Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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Scenes and character goals and Bickham

The discussion on rasfc about scenes and Bickham continues, so I'm copying my thoughts here again for easier access.

Jonathan L Cunningham, who is sceptical about the advice that protags should have goals for each scene and who believes that you can write good stories without worrying about such things said:
I'm not claiming that the protag has no goals at any point, but an overall goal which lasts for several chapters is not the kind of active current goal we are talking about here for individual scenes. Let's keep the distinction clearly in mind.

To which I replied:
But it's possible to have both long and short term goals simultaneously and, as Glenda I think it was said, they can actually be contradictory. (e.g. having the long term goal "lose weight" and the short term goal "buy a piece of that chocolate fudge cake".)

I had previously said:
Mary Gentle has said here [i.e. on rec.arts.sf.composition] that she used the Bickham approach extensively to write Ash. I'm using it for light comedy. It's just a way of looking at story action and divide it up into easy-to-handle chunks. If it doesn't work for you, that's fine, but don't condemn it based on a misunderstanding of the principles.

Jonathan replied:
Fine. I'm sure it would work wonderfully well for quest novels, too.

To which I said:
It works extraordinarily well for David Lodge's Thinks... too, which is a literary novel about adultery in academia. At least I can analyse the book in Bickham terms, even though I'm sure he didn't use Bickham to structure his novel.

This is because what Bickham describes is not something he's just invented. It's a universal recipe for stories which he just happens to have presented in a restrictive (but accessible) form. His rigid definition enabled me to see the universal underlying pattern. That's how I could analyse Nicky's Hunted in Bickham terms even though she most definitely did not use his way of thinking when writing the story. It just came out that way because what we think of as a satisfactory story follows that pattern.

I think there's some confusion about what, exactly, the Bickham Scene/Sequel pattern applies to. One doesn't analyse the writing using Bickham; you analyse the underlying story. I was talking in another post about there being two layers to a story. After reading Patricia's reply, which indicated that I hadn't quite explained things as clearly as I meant to, I realised that I now see stories in 3 layers:

The Bottom Layer: The "real" events in the fictional world. These are subject to interpretation, just as real event are in this world. But stuff definitely happened and by observing the characters as they go about their daily lives and overhearing what they say, I can find out what these events were. Of course one character might talk about having to put down the riot on the night of the Feast of the Twelve Wise Badgers whereas another will say, "Riot! That was no riot! There were just twenty of us marching peacefully towards the Duke's Palace to lodge a protest!" As writer I gather information, sometimes conflicting and usually more than will end up in the finished story.

The Middle Layer: The Story. This is where I apply the Bickham principles. I have to decide what the story is. Story in this sense being the bones of it. This would be what you tell someone if they ask what the story is about. It's what goes in the synopsis you send to the publisher with the 3 chapters and outline. It's the condensed version John Braine writes in order to sort out the mess that is his first draft, which he wrote in order to find out all the stuff in what I'm calling the Bottom Layer.

The Top Layer: The Story as Written. Beyond Bickham. Having worked out the Story, now the writer has to work out how to tell it. Bickham himself talks about lots of variations, like interrupting a scene with another scene, delaying a sequel by inserting another scene etc. Also the Bickham scenes might not need to be shown in full and the novel as written might consist mostly of the sequels. (The Archers on BBC Radio 4 uses that technique a lot. They don't always play a scene out in full but cut somewhere in mid-conflict to a sequel where the dramatic turn of events is discussed.)

Different writers will start at different points in this process. Those who do world building first will be starting at the Bottom Layer. Those who just write to find out what happens will be starting at the Top Layer. Many writers can forget all about the Middle Layer because they just put a story together intuitively. (e.g. Nicky and Patricia) But for some people, e.g. me, thinking consciously about that Middle Layer helps get to the overall story which can then be written in the way that suits it. E.g. the WIR having shorter scene fragments and swifter cuts between scenes as compared to the much longer continuous scenes in my whodunnit.

But I'll let Bickham have the last word.

"By giving you some further insights into the kind of strategic planning that goes into one kind of book, I may help you find your way more clearly to ideas about how you should best use scenes and sequels to achieve certain effects and produce the kind of book that exists in your mind somewhere as an ideal, whether you previously realised it or not." [My emphasis]
Tags: bickham, character goals, scenes, writing reflection

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