Thank you to everyone who read and shared last week’s post: A System for Writing a Novel — my review of Jack Bickham’s fiction writing textbook, Scene and Structure.
That post is kind of long, but the basic idea, my summary of Jack Bickham’s method for designing a story, is that dramatic fiction proceeds in scenes. Chapters are useful for readers, perhaps, but during the actual writing, the wise writer thinks of her story as a sequence of scenes.
A scene, in this sense, is bounded not by geography or time, but by desire. It begins when a character tries to accomplish something, and ends when that attempt fails.
If a husband is trying to get his wife to say sorry for a slight she inflicted on him at a party the night before, and their argument begins in the kitchen and continues into the front garden, that’s still only one scene, even though it takes place in two locations, the kitchen and the garden. The scene ends whenever the husband gives up on his hope to get an apology.
Just as a scene is bounded by desire, a story is, too. A story, Bickham says, begins with a character facing an unexpected threat to her existence, to her sense of self: once she decides on a plan to overcome that threat, the reader is left pondering whether this plan will be successful, and keeps reading to find out.
In each scene, the character is attempting to resolve that big story-level question. However, says Bickham, in a good story, each scene should end with a disaster of some kind. Not only has the character not achieved her goal, but her position has somehow become worse than before.
Because desire is internal to human beings, something largely invisible, this conception of storytelling puts a lot of weight on narration. The reader has to know, at the start of each scene, what the character wants; at the end of the scene, the reader has to know what the failure to achieve that goal means to the character.
Therefore, when the scene is written, and the character has met with disaster, Bickham recommends that the author add a mostly-internal “sequel” to that scene, where the protagonist tries to make sense of what just happened, and comes up with a new plan. The sequel is necessary to make sure the reader understands what has just happened, and why it matters. This new desire, conceived by the protagonist during the sequel, then leads to a new scene, which (again) meets with a disaster.
This means that when we think of a story we want to write, we should imagine it as a sequence of desires, and a sequence of frustrations. Each time the character’s desire is thwarted, the character is forced, against her wishes, to commit more and more of herself to the story, taking on greater and greater risks.
The key, says Bickham, is that the character would have been happy had the first scene got him everything he wanted. A plausible protagonist always wants to expend the least effort, take on the least risk. That’s why the disasters are so important for a dramatic narrative, because without it, there’s no story. Odysseus would not have complained if, the minute the Trojan war was over, he had sailed straight home to Ithaca with no bother. Juliet would have been cool with quickly marrying Romeo with her family’s blessing.
Now, you may be wondering — are all stories really like this? The answer is clearly no. I don’t think it’s that worthwhile to try to make a novel like To The Lighthouse, for instance, conform to Bickham’s model of fiction. Lots of successful novels are not really “dramatic,” in the sense I’m using the word here, in that they aren’t framed around a main character working through a series of visible challenges and set backs. Many novels are structured more like memoirs, or are presented more like a series of essays composed by the narrator’s mind. And even stories that seem well explained by the theory, such as Andy Weir’s The Martian, don’t exactly correspond to Bickham’s rules.
But I don’t think that’s a problem. Few of us sit down to try to write a story according to a set of rules: if you can do it, I admire you. I can’t. But it is still useful to have a rubric, like this one, when you’re trouble-shooting a draft that seems to have stalled, or when a draft is complete and one part doesn’t feel right. Bickham’s theory would suggest that when a story feels like it isn’t working, it’s possible to go back through it and spot moments where the sequence of
Clear specific desire – thwarting of that desire – reflection – new clear specific desire
has broken down.
Let’s imagine I want to write a spy thriller: The Achilles Contradiction. I want to tell a story about cool genetic super-technology, and I want plot twists and martial art fights, and I want sexy Europeans to show up and say mysterious things.
In order to do that, says Bickham, I can’t start with the sexy Europeans. I have to imagine an initial threat to a protagonist’s sense of self, and then construct a sequence of scenes that force that protagonist to get farther and farther away from his original goal, raising the stakes.
Here’s my idea for The Achilles Contradiction.
Duncan Briskly is a retired secret agent. He is a happy owner of several gourmet bakeries in Atlanta. He is nervously awaiting his marriage to Anita Jones, a charming and worldly-wise property lawyer. He has put his days of international mayhem behind him, and is confident that the only person who knows his true identity is his old mentor, an enormous, enigmatic man called Blueberry.
