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Blogging Through ‘Scene and Structure’–Chapter 3: “Structure in Microcosm: Cause and Effect”

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

It’s not at all unusual for this to happen. I’ll be working on a series here on the blog, and suddenly, a fantastic example of what I want to write about falls into my path.

Today, that happened in the form of a video from one of the YouTube channels I subscribe to. As you know, I had a hard time watching Batman v Superman a week or so ago. As someone who isn’t a screenwriter or filmmaker, I couldn’t articulate why it didn’t work on a basic, fundamental level. (I’m sure if I’d spent hours analyzing it, I could have come up with it, just like I do for novels.) Now I don’t have to, because this video does a great job at it.

(h/t Nerdwriter1)

Chapter Section: “Cause and Effect”
Blogging Through
Most of us are familiar with the concept of cause and effect—each event, each action (effect) can usually be traced back to an initiating cause. The car accident was caused by ice on the road. He became a murderer (effect) because of his abusive childhood (cause). Because the human brain always tries to find logic and patterns behind what can seem random and chaotic, we spend a lot of our time seeking to make these kinds of links. We see this in realizing that 90% of a toddler’s vocabulary is made up by the word why.

As fiction writers, it’s not enough to write “it happened.” Because the question the reader wants answered is “Why did it happen?” It happened is nonfiction. It happened is a news report.

Delving into the why—whether it’s known or imagined—is the job of the fiction writer. And as the video above points out, but doesn’t say in so many words, the fundamental flaw in BvS is that we’re presented with moments of “it happened” and no exploration of why.

So a story idea can start out with an idea for an event—an effect. Your job as the writer is to figure out the cause. What set this event in motion? Why did it happen? Then, once you’ve figured out the backstory, the logical underpinnings, that caused that event, you can move forward with your story by moving on to the question that necessarily arises: what is the fallout of this event happening? (In other words, the event itself becomes the next cause—but that’s a discussion for later in this book when Bickham gets into the concept of sequel.)

…this kind of cause-and-effect planning and story presentation does more than simply help the reader suspend disbelief. Because this kind of presentation shows a world in which things do make sense—in which everything isn’t just meaningless chaos and chance—the resulting story also has the effect of offering a little hope to the reader: a suggestion by implication that life doesn’t have to be meaningless, and that bad things don’t always have to happen to good people for no reason . . . a hint that maybe the reader can seize some control of his own life after all, and that good effort may sometimes actually pay off—and our existence may indeed even have some kind of meaning.

(Bickham, p. 13)

Chapter Section: “Stimulus and Response”

I don’t know about you, but every year when I have my physical, my doctor picks up a little hammer and taps my knee, just below the kneecap. This is to test reflex—a.k.a., response. I assume that my response is normal (perhaps a slight involuntary wiggle of my lower leg), because she’s never said anything about it. But think about that scene in cartoons or comedies—the character’s leg usually jerks violently or even comes up and kicks the doctor and a sensitive spot.

This is what Bickham means when he mentions stimulus (hitting with the hammer) and response (movement in the lower leg). But he differentiates this from cause and effect by making it more of an external “transaction”:

  • ● Stimulus must be external—that is, action or dialogue, something that could be witnessed if the transaction were on a stage.
  • ● Response must also be external in the same way.
  • ● For every stimulus, you must show a response.
  • ● For every desired response, you must provide a stimulus.
  • ● Response usually must follow stimulus at once.
  • ● When response to stimulus is not logical on the surface, you must ordinarily explain it.

(Bickham, p. 15)

So unlike cause and effect, in which the effect can be delayed (but still traceable back to the cause) and which can also be internal rather than external, stimulus and response is much more immediate. Bickham gives an example of one character throwing a ball (stimulus) to another. What is the immediate response of the other character? He catches it. He drops it. He ignores it. Each is a valid response (though, then, cause-and-effect might get into why the character chooses his particular response). But even if the second character ignores the ball, as the writer, you can’t ignore that response—because you want to keep your readers with your story, not have them going off on the tangent of wondering what happened to the ball.

The majority of what we do in writing our fiction is stimulus-response (and, thus, cause-effect on a grander scale). Character A says something, Character B has some kind of response. Situation A happens causing Consequence B.

In order to make these structures logical and allow readers to connect with them, and your story overall, is to provide motivation. Again, it’s more than just “this happened which led this to happen.” Always keep asking why. Why did the stimulus happen? Why did the character have that response? You don’t have to hop into that character’s viewpoint in the narrative to explain why. The reader may not need to know the exact reason why. But you as the author do—because the answer to that question is going to affect and direct where your story goes in the long run.

