Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Best Book About Writing a Novel That Isn't About Writing a Novel

So, remember in the movie Adaptation when one of the two Nicholas Cage characters went to the writing seminar hosted by the guy who cursed a lot and then the movie descended into a baffling chase in the swamp that, while kind of funny, left you with a confused feeling since the movie kind of had you hooked and then all of a sudden people started dying? Well, the guy hosting the writer's seminar is Robert McKee -- well, it wasn't actually Robert McKee, it was an actor playing Robert McKee. As I'm sure you know, Robert McKee is an actual person who hosts actual screenplay seminars and who wrote an actual book called STORY, also featured in the movie (the book plays itself). I'm not sure whether Mr. McKee actually curses.

STORY is all about the elements of story -- how stories are driven by character desires, through conflict, through points of no return, and other elements that have been around for thousands of years. McKee was talking about how to write a screenplay, and a lot of the more specific advice doesn't apply to novel writing, but his elucidation of conflict, the importance of crafting an interesting inciting incident and his dissection of climax apply equally to novels.

So if you want to brush up on your story elements, pick up a copy of STORY, and continue to hone your craft.

Lastly, you can save your anxious e-mails, I did indeed hear about Spencer from The Hills issuing the ultimate, blindsiding insult to Lauren, telling Us Magazine, "Lauren couldn't even get into clubs before she met us!"

Wow. Just, wow.


Jillian said...

Whether on the screen or on the pages, it's truly the conflict, overt or subtle, that keeps us watching or reading.

So. Recently Stacy Whitman, on her LJ blog, shared some excellent insight on what "works" in the beginning few chapters of a story. Can you share what works for you?

It's always interesting to note the similarities/differences between what works for an agent and what works for an editor. Or, for that matter, what works for one agent as opposed to another.

When you've got a minute. :)

Nathan Bransford said...


Wow -- I'll have to check out that post to see how she put it into words! I'm definitely a "feel" reader - I don't really go through chapters with a checklist, but probably the most important things I'm looking for is, as you mention, conflict - everything has to be built on conflict. I also look for originality, quality of writing and pacing.

I guess I'll have to post on this someday, because the paragraph above is a pretty scattered response!

Jillian said...

LOL Scattered, perhaps, but all the essentials are there.

Stacy's post was excellent because she used an example from a published novel (fantasy, of course, since that's what Mirrorstone pubs) and then expounded on the "why's."

It's all so infuriatingly subjective, yet there are certainly common threads that ought to be heeded. I do hope you'll post on this some day, since your blog entries are generally cogent and informative, and not...scattered.

brian_ohio said...

I have STORY in front of me. Giving it another read... highlighter in hand. Another agent recommended it to me.

Great resource for plotting and story arc.

I actually posted a snipet on my Blog this morning... I was ready to accuse you of swiping my idea... but I friend-locked the post so there's no way you could have seen it. Not that you're not a friend, Nathan, but I prefer Live Journal to Blogger.

I very much second your recommendation.

Liz said...

Had a friend use a wine glass analogy to tell me how a story should begin. Her thought was the story should start as the wine glass is just starting to spill a nice dark red zin all over a plush white carpet. It shouldn't start with the wine being poured or the wine already spilled. I've always remembered her description.

L.C.McCabe said...


My favorite book about writing wasn't written with writers as its intended audience. It was written for actors and is designed to teach them what to look for in scripts.

The book is Audition Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part by the late Michael Shurtleff.

It is an amazing book, and one that I have purchased many times over. Because I have recommended it, and lent it out to so many people over the years. Then I wind up buying a new copy because it is never returned.

He explains exactly why alcohol is used on stage. That it is not used to escape conflict, but to lower a character's inhibitions so that they will seek out conflict.

In fact, there is one sentence from the book that summarizes it:

"Conflict is drama."

That is the mantra I use when writing.

I highly recommend it to every writer. Read his examples of what actors should look for in scripts, and treat it as the inverse and be sure that you put it in your story.

Oh, and my favorite book on Hollywood and screenwriting is William Goldman's Adventures in the Screentrade. He is worshipped by screenwriters everywhere for that book.


Peter R said...

I have found screen writers to be very hot on the craft of story telling ,and a great source of knowledge which I can carry over into novel writing. I suspect it's because everything in a script is strippeed down to the bare essentials.

As I write for children, I try to write visually, and have found that script writing techniques come in really useful in creating the effect and voice I’m reaching for. There are some excerpt from the Story among the articles at the Writers Store (one of my favourite sites) .
For anyone interested in learning about story structure I would also recommend articles by John Truby, James Bonnet, Anne Phillips, Martha Alderson (Plot whisperer), and Jeff Kitchen.

A couple of blogs on what does it for you would be really great.


Graham said...

OK, that does it. I am going to have to start watching The Hills.

POD Critic said...

I approach books pretty much the same way you do Nathan, and language and prose are key ingredients for me. No matter the degree of conflict in a book, or despite the neat arrangement of plot and structure, the writing has to be on a level that allows for a reader to become wholly absorbed; so much so that you don’t even realize you’re reading a book, but are in essence living through the story itself, and its fully-fleshed characters. Books like this are unputdownable, and those are the ones I seek out with a keen detective’s eye.

Conduit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Conduit said...

I've not read 'Story' but Robert McKee's Ten Commandments for writers are good to bear in mind - just Google 'Robert McKee ten commandments' and you'll find them. Short and to the point, but worth five minutes of anyone's time to read.

I mention it all the time, but a book I always found useful is William Goldman's 'Adventures in the Screen Trade'. Although its focus is on screenwriting, he has a lot to say about writing in general. The follow up, 'Which Lie did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade', is also well worth a look.

MitchJ said...

Hi Nathan,

Turnabout is fair play. As a screenwriter, I find that the best way to learn about how to pitch a screenplay (that's not about pitching a screenplay) is to read blogs by literary agents and editors. I find yours, Mrs. Snark's, and Evil Editor's blogs an invaluable resource.

And I do own a copy of "Story" too.


stacy said...

Huh. I was catching up on your latest post and I see someone mentioned a recent entry of mine. I just thought I'd say that all those things you mention, Nathan--originality, quality of writing, and pacing--are also important to me. The post Jillian refers to was just one reaction to one facet of something I happened to be reading and thought I'd say to my readers: this is what is working, and here's why.

I have some earlier entries (in Feb.) that are related to the same subject, talking about what drew me to a sample that eventually became a book that's coming out this fall.

It would be interesting to hear your take on the subject.

Screenwritng Les said...

I've read McKee's Story, but I found much of the info impractical. I didn't get anything overly tangible out of the book that I could apply to my own work. The exception was his work on identifying a theme and making sure your theme has two sides and that you present two sides.

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