Showing posts with label Jack Bickham. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jack Bickham. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 21

Creating Effective Transitions

Creating Effective Transitions


Transitions are tricky. In a scene you write in the moment, recording your character's thoughts, feelings, actions and—most important of all—desires. In those times when you're immersed in the scene writing can seem effortless.

Transitions, not so much.

I'm not saying it's unclear what I need to do in a transition. At least, speaking generally. I know where I need to start (the disaster that ended the previous scene) and where I need to end (the viewpoint character's new goal) and what I need to do in between these two points (emotion --> thought --> decision --> action). But, still, these are general guidelines that allow for a LOT of flexibility.

Today I'm going to talk about how to create effective transitions between scenes.

(BTW, if you’re wondering what a sequel is I talk about them in Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts.  For more about scenes and sequels I also recommend Dwight V. Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer and Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure.)

Simple Transitions and Sequels


Jack Bickham tells us there are two kinds of transitions: simple transitions and sequels.

I talk more about simple transitions, below, but basically simple transitions are what they sound like, one or two lines that takes you from one place/time to another place/time. For example, "At 10:30 Sarah was eating ice cream, three hours later she was dead."

Sequels are longer more complex transitions that link scenes together. At the beginning of a sequel the protagonist has been humiliated and defeated. Not only has he NOT achieved his goal, he has lost whatever progress he made. The question is: What does he do now? What is his next goal?

Transitions are about emotion.


All transitions should show the viewpoint character's emotion. (Scenes, on the other hand, are about CONFLICT.) Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer states that emotion “unifies sequel and holds it together.”

During a sequel your protagonist is preoccupied with the emotional and physical aftermath of whatever disaster ended the previous sequel. Swain writes that for a character to be preoccupied in this way is “actually to be preoccupied with a particular set of feelings. If your girl runs out on you ... you feel hurt and angry. If your boss fires you, you feel angry and panicky. If your friend betrays you, you feel grieved and confused.”

“... until you decide what to do about the situation, your feelings can’t help but be the thing uppermost in your mind.”

In a transition you summarize, skipping anything that doesn't help communicate the viewpoint character's dominant emotion, that doesn't help show his or her reaction to the disaster at the end of the preceding scene.

The Dominant Feeling


Let's talk a bit more about that last point. Think about the particular transition you’re writing. What is your character’s dominant feeling? Is it hate? Love? Fear? Desperation? Dread? Whatever it is, this will give you the unifying theme. For example:

Lily blinked at her computer and cringed. She would rather have a root canal than try to string words together coherently. Perhaps her ideas would flow more easily tomorrow. But when tomorrow came even the thought of writing felt like the blade of a knife.

In the above example I attempted to communicate the feeling of dread I've felt a time or three at the prospect of having to commit words to (virtual) paper. Lily was also dying for a big juicy hamburger and tired after a night of troubled sleep, but I didn't say anything about that because it wouldn't help express her feeling of dread.

Simple Transitions


Let's take a deeper look at simple transitions. As Jack Bickham writes in Scene & Structure, simple transitions cover either a change in time, a change in place or a change in viewpoint.

a. A change in time


Example: “It was the following Tuesday when they met again.”[1]

Example: Ruth flung her head back, closed her eyes and faced the sun, letting the heat dance over her skin. She wanted it to stay sunny forever. Alas, she lived in the Pacific Northwest. Fifteen minutes later it started to rain.

Transitions generally come between scenes and compress time. Chances are the protagonist has lost and lost big at the end of the previous scene. She must now figure out what to do and, as part of this, she will likely need to travel to different places, talk to different people. If we followed our protagonist around second-by-second our story would be very boring. So we need to summarize, condense. We need to figure out her dominant emotion and let that guide our choices.

b. A change in place 


Example: “At about the same time Joe met Billy another meeting was taking place on the other side of town.”[1]

Just as transitions compress time they generally compress space as well. When your protagonist goes to visit his friends you're not going to want to describe the car, the heat, etc. You only want to bring in what’s important for your story.

c. A change in viewpoint


Example: Dan smiled hoping his girlfriend, Jan, wouldn’t find out he’d made it to second base with her best friend. [New chapter] “Bastard!” Jan thought, looking at Dan, seeing his guilty smile.

Changes in viewpoint are straightforward. First you were telling the story through one character's eyes and now you've switched and are telling the story through another character's eyes.

Just make sure it's clear to the reader that the viewpoint has changed as well as whose viewpoint the story is now being told from. The writer doesn't want to confuse the reader so it's a good idea to do this in the first sentence and certainly in the first paragraph.

