Jack Bickham, My Strange Hero

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Scene and Structure is a good little book by Jack Bickham with several simple formulas that work to keep stories engaging.  Jack Bickham wrote many action/adventure/suspense novels, although he’s better-known for the columns and books he wrote for Writers’ Digest, and for teaching writing at the U. of Oklahoma from 1973 to 1990.

But I noticed that Bickham only uses examples from action/adventure novels. He’s always talking about car chases, gunfights, and mine accidents. And the prose in his examples is terrible. So I bought some of his novels, to better understand how to interpret his advice. It’s not a good sign when you list an author’s books in order of popularity, and the top seven are books on how to write books.  Those who can’t do, teach.

Jack Bickham was in many ways a terrible author. I say this after skimming two of his most-popular novels,Twister[1] and Tiebreaker. His minor characters are sometimes a little interesting, but his major characters always break down cleanly into good guys and bad guys—and the good guys are not very distinctive. (One of Bickham’s pieces of advice is to keep the character and motivations of the protagonist and antagonist simple, clear, and free of all shades of gray, so the reader roots whole-heartedly for the protagonist and yearns to see the antagonist crushed. This makes the story less interesting, but it does keep you turning pages, at least for a while.) His stories have no themes worth mentioning. The plots, characters, and dialogue are hackneyed and uninteresting. Yet they’re solid, entertaining stories that are hard to stop reading.  He has a knack for description, his scenes are compact and efficient, and you always know what’s happening and why you’re supposed to care.

Jack Bickham had little talent or art. He wanted to write, and he studied long and hard and figured out how fiction works. And that was enough. He didn’t have keen observational powers; he didn’t have deep insights into human nature; he had no big ideas; he couldn’t create complex characters or write poetic prose. He didn’t have the gift. But he powered through with brute-force analysis and willpower, and wrote and sold novels that entertained people. He’s the Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger of writing, and he actually made it for a while (though he never gave up his teaching job—perhaps out of necessity, perhaps by preference).  I don’t know if that’s a victory or a tragedy, but it makes him a kind of hero to me.  Not the kind I want to be, but one I respect, and who can give me hope of a sort.

[1] Not the basis for the movie Twister, or at least he wasn’t credited for it.  He did write The Apple Dumping Gang, but it was released the same year as the film, which means it must have been a novelization of the screenplay rather than an original work.

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