stephen King, David Baldacci, John Grisham, Theodore Dreiser, Michael Connelly, and others utilize these fundamental elements. Review the five types of endings and discover the pros and cons of each.
05: Structuring Your Novel
Learn why stories need—and love—structure. By rethinking a structure as a recipe, you realize you can still be original and creative within the template that works for best sellers. Dive into the writing styles of “pantsers” versus “plotters” and get a better understanding of whether you want to aim for a plot-driven or a character-driven story. And using the writings of John Grisham, Ernest Hemingway, James Patterson, Stephen King, E. L. Doctorow, Lee Child, and others, evaluate the traditional mythical structure of a three-act story.
06: Act I: The Disturbance
See how James M. Cain, Harlan Coben, Anne Lamott, Ken Follett, James Clavell, and Dean Koontz often use a jolt or disturbance in the first few pages, if not the very first sentence, to hook a reader in, and how that often contributes to the book becoming a best seller. Look at other elements that you will need to include in the first act that will build up the character bonding and tension, which will keep readers riveted. Mr. Bell reveals an easy-to-use visual map that will help you plot out the most important elements for each act.
07: Act II: The Arena of Conflict
Building out Act Two means creating an “arena of conflict”—this is where your lead realizes he or she needs to overcome a challenge. Mr. Bell introduces you to the concept of a “mirror moment” and provides examples of authors who have demonstrated this technique, such as Margaret Mitchell, Suzanne Collins, Mario Puzo, Harper Lee, Thomas Harris, and Dashiell Hammett. Uncover three other elements that make a great second act and get introduced to the four options which will get your character to the final battle.
08: Act III and Resolution
Mickey Spillane noted, “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.” Mr. Bell has already provided the tools to get your reader hooked with the first chapter—and potentially the first line! Now, he provides the five strategies that will help you end your book in a way that gets your reader craving your next title.
09: Jump-off-the-Page Characters
Now that you know the secrets of a page-turning plot, Mr. Bell opens the toolbox for creating characters. Learn how to use unpredictability so your readers don’t get bored with cliché characters or trite traits. Calling on the practices used by best-selling writers including Michael Connelly, Richard Stark, David Morrell, Harper Lee, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lee Child, and Janet Evanovich, you’ll see how to develop flaws and baggage to make your characters relatable and human. Plus, get hints about building secondary characters, villains, and what it takes to keep a character interesting through an ongoing series.
10: Bringing Characters to Life
Mr. Bell reveals two ways to bring your characters to life, along with a myriad of techniques you can put into practice, including a list of questions to “ask” your character, a timeline, a voice journal, a simple relationship grid, and the areas you should plan to research. Study famous characters developed by Marcel Proust, Lawrence Block, Jim Butcher, Walter Mosley, Robert Crais, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Joyce Carol Oates, and more to reveal the techniques the best sellers use. Learn how minor details such as patterns of speech, dress, physical appearance, mannerisms, tics, eccentricities, and even names can have a major impact.
11: Point of View
What does your point of view provide? The most important component of a point of view is that it establishes intimacy between a reader and a character. Dive into the concepts of point of view including: first person, omniscient, second person, and third person (limited and open). Study how Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, Mario Puzo, James Clavell, J. D. Salinger, Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John D. MacDonald, Suzanne Collins, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Herman Melville, and others use point of view successfully.
12: The Essentials of Dazzling Dialogue
Mr. Bell demonstrates how dialogue is the fastest way to improve any manuscript. He introduces the five functions of dialogue and breaks down the importance of vocabulary, syntax, and specifics like regionalism to help build the character. Examine examples from Orrie Hitt, Margaret Mitchell, John Howard Lawson, Charles Webb, and others. Explore the importance of subtext—what is underneath the words and how it can suggest secrets, fears, memories, yearnings, or hopes.
13: Tools for Talk
Gain insightful tips to keep realistic dialogue from being predictable by learning how to script the unexpected. Mr. Bell challenges you with exercises like determining the opposite of what a reader would assume a response should be, curving the language, and assigning “roles” to your characters to better form relationships, conflict, and realistic conversations. You’ll also gain tips for invoking silence—white space and inner monologues. Dive into the nuts and bolts of grammar in dialogue.
14: Voice and Style
What is voice? Mr. Bell hasn’t found a good definition, so he gives you his own. Citing examples from Janet Evanovich, Elmore Leonard, Douglas Adams, Tom Robbins, Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, and others, you’ll gain the knowledge to master your voice by getting into your character. Then, delve into the rudimentary lessons of a good writer: showing versus telling, avoiding narrative summaries, writing great descriptions, and using telling details. Mr. Bell demonstrates some easy tools for helping you avoid common pitfalls, such as plotting an intensity scale and a seven-step checklist for creating a setting.