Transitions and Time


Recall that scenes happen in the moment, time unfolds second after second. Sure, time can slow down but there are no jumps, no gaps.

But if you wrote a story that detailed every single second of your protagonist's life you'd end up with a story bored any reader to tears!

We need to see characters live moment-by-moment when there is a burst of purposeful activity (i.e., a scene) but then we need to transition to the next burst. How we do this greatly affects the pace of a story.

Controlling Pace


New writers tend to write stories that need speeding up rather than slowing down, but here are the a few pointers for doing both. (Most of these points were drawn from Jack Bickham's book.)

How to speed up the pace of a story:


  • Where possible, remove sequels from between scenes.
  • Where it’s not possible to remove a sequel see if it would be just as effective if you used a simple transition rather than a sequel.
  • Can you cut some descriptions of emotion from your sequels?
  • Check the motivations and goals of your characters in the scenes your transition links. Is it clear what motives your main characters? What their goals are?
  • Can you raise the stakes in one or more of the scenes?
  • Can you make the disasters at the end of your scenes more dramatic?

How to slow down the pace of the story:


  • Cut one or more scenes.
  • Shorten one or  more scenes.
  • Reveal more of the viewpoint character’s thoughts.
  • Expand the sequels.

That's it for today! I'll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!



Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

I've talked about Jack Bickham and Dwight V. Swain in my article and can wholeheartedly recommend their books. Yes, they say basically the same thing but I love reading authors who the same topic but from different perspectives. If you're wondering which book to start with I'd recommend Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure

Here's a quote from Scene & Structure:
MENTION WORDS SUCH AS STRUCTURE, form, or plot to some fiction writers, and they blanch. Such folks tend to believe that this kind of terminology means writing by some type of formula or predetermined format as rigid as a paint-by-numbers portrait.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things, and allows her to concentrate her imagination on characters and events 


Note:


1. The example for (a) and (b) were from Jack M. Bickham’s book, Scene & Structure.

Wednesday, July 2

How To Turn Story Ideas Into A Novel

How To Turn Story Ideas Into A Novel


Today I discuss Jack Bickham's advice about how to transform your story ideas into a novel. All quotations are from Mr. Bickham's excellent book, Scene & Structure.

The Game Plan: How to develop your story ideas into a novel


Let's dive right in.

1. "Consider your story materials as presently imagined. Look for and identify, in terms of days, weeks or months, that briefer period of time when 'the big stuff happens.' Plan to eliminate virtually everything else."


I've had these kinds of big-picture ideas. Not only do you know what's going to happen to your protagonist--what she wants, what opposes her, her motivation, and so on--but you know the history of the entire story world! The hard part: Where do you start? Where do you begin telling the story?

Jack Bickham says: Start when 'the big stuff' starts happening to your character.

For example: 

In Star Wars IV the big stuff started happening when Darth Vader boarded Princess Leia's shuttle while she was on a diplomatic mission.

In American Beauty the big stuff starts to happen when Lester Burnham sees his daughter's friend, Angela Hayes, shake her pom-poms (literally!).

In Breaking Bad the big stuff starts to happen when Walter White discovers he's dying from cancer.

2. "Think hard about your most major character and what makes him tick – what his self-concept is, and what kind of life he has built to protect and enhance it."


In Star Wars IV Luke Skywalker wanted to travel, to see the galaxy, and to become a pilot; he loved flying. In Luke's case what was notable was the contrast between the life he lived (a life of duty) and the life he dreamt of living.

In American Beauty Lester used to see his life through the eyes of his wife, his friends, his boss, his neighbors, his colleagues. He bought the kind of house they would envy, he has the kind of job that lets him fit in well at dinner parties and barbecues. 

Then something happens, a crazy event that shatters everything. It's as if a mischievous cherub shot him through the heart and he does something massively inappropriate, he falls madly in love with his daughter's friend, Angela. 

As a result of this intoxicating experience, Lester's life re-orients. No longer does he see himself through the eyes of his wife or his neighbours, or his friends. No. He sees himself and everyone else through the eyes of his beloved: a sixteen year old child. As a result he sets about destroying his old life and erecting a new one in its place, one that he hopes will meet with Angela's approval.

At the beginning of Breaking Bad Walter White is the guy with the enormous brain and the small life. Other people make his decisions for him. He's safe. Predictable. Then Walter White discovers he's dying and he, in his words, "wakes up." Rather than passively accepting money for his treatments he gets the money himself. His way. 