For Discussion:
What to you, if at all, is the difference between cause-effect and stimulus-response?

How important do you think these two concepts are? Have you ever noticed yourself doing this purposely? Did reading this chapter make you think of certain things you can work on in your work in progress?

What were your thoughts on reading this chapter?

Works Cited:

Bickham, Jack. Scene & Structure. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books. 1993.

Blogging Through ‘Scene and Structure’–Chapter 2: “Strategy: How to Start Your Story and How to End It”

Monday, July 25, 2016

Blogging Through ‘Scene and Structure’--Chapter 2: “Strategy: How to Start Your Story and How to End It” | KayeDacus.comFrom our reading of Chapter 1 of Scene & Structure we determined that structure is important to all fiction, but to genre fiction especially. We also discussed that structure, rather than being stifling, can be freeing to us as writers, allowing us to focus on story and character development instead of the nuts and bolts of where everything goes.

But as with any craft, we must first learn those tenets of “basic construction” before we’re able to create our final product.

Bickham’s Basic Building Blocks
At the beginning of Chapter 2, Bickham poses the following questions as those basics that can “plague novice novelists.” But let’s be honest, these are questions that can trip up experienced, multi-published, best-selling writers, too.

    ● “How long should my novel be?”
    ● “Where should I start my story?”
    ● “How and when should I end my story?”
    ● “Do I need a lot of subplots?
    ● “Does it have to have a happy ending?”

      (Bickham, p. 5)

If you’ve been reading writing-craft blogs and books and/or attending writers’ conferences for any length of time, you’ll have read/heard similar answers to all of these questions. For example:

“How long should my novel be?”
Possible answers:

  • As long as it needs to be to tell your story.
  • Between 75,000 and 100,000 words.
  • No longer than the maximum length dictated by the publisher you’re targeting.

When Bickham wrote this book (published in 1993) self-publishing was rare, and “digital publishing” unheard of. (Let’s face it, he mentions something called a “typewriter” on page 5.) So it’s tempting to look at his explication of story length as something from a previous century and just ignore it. However, something to keep in mind with self-/digital publishing is that readers are still expecting a structured story that fits within the parameters of length that we’re all accustomed to based on hundreds of years of traditional publishing. Plus, they want to make sure they’re getting their money’s worth. So both structure and length must be kept in mind. (Most books that are too long are too long because they lack structure—this is a point I’ll be making if I can ever make myself sit down and write my review for Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.)

In addition to knowing that Bickham’s advice is more than twenty years old, I also realize that most “novice” writers these days know a lot more about the publishing side of the process than we did back then. Basic (approximate) rules of thumb, for both traditional and self-/indie publishing, on length are:

  • Short story: up to ~7,500 words
  • Novella: ~10,000 to ~35,000 words
  • Category Novel: ~40,000 to ~60,000 words
  • Mass Market Novel: ~65,000 to ~80,000 words
  • Trade Paperback (or hardcover) Novel: ~80,000 to 120,000 words
  • Epic Novel: ~120,000+ words

(Obviously these are definitions based on traditional publishing models, but if you’re going to publish independently, this is a good ladder to use for considering how to price your novel.)

Blogging Through ‘Scene and Structure’–Chapter 2 More Than Word Count

Chapter Section: “You Are Here”

Long gone (mostly) are the days when someone sat down to write a novel and started with:

      . . . To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously
      (Dickens, David Copperfield).

Although, I will admit that I’ve had people in many of workshops and writing groups who swore that their epic spanning many generations of one family or telling the full life story of someone who never actually does anything was going to be the next national bestseller, they are fewer and farther between as the years progress. The truth of the matter is that readers aren’t interested in the minutiae of everyday life. Or, as Bickham put it: “readers today are more hurried and impatient—and jaded by swiftly paced television drama; they want condensation, speed, and punch” (p. 6). [Serial comma after speed added by moi because I just can’t help myself.]

We’ve covered many times here on the blog how to start your novel:

“Self-Concept” as the Beginning of Story

In writing about how to figure out how/when to start your novel within your character’s chronology, Bickham discusses the idea of “self-concept” (p. 7). He defines it as “a mental picture of the kind of person we are.” It’s the labels I use to define “me” to myself—not the labels others give me, but my own labels for myself. What do I know about myself? In what areas am I confident? In what areas am I weakest? What are my skills and talents? How am I most useful to others?

Our self-concept is our most precious mental and emotional possession.
Any significant
change can and probably will threaten the self-concept.

(Bickham, p. 7)

This is what all stories should be about—a change in the status quo (a threat to the self-concept) that leads the main character to take action. That’s where your story should begin.

