Sunday, 10 April 2011

Writers’ Manuals Distilled : Dwight V. Swain

by Jill Marsh

Each issue, WwJ reads one of the many manuals aimed at the aspiring writer. Reducing it to its essence, we’ll pass on wise advice, tips and tricks, and inspiration. Here we look at the first part of Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.

(Gender pronouns as in original).


A writer’s job is to bring forth a feeling from the reader. Find the feeling first, and urge to tell. Then fend off all the voices – inhibition, self-censorship, restraint. Look at rules as signposts from previous travellers, not fences. Dependence on mechanics results in something limp and inert – feeling is at the centre of every story.
Be subjective, depend on your own view of the world and when you have your raw, honest version, then you can begin the refining, the winnowing, the edit.
Separate creation and critique – they stifle each other. Be willing to be very, very bad. Those ready to make mistakes move forward.
Feeling tells us what to say, techniques gives the tools with which to say it. But each person goes about it differently. There’s no one answer to any writing question.


Firstly, you select – who, when, why, where, when, how.
Next you arrange – cause to effect, or effect back to cause? In chronological order or via flashbacks or a frame?
Then you describe – bring images, sounds, tastes, scents and feelings to life with vivid use of words. To achieve vivid use of words, your two key tools are nouns and verbs. Nouns should be specific, concrete and definite, while verbs must be active. The verb ‘to be’ is weak because it’s static. Cut ‘to be’ forms every chance you can, and avoid the past perfect ‘had been, hadn’t done’ wherever possible. Active description can sidestep adverbs and be sparing with adjectives. Making a comparison to another image (metaphor or similie) is an excellent device for achieving vividness.
Your choice of words depends on denotation (actual meaning) and connotation (implied associations). Thus a horse, depending on what you want to imply, can be a steed, filly, nag, pony, stallion or neddy.         
Language problems often fall into six categories:
1)    Sentence structure becomes monotonous. Strive for variety but refrain from stylistic acrobatics which detract from the story.
2)    Subject and verb become separated. Keep a connection between the key elements of actor and action. Interrupting with a string of modifications or explanations is overweighting one sentence. If extra information is vital, give it a sentence of its own.
3)    Adverbs are improperly placed. Put them at the beginning or the end.
4)    Repetition of words or phrases. This is a product of careless copy-reading. If you want repetition for effect, do it three times. Twice looks like an error, more is hammering the point.
5)    Correct grammar as fetish. Sometimes rules should be broken for the right effect. Do it for the right reasons but stay within the rules most of the time.
6)    Meaning is unclear. If a reader has to read a sentence twice to understand what is happening, you’re in trouble.


Decide what’s good and bad. An event happens and the reader must know from the circumstances what effect that will have on the characters. Give the reader a compass, allowing them to interpret events via feelings. Stories are subjective and readers make judgements on the characters’ actions. These judgements are precisely what excites interest and keeps them reading.
Story world: for the reader, it’s subjective, it’s sensory, and it’s new. You have to make it real by filling it with recognisable description and comparison interpreted subjectively by your Focal Character (FC).
Story = change ... your FC moves from one state to the other. Something shifts and by the end, so has the character’s state of mind. All events must be relevant and contribute to that moment.
= cause & effect ... the fact that one thing leads to another, that there’s a reason for everything gives the reader a sense of security, a feeling that he understands.
= motivation and reaction. A motivating stimulus occurs, a factor outside your focal character, and causes a reaction from within. These motivation-reaction (MR) units are what carry your story forward.
Emotional reactions need to be presented sequentially. Thus, an MR unit goes like this: feeling into action into speech. This pattern of emotion represents an increase of control for the character. Feeling is impulse, action is choice and speech a considered step. One of the stages, if obvious, can be left out on the page. But it’s there in the reader’s mind.
The motivating stimulus must be pertinent to your story, significant to your character and provoke movement. The reaction retains the same three elements but must also conform to the character, appearing reasonable (for him). You, the writer, decide what effect you hope to achieve from such a reaction – what does it say about your FC?
Writing an MR unit
Write a sentence without your character, followed by a sentence about your character. You can expand either or both to include two or three sentences, but keep stimulus and reaction clearly separated. External stimulus – character reaction – external world’s response – character reaction and we begin to build the chain of interaction.


