July 28

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A System for Writing a Novel

Do you want a system for writing a novel? 

Or -- do you ever wonder about...

  • how to keep a novel on track and avoiding a big sprawl / slump in the middle of the story?
  • why readers don't always get the big developments in your stories, even the moments you meant to be dramatic and obvious?
  • what makes a protagonist compelling to a reader?

If so, this ultimate guide is for you.

Of all the craft books I've read on the art of telling a story, Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure is probably the most profound, the most insightful. It offers writers a deep education in storytelling, and, perhaps unusually for a book on plot and structure, it is 100% aimed at novels and novelists.

It's not a long book. It's not hard to read. And yet the book is more profound and more powerful than it might seem on a first read.

Some of Bickham's best tips appear in the least obvious parts of the book, and some of his clearest, strong advice, is (I think) simply wrong. 

In this review / ultimate guide to Bickham's view of fiction writing, you'll learn how...

  • to tell a great story.
  • to ground your craft of fiction in each sentence you write.
  • to narrate and present a compelling scene.
  • to avoid cheap or fake endings to your chapters.
  • what stories tell us about the real world.
  • to stop confusing your readers.

woah. Where do I start?

If you are looking for immediate, individual craft advice, and you're not sure if this guide is going to help you solve your own writing concerns, answer this one-question quiz, below.

Then I'll be able to tell you which part of this guide will be most helpful to you.

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How do you Actually read the book?

Scene and Structure is worth reading in full. Click the link below to buy a copy: it takes you to my bookshop window on Bookshop.org.

link to buy Jack Bickham's book

(One of the funny things about Scene and Structure is that it appears to be part of a craft series, and from the humble cover, the first-time reader has little clue of how substantial and far-reaching Bickham's theories will be.)

The craft of fiction begins in the sentence.

Bickham's method is unusual because it begins at the sentence level.

Bickham mirrors his account of how stories and novels are supposed to work with his view of how 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 of your story emerges from the micro scale of phrases and sentences, the actual stuff you're typing out each writing session.

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 assembled by some other material than the actual words we are placing on the page.

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.

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.

Cause Internalisation 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.

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.

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What is "Structure"?

the tools of art

Structure, as Bickham 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.

This stress on stories "making sense" is primary to Bickham's craft advice.

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.

*Whispers* stories suggest we are supposed to be gods.

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, exactly: 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.

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 an alien flu 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. 

Throughout the book, 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.

You're probably nodding along to this like it makes perfect sense. But stop. This is actually a pretty crazy idea.

Fiction should feel strange to read

Marriage of Heaven and Hell -- transform your artistic life with William Blake

If Bickham is right, then the experience of reading fiction should be shocking. Fiction should seem really weird to us. Reading a Jane Austen novel should be as bizzare to us as waking up with fifteen arms.

In real life, one is frequently unable to know what anything means. In real life, we experience many of life's most tumultuous events in a state of suspended, anxious numbness, and their emotional weight only hits later -- sometimes years later. 

Every day of my life, I carry around in my brain mental models of other people's character -- and my own character -- and I use those models to predict how everyone will behave, and how I myself am supposed to behave, but I am frequently proven wrong, especially about myself.

When I read fiction, in contrast, I know far more about the people I meet there, and how their world works. When I see a fictional gun on a fictional mantelpiece, I know, at some point in the story, it will go off.

This should be jarring, unearthly. And yet, as a matter of fact, we experience well-written fiction not as an awkward break from reality, but as something soothing, delightful.

Good fiction, in fact, feels more natural than real life: hearing "once upon a time," we perk up, as if for the duration of the story, we have come home, to the place we truly belong.

Metaphysical interlude

Bickham gingerly suggests, in Scene and Structure, that this feature of fiction implies that life has meaning. Fiction prizes cause and effect, and this hints, perhaps, that the real life has more meaning, more logic and sense, than we generally believe. Things happen for a reason, and therefore, human life has real value.

Personally, I don't share Bickham's confidence about life. I suspect real life is just as chaotic as we assume it is.

Rather, as a follower of William Blake, I would instead propose that the nature of fiction hints at a grander vision of the human mind. We are meant to see more than we do, and be more closely connected -- to each other, and to reality -- than we are, or believe we can be: the lover is more a part of her beloved than she knows, and vice versa.

