1. andrewwinters
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    andrewwinters New Member

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    Disaster/Setback in the Action Scene (Swain/Bickham Method)

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by andrewwinters, Dec 23, 2009.

    Dear Group,

    I am new to this group and relatively new to creative writing so bear with me.

    I've read more than a few "how to" books and I've noticed that the Dwight Swain/Jack Bickham method calls for alternating scenes and sequels (sometimes called action scenes and reaction scenes). Using this method, in the scene (action scene), the following structure is mandatory:

    1. Goal
    2. Conflict
    3. Disaster/Setback/Catastrophe

    #1 and #2 I get and as I read commercial fiction I can see conflict in 90% of what I read. My question relates to #3. First, I don't generally see this in the commercial fiction I see, or if I do, it's far from obvious. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not. I have yet to read a novel where I can see this structure in every scene consistently, throughout. Are there examples of authors/novels that strictly follow the Swain/Bickham method?

    Second, in plotting my story, I have a hard time making every scene end in a setback for the lead character. Sometimes, to move the plot along, good things have to happen to the lead character. For example, say my lead character is in prison and I want him out of prison. How do I do this in a scene and still have a setback. It's hard to call getting out of prison a setback. Is the answer that I use summary/narrative to get him out of prison? Or do I amend the plot so he doesn't get out of prison or was never in prison?

    Or am I putting too much weight on one system. I'm the type of person who likes to work within a strict structure when I'm learning something and only after I gain a certain level of skill do I feel comfortable varying.

    Many thanks in advance from a newbie!
     
  2. losthawken
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    losthawken Author J. Aurel Guay Role Play Moderator Contributor

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    It seems like the point of #3 is to give the character continuing motivation and direction. The disaster/setback/catastrophe could be more subtle than you expect.

    Your character escapes from prison, BUT his daughter is still dying and he can't afford her medical treatment.

    You see, in the above the mini-conflict (jail)is resolved, but there is still the major setback of the storyline (sick daughter) that needs addressing. You may not need a new disaster at the end of every scene but you have to bring the character back to the over-arching conflict of the plot in order to keep the story moving.

    Strict structures are good to get you started, but interpretations are going to have to be loose at times in order to produce an original story. Use them to build your experience, but don't forget that your goal is to find YOUR OWN voice in story telling and style.

    Good luck ;)
     
  3. Unsavory
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    Unsavory Active Member

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    This is new to me personally, so all I can do is speculate on what it means. My thought is that you don't necessarily need an explicit setback, but you do need motivation for the reader to keep reading. If everything feels resolved after the protagonist breaks out of prison, the flow of the narrative will feel clunky and artificial as you try to create a new obstacle. Basically, the new obstacle should already be there.

    The ongoing struggle should always be somewhere in the back of the reader's mind, so while the guy is breaking out of prison, maybe other bad stuff is happening elsewhere. Perhaps the longer he takes to get out, the more likely it is that his family will be captured.

    EDIT: Uh... pretty much what losthawken said. :)
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I'm not a fan of "how-to" books on writing. In this field, it's far more important to recognize the dynamics of plot and understand it well enough to tweak the story when needed. If you apply a "system" like this consistently from the outset, you're likely to end up with a story that feels like it was churned out by a script engine.

    Conflict is at the heart of plot. Internal conflict or external, adversity is more interesting than satisfaction. Your step 3 is a way to amp up the plot tension, but if you do it to every single plot that compriises your storyline, your reader can end up feeling like he or she is swept headlong in a mudslide, or an episode of the Perils of Pauline.

    Really, set the "how-to" books aside, other than respected style guides like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. The how-tos are full of advice which is at best questionable, and at worst downright horrible. Yes, tere is some good advice to be found, too, but telling which is which requires you to already know most of it before you start.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i have to advise listening to cog... drop all those how-to's and just read good books by good writers, to see how they do things... absorb good writing by constant reading and you'll find yourself turning out good stuff almost automatically... writing by formula next to never turns out good reading...
     
  6. bluebell80
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    bluebell80 Contributing Member

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    I'm a person who likes to pull from every possible place as experience and example. For me an example of the #3 part of that system is "the cliff-hanger." Think about any TV drama (day or nightime) and see how their scenes end with some sort of cliff-hanger, drawing you back into the resolution after the commercial break, or make you come back to watch next week's show. Season finale tend to be resolutions and a cliff-hanger into the next seasons (if there is one) or a series finale will end with an absolute ending no cliff-hanger.

