Bickham, Jack M. Scene & Structure. Writer's Digest Books, 1993.
Last month, when I recommended Techniques of the Selling Writer, I mentioned that the book is quite dense. Swain provides so much information on so many components of modern fiction that it can be difficult to tease out the individual strands of advice and apply them. I especially wanted a deeper look at the "scene and sequel" technique he presents. I found it in Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure.
Bickham, a student of Swain's, begins with an analysis of the structure of modern fiction. He dispels the myth that "structure" requires a formula or particular format. Instead, structure is a method of organizing a story "in a way that's both logical and dramatic." The rest of the book is devoted to demonstrating that definition.
Many writers struggle with how to begin and end their stories, so Bickham tackles that problem first. A story should start, "at the time of change that threatens your major character's self-concept." That threat generates the protagonist's story goal: the one thing she must accomplish in order to end the threat: "Sarah must find her lost child," for example. The story goal turns into a yes-or-no story question in the reader's mind: "Will Sarah find her lost child?" The story ends when that question is answered.
So what goes in the middle?
To answer that question, Bickham zooms in to focus on "Structure in Microcosm: Cause and Effect." In order to make sense to the reader, a story must present its events in a logical sequence: cause precedes effect. That's easy to see on the macroscopic scale. In a mystery, the crime must occur before the detective has anything to investigate. But it's also true on an almost line-by-line level in a story. Characters experience an event (stimulus), consider what to do (internalization) and act (response). Granted, the pattern doesn't always hold: if someone points a gun at your character, internalization vanishes in favor of an immediate reaction. But in general, this pattern of stimulus-internalization-response is necessary to hold the reader's attention and interest.
Bickham turns next to the macroscopic versions of cause and effect: scenes and sequels. The scene is an action unit in which the point of view character strives to attain a specific, short-term goal that leads to the story goal. Conflict leades to failure: Sometimes the goal is blocked entirely (No!), sometimes the goal is blocked until another goal is achieved (No, but...), and sometimes the goal is blocked and another setback is inflicted (No, and furthermore...). The reader keeps turning pages, wondering how the character will deal with this disaster and what he'll do next.
The character wonders, too, and that's where sequel comes in. Sequels tie scenes together by providing a period of introspection (internalization) during which the character can review the situation, analyze options, and decide what to do next. Sequels can be as long or short as necessary: in a thriller, sequels are often so short as to be nearly non-existent; in other forms of fiction, they can last for pages. But the sequel allows the character to determine a new short-term goal, which becomes the starting point of the next scene.
Bickham offers further advice on using scenes and sequels to control the pace of a novel, varying the internal structure of these components, dealing with common scene errors, and using scene and sequel to plot a novel. If, like me, you prefer to work from an outline, this advice will be particularly valuable. If you don't like outlines, you'll still find Bickham's advice useful, because you'll need to keep the story structure in mind as you write or revise.
Like Swain, Bickham is primarily concerned with popular or commercial rather than literary fiction. However, if the latter is what you want to write, this book is still worth reading. Structure is like the frame of a house: whether you're building a Colonial mansion or a shotgun shack, you'll still need walls and a roof. Whether you're writing a deeply literary character study or a pulse-pounding thriller, you'll still need scenes and sequels. Let Jack Bickham show you how to build them.
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