Friday Favorites: Hitting the Third Rail

janav Friday Favorites, Resources, Writing Leave a Comment

I haven’t done a Friday Favorites post in a while, because I haven’t been reading that many books on craft. My view is that craft books are useful, in small doses. Sometimes they are good for inspiration, and sometimes they are good to help with a specific issue you are having in your work. It’s important not to get so heavily invested in reading about writing that you fail to actually do the writing.

I’ve had a couple of books kicking around for a while, and at the urging of some friends who have read them I decided to pull them off the “to be read” shelf and read them.

One is Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. The other is Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface.

Story Genius is a method book: in other words, it asks you to follow a specific set of guidelines, based on principles developed by the author, that promises to help you crack the nut of writing a great book that people will want to read. The premise is that we are all “wired for story” (the title of another book on writing, by the way) and that we can tap into certain techniques that will get a reader’s brain to experience what the protagonist experiences – to not only care about the protagonist, but to go on their own journey through the protagonist’s story. The Emotional Craft of Fiction also focuses on this idea of creating emotions in a reader’s mind that keep them engaged in the story.

I believe these books are a response to the popularity in recent years of books and courses on “structure,” which can be valuable as a way to make sense of the messiness of the novel writing process, but didn’t focus much on character development. And of course, any story that truly engages us as readers does so because of the characters, not the plot. We remember what we felt, and what we learned, not the specifics of what happened when.

Lisa Cron writes often of the protagonist’s emotional arc being the “third rail” that every aspect of the story must touch in order to resonate with readers. Her method calls for a lot of delving into the protagonist’s past, creating backstory and excavating what the source of the protagonist’s misbelief is that fuels the current story. The goal is to arrive at the beginning of your story with a fully fleshed-out protagonist, and have that background inform every decision and reaction the protagonist has during the course of the story. Her method is to write Scene Cards for every scene, making sure you not only know what happens but why it happens, and how it affects the protagonist going forward. This might seem like anathema to so-called “pantsers” – those who prefer to write their way through a story and let the characters find themselves – but it is really a middle ground between that and attempting to outline every detail of what happens in the book, which can wind up with a disconnected protagonist, and other characters, who act only as puppets in service of the plot. She takes us through the development of a story by one of her clients, Jennie, and so we are able to see how one author used the tools to develop her story.

I’m currently working my way through her method, and I have to say, I am finding it a useful tool for deepening my characters, and making sure the emotional arc of the story isn’t overwhelmed by the external, plot-driven arc. I’m taking my time, excavating who my people are, and who they were before the story started, and finding the story much richer and more interesting as a result.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction is a different type of book. It doesn’t present one particular method, but instead introduces a number of ways in which emotion can be present on the page – how it affects character development, the emotional plot, the reader’s experience, and even how the writer’s experience affects the writing itself. Each section gives examples from published novels of all kinds, to see how each principle can be effective in practice. He also gives numerous exercises to use with your own work in progress, to deepen the emotional impact. And this is what makes this book better for more advanced writers: it assumes that you are of intermediate or advanced level, that you have mastered plot and structure, point of view, and all the other basics. It also assumes that you have a work in progress so you can explore these ideas on the page. His aim is make good writers great, rather than tell beginners how to create a character.

That’s why I put these books together in a Friday Favorites post. One helps you get your story started, by focusing on the background of your protagonist and how it informs how the character views and reacts to the events of the story; the other helps you deepen the emotions on the page, to create the most compelling scenes and experience for the reader. Depending where you are in your work, you may want to read Cron’s book first, and then read Maass’ to see where you can dig deeper. Maass’ book can also be good for character-building exercises, if you are interested in trying out new techniques without being tied to a specific story.

Have any of you read these books? Utilized them in your own writing? If so, what has been your experience with them? Let us know in the comments!

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