I wasn't a literature or English major in college, I was a film major. I took Creative Writing as my minor. When I began writing screenplays and later short stories and novels, I sort of taught myself. There are hundreds of books on the market about writing and while I haven't read most of them, there are two that helped me that I'd like to point out: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field and On Writing by Stephen King.
Screenplay taught me structure. From Aristotle's rules of beginning, middle, and end, most stories follow this format. Syd Field stresses this, along with the three-act structure in his book and it has been very valuable to me. According to Field, when you are planning and outlining your story there are four things you need to know at the onset: opening, ending, Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2. I figure these things out first when I'm outlining. The opening and ending are pretty self-explanatory, but what about Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2 (PP1 and PP2)? These are the major elements of the story that tie everything together and hook and spin the story into a different direction. Since most movies are around two hours and one page of a screenplay is about one minute of film, PP1 is about on page 30 and PP2 on page 90. Watch any good movie and you'll be able to figure out the plot points. There may be several PPs but there are are basically 2 that really move the story. An example of PPs can be found in Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. PP1 is Luke finding his aunt and uncle dead and joining Obi-wan. PP2 is the alliance beginning their assault on the Death Star.
Learning these plot points has been invaluable to me. They are signposts to help guide your story. By figuring these out as I outline (which I'll blog about in another post), I'm kept on track and don't let my story wonder. Structure lets me build my story.
Stephen King is my favorite author and his memoir/craft book On Writing is short, informative, and fun. The first half of the book is a brief autobiography on how he became a writer; the second half is his take on the art and craft of writing. As King himself says, his book is not a manual. He doesn't show you how to write; he shows what he does and tells you if it works, try it. If it doesn't, try something else. His style is plain and conversational, sometimes funny. The backbone of his book is about having the right kind of tools to write with: a workspace, the proper grammar knowledge and mostly the desire to write. He describes writing as any other kind of job, like driving long-haul trucks or laying brick, and I agree with him. You have to be willing to commit to being a writer. Having a writing space in which you "write with the door closed" and taking time away from your work after your first draft are two of his tenets that I really believe in.
King calls stories fossils and that by writing you are slowly uncovering them and the form of the story/fossil is the form of your novel. He usually begins with a situation, puts characters into it, and writes how they get out of it. He is not a big fan of plotting and outlining, which is where I disagree with him, but only out of my own personal experience. I have tried writing stories without outlining, only to get 30 or 40 pages in and be lost, not knowing where I am going. To me outlining is important, especially if you are a crime/mystery writer. My other favorite author, Jeffery Deaver, writes 100-200 page outlines before writing his books. A far cry from Stephen King but both methods work for them.
So there you have it. There is a third book, highly recommended by Stephen King, called The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. A classic, it is a no-nonsense guide about grammar and style that I also highly recommend. These three book have helped shape how I write today.
Please leave comments. Have you read these books? What did you think of them? Have some books about writing you'd like to recommend? Let me know.