Stack of books on a table

#61: Brady Udall 2010

Novel Writing Vs. Any Other Writing, July 7, 2022

In Rewrite Radio episode #61, Brady Udall offers his thoughts on teaching how to write a novel as opposed to short story or poetry. He distinguishes the long-lived popularity of novels in today’s society and why that is.





[00:00:05] Rewrite Radio is delighted to share writer and professor Brady Udall's talk from 2010 where he tells stories of his early writing days and offers a framework for writing novels.

My name is Heidi Groenboom, and I'm a Senior Student Fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.

Brady Udall is the author of the short story collection Letting Loose the Hounds and two novels: The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, and The Lonely Polygamist. His work has appeared in publications such as The Paris Review and Esquire. He graduated from Brigham Young University and later attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Udall taught at Franklin & Marshall College and Southern Illinois University, and spent three years as Writer-in-Residence of Idaho and teaches writing at Boise State University.

From the 2010 Festival of Faith & Writing, Brady Udall.

[theme music]


Brady Udall: This, standing up here, I have to say, makes me a little nervous. Michael Perry said yesterday that he doesn't get nervous when he stands up, and neither do I. But standing up in a church?

Gives me the willies. 

And I think I can trace it back: I grew up a Mormon. And as most of you might know, Mormons don't have paid clergy. There's no priest or Pastor who gets up and delivers a sermon every week. The members speak every week. Every week, there's three, four, five members who are assigned to speak and we call those “talks.” 

And back when I was growing up, it's not done as much anymore, small children were asked to give talks, they were called two-minute talks. And so you could be as young as six or eight years old and be asked to stand up in front of the congregation, just like this and give a talk. And, like most of the other kids around, I did not want to do this.


And I remember watching people give talks, and I don't think I fully understood why they were so obviously terrified. Some of them would get up and shake. Some of them would cry. Clearly, not because they were overwhelmed by the Spirit, but because they were so nervous that when they talked, their voice cracked, and then they started to cry, and then it just kind of went from there. And what I really thought was that they were so nervous, so terrified because they were worried about the Judgment of God upon them for what they were saying, that they might slip up somehow, that they might say the wrong thing, that they might offer incorrect doctrine. 

Of course that wasn't the case, but it's what I imagined to be the case, and this was confirmed for me one Sunday. On every fourth Sunday of every month, we have what's called Fast and Testimony meeting. And there, instead of people standing up to give talks, they give testimony. So extemporaneously people stand up and come to the front and say whatever they feel like saying pretty much. 

One Sunday, a man came up, and he was dressed in work clothes. And, by the way, this is a very small town in northeastern Arizona, very sheltered. We all know each other, and this man, we didn't know, and he was apparently just a convert of the church and he was from Alabama. And right off the bat, he swore. It wasn't anything bad. He said something about, for us, it was swearing. He said something; he was so tired, he couldn't piss in his boots or something like that. And there was a lot of tittering among the teenagers and the little ones, you know, sat right up, and we were all very attentive. And he did this two or three more times and every time got a reaction, or he said something about, you know, this kicked my butt and this was all, of course, very inappropriate, but we were loving it.

And of course, there was a whole other contingent of the audience that was not loving it, that was appalled by it. But he wasn't picking up on that, but he was only picking up on the vibe from from the rest of us. And so he got kind of excited and got going and kept talking, and went off the rail really talking about whatever he felt like, and he got so full of himself that he started to sing a Merle Haggard song, as some kind of illustration of feelings of something. As I remember it, it’s “That's the Way Love Goes” by Merle Haggard. 

And so he starts singing this song, and I'm not sure what happened. He was really putting himself into it. I think what happened is, his legs must have locked up, as they sometimes do and blood stopped rushing to his head or whatever it was, but he was pretty much hitting one of those high notes, and something happened to his face, and he just toppled like this, and his head hit a pew, very close, and rang throughout the church. And we all just kind of went like this, and he was on the floor. And he'd split his head open pretty badly, and there was blood running on the floor. 

[00:05:24] And I was sure, of course, that God had struck him down. [laughter] It was the only reasonable explanation. The EMTs came, all the way, I decided I am never speaking in church. There is no way. And so, I got out of it for years and years and it's one of the things actually that contributed to my stage fright, to being afraid to get up in front of people.

