The Basics, Revisited

Back when I first started writing, I spent a fair amount of time looking through ‘how to write’ books (most useful for me being Sol Stein’s “On Writing”). Lately, while I’ve been happy with my stories on a word by word level, I haven’t been as thrilled with the bigger structure of the stories. So I decided it was time to have another look at some of the technique books to see if I can glean new insights from them now that I’ve had a bit more practical experience.

My focus-of-the-moment is to look for ways to make the words work harder. To have descriptions that are more than pretty fluff but that also advance the plot and/or reveal something about a character. I’ve been feeling, lately, that my stories are too much style-over-substance. I’d like them to have both style and substance. Thus the return to the basics.


  1. Must be a theme around here; lots of people reading how-to books these days.

    So, what do you mean when you’re talking about “structure” and “substance”? Because those two words don’t really equate to me. If you feel like you’re doing too much stylistic hand-waving to distract from the fact that there isn’t much story or characterization there (and believe me, I am well acquainted with that feeling), well, it’s because you need more story and more characterization there. Easy enough, right? ;-)

    Just don’t lose the style–Tina’s are very stylish, as a rule.

    • I agree that structure and substance are two different things, I just happen to be frustrated with both :)

      I use structure to refer to the bones of the story, the overall shape of it. Did I lay the groundwork in the beginning to make the ending satisfying? That sort of thing. Substance is more about the story and/or characterization–and you’ve hit it dead on…I probably need to add more story/characterization. Piece of cake.

  2. I’m coming to the realization that MacLeod was right when he talked about plot being character. I feel like I’m slowly learning how to make that happen. I’ve still got an amalgamation of concepts and ideas swimming in my head from CW, but I think I’m on the verge of reaching some sort of understanding that might clarify some of your problems with structure and substance. In my opinion, you don’t even need to worry about structure. Substance is what is most important. And if you develop and illustrate your character with enough complexity, you’ll have both the substance and structure. I’m attempting to take what I’m learning during my revisions of Soul Thief and write them into some sort of useful paper. Once I have the next draft complete, I’ll post it to the group and see if I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do. If so, I hope to share that knowledge with everyone.

    • That makes a lot of sense. As I’ve been working through some of the more technique-y stuff I’ll start looking at plot or at endings, but I always end up back at character. I look forward to reading your paper!

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