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60 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2003
With due respect to other reviewers (below), I think they overlook the central strengths of Bickham's "Scene & Structure" and home in on peripheral weaknesses.
An absolute prerequisite to success in any craft is acquiring its vocabulary. If you go in for graphic design, you'd better know how to use concepts such as contrast, repetition, proximity and alignment. And if you go in for fiction-writing, you'd better be able to use concepts such as scene, sequel, conflict, stimulus-response, and so on.
You might have a layman's understanding of what a scene is, but from the writer's standpoint, exactly what is a scene? What is its purpose? What work does it do in the overall structure of a story? What are its elements? What sorts of variation are possible? How do you control the pace of a scene? How do you effectively connect one scene with another?
These are the kinds of questions Bickham answers in useful detail and with comprehensible illustrations. If the excerpts from his own writing in the appendices aren't masterpieces, as some reviewers complain, they do serve to illustrate specific principles and techniques discussed in the text, and these are what make the book worth studying. To mention just one example, before encountering this book I had never grasped -- never even heard of -- the distinction between a scene and a sequel. Yet it's an essential distinction that a fiction-writer must know how to use. Bickham tells you, shows you, how to use it -- and many, many others.
Bear Bryant was no Joe Namath. Bob Fosse was no Fred Astaire. The best coaches and teachers are rarely top-notch practitioners of their arts. Jack Bickham is no Charles Dickens, granted. But he is an insightful teacher whose book can be of value to any writer who approaches it as a source of instruction rather than a model of artistic excellence. And as for "rules" about ending every scene with a disaster or explicitly stating the goal of every acene, if these strike you as wrong, vary them. If you aren't creative enough to think of exceptions to an "all or nothing" rule, are you really creative enough to write fiction?
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62 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2000
Where was this book when I was writing my first three novels? Halfway through this book, I threw out everything after chapter two of my current book (and I had 13 chapters already written!) and started rewriting feverishly. Powerful stuff. If you haven't read this book, you probably don't know enough about how to write captivating scenes and what to do with the characters AFTER the scene is over. I only put this book down long enough to apply what I was learning. It's worth every penny. A heartfelt wish Jack Bickham had written much, much more about the art of writing...
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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2001
I've read all the books in the Elements of Fiction Writing series and this is how I'd rank them.
"Scene & Structure" "Characters & Viewpoint" "Beginnings, Middles & Ends"
The above three books are invaluable -- must reads. They are the best of the series, in my opinion, and are packed with good information on every page. Well-done.
"Conflict, Action & Suspense" "Description" "Plot" "Manuscript Submission" "Setting"
The above five books are good, solid reads. Again, they contain good information and cover the subject decently.
"Voice & Style" "Dialogue"
To me, the last two books need to be rewritten. They are by far the weakest of the series. Both suffer from an annoying style, particularly Dialogue, and both are very skimpy on real information. Neither one is very helpful.
This is the order in which I'd recommend reading them.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2000
Most books on fiction writing aren't worth the paper they're printed on. This one is different. Jack Bickham is a master when it comes to structure, and if you let it, this book can make you a master as well. Not everything about writing can be learned; fortunately structure is something that can. This book is as well-structured as are Bickham's novels. Frankly, I don't know any writer, beginner or advanced, who couldn't profit from this book. It's certainly helped me.
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176 of 213 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2002
This is the third "Elements of Fiction Writing" book that I've read. The previous two ("Characters and Viewpoint" , and "Beginnings, Middles, and Ends") are truly excellent, and I have no hesitation in recommending them as both readable and usable.
Unfortunately, this work falls far short of the standards set by the previous two books.
Here's an example of Bickham's writing, excerpted from one of his novels and presented in this book as an example to be emulated:
"A sound like air gun pellets loudly peppered the front wall of his cabin."
In my world, air gun pellets might pepper a wall, but a sound cannot. Perhaps that's just his style? If pulling the reader up short and making him say "huh?" is style, then fine - but personally, I'd expect his examples to be cleaner than this.

