Blogging Through ‘Scene and Structure’–Chapter 2: “Strategy: How to Start Your Story and How to End It”
From 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?”
- 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.)
Chapter Section: “You Are Here”
Long gone (mostly) are the days when someone sat down to write a novel and started with:
- CHAPTER 1. I AM BORN
. . . 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:
- Finding Your Beginning in “The End”: Is Writing the Perfect First Line Really a Big Deal?
- Finding Your Beginning in “The End”: Dreaming of Writing a Perfect Opening
- Hooking the Reader: Love at First Sight—includes links to other posts about story openings
“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. . . .
To put it all another way: Significant change that threatens your character’s self-concept is where your story starts.
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.
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?
Bickham, Jack. Scene & Structure. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books. 1993.
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. London, UK: Bradbury & Evans. 1850.
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