    To me this can be applied in fiction writing, though not exhaustively. It is generally referred to as motivation, both for the characters and for the reader to continue on in the story. A story that is resolved in one chapter, isn't a novel, it's a short story. So each chapter of a novel has to have some sort of cliff-hanger to motivate the reader to continue, and give your character a reason for continuing.

    What form that cliff-hanger comes in really doesn't matter as it is a story by story basis. You just have to keep giving the reader a reason to continue reading, like they have to keep reading to find out how it turns out. I don't think it has to be defined as setback/disaster/catastrophe, but it has to be something of motivation, and usually the negative is what motivates, however it can also be a positive motivation, or just appear to be a positive cliff-hanger and turn out to be a negative in the next chapter.

    In your example of a character who is in prison getting out of prison, either by escape or through legal means...it doesn't have to be the resolution. While your character is in prison their motivation is to get out of prison. Once they are out, the story doesn't end, though it is a resolution to the original motivation. If they got out by legal means, then whatever happens next in your story will be built on that resolution, and there are still going to be issues for the ex-con, because we know the life of an ex-con can be hard. If the prisoner escapes from prison...while the escape is a resolution for the original motivation, you now have a plethora of issues that will motivate your character and reader from that point on. Between life outside of prison, the reasons for being in prison, and trying to stay away from the authorities, well you have a whole bunch of setbacks right there that could happen.

    Like Cog said, don't stick strickly to one type of method for your story. While the basic concept that things, once resolved, must then have another problem to move on to is the basis for most fiction, it doesn't have to be as cut and dry as the method you are talking about.
     
  7. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    I do feel a lot better after reading this cause I scanned the how-to saying that every scene needs to end in a disaster.(Not just a setback, a fdisaster) The guy also said that a character who wants something is automatically an interesting character.(Really? I beg to differ.) He's also trying to say what readers as a whole want done. Frankly, the formula they present seems like it would make for quite a predictable(and tiring) book.

    I can't write like that. If others can, more power to them. But if you can't write like that, I say don't worry. It's your story.
     
  8. bruce
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    bruce Active Member

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    Evan Marshall recommends this method in his book "The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing".
     
  9. wave1345
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    wave1345 Member

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    I too advocate against "how to" books for writing. They strive to make things too
    pretty. Your first manuscript won't be pretty. Your first draft will, frankly, suck, from a
    "publish-ready" standpoint. But that isn't the point. Throw out the method books.
    WRITE. It will be ugly. It will not make sense. It will be chaotic and messy. Just make
    sure you write everything that comes into your head. The first draft is a brain dump.
    Ignore style. Ignore method. Get it ON THE PAGE. After that, you can make it pretty.

    It's a bitter pill. No one likes writing things that are "bad". But even award-winning
    novelists bad first drafts. It's the final draft that counts. Getting there is a process.
     
  10. writewizard
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    writewizard Contributing Member

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    I don't have a system. I write what I feel like on any given moment. Don't feel like you "have" to do things at any given moment. One book I may write all romance and the next I might decide to do all violence. But I always try and add a bit of humor or something to stabalize the book.

    Also, "How Too" books only help so much - they're better reserved for editing and so forth. I much prefer to just sit down and write. It's your writing, not theirs, after all.
     
  11. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree but even then, cutting everything that doesn't meet the standards of "how-to" books doesn't leave much of a story left in many cases. Sometimes I can honestly say that I don't want my story to resemble what they want because what they want seems terribly boring and monotonous. We don't want the chaos of a first draft in the final draft, but a final draft can be too neat too.
     
  12. fandango
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    fandango Member

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    I tend to agree with those that say ditch the "how to" books. You need to understand the mechanics of writing, not blindly follow a formula. Once you have that understanding you will be in a better position to understand how to apply it. That strict structure sounds dreadful.

    It's one of the reasons I detest Dan Brown's writing. I look past the prose and see a rigid, inflexible structure that leaves not only every chapter with a cliffhanger, but pretty much every page. It becomes rather tedious.
     