The first time I ever had to when I got a book contract, and I'll talk about this in a minute. But when I got a book contract, my editor said, you're going to go on tour. This is going to be fun. And I said, well, I can't, I won't do a reading. And she said, oh, yes, you will! And I said, no. No, I won't. And she said, oh, yes, you will. And I said, well then just cancel the book contract ‘cause I am not reading. I was that terrified. And so she flew out from New York for my first reading, and sat there like a mother with a third grader, giving his first talk in front of a class and said, it’s okay, it's okay. 

And I was so scared. My legs were shaking, and I couldn't get my breath, and so on. And I got over it very quickly. But so I just want to let you know that this is a little different for me. But the way I'm going to do this is I'm just going to talk for a while, and I hope you'll feel free honestly to raise your hand and ask a question. I don't think I'm going to go on for more than 30 minutes, and then I thought we could just talk. I'm sure you have questions, aspects of whatever you're doing with your novel, thoughts about novels, and writing of them, and I hope we can talk about that. 

Okay, I thought, what I’d do first is just tell you how I came to be a novelist. I think one of the things that happens at writers conferences is that some of the people show up, and they're pretty much here just to kind of size up the writers. Right? You're looking at these people, you're looking at me and thinking, how did this guy get published? [laughter]

It doesn't. It does not make sense.

So, I'm going to try to explain how I got published and how I became a novelist in it, and I don't think you'll like this at all, but I think it might help you see how things happen, how the world of writing and literature and publishing is a really screwy one.

I, like so many of you and so many of the writers here, grew up in a house full of books. My mother was a lover of literature. She was an English teacher in high school. And so I read a lot. I didn't really have a choice. She was a very Victorian-minded person. She would not say the word word sex. If somebody started talking about breast cancer, she would leave the room. In anything that even touched sex, anything that was slightly vulgar, she hated. And yet she would give me books when I was nine years old, she gave me Kafka's, The Metamorphosis.

There was a distinction made in her mind between life and literature. And literature can be complex and dark and strange; life couldn't. So that was fine. And that worked for me. 

Along the way, somewhere, I got really interested in fantasy and science fiction. You know, there were the classics; I would read that stuff; I would enjoy it. But my kind of personal love was these crazy science fiction stories and fantasy stories.

And so I wrote quite a bit just just in my off time writing nutty little stories and so on, but I never conceived of it as a thing you could do for a living. When I got the books that I read, I just figured if a book was written, it had to be written by a dead person. I couldn't imagine that there was an alive being that was writing these things. I understood books to have been written by dead people. So I had no idea that you could be a writer, that that could be something you could aspire to. 

But I think I got at least the idea that you could make some money at it. I think I was 11 or 12, and our little town was the county seat, and every fall, every September, we had the county fair. Of course, you know, people are putting up their cows and pigs and pies and knitting and whatever else for judging. And that one year, they had a poetry contest. And I overheard my mother talking about this the night before the fair. And she said that the first prize for the poetry contest was $25.

And that went right into my soul. 


I came from a family. I’m one of nine children. We never got allowance. We never got money for anything. I don't even know how we ever got money at all. The idea of $25, I can't tell you what that meant. So I sat down that night and started to write a poem.

[00:10:27] And it was called “Time’s Prize.” And it was about, I wish I still had it. It was about the biggest tree in the forest that’s dying. And there's a man nearby, and he can hear its cries or something like that, but I kept getting stuck. So I pulled down my mother's collected works of Walt Whitman, and just kind of steal a line here and there and stick it in.


That sounds good. And then I'd, you know, change it a little bit or something. And it took me really, honestly, I think it took like an hour and a half, and I had a pretty long, like four-page poem. And I turned it in, and I won second place. $15 and a giant red ribbon. And I just thought this is, this is the way to live. 


And so I really started writing in earnest. Just thinking, you know, I can write something to make money somewhere. I already wrote 17 poems before the following County Fair, which didn't have the poetry contest again. By the way, I lost to a poem that was called “Clouds.” And, I was so angry reading that thing…thinking mind is so much better. It was clouds about, you know, the shapes of different clouds and somebody sitting there looking at clouds and all the different shapes, and I thought this is such a cliche. Come on.

