Reading about Writing

I’ve just finished reading two diametrically opposed books on writing.  One is Robert McKee’s Story, which is really about screenwriting but almost all of it is applicable to any writing.  He’s an advocate of the ‘plan everything out in detail’ style of writing, with some very good insights on conflict and pacing. 

The other was Stephen King’s On Writing (King is up there in my favourite writer category, when he’s at his best), in which he says basically: think up a situation, and let the characters take the story wherever it goes. No planning.  Which is exactly how I wrote Empire’s Daughter, so I automatically favour his approach (confirmation bias, that’s called) – but I think McKee has some very good advice as well.

The key to any advice on writing is to pay attention to what lies underneath the overarching organizational structure of the advice. I’m not going to plan out every scene before I write it, as McKee suggests, but his discussion of how scenes need to move the protagonist and the story from one place to another (physically, emotionally, spirituallly); that each scene must involve meaningful change, now that’s useful for me. But I need to let my subconscious guide that meaningful change, let my characters speak and do and think and react for themselves. I can’t force them to do something that isn’t right for them, and my understanding of my characters’ temperaments and beliefs and emotions resides somewhere that I can’t reduce to lines on an index card or in a notes file on my laptop. On the other hand, when I have a fair idea of the overall story arc and the major conflicts inside that arc, then that place that knows who my characters are and what they’ll do has more time to develop a deeper response from them.

Both books agreed on a couple of things, the biggest one being: don’t write what isn’t necessary. Every word should be there for a reason. That doesn’t mean we all have to write like Ernest Hemingway, nor does it preclude description, but there should be more to describing a setting or a person or a facial expression than just filling space: the invocation of character, of mood, time, familiarity or alien-ness, joy or desolation. If we’re showing the reader something important, good. If we’re over-describing instead of showing character through dialogue or reaction, bad.

Related to this is the need for dispassionate editing. You may have written the best scene of your writing life, but if it doesn’t play a part in the story, why is it there? “Kill your darlings,” King quotes. (I never got to see the movie Genius, about the relationship between Thomas Wolfe (not Tom), author of Look Homeward, Angel, and his editor Max Perkins, but I gather this was part of the conflicted relationship between them.) King says if the writer’s reaction to the advice to cut a scene is ‘Yeah, but…”, then the scene most likely needs cutting.

McKee and King both discuss the difference between writing and story-telling; the first is a matter of having the skill to put words together in a way that is literate and has style, a way that evokes emotion and captures setting and mood. But you can do all that, and still not have a story to tell. Some of the world’s best story-tellers have no or limited written literacy skills, but they know all about character and pacing and tension and crises and climaxes, and that a story – any story – must contain some universal features – the struggle for identity, the conflict between life and death, a facing of horror: a personal journey of some sort. But of course, a good story is not necessarily well written.

A writer can learn the elements of style, and a story-teller can learn to structure her stories for maximum impact. When the two are skillfully put together, in a story told in a way that is truthful, honest to the characters, and concise, then the result should be a book (or a movie or a play) that is remembered by its audience.

What have been your most useful books on writing?

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