A Story That Makes Sense: A Review of Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure (part one)

Scene and Structure
In my posts on storytelling, some of this blog’s readers pointed out that a particular idea of mine sounded very similar to those of Jack Bickham, in Scene and Structure. I figured I had better read the book: it challenged me, annoyed me, impressed me deeply.

The short answer is: if you are a fiction writer, you would very likely enjoy and profit from this book. It’s a profound take on the nature of storytelling, a clearly-written handbook on the craft, and it also contains numerous clever observations from Bickham’s many years’ writing and teaching.

However, I feel like if I simply describe what it says, you’ll recoil. You will roll your eyes, and click to another page. Bickham starts at a very basic, micro level. Before expanding to the demands of scene and storyline, he begins by teaching the craft of fiction at the level of the sentence.

He argues, in effect, that there is a specific language of prose fiction, and that many writers blunder even at this micro-stage. I suspect he is correct. However, if you are an aspiring or accomplished fiction writer, you will almost certainly find that part of the book  belittling and annoying. I definitely did. I’ve been doing this writing thing for a while: I want to feel like I know what I’m doing. Bickham’s take on the craft, especially early on in his book, suggests that I don’t.

Scene and Structure has an unassuming title. It appears to be part of a craft textbook series — other books look at character, instance, or setting; it seems like the editors asked Bickham to elaborate on one small piece of fiction writing: the scene. This is not what Bickham did, however: instead, Scene and Structure offers a full guide to the essentials of writing a novel. There’s a lot the book leaves out, obviously, and you may well feel that the book leaves out much more than Bickham realised, but it’s still a remarkable achievement.

If you are a fiction writer, and you’ve ever asked yourself “WHAT IS A STORY, ANYWAY?” — or if you’ve ever wondered what or what the difference is between a “story” and just a lot of meandering prose fiction, or how to build up, through conflict and reversals, a compelling tale, or how to catch self-made plotting errors in your novel-in-progress, Scene and Structure may be a revelation.

Bickham begins by asserting the importance of “structure” in fiction. Structure, as he describes it, comprises the building blocks of a good story. Structure is the answer to the question: what is a story (or a plot) made of? A writer has to know about structure in order to deploy it easily and without too much painful thought. Rather than limiting a writer’s options, understanding structure, he says, “frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things.”

We need structure in our fiction for many reasons, but the main one goes to understanding. We need structure (a) as writers, so our stories will “hold together” and make sense. We need structure (b) as readers, so we can understand this story we’re reading, and feel something as a result.

In Bickham’s model of our world, readers begin a new novel by subconsciously asking themselves: what’s the story, here? They may enjoy a narrator’s engaging voice. They may feel intrigued by an interesting setting. But in order to understand a work of fiction as fiction, they quickly have to detect the openings of a story, and they will expect to see that story develop as the novel continues. If they can’t grasp that story, if they can’t sense an underlying dramatic logic on the page, they will likely, sooner or later, lose interest.

Bickham’s point is that readers expect more from fiction than they expect from real life. In real life, right now, I’m sitting in a fairly cold room, the house cleaners are going to show up at some point, and a cat is rubbing its head on my arms as I type. I can’t criticise this bit of real life as unbelievable or disappointing: it’s happening and there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s just how life is, and enormous effort is required to make even a short stretch of normal life turn out in a meaningful way. But when I read a novel, I can criticise. I can expect that if I’m being shown a particular thing on the page, as long as that thing appears to be fairly important and significant, it should make a kind of dramatic sense.

This is why Bickham starts his account of fiction at the level of simple cause and effect. In real life, stuff just happens. But in fiction, he argues, the basic agreement with the reader is that one thing causes something else. This isn’t about realism: Carl could punch Jack because Jack belittled him at work, or Carl could punch Jack because Carl is a werewolf and it’s the full moon. But events in fiction have discernable causes, and to write fiction without this interplay at its core risks your work being hailed as either genius or incompetent, and more likely the latter.

Not only is this an issue of plausibility — if a character falls ill in fiction, we readers will expect some sort of rationale for that illness, whether it be a passing epidemic or a too-demanding work schedule — but the very language of fiction, at the level of sentence and paragraph, Bickham argues, needs to represent this constant interchange. He gives numerous examples of writerly failures on this micro-level: effects that are presented without causes, or a writer giving a long description of a storm (implying the storm is about affect something) without any following event changed or altered by that storm.

It’s even as simple, he argues, as a fiction writer failing to represent in language one half or other of this cause / effect duality.

This, for instance, is bad writing, says Bickham:

Joe threw the ball to Sam.

“Sure is a nice day!” Sam said.

It’s bad writing because we never see the ball caught by Sam. Where does the ball go? Did Sam lunge for it, or just ignore it, like a psychopath? Did it disappear into an alternate dimension? We readers have no idea.

Unless the writer is deliberately trying for an unusual effect, the writer must — MUST — write what happened to the ball. This could be as simple as adding, “Sam caught it,” but something of that nature must appear on the page.

Similarly, if we see our main character, Julie, notice someone at a party and immediately run out crying, we have to know why: we need the stimulus for this effect. We either need to know in the moment what the reason is, or we needed, beforehand, some kind of “background” (Bickham’s word) about Julie, so that when she runs out, we know why.

On the absolute micro-level of fictional language, the reader’s need for a clear through-line of cause and effect leads to a three-part sequence:

stimulus – internalisation – response

In other words, the character experiences something, reacts to it emotionally and mentally, and as a result of that reaction, does something.