Scene and sequel. A scene is a unit of conflict, lived through by character and reader. A sequel is a unit of transition to link two scenes. A scene should follow a pattern: goal, conflict, disaster. The reader must understand the goal, which needs to be specific, and aware of the forces of opposition, which generates conflict. Within the conflict, you can add more challenges & complexities, upping the stakes and increasing the challenge. Finally, a curveball arrives, throwing your character into a situation where he faces a choice. This is your hook – what will he do now?
Scene-writing Dos ...
Do establish time, place, circumstance and viewpoint at the start – confusion infuriates readers. Even if the FC isn’t in this scene, it must have a focal character to orient the reader.
Do establish scene goal quickly. It must be specific and achievable within the time frame.
Do ensure strong, unified forces of antagonism for power and clarity.
Do build to a curtain line. The disaster may not be actually disastrous, but it raises the question - what’s next?
... and Don’ts
Don’t write too small. It’s hard to develop a meaningful scene in under a thousand words.
Don’t go into flashback. Scenes need forward movement in the present. Flashbacks at moments of conflict are unrealistic, straining the reader’s patience.
Don’t summarise. Let the reader live every moment of the tension.
A sequel’s function is to translate the previous disaster into a new goal, to telescope reality and to control tempo. Sequels show the FC’s reaction and new direction, based on logic. This takes longer and may lack movement, so summary is essential. In terms of tempo, this is the valley after the peak, a breathing space. Sequel’s structure is reaction, dilemma, decision.        These may involve incidents and interactions, but no conflict. Skip the emotionally non-pertinent, use the symbolic fragment to indicate state of mind, create an impressionistic montage to convey the essence. You are dealing with feeling; with thought.
The problem of proportion involves how much time you devote to each segment. Use the emotional clock. The more tense the situation, the more time you give it. When a character experiences tension, provoked by an external stimulus, he is faced with a choice as to how to act. This where you need detail. In such scenes, facts and mechanics should be summarised.
Scene/sequel balance: if it’s boring, build the scenes. If it’s improbable, build the sequels.


A story is not a thing, it’s something you do to a reader. A reader reads because it creates a pleasurable sense of tension, one the writer controls, manipulates and eventually releases. The reader’s empathy with the characters satisfies a need. A plot is a plan of action for manipulating tension. The start creates it, the middles intensifies it and the end climaxes and resolves it. The end must feel right to the reader – character influences outcome, man masters fate.
Put your character in danger. Demonstrate if he deserves to win or lose. Fit the story’s outcome to his behaviour and provide poetic justice. The reader lives the story with the FC, shares the tests and convinces himself he would act on principle.


Story elements: character, situation, objective, opponent, disaster. Write two sentences – one statement which establishes character, situation and objective. One closed question which nails opponent and disaster.
When humans start growing to twelve-foot high, John Storm wants to find out why.
But can he defeat traitors in high places who would kill him and fake an extra-terrestrial plot?
Get started: use desire, danger and decision. Start with a change – a character in an existing situation is affected by an event, triggering consequences. Begin just before, just as or just after this change, whichever serves your story best. But answer the three reader questions: Where am I? What’s up? Whose skin am I in?
Introduce your FC via some act that characterises him through action. Don’t labour backstory; the past hold no suspense. The end of the beginning comes when the FC has committed to action, to answering the story question. Will he? Can he? The reader must care.
Develop the middle: don’t stand still. Every unit must build, focused on the story question, taking the FC from frying pan to fire, adding complications and constantly changing. Provide respite in sequels and begin to snip off loose ends as you build to climax.
Climax: set up the situation where the FC faces the ultimate dilemma. Make him act on his irrevocable choice and reward/punish him for his decision. Box him in, make principles preclude the easy option, the alternative must spell disaster but the goal remains vital to the FC. Use a gimmick – an object or phenomenon which exerts a powerful emotional pull on the FC. Register this early in the story – the talisman, thunderstorm, sound of a sitar – and bring it back at the climax, tipping him in the desired direction.
Resolution: after the climax, the FC suffers a moment of anguish – did he do the right thing? Reverse the situation with an unexpected development; the obvious won’t do. Give him his reward. The satisfying ending is not the same as the happy one. His original desire may have changed completely, but an emotional need is met. What was behind the FC’s original goal is what you need to fulfil/deny, depending on whether your ending is positive/negative. Tie up any loose ends and indicate the characters have a future.
Give a character direction through two elements: lack and compensation. The goal addresses the former and motivates him to the latter – which will put him in control. Thus characters must have history (most of which will never make it onto the pages). From this history emerges a character who fights or flees from the challenges of life. These habitual reactions and behavioural patterns must be shown so the reader draws his own conclusions. Readers identify with characters not just because they share their world view or they want to be like them, but because the contradictions within a character interests them.
Villains deserve as much attention as heroes – he is the personification of threat. If the danger is too weak, so is the story. The motivation of the villain must be just as strong as that of the hero to provide true conflict.
Preparation, Planning, Production
Prepare: Focused free association gives you ideas to get excited about, but that’s only one way an idea might arrive. Don’t censor your thinking – a good idea emerges from a host of bad ones. Attempting a superior product at this stage is futile.
Make lists whenever you need an idea for a setting, a character, an incident or a title. Even when you think you’ve got it, write a half dozen more. Always search for the unanticipated.
Research the facts you need and use the information you already have. Know enough to make it authentic, but don’t drown yourself in unnecessary background.
Plan: Don’t plan too rigidly; it denies you the pleasure and privilege of following the impulse and inspiration of the moment. All you need for story outline is a focal character, a situation in which he is involved, the objective he seeks, and opponent and a potential climactic disaster. Back to the story question, basically. Then you fill out, stage by stage, the details that lead you from the original state of affairs to that of the end.
Production: Work regular hours, set up a quota and have a place to work. Remove the critic and allow the creator to write. Once you have a draft, then begins the process of editing.
Revision deals with structural changes. Ask yourself three questions.
Does the story go in a straight line? (Is the story question clear and established early? Is every incident relevant and the development logical? Does the climax answer the story question through the hero’s act and does the resolution tie up loose ends?)
Does the story build through scenes and sequels?
Does the reader care what happens to your hero?
Polishing deals with language. Here you check your prose for clarity, eradicating clutter, maintaining consistency, ensuring sequencing is logical, increasing impact of word choice and sentence construction, and lastly, watching out for your own personal idiosyncrasies.
Every writer finds his own route, but the tips above should save you some heartache and the world some wasted trees.