The easiest way to define this is with the genre I’m most familiar with: romance.

      Heroine’s self-concept: I’m a single woman with a career who has finally learned to be content with what I have, though I do dream of marrying someday.

      Threat to the self-concept: A man comes into my life who creates upheaval in my emotional state, who is making me feel things I may or may not have ever felt before (both come with their own sets of threats), who asks me to completely change my life (going from single to coupled).

Obviously, this is an over-simplification of the structure of romance; but in a nutshell, this is how self-concept works as the catalyst for plot. And until the threat to the self-concept is introduced, the plot doesn’t actually begin. (Which is why in a romance novel, the plot doesn’t begin until the H/H meet—because it’s that meeting that threatens the self-concept of one or both of those characters.)

In such a case, the woman . . . is going to be worse than unhappy; she is going to be profoundly shaken. If she is to be happy again, she will have to take some action. . . .
(Bickham, p. 7)

But it’s been psychologically proven that the self-concept is so deeply engrained, and so devoutly protected, that most people will go to almost any lengths to protect it as it stands today. . . .
(p. 7)

To put it all another way: Significant change that threatens your character’s self-concept is where your story starts.
(p. 8)

[Emphasis mine]

So this gives us the basic structure for the story:

  • Figure out your character’s self-concept and then how you will introduce the threat/change. Start your story as close to the moment the threat/change happens as you can.
  • Define a story goal for your character—what is her plan to overcome this threat/adapt to the change?
  • This, then, leads to the story question—will she be able to overcome this threat/adapt to the change? What will she have to accomplish to do it? What are the obstacles she’ll meet along the way—and will she be able to successfully deal with those or will they derail her story goal?
  • End the story by answering the story question adequately and satisfactorily. Does it have to be happy? No. But it does have to be satisfactory. You must answer the story question head-on; otherwise, you’re going to have a lot of unhappy readers who aren’t likely to buy your next book.

Chapter Section: “A Game Plan”

In addition to the (vague) structure above, Bickham reminds us to consider timeline as an important part of the story planning process. The more compressed the timeline can be, the tighter the narrative feels. Sure, it’s hard to write a romance story that feels genuine when it takes place over the course of mere days or weeks. However, too many passage-of-time phrases get old and drag down the pacing of the story (e.g., “A few weeks later . . .”; “It had been three weeks since the last time they saw each other . . .”; “She couldn’t believe six months had passed since their argument. A lot had changed since then”; and so on).

Readers understand that fiction isn’t a cut-and-dried representation of reality. That’s why we read fiction—to escape the mundaneness of reality!

So the more dynamic you can make your story, the more you can keep your reader guessing (and then satisfy them with small payoffs and then, ultimately, the big payoff), and the more you plan out how your story will be structured—and what the resolution of the story, the answer to the main story question, will be—the more structure your story will have, which, in turn, will make you a better writer.

For Discussion:
How do you determine how/when to start your story?

How much do you feel like you need to know about your story—how much of a plan do you need to have in place—before you start writing?

What were your thoughts on reading this chapter?

Works Cited:

Bickham, Jack. Scene & Structure. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books. 1993.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. London, UK: Bradbury & Evans. 1850.

Books Read in 2016: ‘Out of the Storm’ by Jody Hedlund (3 stars)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Out of the Storm by Jody HedlundOut of the Storm (Beacons of Hope 0.5)
by Jody Hedlund
My rating: 3 stars

Book Summary from Goodreads:
Having grown up in a lighthouse, loneliness is all Isabelle Thornton has ever known–and all, she assumes, she ever will know. But when her lightkeeper father rescues a young man from the lake, her sheltered world is turned upside down.

Bestselling author Jody Hedlund’s Out of the Storm is her first ever novella and introduces readers to Beacons of Hope, a new series set in the 1800s amid the romance, history, and danger surrounding the Great Lakes lighthouses of Michigan.

My GR Status Update(s):
04/08 . . .marked as: currently-reading
04/10 . . .marked as: read

My Review:
From the wonderful things I’ve heard about Jody Hedlund’s writing, I have to think that this might not have been the best example of it.

While I thought the setting and premise were well conceived, I unfortunately did not much like any of the three characters who appear in the book. Isabelle is a perfect Pollyanna with little depth; Henry was a poorly drawn character who was supposed to be a redeemable rake but came across as more of an immature, party boy frat-bro; and Isabelle’s father was a caricature—supposed to be a loving, over-protective father but acting more like a cartoonishly evil bad guy.

