All storytelling from the beginning of recorded time is based on somebody wanting something, facing obstacles, not getting it, trying to get it, trying to overcome obstacles, and finally getting or not getting what he wanted. What has interested listeners, readers, and viewers for centuries is available in the conscious use of desire in nonfiction.
In my pantheon of books about writing—a pantheon that sits alongside my pantheon of comic strip books, in case you were wondering—Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing holds the distinction of being a founding member. Stein’s book was one of the first writing books I read, and boy, what a good place to start. He talks at times about playwriting and novels, but he mixes it in so well with the stuff I like—journalism, general writing advice—that it never feels boring or inapplicable. His advice to attend poorly written plays can easily be transferred to reading poorly written books, magazine articles, and Internet posts. I hope this isn’t one of those bad Internet posts. If it is, I guess you’re just following Sol Stein’s advice.
Read in a monotone (pg. 4)
What went on in that tower was excruciatingly painful. Wilmer Stone read our stories to us in a monotone as if he were reading from the pages of a phone directory. What we learned with each stab of pain was that the words themselves and not the inflections supplied by the reader had to carry the emotion of the story.
The sameness of writing and the value of variety (pg. 5)
When my ordeal was over I slunk away from Goodman’s cubicle to rethink the sameness of my writing and to learn the value of variety.
The necessity of sitting through bad plays (pg. 6)
Sit through bad plays, to witness coughing and squirming in the audience, to have ears up lie a rabbit to catch what didn’t work, to observe how little tolerance an audience has for a mishap, ten seconds o boredom breaking an hour-long spell.
Nonfiction vs. fiction (pg. 7)
Nonfiction conveys information.
Fiction evokes emotion.
Classic openers (pg. 32)
Yesterday morning Henry Sorbino walked into the K-Mart on Eleventh Street carrying an umbrella and walked out carrying an umbrella and someone else’s purse.
What is the key ingredient that makes that opening sentence work? Did you note that repeating the word “umbrella” underscored Sorbito’s walking out with someone else’s purse? That technique—repetition for effect—increases the dramatic impact of what’s being described.
Blah newspaper examples, fixed (pg. 33)
Carl Gardhof was sentenced in Superior Court to 18 months in jail this morning.
Carl Gardhof, his head held high as if he had done nothing wrong, was sentenced in Superior Court to 18 months in jail this morning.
George Brucell was led into the meeting room by the chairman.
George Brucell, a tall man, had to duck his head as the chairman ushered him into the meeting room.
(and one that doesn’t need changing)
Since learning last year that he had multiple sclerosis, Andy Torok has become less and less steady on his feet, and his worries have accumulated along with the hand prints on his apartment’s white walls.
A short list of reminders when drafting a first paragraph in a hurry to meet deadline (pg. 36)
- Does your first sentence trigger curiosity to make the reader want to continue?
- What will the reader see in that first sentence?
- Have you focused on an individual?
- Have you given us a visible characteristic of that individual?
- Have you portrayed the individual doing or saying something?
- Is there a startling or odd fact that will trap attention?
Three forms of fiction (pg. 43)
Description is a depiction of a locale or person.
Narrative summary is the recounting of what happens offstage, out of the reader’s sight and hearing, a scene that is told rather than shown.
An immediate scene happens in front of the reader, is visible, and therefore filmable. That’s an important test. If you can’t film a scene, it is not immediate. Theater, a truly durable art, consists almost entirely of immediate scenes.
Don’t let the audience hear the author (pg. 46)
When I speak to groups of writers, I sometimes hold up a large plate of glass. I ask the writers to imagine that the glass separates the writer from his readers. The readers are having their experience entirely on the other side of the glass. If they hear the author even for a phrase or two, it interrupts their experience. Information that seems to come from the author rather than a visible character is an intrusion from the other side of the glass. Writers are directors of what transpires on the other side of the glass. They are not one of the actors.
Short sentences and frequent paragraphing (pg. 194)
Journalists know that short sentences step up pace. They also know that frequent paragraphing accelerates the pace. Short sentences plus frequent paragraphing step up pace even more.
