Sunday, December 02, 2007

That Dwight V. Swain Sure Talks Sense

I'm still working my way through Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer, which I started reading based on seeing it recommended in several places...the most prominent one, i think, being Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake method web pages, which are popular amongst NaNoWriMo aficionados, among others. Here's one page where Ingermanson mentions Swain.

Swain's book talks about story construction at the sentence, scene, and...what to call it? the part level, I suppose. The highest level of story structure, the beginning-middle-end level...the first division you'd make when you start to slice a story.

I kind of wish the book didn't have such a commercial-sounding title, though perhaps that's just a good idea for selling the book. I find the advice in it to just make sense when what you want is to write a story people will want to read. And I think if you can't do that, any other pretensions you have don't matter at all.

Swain's book isn't one I can just read and put aside. I'm having to go through it slowly and try things out. Much of his advice is difficult to follow. Not difficult to understand -- difficult to practice.

For example, he's got a theory Motivation-Reaction Units that addresses how you put sentences together. And it makes a lot of sense. He talks about how we imagine someone reacting and responding to events in the world, and how to put that down on paper in an intelligible fashion. But doing it requires practice and careful review; it's certainly more work than just tossing words down on a page.

The main thing I've tried to apply so far from this book is the concept of Scenes and Sequels. Swain talks about structuring a story in terms of chains of these, with a Sequel to follow each scene. A Scene has a goal, conflict, and disaster, and a Sequel follows it with a reaction, dilemma, and decision. They naturally build on each other.

Swain explains this in more detail, but doesn't overly belabor his points. His style is that of straight talk from someone who's been around the block. I like it a lot.

7 comments:

  1. Interesting. I have been reading Swain's writing book too... working on it much like yourself.

    Was looking on Google. First hit was wikipedia... I hadn't realized Mr/Dr Swain was a SF writer. And I've read SF since like 1953.

    Also incidentally reading Noah's Flood as background for nanowrimo, and toward the end it gets into epic poetry and storytelling. All that meshes well with "Techniques".

    The methodology of keeping people's attention is an interesting thing to study.

    Also.. thanks for the links to the Green Club Project on your other blog.

    Jeff

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  2. Swain's book *is* dense and at times it throws a whole lot at you at once, but the more I write, the more I get out of it. The scene/sequel cycle, in particular, is worth chewing on until you really grasp it, as is the MRU concept.

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  3. Swain's book *is* dense and at times it throws a whole lot at you at once, but the more I write, the more I get out of it. The scene/sequel cycle, in particular, is worth chewing on until you really grasp it, as is the MRU concept.

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  4. Started reading Swain's book last week, and rewriting the first chapters of my novel. It gave me great insight and tools I never had before, and I've been doing this a long, long time.

    The books is about the principles, how fiction works, and he says you can use the tools for commercial fiction or literary fiction or anything in between.

    One of the things I notice since reading him is that though the scene/sequel pattern was (I guess) predominant in the "Black Mask" days, today it's more scene/scene/scene, with internal though, transitions and once in a while a sequel where you need it.

    Swain himself would be the first to suggest that a writer take the tools, techniques, the process and understanding of the dynamics, and apply them as your talent dictates.

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  5. One of the things I thought was interesting about the Scene/Sequel pattern is that it's a pattern not really available in film...it's something you can only do in writing.

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  6. Just found your blog on Swain's Techniches of the Selling Writer. I'm developing my novel using Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method and that's how I came to get Swain's book.

    It's a goldmine and becoming underlined page by page! I particularly like the MRU concept as it means I cut out a lot of unrelated flowery 'stuff' before I become too attached to it!

    Ann Isik
    www.annisik.com

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  7. Yeah, it's good stuff. MRUs are not easy but the concept makes a lot of sense. I have not spent much energy on them yet.

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