By Jennifer Debenham
In keeping with my back-to-school-for-us theme, I thought I'd share with you what I'm currently studying.
It's called Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham. Just as the title suggests, its main focus is on crafting strong scenes. It also discusses sequence, or the parts of your story that come in between scenes. I first heard about this book a couple years ago while attending a writer's conference. All the authors apparently read the same memo because the book was often quoted and recommended. If you haven't heard much about scene and sequence (as I hadn't up until that conference) this might be a good choice to add to your library.
While we may instinctively know the necessary elements of a scene, I personally found it helpful to have a checklist for the pattern of a good scene. Each scene, for example, should have a statement of the goal for that scene. Often this is done by the main character, and usually it is one step in her effort to achieve the overarching goal of the entire story. Each scene should also have an introduction or development of conflict. Conflict creates tension. The character can not reach her goal because the end of conflict also ends the reader's tension or sense of urgency. And finally, each scene should have a tactical disaster, in which the character experiences a setback. These elements help keep our readers turning pages.
In order to craft strong scenes, Bickham suggests: "always start with a goal, plan your conflict, and devise a solid disaster" (30). He offers the following as sample goals for characters:
1. Accused of cheating on a test, Janis goes to visit her math professor with the goal of convincing him she did not cheat.
2. Searching for an embezzler, Calvin accosts the bank examiner with the goal of convincing the examiner to give him the name of the prime suspect.
3. Lost in the caverns, Billy explores a narrow shaft with the goal of finding his way out.
4. Ted visits Jennifer with the goal of getting her to marry him.
5. Wanting to win permission to enter graduate school, Bari goes into the office of the graduate dean with the goal of convincing him to let her in.
I found it fun to create different ways to prevent these characters from reaching their goals. It's sort of like giving yourself permission to be a little mean. This was a helpful exercise for me because usually I want to solve my character's problems before they have to suffer very long.