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Five ways to immediately improve your writing -- by S.A. Spencer

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Posted by S.A. Spencer 29 Dec 2015 at 01:09
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Responses to this blog

Onalimb 3 Jan 2016 at 11:00  
I read Bickham's book about five years ago. At the time, I'd been dabbling for maybe a year, but felt I'd been running around in the dark in trying to grasp structure. After I read Bickham's book, I saw it. And then, I started to see it everywhere, in books, in movies, in TV shows. Scene-and-sequel (some people call it an action-reaction unit) gave me a basis for analysis. I could start to figure out why some things worked and others didn't.

I agree, Bickham's book is a great place to start—a nuts-and-bolts primer with concrete examples.

Blandcorp 4 Jan 2016 at 15:36  
Oooh, well done Saspencer on your blog post for CC! *is very jelly *

In terms of structure books, one I'd cautiously recommend is "Save the cat!". It's on my to-read list (so one reason why I can't recommend it fully), and if what I heard of it is true, it's quite a scary breakdown of story structure into one industrial-strength template. And I do mean industrial, as in film industry.

But anyhoo. I found the intro to this blog post to be particularly enticing: viewing an "old" book with eyes changed by experience, and gaining new insights. What changed between the times you've read it? How did the change come about? Fodder for another post


Sheridan 7 Jan 2016 at 23:20  
Great post, thanks!
Acesitrom 13 Jan 2016 at 23:51  
As a hoarder of books on writing in all denominations (for example, structure, character building, world building, scene structure, etc), this post is going to be added to the master list of tips in my notebook. I love the Elements of Fiction series. The 'Characters and Viewpoint' edition by Orson Scott Card is also pretty good for helping give your characters more depth.
Fnf 19 Apr 2017 at 04:58  
For someone who have just stepped into writing, this is really helpful (the title of the blog caught my interest). I would read the book someday but in the meantime, I can use the points that you have shared in the blog as I write. Thanks a lot!

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