“Most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” – Flannery O’Connor.
My corollary: “Story rules. Plot drools.” – Philip Martin.
Why did I write How to Write Your Best Story ? Here’s the tale.[This is a guest post by Philip Martin, author of How To Write Your Best Story: Advice for Writers on Spinning an Enchanting Tale, expanded 2nd edition, Crickhollow Books, 2017]
In advice for writers, plot is often held up as the key. Sure, a novel needs a plot, just as a person needs a skeleton. But that’s not what you fall in love with.
A main problem is that a plot doesn’t play out until well into the book. A story kicks into gear from the get-go: Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived . . .
Writing coaches often miss or misinterpret core storytelling skills; for example, they often encourage writers to begin “in media res” – in the middle of things, often misinterpreted as meaning you need to start a novel with action.
But what about great novels – say, Oh, Pioneers, or To Kill a Mockingbird – that start with the opposite of action?
Or writers like Elmore Leonard, when pressed, offer “rules” such as: Never start a novel with weather.
But what about an award-winning work like A Wrinkle in Time, that starts with: It was a dark and stormy night . . . ?
Rules are not as useful as storytelling skills. In my career, I’ve published many novels as an indie publisher, and here’s a little secret: I seldom acquire a book based on its plot. Instead, I select submissions based on the success of the storytelling. Storytelling rules, from Page One to The End.
Also, for some years, I was Books Editor for The Writer Books, fielding tall stacks of proposals for how-to writing guide, publishing a select number. At some point, I realized that oddly, story techniques are seldom taught or emphasized as a core skill. I felt that writers, especially those giving advice, felt that storytelling wasn’t something that you taught; they may have felt that either you had it or you didn’t.
I felt otherwise. A few years ago, I finally decided to write a brief guide to fill that void.
In brief, a story does three things. It captures your attention quickly with something odd, it holds your attention by delivering enjoyable details, and at the end it delivers a proper finish that surprises and yet fits the story.
Before I became a book editor and publisher, I worked with folklore and oral documentary projects. I had a firm grounding in the value and the nature of storytelling, having sat and listened to some real masters of the art, raconteurs whose command of story structure was flawless and captivating.
I easily could see how masters of literature, from Shakespeare to Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson to Mark Twain, E.B. White to James Thurber, and modern story-centric gurus like Ursula K. Le Guin or Neil Gaiman used the principles of storytelling to craft their tales.
So I put together this guide, How To Write Your Best Story, looking at the three parts of story. In simple terms: beginning, middle, and end. But there’s a bit more to it than that.
My other goal: to write something succinct and readable. Too many writer books go on too long, covering stuff already well known to the aspiring writer. My target was to write a useful 100-page guide to literary storytelling.That’s roughly what I did (plus a few extra pages for citations – I quoted a lot of short exemplary passages from great works of fiction).
Is the book useful? Here’s what a few other writers have said about How To Write Your Best Story :
“What’s the difference between plot and story? Find out in this concise, almost poetic examination of what makes a great story. Martin’s examples are perfectly selected. The book is short, doesn’t have a lot of filler, but packs a punch, which I really like. A quick must read!” – Deb Baker
“What he succeeds in doing, admirably, is not only describing some of the elements of good storytelling, but describing them in such a way as to model good storytelling in the very act of explaining it. In short, this book is wonderfully readable.” – Moira Allen, Writing-World.com
Without a lot of filler. Readable. Most of all . . . i hope it’s useful to you!
– Philip Martin
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Philip Martin is an experienced editor of many books of advice for authors. Previously acquisitions editor for The Writer Books, he has also written A Guide to Fantasy Literature and award-winning books on traditional culture, and has edited and published dozens of novels for adults and young readers, winning a variety of indie-press honors. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he directs Great Lakes Literary, offering editorial services, websites, and other help for emerging authors.
To buy this book, How to Write Your Best Story is available in softcover:
How to Write Your Best Story is also available as an eBook: