Carla Miriam Levy
About a third of the way through Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, there is an anecdote that changed the way I think about scene construction and dialogue. When Stein was a young playwright participating in a workshop at Lee Strasbourg’s famous Actors Studio in New York, he and another participant were instructed to improvise a scene. The workshop leader, the Academy-Award-winning director Elia Kazan, took Stein aside and privately instructed him on his role: He was the headmaster of an elite private school, and he had expelled a disruptive miscreant of a student who had defiantly squandered many chances to right his behavior. Stein was to meet the boy’s mother, he was told, and though she would beg him to readmit, under no condition should he agree.
Then, outside of Stein’s hearing, Kazan conferred with Stein’s improvisation partner, Rona Jaffe, author of the bestselling novel The Best of Everything, who was to play the mother. Kazan told Jaffe that her son was a bright and well-behaved boy, that he had been persecuted by his teachers, and that she must insist that the headmaster must take him back to the school immediately.
Two participants in the scene, two radically varying interpretations of the world. How could a setup like this yield anything but fireworks?
Stein’s point in recounting this episode is that you can create conflict by giving your characters opposing desires, opposing goals—but why not go even further? Why not place their entire worldviews in opposition, their entire notion of truth? Stein’s headmaster is certain that the boy is a rotten apple beyond correction. Jaffe, as the boy’s mother, takes it for granted that her son can do no wrong. Not only are the characters’ desires at loggerheads; so are the fundamental facts through which they interpret everything they see and hear.
This passage, like many others in Stein on Writing, had me itching to rush back to my manuscript and start fixing things. Stein had given me a clear new lens through which to examine any scene that flagged, any dialogue that didn’t crackle as it should. After reading the passage I was ready to examine every scene in my novel and ask myself, what facts does each character take as given that the other does not know or not believe to be true? The potential is thrilling.
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Sol Stein knows a few things about making fiction and nonfiction ready for publication. A bestselling author himself, he also edited bestsellers by others, including Kazan and James Baldwin. In Stein on Writing, first published in 1995, he indulges in some name dropping, recounting his experiences learning from and teaching writers like these. But the book is not a memoir, nor even a memoir-advice hybrid. It is, as Stein frames it, “a book of usable solutions.” Stein aims to teach you “how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.” He states up front that the goal of his book is to help writers create writing that is suitable for publication. The famous names are his résumé.
In chapters covering everything from strong characterization, to developing tension, suspense, conflict, and plot, to trimming the “flab” from your writing, to tackling the revision of a novel-length manuscript, Stein provides a toolbox of techniques that, like the lesson from his improv session with Kazan and Jaffe, take familiar writing advice and carry it further, providing a new angle from which to interrogate your own writing.
For a writer like me, Stein’s formulations are fresh and intriguing. I am something of an advanced beginner at fiction. Professionally, I have written everything from legal briefs to technical documentation, and I am an experienced writer of critical essays. In fiction, though, I am just finding my legs, laboring through my first novel and publishing a short story or two in the meantime. If you have thought about craft a great deal already, you might find Stein on Writing solid and helpful, if not revelatory. For me, much of it is downright inspiring. The advice is accessible and actionable, with something in nearly every chapter that makes me think, “Yes, I can do that!” It leaves me charged to go press Stein’s techniques into service on the page.
Stein emphasizes that much of his guidance applies with equal force to both writers of fiction and writers of nonfiction, and he invites each to eavesdrop on the sections directed at the other. Most crucial to Stein is that, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, the writer never lose her bead on the foremost purpose of writing: “To provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encounters in everyday life.” Other common goals of writers—to express oneself, to be adored by fans, to make money—might be achievable side effects, Stein says, but the primary intention must be to create enjoyment for readers:
Sex has to be good for both partners. That is also the key to writing both fiction and nonfiction. It has to be a good experience for both partners, the writer and the reader. And it is a source of distress to me to observe how frequently writers ignore the pleasure of their partners.
Most of the book aims to guide writers through the work of creating that pleasurable experience for the reader. A recurring theme in the book is something Stein calls particularity, and it is one of the concepts that drives me back to my manuscript busting out with ideas for improving my characterization and description. Particularity is Stein’s refinement on the notion that “detail is the life blood of fiction,” his way of shining new light on that common bit of writing wisdom. Stein notes that it is not merely detail that distinguishes good writing, but detail that is carefully selected to individualize. What he calls particularity is “the detail that differentiates one person from another, one act from another, one place from any others like it.” Particularity steers the writer away from generalizations and clichés, and toward details that are surprising and evocative. “Thou shalt not saw the air with abstractions,” Stein writes, in concluding remarks structured as a tongue-in-cheek tablet of Commandments for the writer, “for readers, like lovers, are attracted by particularity.”
