Tuesday, November 16, 2004

'The Elements of Fiction Writing': Better Writing Through Chemistry

At some time or other, I’ll bet you’ve seen a chemistry teacher hold a class spellbound as he or she made simple adjustments causing solution A to suddenly turn clear, solution B to froth and boil, solution C to solidify, and solution D to explode. But have you ever seen a writing teacher get the same reaction, causing paragraph A to suddenly turn clear, paragraph B to froth and boil, paragraph C to solidify, and paragraph D to explode? The authors of the books I’ve read in the 'Elements of Fiction Writing' series make a habit of such educational showmanship.

Despite my long running interest in the craft, I had not independently sought books on the subject until recently. My experience with English and writing classes in high school and college had given me the erroneous impression that such texts were merely vague motivational tools; that a mastery of the storytelling craft could only come from within after absorbing the highly anthologized works of others. In retrospect, it’s obvious that books of distilled technique do not fit easily in the curriculums of a large multi-purpose language class, and that it’s much easier for a teacher in that position to fill a syllabus with an annotated anthology than with a concentrated guide to technique.

The 'Elements' authors have felt my pain. Like most every writer whose advice I have sought on the web, they all seem introduce themselves by telling about how they were pulling heartfelt-but-troubled manuscripts out of the depths of their soul until some kind veteran took them under their wing and schooled them in the tricks of the trade. What? You mean good writing can actually be learned by something other than failure?

In Plot, Ansen Dibell, masterfully addresses what had been my biggest pre-writing concern: building a coherent plot skeleton on which you can hang the manageable building blocks of scenes. This is the skill of crystallization, of creating a basis for choosing which ideas to pull out of the intimidatingly infinite possibilities of your own imagination.

In Jack M. Bickham’s Scene & Structure, plot is analyzed in finer grain. Everyone knows that a story has rising action and falling action, but what do you build this roller coaster out of? Scenes! And Bickham shows you exactly how to build them. I don’t think anyone could have done it more cleary, either, since his is the high-octane, no-nonsense style that brought us brisk novels like Twister.

Orson Scott Card shows you how to get personal with Characters & Viewpoint. Card was my reason for checking out this particular series in the first place, for I know of no other more skilled at making me care about his characters. By learning his techniques you will be able to put the experiences of yourself and your closest friends into stories in ways so twisted nobody will ever be able to tell; you will have created new and believable people to populate your universe. Card also succinctly demonstrates the tradeoffs you will make when you pick a particular viewpoint in which to tell your story.

Bickham gets a second chance to impress with Setting, and he succeeds again. Setting is often disparaged in writing courses as something most amateurs already overdo on their own. Bickham does not flinch from the peril, and successfully teaches how to use setting to enhance, rather than bog down, a story.

In a similar vein, Monica Wood’s contribution, Description, elucidates the factors that you should use to determine how much description to use on a given occasion. This volume also deals very competently with what most others would probably lump under style. But in any case, Wood knows her craft and her examples are great.

Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by Nancy Kress, explores the same topical space as Plot, but from a different enough perspective to make it worth reading anyway. Different writers have different styles and ways of approaching a problem, and something can be learned from each.

Conflict, Action, and Suspense could hold its own as a stand-alone book, but I don't think William Noble’s volume adds much to this series. I feel that most of his points are made more clearly by the other authors.

Lewis Turco’s Dialogue is a another soft spot. (I already felt pretty competent in this area, so he had a tougher job to begin with.) Turco covers the territory, but by writing his entire book as a dialogue about dialogue, he trades clarity for cleverness. Every part of every page becomes example, but without the focused precision of the example snippets used in the rest of the series.

(There are 2 other books in the series; one, Manuscript Submission, won’t help me yet, and the other, Voice & Style, is not carried by my library.)

Each volume in this series weighs in at a lean 160 pages or so, a good length for reading in a day, though some of the authors strongly recommend reading over days or weeks between writing sessions.

A great thing about how-to books on writing (versus how-to books in general) is that they are written by people who know how to write. Each author here is an excellent explainer, and each keeps their book interesting with personal anecdotes about finding the solutions to story problems. But it’s their examples that reveal these writers as masters of the ‘Elements’. With just a pair of sentences or paragraphs, they dazzle and amaze, surprise and teach. They’ll earn your ‘ooh’s and ‘ah’s.


Anonymous Leslee Anne Hewson said...

I was just searching the net to see where I could purchase Elements of Fiction Writing 'Description' and noticed your site. I borrowed this book from the library and thought I must purchase this one. I agree, it's so helpful and informative. I was interested to read about the other books in the series. Thank you very much. Leslee Anne

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