Anyway, so I had this, I had this idea that, you know, well, if I can't make a living at it, I can at least do something in the world of writing. So I took every class when I went to college, I was sociology major because my mother said, “Oh, you can't make a living as a writer. Don't even think about it.” But I took every creative writing class I possibly could. 

Really with the idea in mind that well, I really couldn't do anything else. So that's what I'm going to do. When it came time to graduate from college, I asked my professor who helped me out. I said, “What do I do now?” You know. And he said, “Well, you can go to an MFA program.” And I said, “What's that?” And he said, “Oh, it's a graduate program.” I had no idea. And I said, “Where should I apply?” And this is before the internet, so I couldn’t research any of this really–at least I had no idea how to.

So, he wrote down a few names of places, and I applied to these places. And lo and behold, I got into all of them. And so I called him up and he said, “Where did you get in?” And I told him these names and he said, “Where are you going?” I said, “Florida.” And he said, “Why are you going to Florida?” And I said, “I don't know. It's Florida, it's warm.” And he said, “You got into Iowa?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “That's the best program in the country.” And I said, “I don't care. It's in Iowa.”

I had no, I mean, sorry for anybody from Iowa or the Midwest and, you know, this is Michigan, but I just thought that the last place in the world, I want to go is Iowa. And he said, it's the best program in the country. And he said, “What did you get there?” And I said, “I got this fellowship.” And then he told me, “Listen. You got the top fellowship at the top place in the entire country. You're an idiot if you don't go to Iowa.” And so I did what I was told, I said okay, I guess I'm going to Iowa. That's really how naive I was.

I went to Iowa and honestly, it was a step down from my education at BYU. I had a great time there. I met many people, but actually the quality of the instruction wasn't anything that good. But I worked. I worked really hard. And I had great friends, and one of my friends–I'm getting there with this story, I'm sorry, this is taking a little bit long. 

One of my friends won an award in Salt Lake City; it’s called the Writers of Work Fellowship. and he won that award, so he went to this writers conference. And while he was there, he was sitting next to the pool and talking to an editor named Carol Houck Smith. Now Carol Houck Smith was an editor–the only editor I had ever heard of because some of my favorite writers, Rick Bass, Pam Houston, Ron Carlson, had written quite a bit about her. And so she's the only editor I knew by name. 

And she's talking to him about his work. And she said, “Do you have any friends that write?” And he said, “Oh, yeah.” And he pulled out one of my stories from his bag that he had for workshop and gave it to her. Now, of course, he came home and didn't tell me any of this. If he had told me that he'd been talking to Carol Houck Smith, and he'd given her one of my stories, I would have hugged him and taken him out to dinner and done anything he wanted

But he didn't tell me. So, what happens? About a week later, I get a call from someone. It sounds like an old lady, and I miss her name on the phone, and she starts talking about this and that, and I figured that some crazy old lady has read my story in a literary magazine. And I nearly hung up on her because she sounded nutty. She kept asking me about my kids and about things that she probably shouldn't have, you know. And I was not very patient with her. 

And then she started talking about Rick Bass and Pam Houston and Ron Carlson. And I said, “Wait a second. What is your name?” And she said, “My name is Carol Houck Smith.” And I nearly fainted. I couldn't believe it. And she said, “Listen, I wanted to say I loved your story. Can you send me more? Do you have any more?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, I got stories all over the place.” 

So I sent her those stories and within a week, I had an agent and what was basically a book deal, a two-book deal, without even trying, without even sending anything out. It was complete luck. That's lovely. All right, that's you know, nobody can expect such luck. What happened though, was this: they said all right, they said, “We want to give you a two-book deal, wasn't for a lot of money.” But you know, if $15 made me happy you can imagine.

And they said so, you know, so I said, “Two books.” So it's a collection of short stories, and they said, “Yeah. The second book needs to be a novel.” And they said, “You have a novel idea, don't you?” And I said, “Yeah, I do. Yeah, and I started thinking madly about what I could possibly write.” And they said, “Then we need a synopsis by tomorrow morning, so we can get this done.”

