I own a few different books on the craft of writing, from the traditional and practically mandatory (the hero's journey) to the slightly different (John Truby's The Art of Story) to the frankly quite unorthodox (Stuart Horwitz's Blueprint Your Bestseller). I'm currently about halfway through the massive tome that is the Seven Basic Plots. And I thought I'd have a chat about my feelings on this sort of thing.
Don't worry, I'm not about to lay out my process, or my step by step 'you have to write a novel this way' routine. I just want to talk about the process of laying out a practical poetics of writing, and some of my reactions to it.
My instinctive reactions are twofold. There's a part of me that likes being told that there's an easy way to produce great fiction, because I'd like to be able to produce great fiction and who isn't a fan of easy ways? There's also a part of me though that instinctively assumes that it's a con. That there is no step by step path to success. That dislikes even the idea of someone trying to contain art that way.
Since I work as a ghostwriter, I suppose that I should be on board with this sort of thing. There is definitely a craft of writing that can be learned. There are definitely things people do with building and releasing tension, working towards and setting up an ending that could be called structure. There are even some genre specific structures that I use all the time in my work (such as the Romance 'formula' and variations thereof).
And yet... I think the problems I have are twofold. First, I have significant issues with anyone who says that they have discovered the way that all stories are built, and that even people who don't know it are 'really' doing it the way a particular structure expert has devised. What that really means is that they have built a tool of analysis sufficiently general that they can retrospectively apply it to any story, if they sort of squint, and very occasionally hit the stories with a large hammer to get them into the right shape. I find it particularly amusing when two or three writing books latch onto the same story, and say that it was 'really' written using the elements they prescribe as being essential to any good story.
My second problem comes with the words 'good story', because most of these attempts really tell us very little about what makes a good story. They may be able to cite a few Hollywood blockbusters that have genuinely been written by people who have read their book, but they don't ever mention the flops that the studio thinks 'should' have succeeded, because they follow the same structure. Give me a flop, whether a book or a film, and the odds are that it can be analysed and said to use exactly the same techniques.
Why? Because there comes a point with theories where they become essentially useless. The more general they are, the more applicable they are to every writing situation, the less able they are to do anything to differentiate between different types of writing. The less they actually do any of the heavy lifting for you. We'd probably be better off reading about the nuts and bolts of writing individual chapters, or at least practical advice on tension and release, but we end up reading things that we then try to shoehorn into our approaches.
Why? Why is all this so popular? Why is it such big business? There are probably two answers to that. One is that most of the writers I have met, myself included, tend not to think of themselves as good enough. We wouldn't dare to think that we actually know all about this stuff we do. So we look outside ourselves for answers.
The second, and perhaps more important, is Hollywood. Although there has always been literary criticism, and attempts to pick apart how writing works are as old as Aristotle, it seems like it isn't a coincidence that some of the biggest attempts at the writer's self help genre have come since the birth of cinema. It certainly isn't a coincidence that many of them these days aim themselves firmly at screenwriters, cite movies as their main sources, and seem to hope to be picked up as 'the' method by a big studio.
Why? Because films cost money to make, and film studios want as close to a guarantee as they can get that they will make their considerable investment back. They need to believe that writing in a particular way will guarantee an effective story, because to do otherwise is to suggest that they might be gambling their money on nothing more than an executive's taste in movies. It is the story equivalent of a horse racing 'system'.
Of course, I'm firmly in the other camp. The camp that has to believe that there is no method, because otherwise that devalues my own experience. The semi-mystical quality of the writer's process. The truth is probably somewhere in between. The difference is that I'm prepared to admit that an in between might conceivably exist.