However, as this is a fallen world, inhospitable to human imagination, we can only very rarely live this way.

That's why narrative's absurd coincidences and simplicities make sense to us: we are meant to be living that way all the time. Only -- we are not. And so the rare time we feel truly at home comes when we are experiencing a story.

But Daniel, Aren't I already doing this?

Probably not.

What?

Okay.

Let me explain.

what do you mean? text on gray surface

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.

You Aren't Narrating Enough

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 specific 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.

Is this why they disliked your story?

In other words, his "stimulus - internalisation - response" approach 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.

remember the building blocks

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.)

plot means cause and 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.

build the story slowly

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.

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.

Stories end in a major change for the protagonist

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 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 novel in scenes, not chapters

silver framed eyeglasses on white printer paper

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..."

it's easy to fail to fail. You do it all the time.

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-scenes may be to blame.

fake scenes are useful in the first draft

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 genuine 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.

Bickham's view of narration illustrated by top chef.

person sheeting dough

Top Chef is a fascinating study for narrative technique because there’s relatively little action on show. If we were simply watching a bunch of people cook, the series would not still be on the air. Although in the Top Chef spinoffs, Masters and Duels, there is a fair amount of filmic special effects, like “dramatic” slow motion or stop-motion hurry-hurry, in the original series, the directors generally avoid such techniques.

They concentrate, instead, on telling stories. And they seem to believe that to tell a satisfying story, you have to narrate an awful lot. You have to deliver far more information, and with more detail, variety, and repetition than most workshop stories ever dream of doing.

The craft lesson of Top Chef is that readers / viewers don’t respond to action alone — the “action” is just ten cooks chopping vegetables. Rather, it’s the meaning of that action that keeps people hooked. And we get that meaning through the information being narrated to us. It's clear, in other words, that the creators of Top Chef have a deep understanding of storytelling that mirror's Bickham's.

The Tale of the Chicken Oyster

Here's a particular piece of drama that happened during season 8.

During the early part of episode 11, one contestant, Mike Isabella, wins a challenge by using another’s contestant’s recipe. In terms of actual filming, we see very little, and it’s over fast: Paula Deen has set the contestants a deep-frying challenge, and so we see all six of them hurriedly frying bits of food. Top Chef invests little energy in showing us how Mike Isabella actually cooks his fried chicken oysters.

Because that’s not the point. The show, instead, invests a huge amount of time explaining the meaning of that action. And to do this, Top Chef creates multiple “half-scenes” before and after the event, as well as using a range of point of views—“first person” interviews, close up reactions—to give us what feels like a complete insight into the event.

The first half-scene occurs right at the start of the episode. Two of the contestants—Mike Isabella and Antonia Lofaso—are sitting with a third, Richard Blais, looking over his notebooks of recipes. Richard Blais is the famous “professor” of Top Chef, cerebral and neurotic, and so this glimpse of his diagrams and notations just feels like the sort of thing we would expect. It feels, at the time, just like “character background,” a bit of realism to bring us closer to the action.

Then, once the chefs are in the Top Chef kitchen, and the frying challenge has been set, the action of cooking is cut through by multiple “first person” interviews with both Mike Isabella and Richard Blais. In the first cut-away to interview, Mike Isabella explains to the camera that he will respond to Paula Deen’s frying challenge by making a chicken oyster, something he says is “a little more unique.”

He adds, casually, that he and Richard Blais were “talking about a similar dish this morning—I saw a picture in his book,” framing his use of Blais’s idea as though it were a collaboration.

At this stage, the viewer is likely unsure how to take Isabella’s remark. We’ve only had one half-scene (the notebooks), one not yet finished full scene (the deep-frying contest), and a single commentary from Mike Isabella. Our sense of the scene’s meaning is still unclear.

A second interview with Mike Isabella, however, prompts us to judge him more harshly: he piously disparages the other contestants’ dishes for being too complicated, including Richard’s.

He remarks, smugly, “at the end of the day, less is more.”

The scene moves, around the 3:50 minute mark of the clip, to its crucial moment: as Paula Deen tastes each dish in turn, Mike Isabella announces his fried chicken oysters.

