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

Friday, October 25

How to Succeed: The Importance of Clarity





It doesn’t matter how well a story is structured, or how clever the writing is, if it isn’t clear to readers what the text is meant to express.

Ask yourself, What is writing? Here’s my experience: I sit at my writing desk and have a thought. I write down that thought. When someone reads that sentence I want them to grasp the same thought I had when I wrote the sentence. If that happens, my prose is perfectly clear. Goal accomplished! But thoughts can be garbled in various ways.

In this article I write about how to communicate thoughts and emotions clearly as well as how this can go wrong.

Cause & Effect: Order Matters


In Jack M. Bickham’s excellent book Scene & Structure, he gives several examples of a garbled thought and how to fix it.

Example 1


Take the sentence:
“Joe turned after hearing the gunshot.”
Grammatically, there is nothing wrong with this sentence, but the stimulus and response are backward. It should be:

Hearing the shot, Joe turned.

That’s the psychologically correct order of events. As a result, not only is the sentence clearer and easier to read but it is more emotionally engaging.

Example 2


Here’s another example Bickham gives:
“Having been angry for days, Joe punched Sam.”
When I first read this sentence I thought, “Well, that’s okay!” But it isn’t. You likely saw it right away. Joe has been angry with Sam for days, so why punch him now? What happened? There is no motivating stimulus, no trigger.

Years ago I had long hair that fell past my waist. After a particularly rough breakup, I told my hairdresser to cut it all off. She had wanted me to let her cut my hair for years, so I expected her to be happy. She wasn’t. She frowned and asked, “Why? What has happened?” That was insightful. Why should I cut my hair NOW? Something in my life must have changed.

Bickham doesn’t give this example but -- even though it’s far from perfect -- even this construction would work better:
Having been angry for days, Joe said, “You have some nerve!” to Sam.
Joe punched Sam.
That’s better! At least we have a trigger. Sure, there are still questions. For instance, why is Joe angry with Sam? However, maybe you want your readers to be curious, to ask themselves, What did Sam do to Joe?

If we wanted to make things clearer we could add an internalisation between the stimulus and the response:
Having been angry for days, Joe said, “You have some nerve!” to Sam.
Sam wondered if Joe had found out he’d slept with his wife.
Joe punched Sam.
That’s not great literature, but you get the idea. We now understand Joe’s motives and the progression of action and reaction makes sense.

Example 3


Here’s another one of Bickham’s examples. And, again, when I first read this I didn’t see anything wrong:
“Rick hit Bill. Bill was surprised.”
It’s boring, but it seems like an okay sentence, right? If I walk up to someone and they hit me, I’d be surprised! But, more than that, we seem to have a stimulus (Rick hit Bill) and a response (Bill was surprised).

To show you what’s wrong, let’s change the sentence a bit:
“Rick hit Bill. Bill was surprised. Bill hit Rick.”
Again, I am NOT saying this is great literature, but on some deep level the second sentence is more satisfying than the first. Why? Because it is complete. Here the response is VISIBLE. Rick hit Bill and Bill was surprised, the surprise is internal, invisible.

How do we know Bill was surprised? Did he stagger back, put his hand over his cheek and yell at Rick, “Why’d you do that!?” That would have been okay.

To sum up: Clarity depends on the correct presentation of cause and effect. The punch (a physical thing) is thrown, there is a moment of confusion, or perhaps of expectation (internalization), and then the punch lands (physical) and then there is an internal response to this and then another physical action, and so on.

That’s the pattern: ACTION - INTERNALIZATION - RESPONSE. Both the action and response need to be EXTERNAL. Visible. The internalization is optional. But for every action there MUST BE a response, and for every response there must have been an action.

Two Plain Facts about Feelings


You’re a writer. You’ve grasped the basics of grammar, word choice, sentence structure, and working with five hours of sleep. You can craft a sentence that communicates a clear thought. However, none of this has anything to do with how to craft an entertaining story, and that’s your goal.

There are two things here. Actually, it's the same thing on two different levels.

a. Create a world full of meaning: Give the hero a goal


You want to create a world filled with meaning. But how? Easy. Give the protagonist a goal, set her upon a quest. Then order everything else in the story according to this final goal. (This is one reason why knowing your ending in advance helps.)