When assassins arrive at Duncan’s bakery one day, the story begins.
Scene 1: Assassins appear and Duncan fights them. Duncan’s goal is to kill the assassins in order that he can continue his baking life and marry the lovely Anita. He kills them, of course, but — disaster strikes — and he is somehow left further away from his goal (to marry Anita) than he was before the scene began. Perhaps police arrive and arrest him. Perhaps Anita sees him throw a paring knife into an assassin’s eye from twenty feet away. But this second option for a disaster (Anita sees him use his assassin skills) is risky, as I’ll explain in a minute, so let’s just say he’s arrested.
Sequel 1: In the back of the police car, Duncan frets, worries. Who are these assassins? Who discovered his true identity? What will happen when his staff arrive at the bakery and find the chaos of the fight? Will Anita learn about it?
Scene 2: Duncan is taken for questioning to the police station. He wants to call his lawyer, explain himself and get released, so he can return to his baking before Anita hears anything, but instead… instead… instead the police put him in an interrogation room with an infamous serial killer. “They want me to kill you,” says the brilliant and unhinged genius. “But Blueberry wants you alive.” Duncan is stunned — how does this monster know his old mentor, Blueberry? Duncan agrees with the serial killer that they must escape, but he changes the plan so that no police officers will be hurt. “Hurt?” laughs the serial killer. “Half of them serve THE ACHILLES CONTRADICTION.” Duncan ignores this, and orders his cell-mate to use non-lethal force. But in the escape, the serial killer goes on a rampage, killing two people, and Duncan runs away knowing that the whole city will now be looking for him. He cannot go back to the bakery because he is a wanted man.
In later scenes, Duncan searches for Blueberry, travels to Mexico, discovers a secret order of genetically-enhanced assassins, and attempts to defeat them — all in order to get back to baking and Anita.
Every scene, in other words, is an extension of Duncan’s goal to return to Anita. Late in the novel, for instance, when Duncan realises that the only way he can defeat the leader of the assassins is to inject himself with the same gene-enhancing serum, and turn himself into something more than (and less than) human, this moment has weight, dramatic power, because it threatens to fatally separate him from Anita.
Even if he can now kill the head of the assassins, the reader understands, Duncan still has the problem that he is forever changed, and will suffer the side effects of the serum which secondary characters have previously explained in great detail.
Each of these dramatic scenes, in other words, is quite complex to conceive, and there are numerous fragile points where things can very easily go wrong. For some writers, the primary problem is that, at the end of each scene, we don’t turn the temperature dial up enough. We don’t make the disaster at the end of the scene enough of a disaster. Here’s an example:
Scene one: Assassin arrive and Duncan kills them, only to be questioned by police about the damage and dead bodies in his shop.
Scene two: the police bring Duncan for questioning, ask him tough questions, but they let him go, and he returns to his bakery and spends the day repairing the damage.
Scene three: At night, Blueberry visits him, and says cryptic things, but when Duncan flicks on the light, Blueberry is gone.
Scene four: The next day, Anita visits him and goes through their wedding plans. She sees Duncan is stressed but he persuades her not to worry.
Scene five is about to start and Duncan is in basically the same position he was when the novel began!
Writing the above makes me shiver — it feels so familiar… I feel like I’ve ruined a lot of novel drafts by starting them this way, via a series of faux-scenes, pseudo-dramatic moments that only appear to escalate the action.
This is very, very easy to do because the conscientious author is trying to do a lot of things at once: “We have to meet Anita, of course, and we need to know who Duncan was before he became a baker, and we have to introduce the police chief, and we have to see how important the wedding is to Duncan…”
Now, none of these scenes are necessarily terrible. They do the vital job — for the writer — of introducing us to all the major characters and the setting. They even be “good writing,” too: you, the writer, may spend weeks revising them, improving the dialogue, the prose. However, they do not escalate the story. As a result, if you place enough of them together, and they will likely be ruinous to the reader’s experience of your novel.
If we fail to offer the reader a sense of escalation, things will start to feel episodic, as though the novel is merely switching from one thing to another. Scenes connect only via “AND” instead of “BECAUSE.”
That, therefore, is the problem with too small a disaster. However, for other writers, the primary problem is that, at the end of our scenes, we escalate things too much, turning the dial up too far.
