A System for Writing a Novel

Scene and structure
There is no magical trick for writing a good story, no perfect shortcut.

However, Jack Bickham’s craft textbook Scene and Structure attempts, to a greater extent than most technical manuals, to give aspiring novelists a comprehensive method. He presents a simple and easily understood system for designing and trouble-shooting novels. It’s well worth reading.

There are lots of books out there promising to tell you how to write better plots. In one sense, Scene and Structure is just another one of these books, much like McKee’s Story or Synder’s Save the Cat! However, as I’ve described in previous posts, Bickham’s method is unusual because it begins at the sentence level. Bickham grounds his account of how stories and novels are supposed to work, at their largest, macro scale, on how he believes sentences are supposed to work — he derives his storytelling method from his view of how individual words should be placed on the page.

The big picture emerges from the micro scale of phrases and sentences.

In theory, one could almost read Bickham’s ideas about sentences and go no further, putting the book down, already having deduced from those first principles how to write a massive 500-page novel.

Whether or not Bickham is correct, if nothing else, this is a pretty cool premise for a craft textbook. In creative writing circles, we tend to talk about plot as something you can point out separately from the rest of the prose. We talk about “arcs” and “Freytag’s triangle” as though these are things to tick off a list of fictional best practices.

Freytag's Ride
Bickham, in contrast, assumes that plot exists at the most minute level of a fictional narrative. Plot is created sentence-by-sentence, by the logic of fiction’s strangely specific language. If you can’t get plot right in your sentences and paragraphs, there’s no way you’ll write a coherent, gripping chapter. And while most of us instinctively grasp this plot-logic to some extent, we could all get better at deploying it.

Bickham is aware, in Scene and Structure, that some readers may feel insulted by his suggestion that they don’t know how to write a sentence. But he does not flinch:

I hope you’ll forgive me if I seem to beat this thing to death. Not only is a great deal of fiction-writing messed up at this very basic level; [a failure to use these techniques] lies at the heart of everything that follows in this book.

I explained Bickham’s ideas about sentences in a previous post, but to quickly give a summary:

Bickham argues that readers unconsciously expect fictional events to follow a set structure, that of cause and effect. Something happens, and the character reacts. You can (obviously) break this rule for effect, but the basic principle should be followed in all normal sentences. There is a cause, and then an effect.

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.

This structure, Bickham adds, must be obeyed even within the confines of the sentence. The chronological order of cause first, and effect second, must be followed in all normal passages of narrative prose.

This, therefore, is also bad writing:

Joe turned after hearing the gunshot.

The writer, for whatever reason — whether she is a careless novice or a terrifyingly radical experimentalist — has presented cause and effect backwards, with effect preceding cause, and, as a result, the reader is left slightly confused, a little less convinced. The gunshot must come before Joe turns.

Now, as we increase the scale of our fictional events, moving from momentary acts — like catching balls or turning a character’s head — to larger, more substantial actions, Bickham introduces a third, middle stage to his structure of cause and effect.

When the character is faced with a more complex cause, the writer, before presenting the effect of that cause — what the character decides to do — may decide to write out what the character thinks or feels about the cause, how she internalises and makes sense of it, how she emotionally reacts.

A good piece of writing, in the Bickham sense, would go something like this:

(cause) Abruptly, the strange lawyer slid his chair back, getting up from the table, his face cold. (internalisation) Sandra trembled, suddenly afraid: had she said the wrong thing? She had to get this job. (effect) “Hold on,” she said. “I think you misunderstood my last point. I would be happy to defend your client.”

Cause – Internalisation – Effect

library books 

According to Bickham, this structure, which works at the sentence-level, is exactly the same at the massive, macro-level of stories and novels. What is a novel? Something happens to a character, and because of this event, she is forced to understand things differently, and as a result of that new understanding, she changes something in her life. A fictional sentence is exactly the same, structurally, as a 5,000-word short story: both depict this pattern of cause – internalisation – effect.

However, it would be wrong to think that because a novel follows this pattern, a “plot” is exactly the same thing as “cause and effect.” In fact, if you try to design a novel purely through “cause and effect” (understood in the normal, everyday sense), you will probably create a terrible novel.

This is the tricky part of Bickham’s explanation. This is the only part, I think, that may lead readers of the book to miss the significance of his theory. So I’d like to spend a minute detailing what he means by “cause and effect” — it is probably not what you think it is.