Theory into Practice – Swain: One WwJ contributor explains what worked for her

Sheila Bugler is an Irish crime writer living and working in London.

I was introduced to Swain through a book written by one of his former students, Jack M Bickham. Like his mentor, Bickham was an American author who taught creative writing and wrote his own ‘how to write’ book – Writing and Selling Your Novel.

At the time I read Bickham’s book, I was trying to write my first novel. I had never done a creative writing course or given any thought to the techniques of creative writing. In fact, the very idea filled me with horror. Writing, after all, is a creative business, right?

Well, yes and no. In between writing pages of drivel, I would pick up Bickham’s book and flick through it. There were two chapters, in particular, that I kept going back to. One on character - Characters Make a Difference - and one which Bickham described as ‘the single most important’ in his book, Scene and Sequel. The techniques outlined in both chapters were attributed to Swain, and once I’d absorbed them, my writing changed forever.

After reading Bickham, I got my own copy of Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. Some of it was immensely helpful. Other aspects I more or less ignored because they didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t, for example, ‘get’ all that business about motivation-reaction (MR) units, and his advice on language didn’t interest me particularly. However, other things made such sense that I started to apply them to my own writing with almost religious fervour.

So what changed? First of all, I took Swain’s advice on separating creation and critique. I put my inner critic to one side and got on with the business of writing, doing my best to keep feeling at the centre of everything I wrote. If I couldn’t feel it, then it wasn’t worth writing.

I also thought much more about the purpose of everything I wrote. Before beginning a piece of writing, I would categorise it as scene or sequel, and then further break it down into its component parts. So, at the top of each chapter I would make notes that looked like this:


GOAL – Clodagh wants Stone to believe she had nothing to do with Dave’s murder.
CONFLICT – Stone is determined to charge Clodagh with murder.
DISASTER – Stone reveals that Clodagh’s mobile phone was found beside Dave’s body.
I would do the same for the next section, typically sequence, which I’d break down into – EMOTION, QUANDRY, DECISION and ACTION.
Sounds mad? Possibly. But it worked. At some point, I dropped the habit and don’t do it these days, but that’s probably because the approach is second nature to me now and I don’t need to. The important thing is that when I started out and was learning the tools of my trade, Swain’s approach gave me a focus and a framework which I needed. Without it, I’m sure everything I wrote would have been about as interesting as a bus timetable.

As well as Techniques of the Selling Writer, Swain wrote a book called Creating Characters: How to Build Story People. I haven’t read this but in Bickham’s views on character rely heavily on Swain. One thing that really stood out was Swain’s advice on exaggeration. Actual, real-life people translated to paper as literally as possible does not make for good reading, according to Swain/Bickham. Throw caution to the wind and create wildly exaggerated characters just to see what will happen. I tried this. It was fun. Such great fun that I continue to do it in my writing. It doesn’t always work and sometimes I get it very wrong indeed. But other times, running with my imagination in this way produces surprising results.


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