As for the assertion that every scene must end with a disaster (OK, he means setback perhaps, but disaster is the term he uses), once again: huh? I've carefully checked several popular novels on my shelves - the sort of work I'd be proud to write - and it just ain't so. That's not to say I've never read novels that follow that formula to a large degree, but they've been just that: formulaic. Perhaps there's money to be made down that road, perhaps it's a way to get published, but it's not for me.
He actually goes further than that. Every scene must begin with a clear statement of goal ("most of the time, the character states his immediate goal in obvious, unmistakable fashion"), to be followed by development of conflict, and finalised by failure to reach the goal. Then there must be sequel - again precisely structured (Emotion, Thought, Decision, Action).
I also found the writing style problematic. The two books I mentioned above were fascinating and engaging, and I finished each in a day or two, but this one is a slog.
As you can probably tell, I'm irritated with this book. If it was a case of Bickham offering guidelines, it would be one thing... but he's implying that this has to be the rule, and that exceptions must be carefully justified. ("Once every hundred scenes, maybe you can get away with allowing the goal to be implicit"). Perhaps that's appropriate for particular genres, but few of the (mainstream) writers whom I admire follow these recipes.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2007
I have used this book to teach plotting to creative writing students, so my review is based on how well absolute novice writers respond to the ideas he puts forth in this book. On the whole, they respond positively. Once they grasp the standard three-act structure of a plot, they find his scene-sequel formula to be IMMENSELY helpful figuring out how to work out options for rising action. A few students complain that they don't like being taught a *formula*, and it seems a few reviewers have that gripe as well.

I'll say here what I say in class. First, if a formula happens to have been successful (as you can see if you break down almost any movie or popular novel), eh, maybe just this once it might be worth your time to learn it. Just file it away somewhere or something. Second, just because Bickham advocates a linear tic-tock scene-sequel way of composing your plot, that does not mean, nor does Bickham anywhere say, that you have to TELL the story in simple lockstep straightforward chronology. Once you have the basic idea of what's going to happen and why, you can start the story whenever you darn well please. You can start just at the climax, if you want, and tell the story through disconnected flashbacks, so that readers have to piece together the shards into the picture of the story arc. You can tell the story as an epistolary novel. You can tell it by varied protagonists. The only limit is imagination of the author. If you hate this book because you can't figure out new and creative ways to apply his basic formula, that doesn't necessarily equate with the *book* being worthless.

My students are grateful because (and remember they're all fledgling writers) this book's ideas give them handles to grasp when they sit down to write. I don't advocate the whole 'scene goal clearly stated to the reader' thing Bickham states, but if you as the WRITER have no idea what the scene goal is, or how things are going to wind up worse for the protagonist, chances are pretty high there will be a high Flounder Quotient in your plotting. All in all, it's worth your time and money as long as you are willing to view it as a plotting aid device and not the Magic Potion of Writing. It's a skeleton upon which one can reliably hang decent stories: my students are invariably impressed at the end of the semester both at their own ingenuity in storytelling and how they managed to create a story that *moves* and unfolds logically.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2007
I decided to get this book despite the mixed reviews because it promised to answer a question I had been asking myself at the time. I don't like to accept criticism without seeing something for myself so I approached it with an open mind.

I found very quickly that I wanted to disagree with the statements made in the book. Later I decided it was because a large part of the book is dedicated to how to tell a story rather than how to write one. Overall it was not a very pleasant experience though I did learn some things and make my mind up about others. The question which made me want to by the book was answered, so I suppose I got what I needed from it.

The good points of the book. His approach is very structured, logical, and easy to remember without having to refer to the book. The topics of scene and structure get all of the attention of the book, as I recall. He shows how scenes build together to form the structure of a book rather than treating them as unrelated topics.

The bad points of the book. He begins early on by doing two things that bothered me: assigning a lot of negative characteristics to readers and his use of the word "disaster" (an exaggeration repeated scores of times). His approach to scenes felt very artificial to me. Despite what the book claims, this approach is NOT good for multiple viewpoint characters or even multiple main characters. Nor is it very flexible (the viewpoint problem being an example).

I wanted to put the book down at a few places. He cited his spy novels several times in the book, and everything in the book felt geared towards telling that kind of story. I also don't think that books need to be simple to read and follow only because readers are a bunch of TV-addicted apes that can't go five pages without being reminded what is happening in the overall story.

