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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.

  1. Wednesday, July 20, 2016 6:57 pm

    Bickham’s book has helped me and I’m glad to see it discussed here. When my novel was dragging, I used 3″x5″ cards to map out scenes and sequels, delete unnecessary stuff, and get back on track.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol permalink
    Wednesday, July 20, 2016 9:19 pm

    I highlighted the same passage about structure in fiction is not static. I’ve never really thought about that. I’m trying to see it that way. I’ve always thought of structure as beginning, middle, end. I think if I can learn to understand structure as dynamic and as a process rather than something rigid it will free some of my anxiety. I need to learn to think in terms of scene rather than the whole story as I write.


  3. Wednesday, July 20, 2016 11:41 pm

    One reason I enjoy reading books on writing craft is they give me a vocabulary to explain things I’d known but hadn’t known how to put into words. And Bickham’s quote above is useful in that regard.

    You make a good point about maybe you don’t like first person because you have a (perhaps subconscious) issue with the structure. First person can be an unstructured mess – some authors seem to feel it’s an excuse to have no structure at all. Done well, in scenes, I enjoy it as much as or more than third person.

    I tried writing my current manuscript in third person and hated it – so now I’m rewriting it in first, and I find it much easier to get my character’s interior monologue that way. In third, it tended to be me putting words in her mind.



  1. Blogging Through ‘Scene and Structure’–Chapter 2: “Strategy: How to Start Your Story and How to End It” |
  2. Books Read in 2016: ‘My Name is Mary Sutter’ by Robin Oliveira (2 stars) |
  3. Blogging Through ‘Scene & Structure’–Chapter 5: “Structure in Macrocosm: Scenes with Results” |

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