[00:16:24] So I sat there and racked my brain and I, you know, I thought of things before, but never in a serious way. So I wrote a single paragraph about a young, Indian boy who gets his head run over by a car and so on and sent that to them and they said, “Okay that that works.”

All right. So, lovely. I'm on my way. 

So it takes me a couple years to get that short story collection; I need to write more stories, better stories. Carol's a difficult editor. She's not going to let slop go out into the world. So she's pretty hard on me. It takes me a while. I finally get that thing published, and everything's lovely. And she says, “Okay, now it's time to write your novel.” I thought, “Okay, now it's time to write my novel.” And I sat down, and I realized I have no earthly idea how to write a novel. I had been writing since I was 12 years old. I had been taking creative writing classes since I was 12 years old. I had gone to the best writing program in the country and not once, not once had anybody ever talked about the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel. I had no idea how to do it. And I knew intuitively that you can't just sit down and do it. It's not the same as writing a short story. 

And so one of the things I've done is a teacher is really tried to focus on that. 

One of the things I've noticed in most MFA programs, for example, in most conferences, you go to the focus is on the short story, which is lovely. Short stories are lovely, but it's very strange because novels, as you all know, are the dominant literary form of our time and have been since they've been around and probably always will be. Always is a big word, but into the foreseeable future. So why do you think we're not talking about them? Why do you think teachers aren't teaching them? Does anybody have an idea?

What's that? Less competition? That might be part of it. Yes.

All right. No two writers do it the same way. 

A lot of times when you hear people like me, talking about something like this, all they're doing is telling you how they do it. Right? That's all you're hearing. 

In the back there. You.


“It's inconvenient.” You know? It takes a lot of reading on the teacher’s part. We're lazy. We don't want to read that much. Please give me a three-page story. That's good. Good enough. 

Go ahead. Very good. Very good. There is a very strong aversion to looking at structure, to thinking about plot. These are, these are, these are things for the masses. They're not for us high-minded people.

And so very often what it's talked about in conferences like this, and it's perfectly fine in my book, but it's often not very helpful at all. We're talking about art. And in my mind, art is for the individual. Have you ever gone to a museum and looked at a painting and underneath is an explanation of the painting? This painting displays the diametrical...

Have somebody explain something that you can see with your own two eyes. To me it's terribly annoying and frustrating. I would much rather have it that if that plaque said this painting was painted using this kind of oil paints on this day, you know, using sunlight through the, through the painter's window. I'd be much more interested in how that painting was made, not somebody's own idea about what that painting might mean. 

And when you're a writer, you just want to know how did they do that. And that's what craft is. And craft is communal, craft is something we share as a community. We teach each other. Art is not.

In general, I'm making generalities here. But so I'm going to be talking about crafts, and I want to, I want to make sure you understand that. That artist is the thing we all aspire to. But to get there, we have to understand craft, and I think much too often people are going into novel writing–probably the most difficult and arduous artistic task–without really knowing what on earth they're doing.

[00:20:54] I just read a little study that talked about the the predominance of novels in our culture.And they looked at book sales and all kinds of things over the past 10 years, and they figured out that for every one short story read, 300 novels are read in this country. For every poem, 500 novels are read, for every poem that is read by an American citizen. And it's stunning.

I feel bad for the poets, and the short story writers. But that's, that's where we're at. It's important to know that. And so I don't think it's worth talking about why that might be. I really do think it's a shame. There's something wrong there. It's a grave imbalance, but I think it's worth knowing. It's worth knowing that novels are read that frequently. And yet there's quite a lack of understanding about what they are and how they’re made.

How is the novel different from a story? I think it's a very good question. Is it just that it's longer? 

There's a kind of easy answer I can give. All right? And I think it's an important one. I think it's slightly glib, but when you…I’ll put it this way…when a reader picks up a novel, she is entering a long-term relationship in a way [that] she is not when reading a poem or a short story or an essay. All right? She is making a commitment. And you, the writer, are making a commitment to her. All right?