This is an aside, but I want to say something about the usefulness of free indirect discourse. You want your reader to identify with your hero, you want your reader to see through your hero’s eyes. When you use free indirect discourse, your reader sees the character’s thoughts laid bare and this helps the reader sink into his perspective. The reader feels as though (temporarily and only in this imaginary world) she shares the same goal.

(If you want to read more about free indirect discourse, I've written an article, "Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul," where I include examples.)

That’s one level, that’s a 20,000 foot view of Story and why we love them so much. But there is another level, one lower down. This one has to do with the mechanics of creating meaning.

b. It’s all about the reader’s feelings


Our tools are words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. How does one thing -- a reader hanging off your every word -- come about from reading words arranged one after the other?

Dwight V. Swain in Chapter 3 of his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, writes that (I’m paraphrasing) the manipulation of your reader’s feelings is the foundation stone on which your story will succeed or fail.
Question: WHAT should you try to communicate to your readers?
Answer: Feelings.
Question: How does one go about communicating feelings to your readers?
Answer: Through motivation and reaction. 
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s actually quite complex. I can’t cover all of Dwight V. Swain’s ideas about this here, but I want to touch on how he views motivation and reaction.


Motivation and Reaction


How and Why


I’ve read stories where the writer has mastered the basics of storytelling, their dialogue was great, the bones of the general story and how it hooked into the setting was good, but the way the character was introduced confused me. And there is NOTHING more important than introducing your protagonist, at least in terms of keeping your reader turning the pages.

I think this is one of the many places where Dwight V. Swain shines.

By the way, New York Times Best Selling author Jim Butcher studied under Deborah Chester and she, in turn, studied under Jack M. Bickham who in turn studied under Dwight V. Swain. They have all made their living writing stories. This works.

Here’s the logic.

1. decide what is good and what is bad


Easy, right? But a lot of writers don’t do this! Let’s say I’m writing a fantasy story and I give the protagonist the power of generating electricity from her fingertips. Well, so what? What difference does that make in the context of the story?

In order for a reader to know how to feel about our wonderful protagonist developing this new power we need context. How would her family feel about her developing this power? How about her friends? How about her society?

For example, if her family thought her gift was a gift from god then they would feel proud. On the other hand, if they thought it was a curse -- if they believed she had done something dispicable to bring this on herself -- then they might be hostile toward her, they might disown the protagonist or even try to harm her physically.

1a. How society sees things


I've touched on this, above, but let's go into it in more depth.

Having developed her new power, would the average person, or even the state, think the protagonist was a demon and attempt to burn her at the stake?

Would the average person greet the protagonist as a potential hero, as someone who could defend them from a potential threats? That matters! That is going to shape not only how the protagonist feels and reacts toward her new power, but how the other characters react to her.

1b. Relative to a goal


Continuing with the example, another thing for a writer to ask her/himself is whether this new power will help the protagonist achieve her goal. (Let’s say the hero’s goal is to save the world from an asteroid set to crash into it in 31 days.)

Let’s say the hero becomes a vampire and needs to drink human blood to survive. This is time consuming, she’s not crazy about the whole blood drinking thing, there are ethical considerations about procurement of blood, and so on.

On the other hand, our hero is super strong, has preternaturally good hearing, sight, and so on. Is this good or bad?

It depends on whether it helps her or hurts her in attaining her overall goal. Perhaps it turns out that there really is no asteroid set to crash into the earth and Nemoth the Numbnut had made it appear so because he wanted to create a panic. He wanted to rob a few banks and decided that in all the confusion caused by everyone believing the world was going to end would be useful.

1c. Be specific.


I think this is what is behind the admonition to avoid sentences like, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I’ve used the example of Stephen King’s first line from IT several times. Like all of Stephen King’s first lines it grabs the reader and shows them something specific about a character pursuing a goal.
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” (Stephen King, It)
How great is that! There’s something about King’s writing that sucks me in from the very first sentence. And I really do believe it has to do with specificity. The general is vague, the specific is clear.

1d. Introduce a yardstick.


I’ve touched on this a bit, above, but let’s go into it in greater depth. A writer needs to introduce something which tells the reader that, within the story world, one thing is better than another. A hierarchy of values (think of a pyramid) needs to be implemented. The highest value is at the top, and everything in the story world is sorted according to that.

