Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on popular writing books, Part 3

Now that I’ve read through a list of “academic” writing books, I’m working my way through a set of more popular writing books in search of information on the role of research in fiction writing. Rather than devote whole posts to each individual book, I’ll just be sharing some brief thoughts as I go along. Today, I’m taking a look at 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and Writing Fiction by the Gotham Writers Workshop as well as revisiting Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

  • 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias: In my first pass at this project, I read a book called The Writer’s Journey in which Christopher Vogler outlined the Hero’s Journey and then showed how different parts of it applied to various familiar stories. It was a good book, especially in Vogler’s attempt to grapple with its legacy as a story-writing “manual” for Hollywood in the revised edition that I read but it’s not included in my revised list of popular writing books because it’s more about screenwriting than novel-writing. Enter 20 Master Plots, the premise of which is very similar to The Writer’s Journey except instead of proposing that there is only one plot which all stories follow (again, the Hero’s Journey), the author here suggests that there are two main types of plots (character-driven and plot-driven) and then outlines 20 common plots that derive from these main types, like the Quest plot (basically, the Hero’s Journey) and the Rivals plot. Both Vogler’s approach and Tobias’s approach are interesting and useful ways to think about the structure of a story and the beats (or “dramatic phases”) mostly commonly associated with those stories. Tobias did lose a bit of credibility for me, though, when, in describing the Love plot he, like every other writer I’ve read before him, decided to take a couple of cheap shots at romance novels and their reliance on “types” rather than “characters,” comparing them to fairy tales for children. My problem isn’t with the critique itself so much as the fact that like almost every male writer who decides to offer their opinion on romance (and some female writers), Tobias shares his thoughts without, it seems, ever actually having read any romance novels. The only example he offers of the “types” he’s talking about come from Love Story, a novel that was published in 1970 (and even then he’s mostly talking about the movie rather than the book). He then advises the reader who wants to write a Love plot to model their works after the love stories from Great Literature instead. Ugh. Despite this, I do give Tobias credit for acknowledging the role of research in fiction writing, albeit in a relatively small way. When writing the adventure plot, he says, “you either should have firsthand knowledge of the events and the places in which they happen or you need to spend time in the library gleaning those details that add authenticity.” Not a lot of information, but more than Vogler offered in his, so that’s another one for the yes column, which makes 3 so far (out of 5).
  • Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass: What I’m starting to learn about popular writing books is that many of the most popular ones, at least on the Goodreads list I drew from, all try to draw the reader in by relying on some sort of gimmick. In the case of No Plot? No Problem!, it was the prospect of writing a whole book in 30 days. And with 20 Master Plots and How Not to Write a Novel…well, the titles say it all. The angle Maass is going for here, as the title suggests, is to offer tips for writing a “breakout novel,” aka one that will end up on a bestseller list. What makes his advice valuable is that he’s offering it from the perspective of a literary agent who has spent a lot of time reviewing (and mostly rejecting) manuscripts and counseling established authors who would like to break out of what he calls “the midlist” (aka books that do okay but are not bestsellers). What makes the advice less valuable is, well, the fact that this book was published in 2001 and while some of the general writing and story tips Maass offers are still pretty applicable, his insight into publishing trends and what readers want is very much based on what was selling in the 1990s, which is probably not quite the same as what’s selling now. For example, his views on self-publishing seem a bit dated from a 2021 perspective, though the fact that he thought to include them in a book that was published 20 years ago speaks to his knowledge of the industry and the direction it was heading at the time. He also, ironically enough, warns the reader against writing thrillers that center on “killer viruses” because it’s too difficult to make a story about a pandemic seem plausible. Oops. You can’t really blame Maass for not being able to predict the future, though—especially the aspects of it that aren’t related to writing. It’s curious to me that there doesn’t seem to be any updated editions of this book that might reflect more recent publishing trends. As it is, readers must find enough value in the existing work to keep it pretty high on the popularity list despite its datedness. If teaching readers how to write their breakout novel is a gimmick, then it’s obviously one with some pretty strong appeal.
