Now that the 10 books project is over, I’m ready to start venturing beyond that particular list to start looking at a wider range of books on writing, storytelling, and creativity to see what, if anything, they have to say about the role of research in the creative process. Today it’s Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig.
I’ve been a fan of Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog for quite a while now and, in fact, some of the writing-related posts on there by both Wendig and some of his guest authors are a big part of what inspired the original 10 books project and my current research path. So when I saw that he’d published (another) book about writing, I was really excited.
But it actually took me a while to read Damn Fine Story partly because for some reason none of the libraries in my library system had a copy (for shame!) and that’s how I usually get my books. In the end, if I’d gotten this book from the library, I probably would have bought a copy anyway after reading it.
Here are some thoughts.
First, the footnotes
Oh my God. The footnotes.
Generally, I tend to ignore footnotes because as a reader I resent having to interrupt myself to read the footnote and then find my place again. Also when I see a lot of footnotes in a non-scholarly work, I assume that the writer is a David Foster Wallace wannabe and, frankly, I’m not into that. David Foster Wallace or his wannabes.
But the footnotes in this book are totally worth it. If you read this book, don’t skip the footnotes.
Die Hard for Star Wars
In books about storytelling, the original Star Wars trilogy tends to come up. A lot. Christopher Vogler used it as a frequent example in A Writer’s Journey. Certain editions of The Hero With a Thousand Faces have a picture of Luke Skywalker on the cover. On and on. Wendig uses it a lot, too. On the one hand, this makes sense. First, because these movies are actually just a really good illustration of how effective storytelling works, despite George Lucas’s efforts to make it otherwise. On the other hand, well. Like, we get it. Star Wars is great but can we talk about something else?
Luckily, Wendig has another example up his sleeve: Die Hard. He uses it as another example of effective storytelling. A lot. Strangely, his use of Die Hard illustrates why using Star Wars is better. Not because Die Hard isn’t a good example but because Star Wars is so familiar to so many people, even if they’ve never actually seen it, that minimal context is needed and the author can get right to the point. With Die Hard, there’s a lot more explanation involved.
Which is to say, Die Hard is in many ways as much of a classic as Star Wars but I don’t think it’s infiltrated the pop culture consciousness in quite the same way. Personally, I watched Die Hard once because I was going through an Alan Rickman thing at the time(1) and even though I remember the general outline of the story and a few of the more famous lines and plot points…I remember nothing else about it. Wendig takes that into account and describes the scenes with the required level of detail to help the reader understand what he’s getting at. And it’s all laid out in an entertaining way. It’s just a lot of detail that’s needed.
So in that light, Star Wars makes a lot more sense as the go-to example.
Write what you know (or write who you are)
Toward the end of the book, Wendig devotes an entire interlude to the “write what you know” adage, saying “write what you know” is “either a piece of very good advice written poorly, or a piece of poor advice written elegantly” (p. 175). Like a lot of authors, Wendig uses his critique of WWYK to offer an alternative. In his case, it’s “write who you are,” which seems well worth thinking about though the rise of the #ownvoices movement and cancel culture might make executing that particular advice more complicated than it first appears.
It’s in his discussion of WWYK that Wendig makes the one sort-of reference to research that I could find. He tells the reader, “if you don’t know what you’re writing about, go learn more stuff, you clod.” I wish he’d said more, especially since he’s written such good advice about the research parts of writing on his blog, but I think keeping it more general makes sense for the mission of this book, which is more about storytelling than it is about the writing process. What he says is also in line with what a lot of writing advice books say about acquiring knowledge in search of creative fodder, though I think the “you clod” makes a nice addition.
How does it rank?
In my thoughts on what I learned reading 10 popular writing advice books, I said that, of those books, On Writing and Bird by Bird were the ones I would most likely recommend to aspiring writers, though for very different reasons. I think Damn Fine Story would make a good addition to that list of recommendations, especially since I already recommend Terrible Minds to everyone I know who likes to write.
Honestly, though, this book is worth it just for the footnotes.
(1) Okay, my Alan Rickman thing is still very much ongoing but Die Hard isn’t one of his movies that I revisit multiple times the way same I return to, like, Dogma and Sense & Sensibility. I don’t really have a defense for this, especially considering that during my mid-2000s Timothy Olyphant thing (not to be confused with my mid-2010s Timothy Olyphant thing) I somehow took the time to watch Live Free or Die Hard on several occasions. What can I say? Justified hadn’t happened yet. I didn’t have an HBO subscription to watch Deadwood with. The Broken Hearts Club was hard to find at the local video store. His part in Go was a small one (though extremely worth it for the line he has about The Family Circus near the end). The choices for a Timothy Olyphant fan were more limited back then. Not so for an Alan Rickman fan.