If I could own only one book on writing, it would be Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. I sometimes refer to it as my writer’s bible, because it covers such a broad spectrum of writing topics. Everything from character markers to plotting to creating tension to dialog to flashbacks to sensory input to conflict to writing love scenes to revision to titles to . . . well, you get the picture. And though the book is only 303 pages, Stein is able to say everything he needs to so succinctly and his examples are so spot on that you finish each chapter feeling that it’s been thoroughly covered.
You should understand that Sol Stein isn't just some schmo off the street. He was the chief editor for Stein and Day Publishers for 27 years. He's edited such BNAs (Big Name Authors) as George Orwell, Elia Kazan, and James Balwin. This is someone who knows his stuff with a capital S.
Stein on Writing is easily the writing book I recommend more often than any other. Mostly, I refer it to novice writers, because of its broad spectrum of topics and clarity of thought, but I wouldn’t hesitate to refer it to advanced writers as well.
Stein states on the first page that this is a book of usable solutions--how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that's good, how to create interesting writing in the first place. I’m sure you can already tell that I think this book measures up to its promise, so let’s get started with examples, so you’ll know that I’m not just blowing smoke up your skirt.
One of my two favorite chapters to recommend to neophyte writers is the chapter How To Show Instead of Tell. Stein illustrates the difference between showing and telling with this simple example:
He was nervous tells
He tapped his fingers on the tabletop shows
But then he goes a step further and illustrates that there are different levels of showing with this example:
He took a walk tells.
He walked four blocks begins to show
He walked the four blocks slowly shows more clearly.
He walked the four blocks as if it were the last mile shows more by giving the reader a sense of the character’s feelings, which the previous version did not.
He walked as if against an unseen wind, hoping someone would stop him shows most of all because it gives the reader a sense of what the character desperately wants.
My other favorite chapter is titled Particularity. In my mind, this is part two of How to Show Instead of Tell. The thrust of the chapter is picking the details that illuminate characters, settings, action, etc. Others might call this the art of picking Telling Details. Stein calls it picking details that individualize. This is where writing comes to life.
An example he gives is from his own book The Touch of Treason:
Thomassy could see Roberts’s handshake coming at him all the way down the aisle, above it that freckled face proclaiming I can be friendly to everybody, I was born rich.
Roberts’s smile, Thomassy thought, is an implant.
That’s a vivid example of how to characterize not just efficiently but with originality and it certainly individualizes both Roberts and Thomassy, showing you so much about both characters: Roberts would make a first-rate politician and Thomassy is snide and cynical.
There’s so much that’s valuable here. Perusing the book to see what else to include in this review, I ran across Stein’s statement in the chapter The Adrenaline Pump that you open a book by introducing a character then, as soon as possible, creating some moments of tension. Such a simple formula for an opening. And so hard to execute well. And so different in texture from the advice to start en media res which too many interpret to mean that you start with action (like a car chase or an explosion) which doesn’t do the job because it doesn’t matter what’s happening until you put a face on it. This chapter goes on to explore the importance of tension and how to draw it out–and yes, tension is different from suspense.
In another chapter (Love Scenes), Stein reminds you that you don't want to tell the reader what the characters are feeling, but to evoke feelings in the reader as a result of what (the characters) say to each other and what they do. Then he shows you how that’s done.
The chapters on character offer such gems as how to create markers for your characters and how to describe characters through their actions. Stein shares the secrets of good dialog and borrows an exercise from the famed Actor’s Studio that shows you how to create conflict by giving your characters different scripts. All good stuff.
The book is packed with more practical wisdom than I can even begin to mention in a post I hope to keep to a reasonable length. It’s great stuff for novice or intermediate writers and a fantastic review of principles for advanced writers.
Do you have a writers Bible? If you do, what is it?