One of the premises of the book is that a story should keep the reader on the edge of his seat the entire time, never knowing what is going to happen next. That is definitely a good way to tell some stories, but to do it as general principle seems abusive of the reader. Orson Scott Card, in "Character and Viewpoint" (a must-buy), said that tension comes not from things suddenly happening out of nowhere but from the reader being aware of the probability of something happening within the story. In Mr. Bickham's method the reader is aware something will probably happen because they are being hit with a new crisis and "disaster" every single scene. In other words, it uses a kind of artificial tension.

Mr. Bickham says that the worst thing that could happen is that someone would put the book down and not pick it up again. In my opinion the worst would be for someone to finish the book just to find out what happens and not have enjoyed it. Mr. Bickham gears most of Scene and Structure towards keeping the book in peoples' hands until the end.

Judging from the quotes from his novels, I won't be picking any of them up any time soon. I don't find covert CIA agents who work a second job as famous international tennis stars very credible. It is also poorly written based on every other source I have read.

As I said I really didn't enjoy the book but found myself accepting a lot of things as valid or at least insightful and usable. I also think his bad reviews come largely from the first few pages, where some of us (me included) took the condescending remarks about readers personally.

If you want to look into the method a published author uses of building scenes and structuring them together, get the book. If you will only accept flexible advice or a method that doesn't rely on artificial tension, then don't get it.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 1998
In the past year I've read at least a dozen books on writing fiction, and up until now, the best has been "The Weekend Novelist". But "Scene & Structure" outdoes them all. In concise, readable prose, Jack Bickham has told me how to fix every bit of fiction I've ever written. At the end of this book I really understood how to pace a novel. I feel that this book has enabled me to make my writing interesting, exciting and intimate. If you buy only one book about writing fiction, buy this one!
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
An excellent book. Should be about your fifth or so book read on how to write, for the not quite so beginning beginner.

When I read this I had already written about five or six chapters on my book. Some of the chapters were boring and seemed to be missing something. This book explained why.

One theme of my prospective book is boy meets girl. One chapter was on how the guy has an idea to improve the dates the girl has. He tries his idea with her, and it works. Oh well, they go back home afterwords. Boring. To keep the interest of the reader the tension has to mount.

Jack says you can violate his stated structure, it is just for starters or for a basic outline. That is you can go from scene to scene with no sequel between when things get tense. You can have the hero go from feelings to action during the sequel to show how strong the effect of the scene was on him. You can interrupt one scene with another, more intense unexpected one. Etc. This paragraph seems to be needed to be read by some critics of this book.

In short. All authors should read this book and keep it in mind as they write. Rules are always meant to be broken, even Bickham's. To break a rule purposely knowing the rule but realizing your story needs to step into the "wild side" is fine, but to break a rule out of ignorance and place your readers (or worse, prospective editor) to sleep is not fine at all.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2013
I was stuck on three different stories, each of which I'd thought were completed. One of them was repeatedly rejected; the other two couldn't even get past my beta-readers, who said they just didn't grab them. So I sat in the tub with a $6 used paperback of Scene & Structure, hoping it might get me thinking about the stories in a different way.

The solution to one of my stories was right there on the second page, and elaborated on on the sixth. The book helped a lot with the second story as well. I'd been doing so well with my artsy stories that I'd gotten into the habit of ignoring the basics of structure.

HOWEVER. Jack Bickham is a terrible writer. If you follow his advice to the letter, you'll write terrible, derivative pot-boilers like he did.

Bickham knows that rules aren't absolute. He often gives examples of when and why to break the rules. But even when he breaks the rules, he does it as a matter of craft, not art. Craft is how to make a story better. Art is making a set of story trade-offs that cooperatively make a story better for a particular audience or for a particular purpose. Bickham has loads of craft, but no art.

You should memorize and internalize the story structure principles Bickham describes, so that you don't even have to think about them--if you sleepwalk to your desk at night and start writing, a Bickham story should come out. Art is knowing when and how to deviate from that structure. Learn the Bickham basics in your gut, then learn the art of adapting it to tell a worthwhile story.
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