As far as what exactly this ultimate good is, that is going to vary from story to story, from hero to hero. The occupation the hero has (engineer vs doctor vs psychologist vs politician) can also influence what that character's highest good is. For example, Indiana Jones’ ultimate good was recovering and preserving the artifacts of ancient (or alien) civilizations. He believed they had intrinsic worth.

In each Indiana Jones movie, in each story, it was a different specific artifact, a different goal, but the general goal never changed.

Events


As in real life, the important thing is never the event itself. Graduation is important because you’ve accomplished a goal and are now heading out into the world to start life.

In fiction, there are two ways a thing can matter. First, it matters if it relates to your main character and whether it helps or hinders him accomplish his goal. Second, a thing also matters if it affects the other characters achieve their goals.

In the beginning, the hero is faced with a specific instance of tragedy. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle were murdered by Stormtroopers operating under the orders of an evil Emperor. Luke came home from his visit with Obi-Wan Kenobi and saw their skeletal, smoking, corpses. That’s traumatic!

Luke’s aunt and uncle had raised him since he was first born, he loved them and was grateful for what they had done for him, although it was time for him to go off on his own.

Swain writes that (I‘m paraphrasing) something is meaningful to the reader only if it is meaningful to one of your characters. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But I’ve gone through many of my old stories and, in the beginning, I sometimes narrated events that should have been enacted. I needed to show how events changed my character’s lives.

Give your character a moral compass


While this is related to the previous point, I thought it deserved a section of its own. A character’s moral compass is usually expressed through a character. For example, in Pinocchio Jiminy Cricket was the wooden puppet’s conscience. Introducing a moral compass also has the advantage of introducing conflict.

When your main character is going to do something morally dubious and likely self-destructive the moral compass (often a best friend or sidekick, for example, Donkey in Shrek) warns the hero against it. An argument, which introduces conflict (and that’s good!) usually begins.

Swain writes that, “All reactions, all feelings, boil down to ‘This is good’ or ‘This is bad.’ You like chocolate or you don’t. You like your job or you don’t. And as I’ve said, whether you like these things changes from time to time based on associated factors like whether you’re hungry, whether you’re tired, whether your boss has yelled at you for no reason, and so on.”

I have a mild disagreement with Swain. He believes that a fact, a story, an event, cannot provoke an emotion in a READER if a character does not react to it. I see his point and I think that's mostly true. And I don't want to throw any shade on Swain, he was a master storyteller.

But honestly, I’m not sure I believe that everything of significance needs to be shown, filtered through, a character. I think that some descriptive writing builds a picture and can be moving.

To sum up this point: You need to know where your hero stands in relation to everything else in the story because everything is set in relation to him or her. The hero’s greatest goal, greatest desire, becomes the greatest good and stands at the top of the hierarchy of values.

The Focal Character


This phrase isn’t used often: The focal character. Think of Sherlock Holmes stories. Watson was the narrator but everything, the whole story was about Sherlock Holmes. If the reader could have seen inside Sherlock Holmes’ mind there would have been no suspense. They were mystery stories, after all!

Many of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories were like this as well. We saw the world through Watson’s eyes, he was the viewpoint character, but clearly the entire story was about the powers of deduction of Hercule Poirot and so he was the focal character.

So, to put this in my own way, the focal character is the one who orders the story world and gives it meaning or significance.

The focal character needs to constantly be put in situations -- both large and small -- where he stands to win or lose. This will illicit feeling within the reader.

So it’s VERY IMPORTANT that, at all points of a story, at every moment in every scene, you strive to orient the reader in relation to your hero as he acts in a specific situation.

But this is more difficult to do than it may seem. It is easy to confuse the reader. I’ve been guilty of this time and time again, especially when I was a kid. I would write about THINGS, about a beautiful sunset, about a meandering stream, about a mysterious glade I happened upon. I would sit (literally!) on the steps of the art gallery and write vignettes about how the crowd swirled around me.

But none of that made for a good story.

Stories are about a CHARACTER’S reactions to a series of specific situations. Yes, there are Things in these scenes but a thing is only included if it relevant to a character achieving their goal.

I’m paraphrasing Dwight V. Swain here: The story is about the hero’s reactions to what happens. It is about the hero’s feelings, emotions, impulses, dreams, ambitions, drives and inner conflicts.