I know I'm in church, but here it is. A poem is like a one-night stand. Alright? It's great, you know? But all bets are off once it's over. Not so with a novel. There's a commitment and obligation there.

I'm going to read a short quote here. This is from Jerome Stern. He says, “Short story, writers are Jeweler's, Short-story writers are jewelers, sharpshooters, photographers, and jugglers. Novelists must be symphony composers, stage magicians, but above all, engineers and architects. Short-story writers can illuminate in a flash; they can hit-and-run. Novelists must create successions of mysteries and solutions, deploy chains of intrigants and cliff-hangers, develop momentum, sustain suspense, provide variation, and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. There's a grave difference between the two.”

All right. So I think what if there's a principal obligation you have as a novelist is to do one thing, and one thing only–is to bring the reader through the pages.

All right?

Everyone is looking for a reason not to read that book. There are so many books in this world. I don't know why, is it just me? But when I go into a bookstore and to like Barnes & Noble, I am, I'm almost appalled at all the books in there. And I can feel the pain and suffering that went into the making of all of them, and it astounds me that there are people out there doing it and fighting with it and struggling with it because it is a very, very difficult task. And yet there they all are. It amazes me, really. I mean, it makes me hopeful and appalled at the same time.

So there's so many books, and there's so many reasons not to read your book. You have to find a way, and it can't be a cheap way to make that reader turn the pages and be drawn through to the end.

[00:24:44] Does anybody know who Temple Grandin is? She's this sort of famous person who works in animal husbandry. I think she has Asperger's Syndrome, and she has a very deep understanding of how animals think. And what she's done, she's done lots of things to make the lives of animals better. One of the things she's done is redesign, slaughterhouses in the old days, slaughterhouses were all just, you know, angles, corrals, squares, and rectangles. And what she did is is made the slaughterhouses move in this kind of curving fashion, like cow trails, and the reason that cows move easily through this maze is they always, they're curious, and they want to see what's around the next corner. 

Well, eventually that ends. But I have to say that’s something like writing and reading a novel: you're designing a slaughterhouse. You know, you're saying, come on, come on, keep walking, keep walking, keep walking. And I think you have to think of it that way, that it's in the design of the thing. All right, it's not, we're not talking about here subject matter. We're not talking about your characters. We're not talking about the things you care most about, and I want to kind of reinforce that maybe by reading that quote you have on your page there. 

I think it's always important to make this sort of disclaimer, that as much as we might talk about craft and rules and do this and don't do that, we have to remind ourselves, the Richard Ford quote, at the bottom: “Stories and novels too I came to see from the experience of writing them are makeshift things. They originate in strong, disorderly, impulses, are supplied by random accumulations of life and words and proceed in their creation by mischance, faulty memory, distorted understanding, deceit of almost every imaginable kind, by luck and by the stresses of increasingly inadequate vocabulary and wanting imagination. With the result often being a straining, barely containable object held in fierce and sometimes insufficient control. And there's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't hurt me to know it. Indeed, my admiration for the books I love is greater for knowing the chaos they overcame.” 

So writing a novel or writing a short story or poem is really about overcoming chaos, but we have to acknowledge is the thing that makes them so great. Is the chaos. Is all this stuff he's talking about, but how do we as writers overcome that to make something that stands on its own? That doesn't fall apart. That doesn't become a mess.

So, let's start with some helpful tips. That's what I'm here for to sort of offer some help here. So, first off the three rules of writing. All right, Somerset Maugham talk…here's the three rules of writing: the problem is, nobody knows what they are. 

I love that quote. It's perfectly, right. Nobody knows what they are. Have you noticed that there are not very many good books out there about writing novels? They're actually quite terrible, generally. There's a few of them that I could recommend. The one I'd recommend right now is that is this one. I'm going to read from it in a second. It's called Is Life Like This?: A Guide To Writing by John Dufresne. It's a terrible title. It's one of, you know, writing your first novel and six months, really? 

But he's a wonderful writer and a kind of a wonderful guide, and this book has everything I think you could possibly need. So I would suggest it. I've been reading it on the plane on the way over. 

