THE LINCOLN LAWYER + Plot and Structure

What does a movie about a sleazy lawyer have to do with plotting a novel?

Last night the husband and I watched The Lincoln Lawyer with Matthew McConaughey (from Longview, Texas, where I went to high school). I tend to enjoy thrillers until about 2/3 into the film, at which point I can usually see with 98% accuracy where things are going. The Lincoln Lawyer, however, kept me guessing until the last five minutes. That’s because–like all good plotting–the twists in the story grew authentically out of character tendencies.

I’m not big on genre fiction, but there’s something to be learned from it, especially in terms of how to up the stakes for characters. A good book for these kinds of lessons is Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and The Lincoln Lawyer perfectly illustrates several of the plotting suggestions, including:

Make the opposition stronger than the Lead to up the stakes.

Ask, what is the worst trouble my character can get into in this scene? How can I ratchet up the stakes?

Ask, what is the worst thing that can happen to my character from the inside? How can things get more wrenching for my Lead? Is there someone the Lead cares about who can get caught up in the trouble? Can a secret from the past come back?

This is a movie that would be worth diagramming to see how plot and character dovetail. Maybe the plotting’s so good because it’s based on the novel by the same name by Michael Connelly.


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