A “how-to” book that really works: “Creating Stories” by Hank Quense
In April 2014 I posted a blog reviewing Lorena Goldsmith’s Self-Editing Fiction that Sells, declaring it the most useful “how-to” book I’d ever seen addressed to fiction writers. Lorena’s book is about editing, polishing and refining a completed manuscript and then submitting it to an agent or publisher. Three years down the line, I continue to find her advice helpful. However, I’d never found a book that gave me useful or palatable advice about producing that completed manuscript in the first place. Most “how to write” books struck me as heavy-handed and frankly unhelpful, and they still do. But now I’ve read one that’s different.
Hank Quense is in a good position to advise us about writing. He has an impressive track-record of publications and his novels are a delight to read, particularly if you enjoy clever parody and comic fiction. (Readers of my blogs might recall my review of his two Moxie novels in October 2016.) His new “how-to” book, Creating Stories, shares many of the qualities of his fiction: succinct, to the point, clear, unequivocal, engaging, and delivered with the lightest of touches. It’s made me look with fresh eyes at the stories I’m currently writing, indicating that it’s no less valuable for the published author than it is for the relative newcomer to ‘fictioneering’.
Hank doesn’t purport to tell reader how to produce creative ideas, but offers guidance on how to turn those ideas into readable fiction. He anatomises story design and narrative techniques under four main headings: setting and characters, plotting, storytelling, and ‘miscellaneous’. He emphasises points that ought to be obvious to all writers but are too often and too easily forgotten: you need many ideas to generate a story, not just one; the key elements of a story are character, problem, struggle and context (setting); and the protagonist and antagonist must both be major characters, not merely main characters. Authors must provide their readers with the means to imagine settings, characters, action and so forth in sufficient detail, and must remember that character development is the heart of story design. The reader must be made to respond emotionally to the main characters as they traverse the emotional arcs through which the story carries them. Above all, the setting, the characters and their motives, and the plotting (main plot and subplots) must convince the reader of their consistency and authenticity.
What’s most impressive about Creating Stories is the way in which each of these aspects of story-writing, and more, are treated in logical order and in detail, but nevertheless economically and lightly. Hank has much to say about the elements of scene design and the connections among scenes, the principles of storytelling (his remarks on ‘showing not telling’ are unconventional but commonsensical), point of view, economy (disposing of redundant adverbs and empty phrases), and the generation and resolution of crises, but he says it all simply and in the minimum of words.
In my view, three other features of Creating Stories merit especial praise.
First, in his advice on world-building, Hank warns us against ‘information dumps’. Haven’t we all met stories in which the author, having researched her/his material exhaustively or explored an aspect of her/his invented world no less exhaustively, is determined then to exhaust the reader by stuffing every detail into the text? I say ‘met’ rather than ‘read’, because we skip the information dumps. Select only the information relevant to the story, says Hank. And of course he’s right.
Second, under his ‘Miscellaneous’ category, he devotes chapter 13 to the special techniques involved in writing effective parody, humour and satire. I know of few writers who’re as well equipped as he is to advise on this matter. In the final two chapters, 14 and 15, he picks up some of his earlier themes such as mind-mapping and offers practical approaches, with references to useful online resources.
Third, he avoids dull chapter introductions. He starts each chapter with a dialogue between himself and The Author – i.e. the intended reader of the book – who is being dragged half-reluctantly through this intensive course of instruction. The effect, as usual with Hank Quense, is amusing and engaging, and it makes us all the more willing to follow his sound advice.
I’ve now read the book twice and it’s destined to join Loretta Goldsmith’s Self-Editing as a permanent occupant of my desk. Half way through my first reading I realised that Creating Stories is a well-nigh perfect textbook for a course in creative writing, which is one way in which I plan to use it. As I began my second reading I realised that it’s also a book to which I, as an established writer, ought to pay heed.
I recommend Creating Stories unreservedly to fiction writers everywhere.