  13. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    What how-to books have you guys been reading? And what exactly did you expect to get out of them? There is no secret formula to success in writing, and any how-to book that claims to deliver such a formula is a sham. However, there is a method to our craft, and you do yourself no harm by studying what other authors have to say about it. Every shred of advice they give in their books is just that: advice. Take it or leave it. Internalize what you find useful, and forget what you don't. It's that simple. You might find 90% of a particular how-to book to be redundant, but if the other 10% contains some truly helpful information that opens your eyes to an aspect of your own writing that you haven't fully understood before... well, you be the judge. I personally think you have nothing to lose. Unless you're on such a tight budget that you can't afford the $100 or so it would cost you to buy most of the worthwhile how-to books off Amazon, why not go for it?

    That being said, how-to books alone won't make you a good writer. (None of the worthwhile ones will even make that claim.) Nor will not reading them, even the good ones, somehow handicap you. They're just another tool for you to use to improve yourself--potentially a time saving one, since they quickly introduce you to the elements that are present in every story and explain how to use them to maximum effect.

    (If anyone reading this would like some recommendations, PM me. I would be more than happy to provide a list of how-to books that I have personally read and found to be useful in one way or another.)

    As for the question you raised about the Goal, Conflict, Setback "model" of scene structure: It's a rough guideline. Any sane writer has to be able to look at that and realize that it's not supposed to be implemented in every scene. As an outline for the course of the whole story, however, it's pretty accurate. I'll probably have more to say on this soon, as I just purchased Jack Bickham's book on scene and structure today on Amazon (coincidentally). Once it gets here and I have a chance to read it, I'll be able to comment in greater depth. Until then. :-D
     
  14. bruce
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    bruce Active Member

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    Well said. I agree completely.
     
  15. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd fall into that boat. lol I don't got 100 bucks to spare, especially for something that while useful, probably couldn't help me anyway. (I'm the type who needs to know specifically what is wrong with my piece, and books can't give that to me.)

    I read something that insisted that the end product have it every scene and every scene without it should be edited to have it or cut without mercy. I forget who wrote it, though. It was definitely discouraging as a writer, and even more-so, almost offensive as a reader.
     
  16. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    what is that must-have 'it'?
     
  17. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    Books cannot tell you what is specifically wrong with your piece, but the information in them can help you hone your intuition to the point that you can now tell what is wrong with your piece. That's really all they offer. Nothing more, nothing less. You can hone your intuition without their help, through lots of practice and diligent study, and that's fine--it's not like they're intended to be a substitute for that kind of learning anyway. They're merely a catalyst.

    That being said, you can find much of the helpful information contained in those books on the Internet (for free) if you look in the right places. Even if it's not your genre, the Science Fiction Writers of America website has a few helpful articles on writing. Orson Scott Card also has some writing lessons on his personal website. (In addition to being a successful author, Card also teaches writing at Southern Virginia University. I would deem him to be a good source of "how-to" information.)

    Oh, and the one thing you should always remember is this: Every "rule" in writing should be treated as a guideline. There are always exceptions. Part of the art of writing is knowing when to adhere to the rules, when to bend them a little, and when to throw them out completely. Adhering to the rules will often do you good--they exist for a reason--but if your story calls for you to stray off the beaten path and try something else, don't be timid. And don't be a lemming. Hone your own judgment and follow it to success.

    To quote Orson Scott Card, taken from his online lesson on Beginnings: "You can break any rule, as long as you're willing and able to pay the price."
     
  18. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The problem with this statement is that all the attention goes to the first clause, and not enough to the second.

    In order to intelligently decide whether you're willing to pay the price, you must understand what that price is. That means you have to not only know the "rules", but also understand why each one exists. It may very well be that what the rule is trying to protect you from is exactly the effect you wish to create. In fact that is the only reason you should break an established rule.

    Take, for example, sentence fragments. These are looked upon grimly in foirmal writing, such as scholarly dissertations. However, in fiction, a sentence fragment used judiciously is a point of impact, and is used for that purpose. Emphasis. Power. Punch.

    But if you overuse sentence fragments, your writing loses its impact and simply becomes choppy, like a discount furniture store advertisement.
     
  19. Show
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    I find personal review a lot more interesting, learning to see my piece through the eyes of another person. For somebody as self critical as myself, all those books do is make me wanna just give up. So I think it's best to use them sparingly. They're kind of like a really hot spice. They might be helpful ins mall doses but just a little too much and you'll get burnt.
     

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