For some time I’ve been wanting to talk about what I believe is the best book ever written on the subject of storytelling.* Rather than simply identify it and applaud, however, I’m going to walk through the entire book in a series of blog posts. If you’re interested in grounding your storytelling with a solid foundation of craft I encourage you to buy a copy of the book and follow along. I don’t promise it will change your life, but I’m confident you will profit from the discussion, and perhaps considerably so.
The author of the book is L. Rust Hills, the former long-time fiction editor at Esquire magazine. I was fortunate to meet Rust when I was a fiction writing student, and he had a profound effect on my understanding of storytelling as a craft. From him I learned more about how fiction is constructed than I did from any other source, and I remain indebted to him for that instruction. (Mr. Hills died in 2008.)
The good news is that most of what I learned from Rust Hills comes from a small book he wrote that is still in print. Titled Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (WIG&TSSIP), Hills’ book treats every aspect of fiction writing as a craft technique, and shows how specific narrative choices create specific effects. Rather than resort to formulas, Hills focuses always on the author’s intended effect, and whether or not the author accomplished that objective. The goal is never replicating a form, but rather accomplishing the storytelling goal you intend to accomplish for your intended readers.
It’s true that Hills was a dedicated proponent of literature, so you might be worried that his book is a ponderous tome. Nothing could be further from the truth. WIG&TSSIP is plain spoken and accessible to everyone. Too, the points and observations he makes about writing literature apply to every kind of storytelling. If you’re a genre writer or tend to favor a particular formula, reading Hills’ book will improve your writing without asking you to abandon your beliefs because it will make you aware of the interconnectedness of your words on a deeper level.
If you’re interested in the craft of fiction — either as a writer or a reader — I encourage you to get a copy of Hills’ book and follow along. In order to give everyone time to find a copy or have one delivered I’ll be starting the discussion in about a week.
* Yes, that’s a bold claim. Regular readers know I don’t hype recommendations, but in this case I think the praise is warranted. I’ve read a lot of how-to books on fiction writing and nothing else has ever come close.
— Mark Barrett
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