Monthly Archives: May 2016


There must be thousands of books on how to write, and most of the ones I’ve read are really bad. But Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern, is one of the really good ones. Until his death in 1996, Stern was director of the creative writing program at Florida State University. Like Marian Blue and Wayne Ude, he must have been a great teacher. His advice cites practical techniques used by writers from Zane Grey to Henry James and Flaubert, and everybody you’ve ever heard of in between.

Part I of his book describes 16 “Shapes of Fiction,” some of which are “Trauma,” “Gathering,” “A Day in the Life,” Journey,” “Visitation,” and “Bear at the Door.” It’s fun to try to guess what each shape will be like before you read it. Is “Gathering” about Thanksgiving dinner or the climax of a Hercule Poirot novel?

Part II is “A Cautionary Interlude,” consisting of “Write What You Know” (the way he interprets that maxim might surprise you) and “Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do.” This is a really funny section. We’ve all read stories that are like the ones he urges us not to write. One of my favorites is “The Bathtub Story,” in which “a character stays in a single, relatively confined space for the whole story,” thinking about things, but never does anything – never gets out of the bathtub.

Part III, “From Accuracy to Zigzag: An Alphabet for Writers of Fiction,” is a discussion of technique, subject by subject. You’ll find the usual subjects: “Character,” “Description,” “Dialogue,” “Plot.” But there’s also an intriguing thing called “Fretag’s Pyramid”: the key elements of a plot in the order in which they occur in a well-made drama: exposition, rising action, complication, climax, reversal, falling action, etc. This is a plot form much like the one Miko Johnston describes in “From Screen to Page, Part 3,” on the Writers in Residence blog.

The advice I need most is found in “Cliff Hanger,” “Suspense,” and “Tension.” Those who know me will tell you I’m always screaming, “This needs more dramatic tension!” The terrific thing about how Stern tells you how to do it is that he finds as much cliff-hanging and suspense and tension in Jane Austen and Henry James as he does in Zane Grey. It’s the same technique. Zane Grey keeps you on the edge of your seat with wild western “narrow escapes, daring rescues, and close calls.” “Jane Austen’s novels,” Stern says, “hang on the cliffs of love, marriage, loneliness, and happiness.” When I read Henry James’s “The Spoils of Poynton,” I was on the edge of my seat in agony, wondering how an old British widow could save her furniture from her scheming future daughter-in-law after her husband died and her son inherited her home.

A delicious little piece of advice which I had never heard of before is called “Zigzag,” micro-plotting within a scene. Are your scenes dull and lifeless? Does the reader trudge through them, begging you to “get on with it”? If you do zigzagging, that won’t happen. The reader will live in the scene, breathlessly, the way she does in Bill Wilson’s Stowaway.

Making Shapely Fiction is available from Amazon in paperback and kindle format. I recommend the print edition for this kind of book. Flipping through paper pages is much easier than clicking “go to” for accessing the technique you’re interested in at the moment.


A vivid way to describe a character is to use a simile.

How many times have we read that a man was built like an oak stump, or the face of a woman with a long neck looked like a flower on a stalk? When I wrote about a man with a hangover, Nathan sat on the edge of the bed like a shipwreck, I didn’t know whether that was original or a product of cryptomnesia (inadvertent plagiarism; you forget that you read it somewhere) or a case of more than one writer independently having the same idea.

Some similes that describe characters are too detailed to be copies. Tawni O’Dell is a master of the technique. In Angels Burning, she describes a lawyer this way:

He’s a big, bluff guy, gregarious and loud, who gets up from his desk and eagerly comes at you across his office for a handshake like a linebacker heading for a fumbled ball.

In the same book, it’s easy to forget whether Shawna Truly is a blue-eyed blond or a dark-eyed brunette, but neither description makes her as vivid as the way she walks into a police station after her daughter has been murdered and her son accused of the crime:

Like a she elephant grandly walking through a group of deadly big cats to get to the water hole, she has a regal disinterest in her surroundings because she knows nothing can touch her.

 Miranda Truly is as thin as Shawna is large in this implied simile. (You figure out what I mean by “implied.”)

Despite the heat, she’s costumed in a long-sleeved black sack of a dress that falls below her knees. If it weren’t for the presence of her head and a pair of withered, blue-veined hands, I’d think the garment was still on its hanger.

A century ago, in Helen With a High Hand, Arnold Bennett used a different but just as striking simile to show us how thin James Ollerenshaw was:

He leant his right elbow on the back of the seat, and his chin on his right palm. He put his left leg over his right leg, and thus his left foot swayed like a bird on a twig.

 Isn’t that magnificent? Doesn’t it make you want to go out on a limb and find your own pot of gold similes? (I’ll write about mixed metaphors another time.) What are some that you have written? What are some that you have read? Will you post them for us?