While many of the scenes between Henry and Isabella were fun to read, and their banter was enjoyable, too much time in this short novella was given over to Henry’s bad boy antics—and in his trying to draw Isabelle into his attitude of fun before work—for me to believe his turnaround into someone who would work hard and rise up to the level of morals and ethics that Isabelle supposedly had. (Though with as naive and sheltered as she was, these were things that were learned habits and not necessarily something that came from deep within since she’d never actually experienced or done anything that would make her have to make choices based on an internal moral compass.) It was unfortunate that the time in which Henry was actually experiencing character growth was just glossed over briefly in the narrative. It’s hard to believe a change is real when I, as the reader, don’t actually get to see it happening on the page and am just told that it’s happening by the author.

What had me most confused, however, was watching the status bar at the bottom of my Kindle screen. When they kissed and then when they seemed to be reaching the ultimate conflict of the story and the meter showed that I was not even 50% of the way through the “book,” I kept expecting more to happen. But then it ended . . . and I discovered an excerpt from the first full-length book in this series—five whole chapters! No wonder I couldn’t get a good feel for how long (short) this novella actually was as I was reading it because half the length of what I downloaded wasn’t actually part of this story.

My rating matrix:
5 STARS = one of the best I’ve ever read
4 STARS = a great read, highly recommended
3 STARS = it was okay
2 STARS = I didn’t enjoy it all that much, not recommended
1 STAR = DNF (did not finish)

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Blogging Through ‘Scene & Structure’ — Reading Assignments for Week of 7/25/16

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Blogging Through

Monday, July 25, 2016:
Chapter 2: “Strategy: How to Start Your Story and How to End It”

Wednesday, July 27, 2016:
Chapter 3: “Structure in Microcosm: Cause and Effect”

Fun Friday: Thoughts I Had While Watching ‘Batman v Superman’

Friday, July 22, 2016

Fun Friday 2013
If you’ve been hanging out here for a while, you’ll know that a few years ago, I had a thing for a certain actor unknown to anyone who hadn’t seen The Tudors. Such a thing, in fact, that he was the physical template on which I patterned the character of Andrew Lawton in Follow the Heart. And because I sent links to images of this actor to the designer who created the cover of the book, he did a wonderful job of finding a model who greatly resembled him for the cover:

Henry Cavill and the guy who was chosen to represent him on the cover of FTH.

Henry Cavill and the guy who was chosen to represent him on the cover of FTH.

So when it was announced that he’d been cast as Superman in the movie Man of Steel, I knew he’d arrived . . . just like the unknown actor I’d chosen for the hero of An Honest Heart, who, at that point had only been seen in a brief cameo role in the Star Trek reboot movie in 2009 but then, after I chose him as the template for Neal in AHH, was cast as Thor. (Can I pick them, or what?)

I was super (ha!) excited about seeing Henry as Clark Kent/Superman in MoS. At least, I was until about 20 minutes into the movie. Ugh, what a mess that film was! Fortunately, by the time that film released, I’d already finished writing Follow the Heart, so my Andrew wasn’t tainted by my disappointment in both Henry and the movie.

When the follow-up movie—Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—was announced, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that I wouldn’t enjoy it. However, because of some minor lingering feelings for Henry as well as a reason I’ll explain in the stream of consciousness below, I felt the need to watch BvS once it came out on digital video.

So here, without further ado or exposition, are the thoughts/reactions I posted to FB while watching BvS.

*******SPOILERS ALERT*******



.(You’ve been warned!)
Thoughts I Had While Watching ‘Batman v Superman’ |

Costume Drama Thursday: VICTORIA (2017)

Thursday, July 21, 2016


Coming to Masterpiece on PBS in 2017.

(Is it just me, or do those blue contact lenses look really strange on Jenna Coleman?)

You can see more images of the costumes and learn more about the production over on Frock Flicks.

Blogging Through ‘Scene and Structure’: Chapter 1 “The Structure of Modern Fiction”

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

As I wrote in the post Romance Novels: What Are They, Anyway?, romance readers expect their romance novels to hit certain “beats”—or, in other words, to follow a certain formula: The meet, the separation, the reunion, the happy ending. This expectation may seem limiting—stifling—to the creative process.

Actually, as a romance writer, I find that already knowing I have a built-in structure, that I have certain beats I need to incorporate into my story, makes it so much easier to write and be creative.

Why? Well, because my story already has something of a structure before I even start writing. . . . I know what I’m working toward (Dacus, Romance Novels: What Are “Formulas” and Are They Bad?).