Indeed, much of Stein’s guidance comes by way of adding his own particularity to common writing shibboleths, turning advice you’ve heard many times before into exercises and techniques that may offer new insight. In the chapter titled “Come Right In: First Sentences, First Paragraphs,” Stein expands on the common idea of starting with action using a metaphor of an engine turning over. The goal of the opening paragraph, he observes, is to excite the readers’ curiosity. It is not necessarily action that does this—Stein points out that we must know who is in the car before we see it crash—but rather a sense that conflict is brewing. He illustrates techniques to rev the story’s engine as early as possible, using characterization, setting, omens, or surprise to engage reader curiosity right in the opening paragraphs.
Stein’s application of particularity for improving characterization includes an idea-provoking discussion of what he calls markers, the details of appearance or behavior that particularize character background, class, or other traits in a vivid instant. Such characterization, executed well, can even generate conflict on its own, especially when distinct characters are trapped together in a crucible, Stein’s concept of a place or situation that characters cannot leave, such as a school or a marriage. The notion of the crucible lends particularity to the general idea that stories thrive on conflict; it brews ideas for how to create conflict.
In a later chapter, “Liposuctioning Flab,” Stein provides a systematic process to back up the common advice to write concisely and trim unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. The exercises and examples he provides encourage the writer to think carefully about meanings, weighing one word against another. Urging that “one plus one equals a half,” he drives home (with some very funny examples) the point that using two descriptors or two images most often weakens the effect of both. It’s advice that can make you feel like a better writer the moment you read it.
In another thought-provoking discussion toward the end of the book, Stein explores the concept of resonance, which he describes as “an aura of significance beyond the components of a story.” I was particularly intrigued by this notion, as a first-time novelist very keen to produce a novel that is about something. Unlike characterization or suspense or adverb trimming, the generation of resonance is tough to teach through a systematic and practical technique. Stein lists off some ways that writers can achieve resonance, including biblical or historical allusion, reference to life and death, the use of aphorisms and philosophical statements, even made-up psychological theories and technobabble. All of these strike me as questionable on the surface, perhaps even dangerous if not handled with extreme care and expertise. But it is to Stein’s credit that he broaches the subject at all, rather than restricting himself to nuts-and-bolts advice that can be distilled into to rules of thumb and exercises for practice. It’s a more open-ended chapter than some of the others, leaving one with rich questions to ponder, if not immediate inspiration for the editorial pen.
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Still, Stein on Writing is not without its blemishes. Stein provides many examples to illustrate his pithy points, but too often they are drawn from his own work, and in some cases, one wonders whether he could not have found better examples had he searched further afield. His chapter on love scenes, for instance, contains some solid advice about generating tension and producing an emotional response in the reader. But he smothers the advice in with a lengthy analysis of a love scene from one of his novels that relies on a rather cliché and unerotic device, a man spilling drops of wine on a woman’s breast and licking them off. More disappointingly, the scene reveals almost nothing of the point-of-view character’s feelings as the seduction unfolds, despite Stein’s instructive emphasis on the importance of those feelings. It’s a rather poor example for much of what he says is crucial to a good love scene.
And some of Stein’s advice betrays the book’s 1990s vintage, particularly in the last section which covers resources for writers; at one point he instructs you to use Google, “www.google.com,” and “in the search box, write writers’ conferences.” Such advice, along with mention of printed industry guides that can be found in libraries, rings quaint to the twenty-first century ear.
But the foundations of craft in the book are solid, and as close to timeless as writing advice can be. “Most writers reveal what others conceal,” he notes, emphasizing that all his technical advice is meant to help you expose an emotional core of truth that creates a meaningful experience for readers. And even if you have quibbles or questions about some of the specifics—as I do—every chapter is at the very least thought-provoking, and most deliver real workable guidance to improving your writing. Read this book, and then get back to your manuscript and start making it stronger.
Carla Miriam Levy has been a physicist, a lawyer, a film critic, and a technical writer. Her published work includes essays on Indian film in Outlook Magazine and a short story in GNU Journal. She posts on the AW forums as Lakey and tweets occasionally at @carla_filmigeek.