Again, things are only important inasmuch as it helps depict the hero’s reactions.

2. Create a story world.


Remember that your reader has never been in the world of your story. Make it memorable, make it easy to grasp. It can be alien and complex, but make it easy for your reader to fall into. Make sure to use all the focal character’s senses when describing it.

Show the reader, your reader, the hero’s mind, his thoughts, his feelings. Remember, your hero is becoming something. He is going from cowardice to courage, from incompetence to mastery. He changes, and he changes by DOING things.

How does a writer accomplish this? Shape external developments. The outcome of each scene must have a significant effect on the rest of the story. It must be linked to the hero eventually getting or losing his final goal, whatever that is. The final goal could be to keep his license to practise law, to kill the dragon, to rejuvenate his community, or whatever.

3. Each cause must have an effect and every effect must have a cause.


Dwight V. Swain writes, “People like the idea that there’s a reason behind everything that happens … a cause for every effect …” And that’s true! Readers -- people -- do like that idea. It’s likely not true, but we want it to be. So, in our story world, every event needs to have a cause and every cause needs to have an effect.

Please note that when I talk about cause and effect I mean more than that there has been a change. We aren’t just saying that something has happened. We are saying that something has happened because of something else, and that if that something else hadn’t happened, then the current event wouldn’t have either.

4. Motivation and Reaction


For each motivating stimulus there is a character reaction. Someone spritzes your character in the face with perfume (motivating stimulus) and the focal character sneezes (character reaction). This is a one-to-one relation.

First there is a change in a physical, visible, state of affairs. Then (this is optional) there is a change in a character's state of mind. Finally the character physically responds to the change in affairs that just occurred.

A story -- or at least a scene -- is a chain of these motivation -- response units.

5. Motivation and Reaction Units Shape Emotion


I’ve belonged to various critique groups. In all of these, writers had different levels of skill. Some were professionals while others were just starting out and so shared their first stories.

Sometimes a beginning writer would create a captivating story, but it was difficult for me, as a reader, to get into the story. Why? Because what the protagonist wanted, what her goal was, was either unclear or it didn’t make sense.

I expand on this, below.

The Order of Events Should be Clear


In order for readers to become attached to the protagonist. The focal character must be presented with a problem. In Swain’s example (I've used the same example in a previous post) when a man gets home from work he finds a note from his wife on the hall table. He reads it. She has left him for someone else.

So that’s the problem, that’s the break in the status-quo, the change in his state of affairs.

Now the reader needs to know how the character responds to that change.

The man doesn’t believe it. He’s numb. His state of mind has changed. Then shock washes through him, shock and horror and rage and, finally, grief.

Note the order here.

a. Something happened. An event. The man found and read the goodbye letter.
b. The man had an internal reaction to that event.
c. The man does something, he physically reacts. He slumps, boneless, shaking, into a nearby chair.
d. The chair is broken -- his wife kept nagging him to fix it -- and it crumbles beneath him.

Event causes event that causes event that … You get the idea.
Let’s break this down chronologically

Here’s the structure Swain gives:

Motivation Reaction Units (M-R Units)


First: Motivating stimulus.
Second: Character reaction. He divides this into three parts:
a. Feeling
b. Action
c. Speech

First we have the motivating stimulus. Next we have the character’s reaction. The character’s reaction has three parts and each of these parts has to occur in a particular order: feeling, action and speech. Note, though, that not all of these must be used in each motivation reponse pair, you can skip one or two depending on the situation. For instance, in dialogue, we often only have speech.

That said, motivation ALWAYS precedes reaction. Recall that the goal of all of this is to help writers create clear prose and in so doing create stories that are eminently readable. If you can do that and ignore one or more of these steps, awesome! But if readers have trouble imaginatively entering into your story world, if they have trouble understanding your characters, then this is something you could try.

Exercise


Go through a scene in your work in progress and rewrite it so that the motivating stimulus and the character reaction are explicit. Do this for the viewpoint character. Make sure the character reaction includes feeling, action and speech, in that order.

Done? Now read both scenes, is the re-written one easier to read? Please tell me what you think in the comments, I’m really very interested in whether this worked for you.

In a future post I’ll go over the motivating stimulus in more depth. If you’ve gotten something out of this article and would like to support my writing, here is a link to my patreon account.


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.) 



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."