Monday, March 10, 2014

James Scott Bell: The Doorway of No Return

In the neighborhood, February 2014
"Think of it as the Doorway of No Return. The feeling must be that your lead character, once she passes through, cannot go home again until the major problem of the plot is solved." --James Scott Bell

Has my MC passed through the Doorway of No Return? Ah, that's the issue I'm addressing this week after coming across an article in Writer's Digest (January 2013): The Two Pillars of Novel Structure by James Scott Bell. In this article, Bell uses two metaphors to help explain novel structure: a bridge and a door.

A Bridge to Somewhere. Bell discusses the idea of a suspension bridge and how it represents story structure: "The key foundational elements here are the two pillars, or pylons. These pillars are set down in bedrock, allowing the suspension cables to support a solid and secure platform... Think about it: Every story has to begin, and every story has to end. And the middle has to hold the reader's interest. The craft of structure tells you how to begin with a bang, knock readers out at the end, and keep them turning pages all the way through."

The Doorway of No Return. This, according to Bell, is the first pillar of the bridge. "The beginning of a novel tells us who the main characters are and introduces the situation at hand (the story world). It sets the tone and the stakes. But the novel does not take off or become 'the story' until that first pillar is passed. Think of it as a Doorway of No Return. The feeling must be that your lead character, once she passes through, cannot go home again until the major problem of the plot is solved...There is no way back to the old, comfortable world." She will not be able to turn around and go back across the bridge the way she came. She has no choice but to go forward.

"And," Bell says, "the timing of the first pillar should be before the 1/5 mark of your book." That means our character needs to hit that bridge running. There is no place for hanging back or dawdling on that bridge.

The Second Pillar. This pillar is another doorway of no return, according to Bell. It makes possible or inevitable the final battle and resolution. "Remember, the first door has been slammed shut...Then the second pillar, or doorway, happens. This is often an event that feels like a major crisis or setback. Or it can be a clue or discovery. Regardless, it pushes the lead character into Act 3." Our lead character must go through that door, too, with no hope of return to what used to be--but, at the same time, this door becomes her access to the final battle and the story's resolution on the other side.

The Other Side. "The two pillars of structure will never let you down. In defining the three acts of your story and creating points of no return for your characters (and your readers), they will guarantee that the platform of your story is strong. And they will free you to be as creative as you like with the elements of your story--characters, voice, scenes, without fear of falling off a rope bridge into the Valley of Unread Novels."

This week's assignment: build a page-turning bridge of a story with strong pylon doorways of no return at both ends. And while you're at it, don't look down. That valley of unread novels doesn't have your name on it. The story of your character's exciting, completed journey does!

What challenges in story structure do you struggle with? How do you build your story bridge?


  1. Interesting that you wrote about this at this time. I'm planning to write a post tomorrow, commenting on how I've found this structure to be important even in scenes. Actually, there's more to it than just these pillars, but the bridge is a great metaphor.

    1. Cathy, I just checked out your post--you give a great overview of scene structure there. Very helpful. And as for the bridge metaphor, the image has helped impress on me an overall picture of the character's story--she must be placed on that shaky rope bridge with no hope of turning back while facing great challenges before reaching the other side. This is the model I'm trying to base my writing on this week at least :-)

  2. This is great stuff. I jotted notes from your notes. :-)

    1. Glad this was helpful, Barbara :-) Hope you have a great writing week!