It’s Not A Formula, It’s Good Story


Can books on writing really help us with our art?  Will they result in the dreaded ‘formulaic’ novel?  Will they stifle our creativity?  Are they a good use of our time compared to actual writing?

These are all great questions, and I plan to answer absolutely none of them in this blog post.

But they’re a good jumping off point, right?


Whether or not people like to read books on the craft of writing is totally subjective.  I’m willing to bet that there are bestselling authors out there who haven’t read a single one.  I’m also willing to bet that there are quite a few who have read them all (hyperbole).  So I’m not here to give a definitive answer one way or the other.

I will say, though, that I personally enjoy reading books on writing.  I don’t do it ad nauseum, but if I spend 20 hours writing a week, and 20 hours reading, I probably spend about 2 hours reading books on craft.  In my opinion, they help immensely.

I’ve figured out techniques and ways of writing that would have taken me years of reflection and self-editing to understand on my own.  And at the same time, they get me super excited to actually write, which is one of my favorite things about them.

Two of my favorite books on writing are actually by the same author (Donald Maass), and at this point they’re so worn and dog-eared you would swear I’d read them a hundred times (it’s more like 2 or 3).  These books are The Fire in Fiction (my favorite) and The Emotional Craft of Fiction (my second favorite).  I also really enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing, though it has less practical advice than other books and is more a meditation on the art itself.

The catalyst for this post is that I’m currently reading Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, and I’m loving it.  On the surface it’s just another of a thousand books that teach and preach the three act structure (you know, where to put rising and falling action, twists, the catalyst (I already used that word in this paragraph), the climax, etc.).  But beneath all that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

It’s also one of the books that probably gets called out a lot for turning novel writing into a formula, which is actually something the author calls attention to several times.  She does a great job explaining why certain beats need to be in a story, and why they don’t actually stifle creativity or lead to formulaic stories.  I mean, that would be like saying that advising somebody to put a climax in a book is too formulaic.

One of my favorite parts of the book is that once the author lays out her sheet of the 15 story beats every good novel requires, she actually takes popular novels and shows how they include each of the fifteen beats, breaking down stories as diverse as The Girl on the Train and The Kite Runner.  This is an extra level of advice that I really appreciate.

(To be clear this book is an adaptation of the screenwriting book penned by Blake Snyder, which the author has translated for lazy novelists like me.)

Anyway, if you don’t like books on craft, power to you!  Figuring things out on the fly is very impressive.

If you do like them, and you haven’t checked out The Fire in Fiction, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, or Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, I highly recommend you do so (no I’m not being paid to say this, but I wish I was).

Anyway, it’s time for me to go read another 20-30 pages of the book, then get down to more writing!

What about you guys?  Do you like books on craft?  Why or why not?  And if you do, which one is your favorite?  I’m always looking to add to my stockpile.

14 comments on “It’s Not A Formula, It’s Good Story”

  1. This is so true. Though my hours reading very depending on workload, I spend much of my free time reading. About half of that time is spent on reading for enjoyment and the rest is spent reading on the craft of writing. As an author, blogger, and poet, this means I am reading blog posts about how to be a better blogger and how to write better. I think that it is essential to always learn and reading what others have to say on your craft provides insight that might be too close for us to see otherwise. Thank you for sharing and have a fabulous day.

      1. I don’t right off hand. I will have to go through my library to give you the names. However, I have a few blogs that help tremendously on both blogging and writing. Christian Mihai and his Art of Blogging are priceless for blogging advice and motivation. Writer’s Digest is fantastic for writing tips and excellent resources to learn the craft better. I will find the names of the books and let you know later.

    1. Haha yes, and don’t forget that if you use anything other that ‘said’ for dialogue it means your words weren’t powerful enough!!
      Hope you enjoy the other books!

  2. Hey, I come from more of a screenwriting and film making background, but I’ve read several books on writing different styles of books as well. I find them all inspiring in their own way, and pretty much all of them highlight the various formulas involved in the craft. I do believe that you need to know what these ‘formulas’ and ‘rules’ are, what makes a “good” story in a certain medium, in order to improve and grow as a writer. But also to keep them in mind if you’re looking to subvert them, and keep things consistent, in your own stories. I’ll check out the books you mention. A favourite of mine is Stephen King’s On Writing, and a film making book called Make Your Own Damn Movie by Lloyd Kaufman. Both have inspired me to get out and be creative.

    1. Yes that’s absolutely something I forgot to write about – you can’t break the rules in a way that’s exciting and fun if you don’t actually grasp the way the rules are supposed to work.

      And thanks for sharing the suggestions!

  3. Improvement at a skill = more time spent doing that skill.
    Improve your ability to abstract? -> Spend more time thinking.
    Practice, practice, practice.

    Thank you for sharing your experience! It is inspiring.

    I aspire to improve at the craft through practice and constant evaluation.
    Got to put the reps in!

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