15: Make a Scene
According to Mr. Bell, a scene consists of objective, obstacles, and outcome. A character always has a goal in every scene, and without a challenge to the goal there is no momentum. See how Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Michael Connelly use an emotional beat—emotion, analysis, and decision—to build conflict and tension in a scene and keep it going. Dissect the elements to create and use a successful hook and how to end each chapter on a prompt that will make the reader want to keep reading.
16: Subplots and Parallel Plots
Understand how weaving in smaller conflicts and challenges—subplots and parallel plots—is a great way to expand a story’s range. Learn the three types of subplots. See how authors such as Jim Butcher, Margaret Mitchell, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Connelly, and Suzanne Collins successfully integrate subplots into their main story lines. Mr. Bell introduces a formula for determining how many subplots your book should have and a simple grid you can use to manage multiple plots.
17: Deepening the Reader’s Emotional Experience
Emotions can be tricky. You must walk a fine line to portray enough emotion to make your story and characters gripping and memorable, but also to avoid melodrama where the emotional hook feels contrived. Mr. Bell shows you how to map the hot spots so you don’t get bogged down writing it. He’ll unpack the power of authors who have mastered delivering an emotional punch, such as John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, John Harvey, and Raymond Chandler. He also introduces an exercise that helps you create strong yet concise emotional moments, and examines the power of metaphors to deepen emotional connection.
18: First Pages That Grab the Reader
Starting a scene is one of the most important parts of a book. Mr. Bell introduces you to the different kinds of beginnings and investigates the benefits of using a prologue. With examples from Mary Higgins Clark, Harlan Coben, Ken Kesey, Michael Connelly, Suzanne Collins, John Gilstrap, Mickey Spillane, and David Morrell, you’ll learn how to start your scenes with a bang, raise big questions, and then switch things up in the next scene, so your readers are on the edge of their seats.
19: Revising Your Novel
Learn the two most important rules of writing and then hear Mr. Bell’s corollary to those rules. Revisions are extremely important and take a lot of discipline. Get helpful tips for a revision schedule, learn why you need to take a cool-off period before taking a first pass, gain tricks for helping you re-read with fresh eyes, and use shortcuts for marking places you need to come back to so you can read straight through. Mr. Bell also provides excellent advice about using outside readers, both professionals and “beta readers.”
20: Blunders and Baloney
Mr. Bell provides an overview of the most common blunders that could knock you out of the running for publication before you even get started, including awkward flashbacks, fluffy dialogue, being overly happy, or being too predictable. Using examples from best-selling writers including Sarah Pekkanen, Jodi Picoult, Dan Koontz, Mark Twain, and Toni Morrison, he re-evaluates some of the most common writing advice, busting common misconceptions and myths.
21: Getting Published
Mr. Bell unpacks the most important parts of a book proposal that you would send to an agent or a publisher: query, synopsis, and sample chapters—defining each, and breaking down what you should and shouldn’t do. He investigates the pros and cons of using an agent and publisher and gives invaluable advice on what to look for in an agent, how to negotiate a publishing contract, the importance of copyrights, how to protect yourself, and the most important component: getting paid!
22: The Self-Publishing Option
Is self-publishing a viable option? Are the writers who make a living through self-publishing simply lucky? Do you have what it takes to become an “author-preneur?” Mr. Bell spends an entire lecture breaking down the pros and cons of the self-publishing alternative. Gain a plethora of tips of how to find success when self-publishing and learn how to sort through the details like covers, formatting, picking a platform, marketing, and how to price your book.
23: Marketing Your Work
Even if you have an agent, you are still responsible for some aspects of marketing. But you don’t have to have an MBA or be a professional marketer to be a successful advocate for your work. Mr. Bell introduces you to the most important marketing tools. Get tips on selecting a marketable title, creating taglines, finding customers, using social media, building a website, using emails and newsletters, and knowing which self-publishing tools are worth the investment.
24: Conquering the Mental Game of Writing
Look at the most common reasons for writer's block and get tips for how to change your mental state when you feel blocked—see how something as simple as changing your location can change your mood and your mindset. Discover how to find inspiration in unusual places. And finally, Mr. Bell provides advice for dealing with rejection, which all writers face on occasion. Learn how to set your expectations and rejection won’t defeat you.
25: How to Write Short Stories That Sell (BONUS)
Mr. Bell introduces you to the most important component of a successful short story. Once he’s revealed this vital component, take a look at the history of the genre through this lens, uncovering successes and failures and highlighting both standout and unrecognized authors. He’ll also provide invaluable tips to help you improve your writing—in any medium—and advice on what to do with your finished piece.