Blogging ThroughI’ll be the first to admit that even though I’ve quoted from Scene & Structure often here on the blog, I’ve never actually read it cover-to-cover. So imagine my surprise when I read the following on the first page:

In reality, a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things and allows her to concentrate her imagination on characters and events rather than on such stuff as transitions and moving characters around, when to begin or open a chapter, whether there ought to be a flashback, and so on. . . .

Structure is nothing more than a way of looking at your story material so that it’s organized in a way that’s both logical and dramatic. Structure is a process, not a rigid format. Structure in fiction is not static, but dynamic. (Bickham, p. 1)

In this same passage, Bickham points out that structure not only gives freedom to the author to focus on the more creative part of the story, but also provides a clearer understanding—both for the writer and the reader—of the plot and characters as well as a clearer path to connecting with the emotional content of the story better. After all, it’s hard to connect with a story/its characters on a deep emotional level when you’re spending most of the time you’re reading it wondering if it’s actually going anywhere (i.e., “I hope there’s a point to all of this”).

Genre fiction, those books with the strongest structures, is popular for a reason: the familiar structure employed (the couple will get together, the murderer will be caught, the journey will come to a successful conclusion, etc.) allows readers to immediately (subconsciously) trust the author. Imagine visiting a large city you’ve never been to before. You have a choice of two taxis. In the first, the driver immediately knows how to get to the address you give him; the second cabbie just moved to the city and doesn’t even know any of the major street names yet. Which one would you feel more comfortable with?

(Here, Bickham employs the familiar metaphor comparing writing to constructing buildings. While the materials used for a multi-story office building are going to be different than those for a small house, the principles behind building any structure are the same. So while the “materials” one uses to “build” a story might differ greatly from genre to genre, from author to author, the guiding principles of story structure remain the same.)

The most interesting thing about reading this right now is that I’m currently working my way through two novels: Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, one of his longest and most complicated novels; and My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. As I’ve mentioned in my Goodreads status updates, because I was already familiar with the stories that happen in Bleak House from multiple viewings of the 2005 miniseries, I decided that I’d skip the chapters not written from the viewpoint of main character Esther Summerson. (This is easy to do, because Dickens employed a unique literary style with POV in this novel—chapters written in first-person/past-tense from Esther’s viewpoint, telling the story that surrounds/concerns her; and chapters written in third-person/present-tense telling everyone else’s stories.) As I posted last night, this novel, more than any of his other works, really shows that Dickens was getting paid by to write this as regular installments in a periodical—in other words, for the length of it—rather than as a novel with a focused structure. The most structured narrative in the novel, and the only one in which there’s true emotional resonance, is Esther’s, which is why I’m actually enjoying just reading her chapters.

The problem I’m having with Oliveira’s book is another one of mixed POV and seeming lack of structure. Although I think Oliveira was trying to employ an omniscient POV, it’s actually more of a head-hopping style. And her narrative jumps around in time, dropping flashbacks into the middle of a scene of dialogue, or jumping back in time to tell someone’s entire backstory after leaving the previous chapter hanging at the end. And because this is not genre fiction (or, at least, it’s not structured as typical genre fiction), I’m having a harder and harder time trusting that the author is actually going somewhere with this story.

The History of Structure and Types of Forms
In the two sections of this chapter, Bickham mentions how POV can affect structure—both technically (first-person epistolary vs. first-person narrative vs. third-person, whether omniscient or limited) as well as figuratively (which characters’ viewpoints are included)—though POV isn’t his main concern.

Most successful fiction today is based on a structure that uses a series of scenes that interconnect in a very clear way to form a long narrative with linear development from the posing of a story question at the outset to the answering of that question at the climax (Bickham, p. 4)

As much as I like to complain about not liking first-person narrative, I have to admit the truth of Bickham’s words—it may not necessarily always be the POV to which I’m reacting . . . it may be the underlying structure of the story (or lack thereof) to which I’m subconsciously reacting. After all, of the two books I’m reading right now, it’s the one (or the parts of the one) written in first-person that I’m enjoying more—because it has a structure with which I’m familiar. (If I weren’t such a fan of the miniseries, would I be enjoying it as much? Who knows. But knowing where Esther’s narrative is going does provide me as a reader the structure I need in order to trust that Dickens will get her there eventually.)

For Discussion:
What do you think of when you hear “structure” mentioned in the context of fiction writing?

How does the presence or lack of structure in a story affect you as a reader? As a writer?

What were your thoughts on reading this first chapter?

What are you hoping to get out of this “Blogging Through…” exercise?

Works Cited:

Bickham, Jack. Scene & Structure. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books. 1993.

Dacus, Kaye. “Romance Novels: What Are ‘Formulas’ and Are They Bad?”, 22 March 2016. Web. 20 July 2016.


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