Wednesday, November 10, 2010

No, and furthermore

A student of mine is looking at scene endings, and analyzing a favorite book using Jack Bickham's scene ending answers. The question is: Did the scene protagonist attain the scene goal?

Answers:

No (didn't get the goal)
Yes, but (got the goal, but something else happened too)
No, and furthermore (something even worse happened)

No, of course, you don't have to do this, and it's probably not right for every scene, but it's a good technique to have in your writing toolbox. Now the question I have is-- can you increase the pacing, the thrill, the intensity of the story by using one of those endings more than the others?

For example, what would the effect of a lot of scenes ending "no, and furthermore?" Things would be getting constantly worse, but more than that, every time that happened would be a twist. Joanie's scene goal is returning the diamond bracelet her kleptomaniac mother stole from the jewelry store. She just wants to slip it back into the display case before it's discovered missing. Does she get her goal? No, and furthermore, she stumbles and falls into the display case, and it sets of the alarm, and the off-duty cop doing security is right there and arrests her with the necklace still clutched in her hand. No, she doesn't get the goal, and furthermore, she ends up in jail!

Okay, you can see how a series of "no and furthermores" like that would keep the reader on constant edge, waiting for the next disaster. This would be useful in a thriller or a comedy, in the middle of the story particularly (rising action section). However, I think more than a few of these would decrease the reader identification with the character. Why? Well, pretty soon the reader will be thinking, "No, don't go after that goal. It'll only end up badly." And that will separate the reader a bit, as she will know more than the character, perhaps? Recognize a pattern maybe?

I can see the "yes, but" ending being useful for romance, as it would allow her to get her goal but eventually realize the "but"-- "But it's not really what you want, is it."

Anyway, what do you all think? If you want to increase the pace or intensify the stakes, can the Bickham scene endings help?

Alicia

11 comments:

Deb Salisbury said...

Hmm. I hadn't thought of scenes quite like this. I do list my scene goals, but I haven't paid attention to a yes/no/no-and-worse pattern. (Scurrying back to WIP!)

Leona said...

Once again, I'm left wishing I could take a class from you :) I like it. Usually, I just put more problems in their way.

Like last night, I gave my poor psychic heroine a piece of paper to hold that has all kinds of negative emotions, etc. that causes her to lose consciousness. And this is a sparse description of the horrors of it.

I guess that would be no, and furthermore :D

Julie Harrington said...

I'm a huge fan of the Yes, But... endings. I write romance, maybe that's why. I do use the flat out No, of course, but the two both force the protagonist to continue on, throw obstacles in his/her way (which helps build new goals, reinforce motivation, and keep your story from sagging) and keep the story moving.

I think it does increase the pace and intensify the stakes IF what the protag is trying to achieve is worth all the drama, risks, and high stakes. It has to be a worthy goal with something of "high value" to the character at risk, be it honor, justice, etc. It had to matter to the protag. But you also have to make sure that the "disaster"/yes but/no ending of the scene isn't cliff hanger after cliff hanger. Each is a mini-resolution of it's own that just plunks down another plank on the bridge from where the character started to where they're trying to go. It all has to relate to each other and build organically forward. It can't just be willy-nilly "no, the protag didn't get what he wanted in this scene and then suddenly a land shark appeared...."

JT

green_knight said...

I dislike Bickham for several reasons.

Firstly, I don't believe in characters who fail consistently and make one last push to overcome everything in the end - this might be a structure that works for short thrillers, but not for the kind of book I enjoy.

Second, I like to read about competent characters, and that means that they often succeed. (And sometimes find that they misjudged the problem.) This means that by the time we get to the big confrontation, we've seen them use and develop their skills, and we believe that they *can* make that extra push and win.

Thirdly, Bickham himself gives the example of the guy who wants to climb a mountain and gets mired down at the stage where he's trying to secure finances.
And... I want to read a novel about a guy who climbs a mountain, not about a guy whose fighting with foreclosure.

Last but by no means least, I like novels that play the internal and external plot against each other, so that the character succeeds at one thing, but at the price of having to sacrifice another. Bickham's structure does not seem a good blueprint for that; or you have to bend it so far that you might as well ignore him altogether.

I really prefer Robert McKee's concept that a scene provides a change - from happy to sad, from captured to free, from uncertain to determined.

Edittorrent said...

