Monday, 26 July 2010


No writer in his right mind writes by a set of rules. At least, not by somebody else's rules.

Not sure why, but mention of this very useful how-to book - the best I've come across - seems to provoke much agonised ire among some would-be paid and published writers on Authonomy.

There's some very useful stuff in here. And it works. Or, rather, it works in so far as you'll likely feel sufficiently inspired and motivated to try the techniques discussed.

Swain makes considerable effort to impress on the writer-reader that the tips, tricks and techniques discussed are simply tools - and the learning of how to deploy them is easily acquired over time. More importantly for Swain is that you, a writer, understand the why behind the techniques.

Before getting into the meat of how to build a story Swain tackles word choice and arrangement, including healthy discussion of adverbs, active verbs, meaning, denotation and connotation, vividness and brevity.

The essential building blocks of Swain's approach are Scenes and Sequels. Scene is followed by Sequel followed by Scene followed by Sequel, in a chain, from first to last page.

Scenes are units of conflict unified by time; built around Goal, Conflict and Disaster.
Sequels are units of transition that link scenes; built around Reaction, Dilemma and Decision.

Another key concept of Swain's method is the Motivation Reaction Unit. A character receives a motivating stimulus and reacts. The character's reaction breaks down into three chronologically ordered components: Feeling, Action, Speech. Each Scene and Sequel is built on a series of Motivation Reaction Units.

Essentially, however, Swain makes vital that the whole of a (selling) writer's endeavours need be based on feeling; without it you die as a writer. After laying out his position on feeling in the introductory chapter - Fiction and You - Swain uses the 47 pages of Chapter Three: Plain Facts about Feelings to discuss the importance of feelings for the writer, characters and the reader.

Without feeling he (the reader) won't care what happens in your story.
If he doesn't care, he stops reading.
And you're dead.

The book is packed with extremely useful fodder for reflection and action. Though the book does not contain any exercises, (Exercises excite no one. Palpably artificial, only tenuously related to the difficulties that beset you, they turn writing into drudgery for anyone. p.20), most honest would-be writers, I think, will find it difficult to resist trying out a few of the techniques.

Given the book was first published in 1965 some writers will cavil at Swain's references and examples, and perhaps, its sometimes antiquated tone. I find such very much part of its charm.

Editors' and readers' tastes, particularly with regard to word-count, pace and point-of-view (especially the modish Deep POV), have shifted since the book's publication -- but not so far as to undermine any of the excellent advice offered here.

A final few words from Swain:
So buckle down and forge yourself a kit of techniques out of the iron of your own copy. Each story will give you more experience to translate into literary process. Each trick mastered will free you just a little more from your feelings of inadequacy and frustration.
Finally, your excitement soars, unshackled, and to your own amazement you discover that somehow, in spite of everything, you've turned out to be a writer.

1 comment:

  1. I've been reading Swain's book at Google books. I like the way scene and sequels interlock. I also like the 'learn the basic skills' attitude.

    Why are writers reluctant to learn the fundamental skills of their craft?

    I, myself, am a devout Strunkian. When my friends deride my near psychotic obsession with The Elements of Style as antiquated, I point out that masonry skills are 7,000+ years old and largely unchanged.