Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review of 'Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative' by Chuck Wendig

The poet Miya Angelou once remarked that people won’t necessarily remember what you said or how you said it, “but they will always remember how you made them feel.” The most memorable stories, Chuck Wendig insists, are the stories that make us feel. A good story can also make us think, and, quite possibly, entertain us along the way. But the way it makes us feel is paramount.  This may well be why so many badly-written books routinely make it to the best-seller list: whatever we may think about an author’s adolescent mangling of the English language, their torturously limited vocabulary, or the utter dearth of style in their stories, those stories managed to make readers feel something—and, rightly or wrongly, that trumps good grammar and proper spelling any day of the week. But it doesn’t always have to be that way; good writers can become better storytellers, and that is the aim and thrust of this fascinating and extremely useful new book. In Damn Fine Story Wendig lays out the elements of effective, powerful, thought-provoking, memorable storytelling—not writing per se, but storytelling, whether through books, movies, comics, or games—often with a surprising depth of detail, in a fresh, engaging, sometimes-salty style, never too far above our heads, but invariably enlightening.

Like so many others, I became aware of Chuck Wendig through the insightful, often breezy and hilarious postings on his blog, terribleminds, which has become a regular on-line destination for many writers today. I picked up Wendig’s book shortly after finishing two other exceptional volumes on writing; John McPhee’s superb Draft Nr. 4, which deals with the craft and technique of ‘creative nonfiction’, and Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, a brilliant, paradigm-shifting discussion of dramatic fiction that cannot be recommended highly enough. Insights gained from McPhee and Percy dovetailed beautifully with the ideas and concepts in Wendig’s book and reinforced them at a deep level. As a novelist and traditionally-published author of short fiction, I found myself referencing my own work-in-progress to discussions and examples in Damn Fine Story and this was immensely helpful! Following Wendig’s lead, I went back and chopped out a great deal of inessential material in my current novel, while working to tighten up the threads that bind the story together. This, for me, was worth the price of the book, along with Wendig’s 50 Storytelling Tips at the back, a concise summation of his many invaluable lessons. 

We’ve all heard that old chestnut, “write what you know.” But that’s really a rather nebulous and silly, if not completely meaningless, piece of advice. Instead, Wendig exhorts us to “write what you understand… Write who you are… We are at our best as storytellers when who we are…helps to inform the stories we write.”

And what goes into writing or telling a great story? Wendig lays out six concise rules—more like guidelines—to help us understand the process. Stories begin with change, for “storytelling is an act of interrupting the status quo…a push between order and chaos, a battle between oxygen and the fire that consumes it.” The best stories are not about events, but about characters: “Between the character’s problem and the character’s solution to that problem lies the story” and it is “the small story [that] always matters more than the big story.” 

How do we raise the stakes in a story? How do we create conflict and build tension that will compel and thrill an audience?  Ask questions! “Conflict is, in itself, a form of question. Implicit in every conflict, in every breach of the status quo, are a bundle of uncertainties…” And questions keep an audience hungry—“always hungry but never starved.” Wendig gives us no fewer than thirty-three building blocks of narrative tension in a chapter that’s nothing short of a didactic tour de force! Along the way, he often illustrates his points with reference to several of the best-known examples of great cinematic storytelling; the first Die Hard film, Star Wars (the original trilogy in particular), The Princess Bride, and The Hunger Games. While Wendig’s constant reliance on the same material becomes a tad monotonous in spots, it is invariably to a valuable end. It’s when he goes off in a more obscure direction that things aren’t quite so clear—honestly! How many people even remember the rather ponderous film adaptation of The Last Airbender? (That movie certainly failed to make me feel anything.)

Of particular interest to me as a writer of erotic fiction were Wendig’s many practical insights into the narrative potential of sex—which ought to be studied and taken to heart by every aspiring author of literary fiction coming up today! “A scene of sex or violence,” Wendig tells us, “doesn’t stop a character from being who they are, it reveals it… The great thing about sex as a driver of tension is that so many outcomes are possible…” Sex “is ultimately about characters, and about the tension of what happens when you smush [characters] together…”

Sex, violence, taboo and transgression are all deeply rooted in character and all highly effective catalysts for conflict, tension and story. “Every interaction between two characters…works in similar ways… A fight scene and a love scene are a kind of conversation, and they follow similar rules.”

That’s music to my ears! And these are only a few of the great insights to be found in Damn Fine Story. Chuck Wendig has clearly thought deeply about the elements of his craft, and that works out wonderfully for us, too!

Enthusiastically recommended. 

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