Leona, the heroine has to have a goal that gets her into the trouble. So if her goal is, say, "forgetting the terrible event in the past," and the piece of paper does that, but also means she forgets the good stuff too, that would be "yes, but."

If she gets the paper and she not only remembers the past, but now also knows the terrible pasts of everyone around her, that would be "no, and furthermore."

Either way, what's really important is that the character starts the scene with a goal. :)
Alicia

Edittorrent said...

Julie, so you think "yes, but" works well with romance? I can see that because whatever the character's goals are, they're probably not going to be "love," and yet that's what we want her to end up with. :)
Alicia

Edittorrent said...

GK, that's why I say, take Bickham's scene ending tool and add it to your workbelt, because that actually does work for many scenes. (And it works remarkably well with The Great Robert Mckee's scene design. :)

My problem with Bickham is that "sequel" formulation, which has to be modified so much if you want a faster pace. When we're thinking, "I need a sequel! Scenes have sequels!" then we're giving a tool too much power. A power tool!

But Bickham's scene endings questions really are very helpful, and we shouldn't let other problems with his analysis keep us from using something useful. It's all tools. No cults here (though I'm sort of cultlike about Robert Mckee. :) I don't have to buy into Bickham's overall approach to make use of a really good scene design too.

Oh, dear. I've revealed my adoration of McKee. I generally think of myself as rational, but not about his seminars, which are too brilliant.
Alicia

Julie Harrington said...

Alicia, I think it works very well. It seems to just keep the snowball conflict rolling down the hill (at least for me) and makes it easier to keep the situation/conflict moving and growing or moving and evolving so you don't sit there thinking, "Uh oh... now what?"

And Green Knight, the "fail" or Yes but or No has nothing to do with the competency of the character. It's about complications often beyond their control. If the hero walks into a store to buy a gallon of milk and get home in time to set up a romantic dinner before she gets home and winds up in the midst of an armed robbery (thus thwarting his goal of getting home asap) that's not his failure. And if the criminal then takes him hostage to make his escape, not the hero's "failure" either.

And the Yes, But combination allows your character to achieve their goal and get what they want BUT with an complication, condition, or twist that adds another unexpected step to it OR lets them achieve it only to realize they didn't want it or it wasn't what they thought it was going to be.

JT

Edittorrent said...

Julie, I agree, in fact, the emphasis on the goal will make the character more active, not less. After all, the question is, "Does he/she get the goal?" And the fun twist is not just the yes/no answer, but what also happens because he's going after the goal. "What also happens" is what will propel into the next part of the book-- the complication.

But starting with the goal really does help make the plot more than good/bad things happen to her. Like I was thinking of a pretty minor scene where the heroine "seizes the day" and ends up getting a dream job. I was just going to have it happen that she comes across a car accident and stops to ask if she can help. But then I thought about "yes, but" and that helped, because I realized that the scene would have more force if she was driving on that road for her own reason, and whatever I chose that reason to be could show something about her. So if her scene goal is to get to the courthouse and file for divorce before her husband does, that says something (about her, and about the subplot of the disaster happening to her life). IF her scene goal is to meet the blind date her friend set up, then her willingness to stop and help at the accident scene might reveal some ambivalence about the date.

That is, even minor, momentary goals can reveal a lot about the character, and might be used even if they aren't that important to the overall plot.
Alicia

Leona said...

My story is a paranormal with demons, angels, psychics, gargoyles, you know, the basics :)

My heroine is a psychic. She and her handsome hero are trying to find people with motives for killing his boss because right now, he is the only suspect.

They finally get a lead on the person, but no name. So she tries to use her powers on a paper belonging to him.

I had to think about what you said for a moment. Did my characters have a goal? etc. Yep, she did. They needed more information, were actively seeking it.

I'm glad you pointed that out though as I had the brainstorm for the character that introduces the paper the night before. It didn't hurt to reread and make sure she was done right.

I really like this as a driving force for scenes. What's the goal, is it accomplished, and what other obstacles and/or problems are there?

I like Julie Harrington's take on whose failure it really is as well. I think that internal conflict and wow I got what I wanted, but I'm not happy scenarios, are fun to read.

But then, I'm just weird... :P

Amie Kaufman said...

I hadn't heard of Bickham before, so I found this really helpful! I agree, it's a tool to add to your workbelt, not a rule to follow religiously, but these questions are really helpful to ask yourself.

I've linked back to this post from my blog to share it with my readers.