by S.A. Spencer
Two years ago, I read Jack Bickham’s Elements of Fiction – Scene and Structure. The concepts made sense but as a new writer, I couldn’t absorb it all. I re-read the book after finishing over seventy-five percent of my novel’s first draft, and I understood more techniques and tools based on this experience.
The following is a small sample of the writing essentials covered in Bickham’s book.
Cause and effect. If an alien virus changes humans into pod people, (effect) you must have background (cause), to make it believable, vice versa. Build your plot so that the causes have an effect in the story. A scary storm is suspenseful. Without damaging the house or characters and affecting the plot, what’s the point? Soon readers will worry your descriptions won’t go anywhere and put down the book.
Stimulus and response. Cause and effect is the most immediate and smallest denominator of writing. John punched Harry in the face (stimulus). Blood gushed from Harry’s nose (response). Notice that stimulus and response are external and physical. What happens when this goes haywire? “You hit on my girlfriend,” John said (stimulus). Blood gushed from Harry’s nose. Something’s missing. Adding the right response fixes it. “You hit on my girlfriend,” John said and punched Harry in the face (stimulus). Blood gushed from Harry’s nose (response).
Stimulus-internalization-response. Use the character’s thoughts when needed to explain how the stimulus relates to the response. For example, (stimulus): “Cheryl,” her boss said, “the raise you asked for came through.” (Response) “You’re kidding, I have the worst luck.” What? Let’s try that with internalization. (Stimulus): “Cheryl,” her boss said, “the raise you asked for came through.” (Internalization): She squeezed her temples with her fingers. In her hand was her resignation letter. Yesterday she signed a two-year contract with another company for a job paying the same, but offering more potential for advancement. (Response) “You’re kidding, I have the worst luck.” That makes more sense.
Scene. The next level of structure is scene and is based on the larger element of story; what a character wants (Goal), obstacles preventing her from reaching the goal, (Conflict), and ending in either success or not. In a scene, it works best if he fails, or triumphs but it causes worse problems. (Disaster). Relate these elements to each other. If the goal is to land on an inhabited planet in the Alpha Centauri star system, not finding the chessboard isn’t a relevant obstacle. Similarly, losing her stock market investment back on Earth is a disaster, but doesn’t affect the goal. If oxygen runs low and kills a crew-member, make sure it affects the landing. A booklover likely stops at the chapter closing. End with a disaster propelling the reader onto the next chapter. He’ll stay awake until sunrise, go to the office bleary eyed, and recommend your book to his coworkers.
Transition and sequel. Short stories may be one scene. Novels are a sequence of linked scenes with two types of connectors, and the first is transition. It may be as simple as, “They dined together the next Friday night.” The second link is sequel. A disaster has an arousing impact on the character, (Emotion). Soon, he thinks about the horror, (Thought), resulting in a (Decision) to act (Action) on a new goal, starting the new scene. It’s fine to skip a few sequel elements, but follow the sequence. Use sequel to deepen the character, add flash backs, and summarize events to remind the reader of the story. Longer sequels slow pacing after frenzied action scenes.
Bickham provides expanded examples in his appendices. If like me, you don’t “feel” structure, I recommend his book.