In a well-designed novel, Duncan’s story will develop, complicate itself, introduce more characters, and present large quantities of exposition about DNA and the Cold War. And all of these additions should make dramatic sense because the reader understands that Duncan is still trying to get back to Anita. That central story question — will he make it to the wedding on time — clarifies to the reader what all the novel’s expansions actually mean.
But it’s possible to turn up the temperature so far that this central story question breaks.
In the spy thriller genre, the increasingly tempting move, when the writer is searching for a new twist to throw in, is to reveal that Anita is part of the conspiracy, to make her one of the villains. Certainly, this can work, and it definitely makes for a cool ending to a scene, but it may also render the novel as a whole meaningless.
Once Anita is evil, what’s the point of the story? What is Duncan’s goal after he learns she was assigned to watch him by The Achilles Contradiction?
Readers of thrillers may disagree with me here, but I’ve read certain Ludlum-esque spy novels where, by the end of the story, EVERYONE has turned out to be working for the bad guys. As least in my opinion, these novels’ whole fabric and structure starts to collapse as a result. The story’s logic crumbles as the twists grow too extreme: if EVERYONE was always working for the other side, why did the other side need to send anonymous assassins to kill Duncan in the first place? Why not just leave him in Atlanta baking the damn wedding cake?
So, that’s Bickham’s vision of story-making, and the specific issue of desire followed by disaster. I suspect that some of you will find the example of “insufficient disaster” very familiar.
As I said before, the rubric is useful even when a story only follows it partially. On the one hand, there are stories where a failure to adhere to this sequence of desire and disaster seems like an immediate problem, where the reader is quickly left confused or bored. On the other hand, it’s possible to see very successful novels where the model is being followed, but in a much looser fashion.
The Martian, for instance, seems a great example of a novel that kind of follows the Bickham idea of a story.
I really enjoyed The Martian, but it’s not unfair to say that the protagonist, Mark Watney, does not really change or deepen as the story goes on. Indeed, the premise is that NASA specifically picked him for the mission because he is a likeable, practical, optimistic fellow: being stranded on Mars, alone, never changes that. He doesn’t really have any dark nights of the soul, or periods when he questions the whole idea of manned space travel. He appears to have no romantic connections or political ideals. He just wants to get back to Earth alive.
The pleasure of reading the novel comes not from learning more about Watney as a profound being, but rather from watching him devise a series of ingenious and meticulous plans to keep himself alive. He fixes broken machinery, grows vegetables, and attempts to communicate with Earth. And, for the reader, learning about the science of potato-growing, oxygen production, heat loss, interplanetary communication is all fascinating. It’s fun to learn about this stuff, even though it’s maybe tough to spot where one “scene” ends and another beings.
Still, the reader also gets to witness, as the novel progresses, how Watney encounters disaster after disaster, many of them which seem to promise the protagonist’s inevitable death. And after every disaster, Watney takes stock and devises a new plan.
At the beginning, Watney simply hopes to stay in the space station and grow enough vegetables to keep himself alive; NASA hopes to collect him in a few years when the next Mars expedition arrives. This is realistic: nobody attempts to move heaven and earth if they don’t have to. So, in order to make the novel good, a series of terrifying catastrophes force both Watney and NASA to make riskier and riskier choices.
There’s a sequence, towards the end of the book, involving a dust storm and a problem with solar panels, that is absolutely gripping — I defy anyone to put the book down at that point.
Similarly, it’s simply not the case that in Sherman Alexie’s amazing novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, every scene ends in disaster. Frequently, in fact, the character’s chapters end in great success, and the reader gets to enjoy the heroic protagonist’s pleasure in his victories. Heroic identification seems to be an important pleasure in fiction, and is, maybe, especially important in YA novels.
But it is still the case that when Junior kisses the girl he likes, or helps his team win the basketball game, none of these victories lessen the weight of the major dramatic questions of the novel. The reader is still left worrying about the deeper problems that Junior faces: will he, having gone to an all-white school, ever be accepted by his friends and family, and will those same friends and family escape the alcoholism, violence, and despair that, the book convinces us, is so bound to modern day reservation life?
Alexie alternates victories for the protagonist with eruptions of the doom that, in his novel’s world, Native Americans can never fully escape.
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