Here goes:

Real-life cause and effect is essentially random. “I was about to start writing but then a tree branch fell on the roof and I had to call the insurance company” follows, in the real world, cause and effect, but it is not in any way fictional cause and effect. Trying to write a novel this way is going to lead, very likely, to a very boring novel: or worse, to a work of fiction that simply doesn’t feel like a novel.

Maybe you have a draft of an old abandoned novel in a folder on your computer, where, around page 70, you just started feeling like the story wasn’t “quite coming together.” You liked the idea of the novel, but somehow, it wasn’t really working. Readers, too, seemed to lose interest in the story around that point. That’s probably because, in the Bickham view of fiction, your novel was not deploying the right kind of cause and effect.

This sounds very abstract: it’s not. The easiest way to understand his argument is to remember that the “effect” part of “cause and effect,” at the big level of an entire novel, means “something major changes for the protagonist.” If you simply present a bunch of stuff happening to the protagonist, even if that stuff follows a logical progression of one thing causing another, it won’t feel like fiction, because no one will believe that such events would lead a character to completely change her life. 

No matter how good the writing is, the ending will feel a bit “off.” And in the middle of the story, it won’t feel like anything is escalating, like the action is rising in tension and importance. Things will just seem “flat.”

Normal cause and effect is not enough. We humans are conservative creatures: we tend to stick to old plans. Push us out of our routines, we repair them; tell us a brand new idea, we laugh it away. Make us unhappy, we mope and complain: we don’t, generally speaking, set the house on fire and move to Thailand.

(That’s why, in political campaigns, negative advertising is so effective: the data shows that it’s almost impossible to get your opponent’s supporters to change their minds, so there’s no point trying to persuade them about policies — but it is possible to make them more or less eager to vote, to (for instance) persuade them it’s not worth coming out to support their chosen candidate.)

I was about to start work for the day but then a tree branch fell on the roof and I had to call the insurance company and the conversation made me so angry I forgot to call my mother and this made me so unhappy with myself I set the house on fire and moved to Thailand.

This is either a cleverly weird story, or simply an unbelievable one.

This is why Bickham presents a very different method of writing a story. It is still based around his cause-effect model, but it relies heavily on the protagonist’s decision-making capacities. A story, Bickham argues, is constructed out of a protagonist’s repeated attempts to restore the status quo. Something happens at the start, and the protagonist reacts negatively to it, attempting to get back to the point prior to that new development. This creates a question in the reader’s mind: will the character be succesful? 

In more detail: the story begins when something unexpected occurs to a character. The character devises a plan to fix that problem. However, that plan, to the character’s surprise, results — it must result — in a disastrous result for the character. The character is startled, troubled. Maybe the failure of his first plan has even put him in a worse position than before. But he still wants to get back to his original life, so he constructs a second plan and puts it into operation, a plan that is a little more risky, a little more adventurous than the first one. This new plan also fails, and so the character plans a third time, ready to risk a little more.

This is why the scene, if it is to work as a building block in your novel, must end not well, but badly. Fred cannot be allowed to attain his scene goal. He must encounter a new setback. He must leave in worse shape than he was when he went in. Any time you can build a scene which leaves your character in worse shape, you have probably “made progress” in terms of your story’s development!

(Readers of Story will recognise McKee’s very similar idea, that of “the gap.” And the Canadian playwright, John Lazarus, once told me the idea that a good story is like a pool shot where the ball (the protagonist) is spinning backwards as it moves forward.)

Write your story, says Bickham, in scenes. It’s possible to view a story, at the micro-level, in terms of phrases and sentences, but at the grand level of storytelling, the crucial unit is the scene.

A scene is comprised of a single attempt, by the protagonist, to resolve his current problem (the “conflict”): when that attempt fails, the scene ends.

The scene is the basic large building block of the structure of any long story. Just as cause and effect have a pattern, and stimulus and response form a fundamental unit of construction, the scene is the larger element of fiction with an internal structure just as unvarying, and rules just as vital to your ability to write dynamic fiction that makes sense and moves inexorably forward in a way readers find delightful.

Just as causes result in effects and stimuli result in responses, the scene inevitably–if written correctly–leads to another scene.

What is a scene? It’s a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story “now.” It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted out.

I’m presenting the method in its simplest form. A lot of Scene and Structure is devoted to explaining variations and exceptions to this basic idea. There’s no claim in the book that the method works for every passage in every story. But Bickham does not shy away, on the other hand, from offering very detailed advice on how his story-construction method is supposed to work.