3. "Identify or create a dramatic situation or event which will present your character (and your reader) with the significant, threatening moment of change."


Everyone is going to have their own opinions about this, but in Star Wars IV I think this moment of change came when Luke stood in front of the smouldering ruins of his uncle's home and saw the charred skeletons of his aunt and uncle. That was the moment of change, the moment that Luke went from child to adult and took up his own quest.

In American Beauty the moment of change was bizarre: Lester fell head-over-heels in love with his daughter's teenage friend. It seemed like a perfectly ordinary moment in a perfectly ordinary day. And then, wham! Lester's life changes forever. There's no smoking skeletons, but his old life, his old world view, is just as thoroughly transformed.

In Breaking Bad their was more than one moment of change, but, arguably, the big moment happened in the oncologist's office as Walter White was told he had a short time to live.

#  #  #

I'm going to end here but Jack Bickham continues to list another five points, but I encourage you to pick up a copy of his book, Scene & Structure, or get it out of the library. 

All the best to you as you work diligently on your WIP!

Photo credit: "The Jet Pack Pack" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, May 12

Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts

Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts


I finally published the first episode of my book on writing: Parts of Story: Plot!

To celebrate, and to say a big, huge, massive thank you! to my readers, if you subscribed to my email list before today then you should have received an email telling you how to download a free copy. You don't have to sign anything, there are no strings. I just want to give you the book for free. (Because all good things come to an end, this offer will expire May 26, 2014.) 

If you hadn't subscribed to my newsletter before today you can still get Parts of Story: Plot for free. Just subscribe to my newsletter and then contact me and ask for the book. 

Back to writing about writing ...


A couple of weeks ago I received feedback from one of my beta readers about my manuscript for Parts of Story. He said, "Great book! But I don't understand how scenes and sequels are related to overall story structure."

Oops! I corrected that before I published my book, but the more I thought about the subject, the more I wanted to expand on what I wrote. So ... blog post!

Jack Bickham: Scene & Structure


I just finished reading a terrific book on writing. I almost said "the best book on writing I've ever read" but there are so many great books on writing I couldn't possibly pick a favorite. At the moment, Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure and Stephen King's On Writing are definitely at the top of my favorites list, though for different reasons.

Although both Scene & Structure and On Writing seem to have been written with beginning writers in mind (though they have a lot to offer writers of every level of experience) the authors approach their topic—how to write—in very different ways. King focuses more on the art of writing while Bickham focuses more on the craft of writing. 

The Craft Of Writing


Let's get the definitions out of the way.

A scene is:


"A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle, lived through by character and reader. It’s a blow-by-blow account of somebody’s time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

A sequel is:


"A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes, like the coupler between two railroad cars. It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

You may think it's odd that I raved about Jack Bickham's book and then used definitions from Dwight V. Swain's. Swain was Bickham's teacher, his mentor and his friend. Bickham is expanding on what Swain said, he's filtering it through is own understanding and experience, but it's the same system.[1]

A sequence is:


A daisy chain of scenes and sequels that has a beginning, middle and end and which is unified by an idea. 

An act is:


A daisy chain of sequences. Just like each scene and sequence has a beginning so does every act. A beginning, a middle and end. Acts, in turn, combine to form the major structural bones of a story.

The Three Act Structure


As we've just seen, scene-sequel pairs make up sequences, sequences compose acts and acts form the skeleton of a story.

How many acts? It doesn't matter. Three acts, four acts, two acts, one act, six acts, you name it. One of the most popular--and most useful--structures is the three act structure (or the four act structure that simply chops the second act down the middle to yield four equal parts). 

I'm not going to go over this structure in detail since I've stepped through it in my post: Story Structure (I've updated that post in my book).

Sequences and Acts


Typically, there are two sequences in the first act, four sequences in the second act and two sequences in the third act. (For more about sequences see, The Eight Sequences, over at ScriptLab.com.)

That's it! That's how scenes and sequels fit into acts. Of course that's the bare bones, the basics. In the future I want to go over the structure of scenes and sequels in more detail, as well as how scenes flow into sequels and vice versa. At the end of Scene & Structure Jack Bickham gives the structure of a complete (hypothetical) 50,000 word suspense novel. I won't go that far, but if you're interested I would encourage you to get ahold of his book and study it.

Good writing!

References/Notes/Links


1. Jack Bickham wrote: "This book is dedicated to the memory of Dwight V. Swain: writer, teacher and friend. Without him, I would have had no career as a novelist."