Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Elements of Story: Light Reading for Writing

Recently, while I was housesitting for some friends, I had the occasion to read The Elements of Story: Field Notes of Nonfiction Writing by Francis Flaherty. I found this book, with its short chapters, a very good companion for standing on the platform for the commuter train, riding an elevator, or waiting for a lunch date.

Though there is nothing earth-shattering about the author's advice or examples--read your Strunk & White, for example, referring to The Elements of Style, the classic little book on writing well--it is still decent reading. Consider it good "beach reading." Much of what he says applies to novel writing, screenplay writing, and other writing, too. Here are 10 of Flaherty's nuggets:
  1. Nothing is so trivial or technical that somebody won't get dreamy-eyed about it, or red in the face.
  2. Readers are greedy for life; their own is not enough.
  3. People don't talk in straight lines, especially about emotions.
  4. A villain drawn by a savvy writer will leave readers not just saying, "Bad dude," but, "Bad dude--yet I see where he's coming from." After all, we're all guilty with an explanation.
  5. A writer is like a gardener who knows that one tree can serve as a focal point, but that many trees will just muck up the impact of each.
  6. No detail belongs in a story if it doesn't serve some role therein. As Chekhov said, don't put a gun on the stage in Act I if it doesn't get used by the end of the play.
  7. Lavish much attention on your verbs; they are the engine of your text.
  8. Brevity comes from selection, not compression.
  9. Of the two jobs a writer must do--make a story move, and describe and explain--movement is the more important.
  10. People can be swayed by the sequence of things, rather than just by their substance.

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