1. The goal of each scene must clearly relate to the story question in some way.
2. The conflict must be about the goal.
3. The conflict must be with another person or persons, not internally, within oneself.
4. Once a viewpoint has been established and that viewpoint character’s problem and goal have been stated, it’s wise to remain with that same, single viewpoint through the disaster.
5. Disaster works (moves the story forward) by seeming to move the central figure further back from his goal, leaving him in worse trouble than he was before the scene started.
6. Readers will put up with a lot if your scenes will only keep making things worse!
7. You can seldom, if ever plan, write, or revise a scene in isolation of your other plans for your story, because the end of each scene dictates a lot about what can happen later.

Dramatic fiction, therefore, should be constructed in scenes. A scene builds up to a moment of disappointment for the protagonist, leading to another scene where the protagonist tries again, harder. Eventually the protagonist is straining so hard, risking so much, that the reader is not only hooked, desperate to find out if the protagonist wins or loses, but will also, at the story’s end, fully believe it if the protagonist takes some extreme action.

“He moves to Thailand? Of course! Amazing! I would move to Thailand, too, if all that crazy stuff had happened to me. Great book…”

This is already a long post. But I now want to emphasise two aspects of Bickham’s view of storytelling which might otherwise slip by, unnoticed. These are the parts of his vision that I’ve taken many months to figure out and put into words — it’s why this blog post has taken me so long to write.

I feel like if an aspiring writer doesn’t grasp these two elements, the rest of Bickham’s method is of little use.

1. The crucial difference between mystery and disaster.

You might be thinking — dude, all this sounds really obvious. Of course a protagonist can’t get what she wants in the first scene. If she did, the book would be over!

Or you might be thinking — this Bickham guy sounds really OCD. Fiction should be much more instinctive than that. And I’m sure, without checking, that all my book’s scenes end in some kind of disaster for my protagonist.

The trouble is, the more I think about it, that it’s really easy to not end a scene in a real disaster. There are so many ways that a writer, especially when creating the first half of a new novel draft, can unwittingly construct the semblance of conflict. It’s very easy to give your story a protagonist who seems to be taking action, and who appears to be doing a whole lot of stuff, but who is in reality a passive participant.

It’s possible to create pages and pages of “scenes” which seem like real conflict, but which in fact are not. These faux-scenes include:

Everyday routines: where we follow the protagonist to her usual weekly meeting.

Instructions: where the protagonist simply obeys another character’s orders to go somewhere and talk to someone.

Following up: where the protagonist starts another scene by visiting someone from the last scene and seeing how they are.

Mysteries: the scene ends with the protagonist not really winning or losing, but sensing that something weird is going on. Huh, she thinks. Huh.

It doesn’t matter if such faux-scenes are full of snappy dialogue and cool description, says Bickham. And it’s not that such scenes should be banned from your novel. It’s more that, if they accumulate in proximity to each other, they can start to weigh down a storyline, because they prevent the character’s stake in the action from escalating. The character is moving through space and time, meeting other characters, feeling things — but she isn’t actually trying to change something. She isn’t actually taking increasingly risky steps to restore a lost status quo. 

If Bickham’s method has any value, it would suggest that if you have a whole load of such scenes in the opening 100 pages of your manuscript, and your readers seem to feel a little ungripped, unengaged, then it’s likely that these “faux-conflict” scenes may be to blame.

What’s even worse: in the first draft of a novel, when you’re feeling your way into a story, these sorts of scenes are REALLY USEFUL to you, the author. These not-quite-scenes are brilliant for teaching the story to yourself, for getting the world of the story clear in your head. It’s so much simpler to just start writing and have characters argue with each other, to send the protagonist on errands — than, from page one, begin with geniune conflict.

The problem is that, once you’ve figured out the real story, unless you are careful to go back and restructure those early scenes, turn them into places of conflict, then you may lose your readers. They don’t want to read 100 pages of you figuring out your story.

In planning your scenes, and writing them, this general pattern of tightening–of seeming to move backward, further from possible attainment of the story goal–should always be in your mind. Devise and write your scenes so that each makes things worse, never better. Seldom risk a scene ending with a disaster that only reaffirms the status quo. Don’t fall into the trap of writing scenes which end saying, in effect, “Well, it was 33 percent bad before, and this is terrible because it’s still 33 percent bad after this scene.” Things must grow more and more gloomy, and the way you plan your scenes, remembering the big plot picture, can assure that this continual further darkening does take place.

