Last night I turned the final page of Jon Franklin’s book “Writing for Story” and took a deep breath—“Wow”—I thought. The book is extremely useful, in the same way, say, a carpenter might find a book on how to build sturdy shelving useful. As a writer, you know sometimes that something works in writing, but you’re not sure exactly why. You’re moved deeply by a story, maybe even to tears, but you haven’t the slightest clue why. Franklin breaks stories down, showing readers what makes good stories and how to write them. And it’s not written like an instructional manual. It’s entertaining, a delight to read from beginning to end. Some of the parts get technical, very technical, and can be hard to follow. But Franklin encourages readers at the beginning of the book to read through not once but twice, first to get a general feel for what he’s teaching and then a second time to really understand it. I would like to read it again relatively soon, but I’m going to wait a couple weeks and let what I did learn get absorbed.
One of the biggest lessons I leave the book with is this: Without structure, story collapses. Structure is the most important element in a good story. Structure is unfortunately often forgotten in the wake of the much-more-talked about polish or “style,” which is the tinsel on the Christmas tree, not the tree itself. Structure, many beginning writers bemoan, comes at sacrifice to what’s really behind good writing: Art. But to Franklin—and many other professional writers—that’s a bunch of baloney. Sound structure requires thinking your story through first—what is it you really want to say, where are you going?—and creating an outline to anchor you down when you’re in the throes of writing and the winds of inspiration toss you to and fro. It will keep you locked into your narrative, into the story you’re ultimately trying to tell.
Imagine a house-builder painting and decorating the house before he builds the beams. We’d think it ridiculous. Yet writers think they should polish and pretty and stylize their sentences before planning out the story’s basic structure—the most important part, the part that will uphold all the rest. He writes, “The best polish can’t correct structural defects no matter how much elbow grease we apply.” You can sometimes squeeze by with no structure, for stories of a few hundred words or so, but get into the thousand-word range, and you’ll wobble and, eventually, after sensing something’s not quite right, crumble.
He includes in the book two complete stories of his that each won him a Pulitzer Prize. Afterward, he describes in details, sometimes dizzying, how he wrote them, why he wrote them and, most importantly, the structure underlying each. In short, the reasons they won him the most esteemed journalism prize twice, in addition to a tidy bundle of cash and fame. I found this break-down fascinating. As I read happily immersed in each of his stories—as a reader ideally should be—he, meanwhile, had a specific purpose and plan for each sentence, each paragraph, each of my orchestrated reactions. Nothing’s random. Nothing’s meaningless. Everything’s planned by the story-teller.
Can writing be learned? To Franklin, it absolutely can. If beginning writers think of themselves not as inspired artists out to stamp their individuality on the world but as writing apprentices learning a craft, then he believes they can learn steadily the “Secret” of writing. When Franklin first started writing, he scoured books in the library, hoping to uncover authors’ inner and ultimate “Secret,” withheld from all the rest of the writing hacks. But, at the end of the book, he reveals that the Secret to writing is that there is no secret but this: knowledge and experience.
“The secret of the professional writer, then, is an elegant fusion of craftsmanship with artistic vision—of not only having the tools but also understanding the purpose for which each is intended. The successful writer is one who grasps the separate components of his story, and, at the same time, sees how those components work together to produce a compelling and dramatic tale. … Writing is no different than conducting an orchestra, performing a surgery, flying an airplane, or climbing a mountain. It is a human endeavor and the skilled professional in any field, including writing, is one who has first mastered the techniques and then accumulated the experience necessary to know when, and to what purpose, each technique is used. (Page 187).”
Toward the end of the book, he says something that I couldn’t underline because, well, it’s a library book, but I did put a neon yellow sticky note on the page to mark it for this very post: “Language is more like mathematics than magic.” I liked the flow of the sentence, its elegance and alliteration, but its meaning? I found it hard to swallow. I’m not a fan of math, never was, but the more I read of Franklin the more the truth of this began to sink in: Beauty is in fact logical and harmonious, in a way, how some people describe math. To the unschooled person, writing is magic—something that pops into existence as magicians pulling rabbits out of hats —but real writers know better. They know that underlying language are certain principals of structure and grammar and usage that, if broken, result in chaos. Like math. I’d never before heard an author compare language to math, so after I got over my initial dismay over my favorite thing being compared to my least favorite thing, I knew it was true, I begrudgingly admitted. (And, maybe I am willing to admit now that math can be, dare I say, not just appealing but, in its own way, even beautiful?)
I’ve saved the best for last. The biggest “lesson” I left the book with is this: “What kind of reporter am I?” Someone already wrote about the man featured in one of Franklin’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning stories. Franklin wasn’t the first to get to him. But the one reporter’s story was merely “nice.” It was okay. It faded soon from the national consciousness. Franklin’s didn’t. It not only won him a Pulitzer but it was reprinted countless times in newspapers, magazines and books. So what’s the difference? Franklin asked his story subject—John Wilks, in his 80s—about his motivations, about the reasons “why.” He focused not just on the resolution—the end of Wilks life—but on his beginnings, the complications and development that led to the resolution. He told a full narrative. He did that by getting the whole story. It is incredibly powerful to read. And Franklin was, as he says, “lavishly” rewarded for that story in the end.
“I was also fascinated by Wilk’s good works, but I approached the problem differently. What, I asked, motivated this black sharecropper’s son to learn six languages? … ‘Well, shucks,’ Wilk said. He was just interested in languages. The earlier reporter had been satisfied with that answer. I wasn’t. Mere interest is simply not sufficient to explain heroic effort. So I sat Wilk down for an in-depth interview; he held me off for better than an hour with his modesty routine before he finally got tired and told me what really happened. The story, as I suspected would be the case, was not about the certificate at all, or even about Wilk’s volunteer work. The story was about a young man, born in a shack in Texas, who was smart enough to be terrified of his own ignorance and who was driven to overcome it. (Page 79)”
“Writing for Story” is a gem, and every serious writer should read it, at least once.
Two books down, 50 more to go!
Third book: “The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection Between Humans and Dogs” by Jon Franklin.
Pages to read: 274
Date to be finished: Saturday, Jan. 21
Time left to read: 7 days
Why this book? After finishing Franklin’s “how-to” book on writing, I am curious to read something else of his. Admittedly, I’m also a dog-lover—I have two of my own—and, after reading the book jacket, saw the dog he fell in love with was a black standard poodle, the very kind of dog I also have.
Let the reading commence.