Monday, 6 April 2015
Review: Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure
Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a classic book on writing technique, focussed on writing one particular kind of book. I'd call that kind of book "action-oriented popular fiction" - basically a thriller or suspense novel. That's not to say that the techniques aren't useful for writing other kinds of books, but the less your book is like a thriller, the less useful the advice will be.
I've shared extensive notes on Google+ under the hashtag "#sceneandstructure", so I won't repeat them here. However, in broad outline, Bickham lays out an approach that will give you a linear story - flowing logically and naturally from a disturbing change that challenges the character at the beginning to a resolution at the end.
He does this by proposing a structure he calls "scene and sequel". A scene is a moment-by-moment recounting of things that happen, starting with a character goal, moving through conflict that prevents the character from reaching the goal, and finishing with a "disaster" that leaves the character worse off than before. A sequel is about the character reacting to the scene emotionally, thinking about it, and deciding what to do next. Obviously, they follow one another neatly in alternation.
This kind of stimulus/response structure also occurs at lower structural levels. It's almost fractal, though he doesn't use that word.
Bickham does a beautifully clear job of explaining this, and then goes deeper, setting out how to vary the structure, how to resolve problems, and finally how to create a "master plot" to guide you through your story with the scene/sequel structure. He closes with useful appendices, giving examples from published fiction and breaking them down line by line to demonstrate his points.
I'd recommend this book if your writing has ever had any of the following common criticisms:
- It doesn't flow well
- It doesn't make sense or is hard to follow
- It fails to grip the reader
- Characters do things for no logical reason in order to serve the author's plot
- It's all action with no depth
- It's all reflection with no action
- The plot meanders with no clear purpose
- It was too slow to get going
- Everything fell apart in the middle
- The ending made no sense and didn't follow on from what had happened previously
- The villain's actions made no sense
- The stakes were too low and I didn't care about them
- The plot seemed contrived and ridiculous
- I didn't care about what happened to the characters.
Again, if your first priority isn't to keep the reader up late into the night turning the pages, this may not be the book for you. But if you have goals even vaguely adjacent to that, I strongly suggest you pick up a copy.
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