2. Scene-writing requires a lot of narration.

Bickham’s method, perhaps, seems very simple. And if you read Scene and Structure, you may be encouraged in this view by the often painfully basic types of stories Bickham deploys as illustrations of his ideas. And when I say “basic,” I’m not talking about “JK Rowling versus William Faulkner”: the examples given in Scene and Structure are so limited they would make any good genre writer blush.

However, it’s easy to miss that, if Bickham is right about dramatic writing, then you, the writer, need to pass a LOT of information, one way or another, to your reader. It’s easy to assume that the most important part of dramatic writing is to design a sequence of dramatic conflicts. But this is, at best, half true.

Dramatic writing, in this view, requires the reader to understand a great many things about the protagonist and her goals. The reader must be clear in every single scene what the protagonist’s goal for that scene is. The reader must be clear in every single scene when the character’s goal has met a disaster, and how, and why.

And the reader must be clear, in every single scene, how the character’s scene-level goal fits into her goal for the overall story.

The more “literary” your subject matter and stance, the more important this becomes. A story about a robot fighting dinosaurs can rely, maybe, on outward action to reveal to the reader whether the scene ended well or not (“THEY’RE EATING HIM! WE’RE DOOMED!”). But a story about making toast for breakfast needs detailed character narration, or the reader will likely be really confused.

To write a fast-paced dramatic story, don’t be afraid to narrate, narrate, narrate. Then narrate some more. And then add a little more narration. Let your writing partners cut out any excess narration in the final draft. But up to that point in the writing of the book, take no chances: the reader has to know, above all, what the character thinks and feels about the events she is encountering.

Forget, in this context, “show don’t tell.” 

Forget it!

Bickham is very clear on this point:

Make sure that the stated scene goal is clearly relevant to the story question. Don’t just assume that the relevance is obvious. Spell it out.

Show clearly that the viewpoint character considers the oncoming scene as vitally important. Have him say so, or think so, or both! Never allow a lead character to enter a scene with a lackadaisical attitude.

And Bickham advises that after a particularly complex scene, the writer should pause the forward narrative action, and write a “sequel,” a period of reflection and deliberation, where the character muses on what happened, tries to understand it, and constructs a new plan. A scene, Bickham says, is concerned with outward action, something you could put on a stage and film; a “sequel” takes place in large part, or completely, in the character’s mind. These sequels, he suggests, can be as long as you need them to be. They can go on for pages. Far, far better to write a too-long sequel than to start the next scene with the reader confused about what the character thinks.

Dramatic action is only appealing when it is dramatic action clearly and transparently happening to a character.

I’m curious what you think about all this. One question that I’ve avoided so far: do I think Bickham is correct?

I have a lot to say about this. Firstly, I can easily think of lots of successful novels that appear to flout his rules. I suspect that certain genres, like crime novels, or YA coming of age stories, may use “disaster” in different ways. And I’m not sure that The Great Gatsby relies on Nick explaining to the reader the importance of each scene. I also think there’s simply more to novel-writing than Bickham’s book covers: more techniques, such as the creation of sympathy for the protagonist.

And there are lots of stories — popular, beloved stories — that don’t seem to operate in Bickham’s dramatic mode at all. There are novels that seem more like elegies, like memoirs, or like chronicles, and for these kinds of stories, the character’s desires seem much less central.

I would suggest that you treat Bickham’s vision of fiction as extremely useful for a certain kind of story. If you suspect you are writing that kind of story, one where a character struggles against obstacles to achieve a goal, his method is very worth studying. And the book, additionally, is full of wisdom and observations that I haven’t included here.

In the end, the only magic trick for writing a good novel is writing a lot and reading a lot. But it is possible, through a gap in one’s array of fictional techniques, to waste a lot of miserable time figuring stuff out on one’s own.

A book like Scene and Structure can help you avoid a lot of unnecessary pain as you become a better writer.

4 thoughts on “A System for Writing a Novel

  1. I agree with his cause-and-effect theory. Another way I’ve read to structure a story is in “Yes, but” and “No, and” cycles.
    For example.
    John lost his dog. He tries to find it. Does he succeed? No, and now there is an evil dog bounty hunter searching for John’s precious beagle.
    John checks the local pound. Does he find his dog there? Yes, but now he has released a dozen rapid raccoons upon the city.
    I’ve found these try-fail cycles helpful in plotting out my fiction.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Cool! That’s a more straightforward way of thinking about it. Does it effectively work as a sequence of “NO AND” and “YES BUT” — the protagonist doesn’t get what she want, and something bad has also happened, or she does get it, but a new problem has emerged.

      Liked by 2 people

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