There are also Craft Books. These are the books about writing. And it is with the craft books – books about writing – that my Writer’s bookshelf series will concern itself. I will share some of the best books I know – and some of them might be as basic as ‘for dummies’; while others may be self published; while yet others will be academic; while others will be ‘respectable’ – whatever the hell that means.
These are all books I recommend because I learned something from them.
For our first review on the Writer’s Bookshelf – I take a component seldom focused on in granular analysis of the craft. We isolate character or plot or setting or dialogue – but seldom do we zero in on Prose itself.
For any serious writer, reading Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer at least once is worth it. You might actually read it a few times and still get something from it. Even if – and perhaps especially if – you find his strict formula difficult, cumbersome or artificial.
The key is not to wholesale accept or reject anything. You are your own secret sauce and no one can tell you how to be you. You may even reject Swain’s techniques. Fine. But learn them, first, because they are interesting, and revealing, and powerful. He offers you one powerful paradigm with which you can approach creating fiction.
Swain was a lecturer at a University in Oklahoma. The book is quite old, the first printing in 1965. The style is then a little older than the TV-attention span generation is used to… but persist because there is some gold to be found.
There is plenty that the book reflects on – but its primary theses are the SCENE and SEQUEL binary, and the MOTIVATION REACTION UNIT.
The scene and sequel binary takes a look at structure on a scene level. If you study plots and plotting you may be aware of three act structures, or five act structures, or the heroes journey, etc. These are the bigger picture frameworks that an entire story fits into. Swain provides one of the first structural tools on the level of the individual scene. If we think of the three act structure as Beginning, Middle and End, Swain explores a SCENE as Goal, Conflict, Disaster – and the SEQUEL as Reaction, Dilemma, Decision. He alternates them one after the other. It is another way to do what has been called ‘try-fail’ cycles. I found this idea interesting – and I haven’t found any other work delving into scene level dynamics this deeply.
Swain takes it deeper, to the level of prose. The book is tremendously useful, it deals with word choices and how to be vivid and how to build tension and emotion. His also lays out a sentence level device that I found interesting and useful. Swain calls it a Motivation-Reaction Unit. He reasons it is applying cause and effect to people. You write a sentence without your character – a motivating stimulus – and then follow it with as sentence in which your character reacts to that. Swain advises that your entire book is written with one motivating stimulus followed by one character reaction. This is very strict – and as an exercise – quite illuminating. Take a chapter you’ve written, and re-write it using only Motivation Reaction units.
Like ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ writing advice can be true without being The Truth (my Fairbridge Series tells more than shows – because the point of the books are that people are trapped inside their ideologies – the stuff in the heads of the characters are almost more important than the unfolding plots).
I don’t agree with Swain to apply these rules very strictly. Still, its a nifty trick to master. And gives the writer another instrument she can use to weave her magic.
I’ll be looking at some more Prose tips and tricks – as well as all the other good components – in future Writer’s Bookshelf writeups. Hope it helps those starting out, or at least suggests the better books out there.