Monday, November 5, 2007

Plug and Play

Last night I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – such a classic, and with many of the elements that are touted within the “how to write a screenplay” texts (e.g. Robert McKee’s Story and Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey). Reversals and gaps, plot pacing, character arc, conflict, etc. But this and a ton of other fabulous classic movies came out long before these “instruction manuals” graced a single shelf.

Gosh, how did they manage?

Well, there are older texts, certainly. Much of McKee’s story theory can be found similarly stated in Aristotle’s
Poetics. Think Hitchcock read the Poetics? Maybe. But probably not.

And, of course, there are a ton of books that tell novelists in general and mystery writers specifically how to craft a [commercially] successful story. Should be easy, then. Just plug your idea in and you're good to go, right? What’s the big dang deal?

A couple of years ago when I was working on
Lye in Wait, I took an intensive workshop on character development from Stewart Stern, who wrote many screenplays back in the day (and to the best of my knowledge continues to do so with verve and passion), including Rebel Without a Cause and the teleplay for Sybil. His take on the how-to books was crystal clear: good writers understand instinctively what a good story needs. The how-to folks find the commonalities among existing stories that really work, whether in movies or books, distill them and hand them back to aspiring writers as surefire formula.

Then I stumbled into story writing software online. Oh my. I would love to know of any published novels that were written using such software.

Now, I have nothing against books on writing. I have three shelves of the things. They provide both inspiration and information when I need it. And of course we have to understand the elements of storytelling, whether by instinct or by study (though I would argue without at least some of the instinct the study isn’t going to do much good), just as we have to know grammar, have an ear for dialog, and be able to get into the psychology of a variety of characters.

But surefire formula? No way. I say take the best and leave the rest.

How do you develop your own stories? Do you have a set structure? Write by the seat of your pants? Do you have any books on writing that you go back to again and again?


G.M. Malliet said...

Cricket - A lot of the how-to books take all the fun out of writing. Most of the screenplay-writing books are like that.

Rather than read someone else's analysis, I'll go back and read a book, or watch a movie, that held me spellbound, and try to figure out why.

The only book on writing that I think is invaluable and must be kept on every writer's shelf is Stephen King's On Writing.

Mark Combes said...


I've always considered myself an "instinctive writer." But that's probably not completely honest. I read alot and I think through osmosis I pick up on the elements of story telling.

That's why I always recommend that people that want to be writers take literature courses and not writing courses. I think you learn more by reading good literature/writing than analyzing it.

Joe Moore said...

I second the vote for ON WRITING by King. It doesn't take reading very far into his wonderful writing guide to understand why he has such a command of the English language. I would also suggest keeping a copy of THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White nearby. It's small enough to read in an afternoon with advice big enough to last a lifetime.

As far as developing stories, because I collaborate with Lynn Sholes, we have to plan our books out in fairly good detail. Not a lot of seat-of-the-paints writing for us or we'd still be drafting our first book instead of being halfway through our fourth.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I agree with both g.m. and Mark. When I set out to write a mystery novel, the first thing I did was look up the lists of recent Edgar nominees and winners, buy them and start reading. That was my classroom and books on how-to.

The only reference books on my shelves are books on weapons, poisons, police procedures, forensics, serial killers, etc. Except, that is, for King's On Writing and The Courage to Write.

Mark Terry said...

I like King's book reasonably well, but my favorite book on writing is Gary Provost's "Make Your Words Work."

I'm pretty much a seat of the pants writer, but the "formula" pretty much is:

1. Start off with something reasonably dramatic.

2. Give your main character a reason for being there.

3. Make your main character's life miserable.

4. Resolve all loose threads by the end.

I mean, it's easy, isn't it?

Cricket McRae said...

Stephen King's On Writing is one of my staples, and one I recommend to others. And the Elements trio (Elements of Style, Elements of Editing, and Elements of Grammar) always sits nearby.

I think much of what I mean by instinctive writing does indeed come from a deep familiarity with how stories work, gained from reading, reading, reading.

But a some definite structure doesn't hurt -- otherwise I spend WAY too much time rewriting.

Rick Bylina said...

I have 67 books dealing the craft of writing, and I've read them all. They are great for letting you know what are the elements of writing (a series for which I have a complete set). I believe anyone can write a novel using these guides, but that there is magical element out there that only allows a few select to write publishable novels, and still fewer to write novels that people will pay their hard earned dollars for. Those few have learned to listen to life and its rhythms, its ebbs and flows, what makes us truly scared in the dark or raises our hopes.

King and Lamott wrote books that keep me going long after my personal magic has faded, and Bickham's great "Scene and Structure" has taught me all I know to make that magic sit on the page.


Keith Raffel said...

Cricket, Welcome on board with a terrific first posting. as for me, I write the same way Columbus sailed. We both set off for destinations unknown.