  • Writing Fiction, edited by Alexander Steele: Well, now I know a lot more about Cathedral and A Christmas Carol than I probably needed to. This book by the Gotham Writers Workshop features a series of essays by various writers on different aspects of craft, including character, setting, and revision. As you would expect, all of these writers draw on examples, often (but not always) from Great Literature, to illustrate the techniques they are discussing. Despite the fact that all of these essays are written by different people, they all seem to draw on the same limited pool of examples so that stories like Cathedral and A Christmas Carol (plus a few others) are being discussed in-depth over and over again. I have to think that that’s by editorial design and in some respects it works well—it can be useful to examine the same story through the lens of different elements of craft to see how it works on different levels. But for me, the use of the same examples started to get old. Like, really old. It could just be that I’ve read so many books about writing at this point that the information is starting to feel stale—especially since Cathedral in particular is one of those stories that’s at least mentioned in almost every book about writing there is. Either way, this book reminded me a lot of another, more well-known one of the same title by Janet Burroway. Burroway’s book has more of a textbook feel to it but it examines many of the same aspects of craft that this book does, though a little more in-depth. As far as I can see, there are two main differences between Burroway’s book and this one (other than the price—since this book is less textbooky, it’s much more affordable). The first is that Burroway’s book ends with a chapter on revision while this book goes a step further and includes a chapter on publishing. Unfortunately, the information about publishing is a bit too outdated to be useful (it advises the aspiring writer that while electronic copies are sometimes accepted by publishers/editors/agents, print copies that are sent with self-addressed stamped envelopes are generally the preferred format for submission—this may have been the case in 2003 when the book was published but it seems unlikely that it still is, though as someone who’s never submitted a novel for publication, I coudl be wrong). The second difference is that this book has a little more to say about research than Burroway’s does, though not much. In an essay on setting, Caren Gussoff recommends doing research (both “old-fashioned research” and “un-old-fashioned Internet” research) to learn more about an unfamiliar setting that you would like to include in your story. That’s not much, but it’s enough to qualify for my purposes and puts the “popular writing books” a little ahead of the “academic writing books” in terms of how many mention research at all. Which is to say, only 6 out of 15 academic books (40%) mention research while so far 5 out of what will ultimately be 11 popular books (45%) do so. That’s still not enough to really understand the role of research in fiction writing, particularly for the intended audiences of these various books, but it’s more than I found in my original study where only 3 of the 10 books on writing mentioned research, so it’s definitely an improvement.
  • Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell: Though Plot & Structure didn’t appear on my original list of popular writing books, I had read it before and, unlike with Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and On Writing, I chose to read it again when it appeared on this new list, mostly because I remembered that it did talk about research but not exactly what it said. It turns out there are two specific mentions of research, one that’s mostly focused on using research to generate plot ideas (which is a little different from what I’m looking for) and another near the end of the book about setting aside a section of your writer’s notebook for research. Again, the emphasis here is mostly on using research as a tool for inspiration but he does mention how some writers wait to do research until after the first draft of a story so they know which gaps need to be filled while others prefer to do all their research up front. Bell uses James Michener as an example of the second approach. When it comes to research in fiction writing, Michener actually comes up a lot. Apparently he made a point of reading 100+ books on a subject before attempting to write a story about it. (He would also visit places he intended to write about in person.) This is an interesting piece of trivia but I feel like as far as advice about the role of research in fiction goes, it’s not all that useful. Do any other writers do research like this or is Michener an outlier? I’m guessing he was a bit of an outlier since he’s cited so much in a “Wow! Can you believe it?!?” kind of way but even if he isn’t, you would never know it because he’s literally the only example anyone ever uses when talking about this type of research. Anyway. As I mentioned in a previous post, Bell’s book is one in a series of writing books that each take a particular aspect of craft and focus on it in some depth. On the one hand, this is obviously a bit of a marketing ploy but on the other, I think so many books try so hard to cover every possible element of craft that it’s nice to read something that takes the time to explore just one of those elements in more detail. It’s also interesting to notice the differences between this book and the more “academic” books that tried to do something similar, namely The Art of Time in Fiction and The Art of Subtext. Those academic books were focused much more on craft criticism and considering how Great Writers have used time and subtext (respectively) in their Great Works. There’s little or no how-to. Meanwhile, Bell is all about the how-to with specific exercises for every chapter. You could argue all day about which approach is better, but personally I feel like the value of works like The Art of Time and The Art of Subtext is largely limited to the classroom—which is fair, since that’s mostly what they’re intended for. A how-to approach like Bell’s has a wider appeal and wider application, one that can be used by geniuses and non-geniuses alike.

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