Flip forward past a scene that never happens (pg. 195)
A technique for stepping up pace in fiction that isn’t used enough is flipping forward past a scene that never appears in the book.
Not too many decades ago, when a door closed on a couple getting into bed, the chapter would end. When the next chapter started, the coupling was long gone. The bedroom scene existed only in the reader’s imagination. The effect on the reader was that of the pace quickening.
Remove all adjective and adverbs (pg. 197)
The quickest way of increasing the pace of a manuscript and strengthening it at the same time is to remove all adjectives and adverbs and then readmit the necessary few after careful testing.
No pairs of adjectives (pg. 198)
Go through your text and find any place where you have used two adjectives with a single noun. Eliminate one of the adjectives, keeping the stronger one.
Flab words (pg. 203)
Certain words frequently constitute flab and can be eliminated: however, almost, entire, successive, respective, perhaps, always, therein. Each writer can compile a list of his own, words he uses from time to time that contribute nothing but flab to a text. Your own made-to-order list will serve as the best guide.
“One plus one equals a half” (pg. 205)
Saying the same thing over and over minimizes its impact.
Detail makes a person come alive (pg. 225)
The best way to make a person come alive is by rendering the person’s appearance with some specific detail. Here are some examples:
The garage attendant’s hat was parked perilously on an excessive amount of hair.
His accountant is an owl of a man who keeps one eyelid half shut not because of an affliction but because there is much in this world he is not prepared to see.
His face is so clean and rosy it looks skinned.
A checklist of questions to ask yourself when characterizing (pg. 229)
- Would the reader be able to identify the person you’re writing about if he was seen in a group of ten people?
- Have you done anything with the person’s eyes, the way they are used, to look at a person or to look away?
- Have you given the reader a sense of how that person feels through describing an action rather than by stating the person’s feelings?
- Does you person have a habit like tapping a finger, pointing eyeglasses, laughing too loud, waving his hand in a particular way that would make him more visible?
- Is there anything individual about the gait or posture of the person?
- Can you lend resonance to your characterization by invoking other matters in which your person was involved?
- Has your person changed much? In a longer work, can you use that change?
Wanting something badly (pg. 233)
When the writer has his material and is ready to begin writing, that’s the time to determine whether any of the people in the story he is about to write want something badly. Bringing that material up to the beginning could help touch a match to the reader’s emotions.
On transcribing an interview (pg. 241)
Seek a retention of its color
“The precise meaning of words” (pg. 252)
The precise meaning of words matters, a notion in disuse by the majority of people, including their presumptive leaders. The inattention to diction is pervasive, endemic, and has reached into surprising places.
On metaphor (pg. 255)
Use metaphor to particularize.
Sol Stein’s 10 commandments for writers (pg. 302)
- Thou shalt not sprinkle characters into a preconceived plot lest thou produce hackwork. In the beginning was the character, then the word, and from the character’s words is brought forth action.
- Thou shalt imbue thy heroes with faults and thy villains with charm, for it is the faults of the hero that bring forth his life, just as the charm of the villain is the honey with which he lures the innocent.
- Thy characters shall steal, kill, dishonor their parents, bear false witness, and covet their neighbor’s house, wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, and ass, for reader’s crave such actions and yawn when they characters are meek, innocent, forgiving, and peaceable.
- Thou shalt not saw the air with abstractions, for readers, like lovers, are attracted by particularity
- Thou shalt not muter, whisper, blurt, bellow, or scream, for it is the words and not the characterization of the words that must carry their own decibels.
- Thou shalt infect thy reader with anxiety, stress, and tension, for those conditions that he deplores in life he relishes in fiction
- Thy language shall be precise, clear, and bear the wings of angels, for anything less is the province of businessmen and academics and not of writers
- Thou shalt have no rest on the Sabbath, for thy characters shall live in thy mind and memory now and forever
- Thou shalt not forget that dialogue is as a foreign tongue, a semblance of speech and not a record of it, a language in which directness diminishes and obliqueness sings
- Above all thou shalt not vent thy emotions onto the reader, for thy duty is to evoke the reader’s emotions, and in that most of all lies the art of the writer