Sunday, August 12, 2012

Scene & Structure, by Jack M. Bickham

I found out about this book in the process of reading another eTome; Hooked, by Les Edgerton. Edgerton’s is an instruction manual for the modern author that induces a lot of #facepalm action, to say the least, and Bickham’s Scene & Structure is the same (More on Hooked in another post). In other words, if you’re an author or writer, or even an aspiring wannabe with good intentions and several partial chapter ones lying around, these books ought to be on your reference shelf. Period.

I edit manuscripts. I’m quite good at it, but this book has been a godsend, allowing me to refine my craft. Mostly what I’ve done in the past has been to follow my gut and play devil’s advocate, asking questions the author hasn’t thought of. I drop comments like this into the middle of everything: “If Jack is so smart, how come I figured Jill out three chapters ago? ARGH.” I also have an eye for spelling and grammar, which has served me well. But Scene & Structure goes well beyond all that, and it’s going to help me provide much more value for money to my clientele, as well as an increase in my rates.

On with it, then. Bickham starts small and simple by giving us the big picture. He outlines the structure of modern fiction, tells us how to begin a story and what’s essential—and furthermore, what needs to get deleted from or changed in our manuscripts (which in most cases will be a quite a lot).

What really hooked me, though, was his detailed analysis of the scene.

Scenes are where the action is. We see the characters on the stage of the mind’s eye, which isn’t a stage—it feels real. Edgerton calls it the “fictive dream,” which is apt. That’s why it’s so electric when it’s written well—and so awful when it’s total crap. Bickham’s book will illustrate for you quite profoundly if your work is in one camp or the other, because if you don’t have a story question that the protag has to answer, if you don’t have a scene question he’s also trying to answer, if you don’t have a scene goal he’s trying to attain, and if the scene doesn’t end in some kind of disaster—a setback—for the hero, you’ve got milquetoast on your hard drive. And miles of rewriting before you’re home.

Contrast that with sequel, which is really the antidote to scene, and you’ve got something with a pattern, a pace, an ebb and flow. Scenes drive the story forward. They contain problems and cause-and-effect stimuli. They’ve got guns and daggers and car chases. They goad us into turning the page. But sequel allows the characters to take a step back and internalize. Sequels read slower, so they’re usually more effective when they’re shorter. In a sequel, we get to see more of what the protag (or the villain) is thinking, what makes her tick; we get the backstory. We understand more of the why behind a character’s actions, and the author gets to set up the next scene for us. But in order to do this well, Brave Author needs to write effectively for Dear Reader. As “they” say, if you’re gonna break the rules, first you gotta learn ‘em. I would add that one ought to add a dash of reverence as well, because the greats are great for a reason.

The biggest danger to the indie author, who nine times out of ten is ignorant and uneducated about these things, is that most of us can “feel” our way through what makes a story compelling. But just because we can write by gut feeling doesn’t mean we should. It’s dangerous to guess your way through the disarming of a bomb. Maybe it will be the red wire that needs to be cut, but maybe it won’t. This plays into Booker’s SevenBasic Plots, too, because all of us have a hard wired intuition about story. We may not be aware of the precise nomenclature or structure of what makes a story work, but we know when it rocks and when it’s a dud. Bickham demystifies all that and reveals to the reader (the aspiring author) whether or not he’s been trading on hard-won skill and understanding or just raw talent. Ouch.

I cannot stress to you enough how important this book is. If you’re trying to make a hobby out of writing, it’s a stimulating read. If you’re at all serious about making a career as a published author, this book is required reading. As for me, I’m going to incorporate these lessons into my writing and editing. I’ll soon finish Edgerton’s book, too, and post up my thoughts on that. These two books are changing everything about my writing—and that’s a good thing.

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