After I began circulating the first draft of my first novel, I began to hear a comment on my story’s structure repeated often enough to let me know it was the kind of objective criticism I needed to pay attention to. “Your story’s episodic,” was the refrain that got my attention. But I had no idea why that should be a bad thing. Wasn’t a good story supposed to be composed of a bunch of compelling episodes – the individual chapters that explored plot and character to combine to create an engaging read?
Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure was the book that finally revealed what I’d been missing: a more organic approach to my narrative. Bickham’s work, along with that of his teacher, Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer gave me a simple, invaluable new lens to look at my work through, one I captured in a slide in the presentation I created to share my novel-writing process. Take a look:
This model shows that the majority of storytelling is done through scenes, followed by sequels. These cause and effect relationships allow stories to grow from sequential events that influence each other, not the kind of discrete, isolated vignettes I’d often been creating. In organic storytelling, the protagonist often has a specific mission she is trying to accomplish in a scene, one that creates conflict that often ends in disaster. After this, she does what we all do when disaster strikes: we have an emotional response. Then, when the waters still, we reflect on what happened, make a decision about how to respond, and act upon it with a newly defined mission. Scene, sequel: the repeating pair that can point the way to a tale that evolves with the natural flow that will resonate with your readers.
I didn’t completely miss the boat in my novel’s first draft. Some of the work intuitively followed this model. But having it identified for me by these teachers let me memorialize it as a regular tool I can use when I create and proof my work. It’s just one of the items I’ve cut and pasted into the Scrivener file I’ve labeled as my “Writing Toolbox.”
Stay tuned. I’ll be opening up that kit to share some of the other tools I’ve tucked in there to tune up my stories in future posts as well.