When I first made the switch from journalism to fiction, I did what journalists do; I researched, I read books. So here are my top five books about writing fiction, the ones on my bookshelf which I still turn to.
‘Story’ by Robert McKee [UK: Methuen]
If the number one book is to be quantified by the amount of underlining and number of Post-Its, then this is my ‘most-used’ book on my shelf. The sub-title reads ‘Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting’. Yes, it’s a book about writing screenplays, not novels, but it is full of wisdom about storytelling.
For example: “If you make the smallest element do its job, the deep purpose of the telling will be served. Let every phrase of dialogue or line of description either turn behaviour and action of set up conditions for change. Make your beats build scenes, scenes build sequences, sequences build acts, acts build story to its climax.”
And this, on risk: “We’d all like to have our cake and eat it too. In a state of jeopardy, on the other hand, we must risk something that we want or have in order to gain something else that we want or to protect something we have – a dilemma we strive to avoid. Here’s a simple test to apply to any story. Ask: what is the risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants? More specifically, what’s the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his desire?”
When I get stuck with a storyline, I turn to this book to get me moving again.
‘Bestseller’ by Celia Brayfield [UK: Sage]
Another book on my shelf with lots of underlining and Post-Its. Brayfield – author of ‘80s blockbusters novels Pearls and White Ice – emphasizes three elements which have to be got right if you want to write a bestseller: location, central character, theme of the story.
“The setting of a story is one of its most seductive qualities. People will buy a book because its action takes place in a country they love, a landscape which they know or a social environment which they find fascinating… The reader will enjoy the world of a book like a tourist, but the writer must choose that world for one reason only – as the best setting for the theme of the story. Instinct can draw you to a certain time or place, but if your theme is not positively enlarged by that setting it will be nothing but a distracting irrelevance.”
Throughout she illustrates her points with examples for her own writing, and she too talks about The Hero’s Journey [see Vogler below]. There is a useful chapter about research, including a demonstration of how 10 days researching in Leningrad for White Ice eventually turned up on the page.
Brayfield feels like a friend you can ask for help when you get stuck, and her book is absolutely stuffed with tips.
‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler [UK: Pan]
Another book about films. Vogler analyses how master storytellers – from Spielberg to Tarantino, Lucas to Hitchcock – have used mythic structures to create powerful stories. He calls it ‘The Hero’s Journey’ as, in its simplest terms, every hero’s story is a journey. A hero leaves his/her comfortable surroundings to venture into an unfamiliar, challenging world. On this journey he faces obstacles, he grows and changes, he veers from despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate, and back again. The journey has 12 stages, starting with The Ordinary World. Of course not all are relevant to every hero, or to every story, and Vogler does point out this is not a formula to be rigidly followed. But this has helped me understand the phases of story, how to use tension, challenge and resolution in my stories. And it applies just as well to ‘literature’ as it does to thrillers or blockbusters.
‘The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing’ by Evan Marshall [UK: Walking Stick Press]
This book is about plotting your story, before you start to write. If you don’t like analysis or statistics you probably won’t like this book, but there are great tips which help you to manage multiple characters and POVs, tying up loose ends, interweaving storylines, how to report action in ‘summary mode’ when there is no need for a blow-by-blow description of events. The key tip I picked up from the book was remembering to let my characters react to what has just happened to them, even if just 1-2 sentences. I was so keen to get on with my story that I forgot to allow my protagonist a moment of reflection. The downside of this book is that it can make you become obsessed with structure and forget to allow your characters room to breathe.
‘Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction’ by Patricia Highsmith [UK: Sphere]
This is worth reading even if you are not planning on writing a ‘Ripley-style’ tale, partly because she writes about her writing failures as well as her successes. She writes: “Many beginning writers think that established writers must have a formula for success. Above all, this book dispels that idea. There is no secret of success in writing except individuality, or call it personality. And since every person is different, it is only for the individual to express his differences from the next fellow. This is what I call the opening of the spirit. But it isn’t mystic. It is merely a kind of freedom – freedom organized.” She writes about ‘plots and gimmicks’ but also about emotions, which she says are key to writing suspense. She explains how her emotions, her experiences, are used later in her stories and novels. This is not a handbook, more of a conversation.
Honourable mentions go to:-
Stephen King’s On Writing
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
Impro by Keith Johnstone [this last was recommended to me by an actor friend, it’s actually a theatre book about improvisation but is very helpful on character development].
I can only judge My Top 5 based on what I’ve read. If you think I’ve missed a great book about creative writing, I’d love to hear your recommendations.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
My Top 5… books about #writing The ones on my shelf which I refer to again & again https://wp.me/p5gEM4-to via @SandraDanby