Bickham on Setting

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Here’s a couple of tricks taught by my strange hero Jack Bickham in his book Setting.  I don’t recommend Setting, because it spends most of its time telling you obvious things like “Don’t set your story in the old west if you want to talk about urban slums.” But it gives a few specific techniques, the kind Bickham excels at and great writers never mention because they are too pedestrian and make writing sound like bricklaying.  I haven’t tried these myself, but they sound reasonable.

You can only change so much at one time

Specifically, when you change from the point of view (POV) of one character, back to the POV of an earlier character in a place we’ve already seen, do not describe anything in the earlier setting that we haven’t seen before until the reader is re-oriented. Specifically mention things that the reader has already seen, to help them figure out the transition. If you really want to talk immediately about the clock tower when you switch back to an earlier setting, mention that tower in the previous scene in that setting.

This doesn’t apply only when changing POV. Any time that so much is happening that the reader is in danger of becoming disoriented, reduce the confusion by turning new things into old  things, by planting references to them in earlier scenes.  That includes references to the setting. Recently I read a book the author began with two long action scenes [1]. In the second scene, the protagonist walked through a strange setting to meet a villain, then ran back out the way she came in while fighting. I could have visualized the fight more clearly if the author had described on the character’s way in everything that the character saw on her way out, because the fight on her way out was fast and confusing.

Casting against setting requires using stereotypes

Bickham says that fish-out-of-water characters, like Gene Wilder in The Frisco Kid or Dr. Fleishman in Northern Exposure, must begin as stereotypes of people from their original setting. If your point is to show how the character’s background clashes with their present circumstances, making a realistically complex character who does not exactly fit the expectations of their background blurs the distinction between adjustments the character makes to the new setting, and the character’s original idiosyncrasies.

[1] Don’t do that.

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.