Feb 262012

The other day I got a lovely email that began:
I want to send you a big, sincere ‘thank you’ for
writing your book on plot and structure.
After trawling through many books on plotting and
feeling more and more confused and anxious it was a relief to come across your
book. Finally I began having ‘aha!’ moments – and I’ve only read three
You are so encouraging and the exercises are really
useful – although now I find myself watching television and asking ‘what if?’ a
great deal of the time…
If an ex-lawyer can still have working cockles in
his heart, mine were warmed. I love hearing when a writer starts to get
it. An “aha moment” is exactly what I strive to provide in my
teaching. Because it was just such a moment that put me on
the path to selling my work.
I know exactly when it was, too, because I was keeping a journal of my writing quest. On September 15, 1990, I wrote these words:
Light! A bulb! A flash! A revelation! My
muse on fire!
I feel like
I’ve suddenly “clicked into” how to write . . .  I mean, everything I’ve been reading
and brooding about has finally locked. There is this
tremendous rush of exhilaration. It just happened, and now I feel like
everything I write will be at least GOOD, but can also be EXCELLENT.
I was writing screenplays at the time, and I’d
written five or six over two years without success. But the next one I wrote
was optioned and got me into a top agency. I optioned other properties, too, and did some assignment work (including a treatment for the late, great Whitney Houston). But when the projects didn’t get pushed up the ladder (an old Hollywood story) I got
frustrated and wrote a novel using the same revealed wisdom. The novel sold. Then I wrote a legal thriller and got a five book
contract. My career as a novelist was launched.
And all of it I trace back to that epiphany. Here’s
the story.
I was a member of the Writer’s Digest Book Club at
the time. One of their offerings was Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. I’d been reading screenwriting books, like Syd
Field’s Screenplay and Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great. I thought,
well, there may be some cross-over here from the novel world, and I bought the
Bickham advised this was a book for people wanting to
get serious about becoming professional writers. Not fluff, only what had
worked for him and his writing students at the University of Oklahoma. He said
it should be studied sequentially, as each chapter built upon the last.
So that’s what I did, starting at page one and
working my way through. And when I got to Chapter 8, covering “scene and
sequel,” that’s when the bulbs started popping in my brain.
Up to that time I did not have a strategic approach
to writing the next scene. I just sort of let it bubble up in my imagination (or
had committed to it on an index card) and went for it. But my scripts weren’t
working. People told me so, but couldn’t tell me why, which was frustrating
beyond measure.
Now, suddenly, I knew why they weren’t working. A superb writing instructor had
nailed it and explained it to me.
In brief, a scene is a unit of action made up of a
goal, conflict and disaster. There are of course nuances and variations, but all of them emanate from this basic understanding. The disaster doesn’t always mean something huge,
though it sometimes is. It is a setback of some sort, making the hero’s
situation worse.
I have the key paragraph highlighted in yellow, and
underlined in red, in Bickham’s book:
We make our story go forward by pushing our hero
backward, farther and farther from his ultimate goal, through scene disasters. The
reader reads excitedly, roots for the hero––then is crushed with him. The novel
flies along, lifelike, dramatic, suspenseful, hard to put down, filled with
twists, surprises and setbacks––and more and more tension as well as admiration
for the battered hero who simply won’t quit.
Boom. Bingo
. This was my breakthrough, my foundation. And it’s
never let me down since.
So I wonder, have you ever had an “aha
moment” in your writing? Maybe it came when you first realized something
was (or wasn’t) working for you on the page. Maybe it was while you were reading a novel
and thought, “Oh, now I see!”
Or maybe you’ve had a series of these moments,
perhaps not as dramatic as my own, but meaningful just the same.
Let’s hear about them.
NOTE: I will be on the road teaching my two-day
intensive “Next Level” seminar this year. The cities and dates have
just been announced:
Austin, TX, June 16 & 17

Nashville, TN, August 11 & 12

Cincinnati, OH, September 15 & 16
For further information, testimonials and sign-up forms, go here