If the interaction is sufficiently basic, the middle part can be omitted: “Jack punched Carl, and Carl cried out in pain.” As the interaction becomes more sophisticated and complex, however, the “internalisation,” the thinking and reflecting part, needs to play a larger and larger role.

We can give ourselves easy writing exercises, if we like, creating little mini-sequences of this stimulus-internalisation-response sequence. What follows is my prose, not Bickham’s:

(Stimulus) The meeting was over, but Jack paused at the door, eyeing, with amusement, the framed diploma on Carl’s wall, his degree from The University of Arizona. (Internalisation) Carl’s gut tightened: he knew that Jack, a smug Princetonian, thought he was a fraud, incapable of truly leading the division. (Response) Carl stood and, raising his voice, told Jack to get back to work.

(It’s also possible to go through another writer’s story and highlight this sequence at work, perhaps assigning different colours to each component of the triad.)

As readers of fiction, we need this framework, Bickham argues, because we expect to know more about a work of fiction than we can ever hope to know about real life. In real life, people are constantly doing odd little things, and stuff happens in peculiar and opaque ways. But in fiction, the reader’s natural unconscious expectation is that she knows, on the basic level of experience and sensation, what is going on. Even if this experience is ultimately mysterious, the reader still expects to know about it: “Jack paused at the door, smiling about something. Carl had no idea why Jack irritated him so badly, why he could so easily see himself punching the younger man in the face — and feeling great about it. He rose to his feet and ordered Jack to get to work.”

Now, probably, at this point, you are ready to stop reading. IT ALL SEEMS TOO BASIC! I’ve been writing fiction for years, you think. I can write a damn sentence, and I definitely don’t need a textbook to tell me how to do it. And what about Ulysses? Did James Joyce follow these stupid rules? At least, that’s kind of how I felt.

However, not only is Bickham about to take this framework in a more complex direction, I actually think his “stimulus – internalisation – response” thing is surprisingly easy to get wrong.

I’ve certainly read a huge number of workshop stories where, either increasingly as the story went along, or right from the start, the “internalisations” dropped out of the story’s prose, or became increasingly opaque. The writer stopped showing us what the main character thought or felt about the story’s events, perhaps out of fatigue, hurrying to get the story complete, or through an overestimation of the reader’s empathy and reading skills, or because the writer had a grand idea about what the story was supposed to “mean,” and so broke, or truncated, the dramatic logic of the story to get there.

In other words, plot, or careless plotting, can be the enemy of good, clear fiction. I want my character to discover the dead body, and then go to speak to the dead man’s colleagues, so I jump over how the character would react to the sight of the corpse. However, in the next scene I try to write, during the conversation with the colleagues, something feels off, flat. I seem not to have access to my protagonist the way I had in the previous scene / writing session. Eventually, I realise I need to go back and elaborate on the previous scene, first, and then bring that more developed character reaction into the next scene, altering, as a result, how my character talks, what she hopes to achieve.

(I also think for literary-minded writers, one other reason why we prefer, instinctively, to omit parts of this stimulus – internalisation – response sequence is that there are simply, in English, not many ways to show someone reacting to another human being. At least not quickly. Most of the options seem like clichés: “Her whole body shuddered at his gaze.” “He felt like a knife cut through him.” Kinetic human experience seems poorly served by our language. There are an infinite number of beautiful ways to describe, for instance, a storm coming towards a shore, but try to describe how it feels when you realise someone has watched you do something shameful, and it’s hard not to take a phrase or two from the cliché jar.)

Now, Bickham doesn’t stop at sentences. He takes this idea of cause and effect and applies it to the idea of the scene, and the story overall, reaching some surprising conclusions.

In my next post, I’ll elaborate on this issue, possibly using an episode of Top Chef as my example. And then I’ll continue my account of Bickham’s thesis.

13 thoughts on “A Story That Makes Sense: A Review of Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure (part one)

  1. Daniel,
    Thanks for making me aware of this book — I’d never heard of it. I think, in an odd sort of way, instructionals like this can actually be more useful to the intermediate or experienced writer, because he brings context — a baseline knowledge of the craft — to the table, and it makes it easier to sort out good advice from bad advice and assimilate the former into one’s own writing practices. That’s why I often go back and reread the manuals I learned from, like McKee and Vogler and Snyder, because I take more from them now then I did when all that information was brand-new, and I hadn’t had time to process it, let alone practice it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I decided to check this book out because of these posts. I’m about ten chapters in now. I’m finding the concepts quite interesting. He has a very good grasp on what exactly moves the story forward and pacing, etc. That being said, I find his examples to be cringe-worthy. They illustrate his points, but they tend to be such cliche genre prose that I get distracted thinking, “This got published?!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah. I had a problem with that, too. Sometimes in the book, the “basic-ness” of the examples work, as though they’re meant to be the absolutely stripped down essence of fiction. Sometimes, though, they really don’t.

      When you get to the end and read his example plot for a novel, prepare yourself. It’s a huge pot of clichés.

      And it’s not just that the Scene and Structure focuses on “genre” fiction rather than literary. Good genre writers, I assume, would also find the examples too crass. I can’t imagine Brandon Sanderson, or Stephen King, or Ursula K. LeGuin admiring the intent behind those scenes.

      I do want to write a post on the (extreme) limitations of the book. I still think it’s worth reading and learning from: I see the book as only offering techniques of narrative momentum. That’s all it offers, and it would be a mistake to think there’s nothing else to be said, but that study alone is very useful.


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