There’s a close up of Richard Blais’s face: he looks annoyed. In voice-over / interview, we hear him commenting that Mike’s dish sounds “very much like something in my notebooks.” We see a momentary flashback to that half-scene from the start of the episode, the notebooks at the breakfast table. Then, in first-person interview, Richard Blais concludes, “it’s plagiarism,” and, during the scene itself, he remarks to the nearest camera, “That’s my dish.”

Paula Deen, however, not hearing this comment, awards the win to Mike Isabella. 

The Villain Wins!

The viewer, perhaps, is not yet convinced of the scene’s meaning. After all, in later interviews, Isabella continues to defend his actions. And we, the viewers, aren’t chefs. Perhaps in the restaurant world, borrowing a recipe isn’t that big a deal.

However, after the chefs have gone shopping for their next challenge, and have retired for the night, three contestants are filmed talking in their shared bedroom, discussing Isabella’s chicken oysters. In a hushed voice, Antonia Lofaso tells the other two, Tiffany and Carla, that Mike’s dish came out of Richard’s notebooks. Tiffany, clutching a pillow, gasps in shock. She can’t believe it. We cut to a first-person interview with Carla.

She looks at the camera and says, “There is man law, and there is chef law. You don’t take another chef’s idea.”

Only then do all the pieces of narrative information coalesce. Now, the meaning of Mike Isabella’s act seems clear; the judgement on his character has been made final. But we needed ALL of this narration to get there.

And this sequence of action and evaluation doesn’t feel overdone or repetitive. It doesn't feel like "spoon-feeding."

Instead, it feels satisfying — and meaningful.

This is the vision of narration that Bickham's theory suggests.

Problems with bickham's approach.

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.

this next part is awkward...

That said. There is one massive problem with Bickham's approach: all his imaginary examples, in his own book, sound like terrible novels. You would think that a writing teacher with such a deft model for storytelling would be able to illustrate that model with some pretty cool tales. Even if he is deliberately hamming it up to make the principles easier to see, you would still like to imagine, I think, that there would be interesting moments, clever developments.

But that's not the case. Bickham's case study at the end is a truly monotonous spy "thriller," one that I'm not even sure illustrates his methods very well.

This suggests to me that Bickham's approach doesn't go far enough. There's a gap between what Bickham's approach suggests about how fiction works and what he actually believed. 

That's one reason I created this guide: I think that Bickham's theories are more profound than you'll easily absorb from his book, partly because Bickham himself doesn't quite seem to notice, fully, the radical nature of what he is teaching. 

How I build on bickham in my teaching.

My approach -- "character-first" writing -- is indebted to Bickham.

His primary insight, that in contemporary fiction, the source of meaning in a story is protagonist's experience of that story, was transformative for me. It combined with many of the other theories I had read around meaning in fiction to help me devise my own approach. 

However, I don't think Bickham goes far enough! I think his idea of failure is too simple, and his idea of "the sequel," while great, isn't nimble enough for how the best modern novels narrate.

I teach my character-first approach in two self-study courses. One covers the big picture of plotting, scoping out a story, developing out an outline:

Plotting and Planning Your Novel

The other examines the smaller-scale, but just as crucial questions of how you construct a scene, a chapter; how to keep the reader engaged, the protagonist clear and sympathetic:

Writing Great Chapters

I also offer a free introduction to my teaching style: an email and prompt-based course called "The Character First Story."

It's available to everyone who joins my mailing list -- it's a 12-part guide to plotting and narration that will teach you the essentials of my approach while helping you sketch out a brand new short story.

Sign up, if you are interested, with the big blue button, below.

Let me talk you through the drafting of your next short story.

Get the first lesson delivered to your inbox.

Best wishes with your storytelling!

Yours,

Daniel


Tags

craft of writing, dramatic, fiction manual, jack bickham, plot, scene


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  • 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.

    • 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.

      • That’s exactly right! This method works handily for me because it ensures that I keep the character’s motivations central.

  • Thanks for this article and your guide (which I’ve downloaded and scanned.)

    Among other things, this has clarified for me where I ought to start my story, with something going weirdly, inexplicably wrong for a protagonist already suspicious of weirdness. Bad luck for him (and roughly half the planet’s people), things are getting very weird — but the food, music and new sentient species will help enough for some to survive. Magic is back, and if humans don’t survive, the neoBears will suffice.

  • Carmelita D Brooker says:

    Thank you, Daniel – great article.

    What does the term ‘story question’ mean?

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