Last time I wrote an article for Call Number 808, I did a massive book review of Writers Digest’s Howdunit Series. I really struggle with plotting my fiction, so I was all ready to try my hand at the mystery genre. The result? I got a little bogged down in the details. I realized that if I want to create a structurally sound work of fiction, I would have to learn about writing structurally.

Which brings me to another series by Writer’s Digest: Elements of Fiction Writing. I picked up Jack M. Bickham’s Scene & Structure while cruising my local library.

This is the book that almost made me lose my mind.

This is the book that almost made me lose my mind.

According to the “About the Author” blurb in the front of the book, Bickham published more than 80 novels, as well as several books on craft. His novels are described as ”mostly westerns, mysteries and thrillers.” I don’t even try to hide the fact that I’m a huge literature snob, so his background in genres that tend toward the formulaic raised a tiny red flag for me. But Bickham does not pretend to be the beginning and end of fiction writing at all: he humbly writes, for example, that he “isn’t blessed with a very deep mind” (13).

Bickham does not mince words, and frankly I found it hard to argue with him at times. Early on in the book, for example, he writes a section on cause and effect, which contains a single sentence that grabbed my attention: “While the workings of luck, coincidence, fate, etc., may be shown from time to time, fiction must make more sense than real life if general readers are to find it credible” (12). It’s something I’ve always known to be true inside of me and yet his phrasing made it feel very fresh to me. Furthermore, when put in such general terms, I realized this mantra can apply not only to a paperback I might get at an airport, but also to Jane Austen.

As I read through the first third of the book or so, I realized that to some degree, what Bickham does in Scene & Structure is make plain some things I already know that I’m supposed to do as a writer and that most writers successfully emulate from things they read. Not only did I feel more confident in my own abilities, but I wanted to hone them further.

Me at the beginning of this book: confident, strong, assured.

Me at the beginning of this book: confident, strong, assured.

Bickham’s instructions are prescriptive in the extreme. At first, I thought I would be able to follow his advice in breaking down the story components at micro and macro levels. I responded well to his advice about not letting the characters run away with the story—after all, they are figments of your imagination (35). But by the book’s end, Bickham includes this item in his list of fiction writers’ rookie mistakes:

 Too many beginners focus on the interior life of the character’s thoughts or feelings, failing to understand the reader’s yearning for outside action of some kind, played onstage in the story of “now.” (69)

I’d be interested in trying to see if I can apply some of Bickham’s diagramming to works I admire by contemporary authors. For example, I re-read Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s “Yurt,” one of my favorite short stories ever. I then read the rest of Bynum’s collection of linked stories, The Ms. Hempel Chronicles. The stories in this book really speak to me. But while they’re incredibly rich on character, they strike me as lean on plot. And yet, Bynum was named one of The New Yorker’s top twenty authors under the age of forty.

I played with the idea of trying Bickham’s schema and including the results of the experiment in this article. But even if I felt like I could take time to follow his suggestions on constructing scenes (one of them involves a complicated color-coding procedure for his scene elements: goal, conflict, disaster, and their various offshoots), I’m still kind of reeling from the book.

And this is where this review takes kind of a weird turn. It took me months to get through Scene & Structure, even though it’s a lean volume. I’m going to be honest about the real world here: I recently experienced a weeks-long period of extreme professional stress and I had to be frugal with how I spent my small amount of creative energy. Finishing this review became a symbol of the creative life I’ve been suppressing and I felt guilty.

 

This is me at the end of the book, questioning everything I thought I knew.

This is me at the end of the book, questioning everything I thought I knew.

In addition to feeling this guilt, Scene & Structure kind of gave me an existential mini-crisis. I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary short story collections lately, and virtually none of them seem to subscribe to Bickham’s paradigm in the least. Bickham is writing for novelists, but I approached his book from a short story writers’ perspective because I have never had the desire to attempt novel length. But then I began to think, What if the writers I’m reading right now are following Bickham’s instructions and I’m too dense to see it?

So I feel guilty, I’m doubting myself as a reader, and then I unearthed some painful rejections that made me doubt myself as a writer. And the more time I spent reading through Scene & Structure, the less sure I became that I am capable of following his paradigm. Or maybe I am and I just have to dig deeper to find out how. Or maybe the reason I have trouble finishing things is because I don’t break down my work at the sentence level. Maybe my inability to do so is what brought about the rejections in the first place. But how would I know if I can’t tell whether the writers I admire are using Bickham’s paradigm or not?

Long story short, I became a total basket case.

Now that I’ve calmed down, I maintain that it was good for me to at least read this book because I don’t really plan as I write. I usually have an idea that I can’t let go of and eventually I boil over onto the page and plan along the way. Usually I have a brief, horizontal outline or one sentence describing where the story should end. For me, it’s a very intuitive process. It’s also a process that often leads to me not finishing work that I start.

So I’m at a crossroads as to what I should do with Scene & Structure as a writer. Maybe I will come up with a successful hybrid of Bickham’s method and one of my own. No matter what happens, I think Scene & Structure contains a lot of valuable, concrete information that writers can use. Being forced to re-evaluate your own process and your work can only be a good thing in the long run, even if it can be kind of disconcerting.

Readers, can you make heads or tails of this book? If you haven’t read it, share a time something unexpectedly knocked you on your butt. Think of it as a writing exercise…