Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Guest post by Kate Palmer-- "The writing book that changed my life"

There are a handful of books I consider must-reads for anyone serious about getting published. Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham tops the list as the one book I credit with improving my writing the most.

Bickham was a student of Dwight V. Swain author of Techniques of the Selling Writer. His methods aren’t that different from Swain’s, and many are exactly the same. Bickham, however, is a gifted teacher.

Scene and sequel are referenced by many an editor and author. Bickham explains that today’s books must be written in scenes to appeal to the modern audience.

First, we must understand that scenes happen in real time. A scene is made up a goal (for the viewpoint character), conflict with about four twists and turns, and ends in a disaster for the viewpoint character. The disaster can take the form of

1.      Yes, she accomplished her goal, but . . . something that makes the situation worse, more complicated, etc.
2.      No, and furthermore . . . something that makes the situation worse, more complicated, etc.
3.      No
So the structure of a scene is:


A day before my book was scheduled for typesetting, I received a note from my editor asking if I could use more show and less tell in a particular chapter without adding a lot of words. I read through the chapter and nearly cried. It. Was. Awful. I had apparently skipped it entirely when I’d edited my book for scene and sequel according to Bickham’s structure.

The chapter consisted of several short vignettes which showcased character traits or provided information crucial to the plot. I knew I had to rewrite it according to Bickham’s scene structure to provide the show not tell my editor requested. I ended up merging three of those vignettes into one scene happening in real time with all of the characters present. Far from adding to the word count, this technique helped me to cut HALF of the chapter and still preserve all the critical information.

Each scene is followed by a sequel.

This is where the reader truly gets to know the viewpoint character. My main character is named Eva. My beta readers kept telling me they wanted to be inside Eva’s head more. When I started writing sequels according to Bickham’s method, my readers finally understood Eva’s motivations and actions. The structure of a sequel is:


This is where we see inside the character’s head. The character has just experienced a setback (the scene ending disaster) and will be feeling emotion first. What type and how long depends on your character. Next, the character will become a bit more rational in that he/she can think about what just happened and consider where to go from here. Naturally, your character will make a decision based on the emotion (first) and thoughts (second) he/she just experienced.

That decision will come in the form of action which will launch your character into the next scene complete with a new goal of what he/she needs to do next. Of course your character will meet with more opposition (conflict) that ends in disaster for the scene goal. Doubtless this will stir up emotions for your character who will then have to consider (think about) his/her circumstances and make a new decision for more action (new scene and goal).

And on it goes until a scene doesn’t end in disaster and some form of resolution is met for your character and you type The End.

I’ve only touched on a couple of key components taught in Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham. I highly recommend anyone serious about writing buy his book and read it with a highlighter. At least twice.

Thank you, Kate! For information on Kate Palmer's debut novel, The Guy Next Door,  please see her website,

Kate began her career as an elementary school teacher, but was soon promoted to full-time mom. She is the mother of six and lives in the country. Her husband is trying to teach her to be a farm girl. She can’t saddle a horse, but she knows how to butcher a chicken. After a day of chasing children, cooking meals, and doing laundry, she likes to escape into a good book.