Alright, the first thing I think you obviously have to do is to plan. All right? Very simple. Now a lot of writers would tell you not to plan. All right? [Unknown] said something like, you know, to write a plot summary makes the writing of the novel unnecessary extravagance. He might have a point. All right, but I think sometimes, again, when writers are telling you what they do, they are only telling you what they do. All right, they are good enough to not have to use a plot summary. All right, and I want to admit to you right now, I haven't written a plot summary. I can only tell you this. I wish I had.


If that means anything to you at all. I really wish I had, and it's something that I have been having my students do, and all of them say how much it's helped them. I taught a novel class two years ago, and I had students very exhaustively writing plot synopses, chapter synopses, using all the techniques and things I described and these were, these were pretty good writers, but not amazing writers. Three of them in the past six months have gotten book deals. And I'm not saying that, that, that this is the thing that did it, but I think it was able to focus their efforts in a way that it wouldn't otherwise have.

[00:29:38] There's also the wonderful Yiddish saying that says man plans God, laughs. And that's absolutely true. You know, we can make our plans. They never come out the way we want, you know, it's the same as in writing, but it doesn't mean that it won't help you. All right? To have to have there next to you a plan. You're not going to follow it. You're going to diverge from it. But when you're thinking about writing, you know, 400 Pages 300 Pages, it might be a good idea to have a plan. I think of a novel as a long expedition, you know, you're not going to just walk out into the woods. You're going to, you're going to think about what you need and what you might want. 

Novel and architecture have much in common. Architecture is planning. We writers don't like planning. We favor the surprise of the next sentence. The next scene. Structure in prose does not allow for much in the way of experimentation.

When we talk about structure, sometimes it gets difficult because a lot of us are thinking, you know, I want to do something in a new way. I don't want to do the same old thing. But that's very difficult in structure, in longer forms, even less, even less, experimentation. I'll tell you why. I mean, if you ever read Finnegan's Wake? That's where somebody experimented with structure in a long book. 

Experimentation has much more to do with language, style, point of view, but down to their bones novels are remarkably similar. The precepts of sound structure remain largely unchanged.

So, this is important to understand: novels in their structures are very very similar. There are very, very good reasons they are the way they are. And the only thing I can say is it's important for you as a writer of novels to understand what those structures are and why they exist the way they do.

Just like in the other arts, the other literary arts, especially, but any art using the logical mind to create effective narrative structure will free the associative, unconscious, and emotional mind to do its work. 

So I don't want you to think that because you're thinking a lot about structure and architecture that you're not doing associative sort of artistic leap-making. This will free you to do that. It’s the reason there's form and poetry. It’s the reason everything has a form. Novel form is just harder to see because of the size of the thing.

So let's take a look at your handout at the top of the page there. This is, this is one of the best quotes I've found that can be helpful to would-be novelists. This is from Primer Of The Novel written by Vincent McHugh. And I have to tell you that this is one of the weirdest books I've ever read. It's like it was written by a robot. And so you have to read it in a very odd way. And there's good things in it, but man, and there's no personality in it whatsoever. And you'll see that by how by what you read here: “A predominance of long-term promises combined with a lack of well-developed minor forms will cause a reader to skip. It's just to make him impatient to discover how things come out. A predominance of shorter promises in minor forms coupled with an insufficiency of long lines will cause the reader to focus too much interest on the immediate scene. This is a characteristic fault of short story writers who invade the novel.” I like that. They invade the novel. “The effects may be seen in the kinds of books the reader does not finish.”

I don't think you can put it any more succinctly than that. When you're writing a novel, there are long lines, and they're short lines of narrative. Okay? Those long lines are essential in keeping your story together. Those are where the structure is. All right, and I see way, way too many novels that don't do that well. All right, we call them, in the classes I teach, we call them the long-term promises of a book. What are the long-term promises? The reader instantly knows when she's been made a promise. And when there aren't any promises being made in the first chapter, second chapter–it's like in that relationship–t's not going to happen without a promise or two, you know. So this is very important, but it's pretty vague; it’s pretty abstract. 

So let's talk a little bit about how you can find and understand these structures, these long-term promises. One of the best ways that I know of is genre. Alright, looking at genre. Fictional genres.

When I first taught a novel class, what I did, and I didn't know that it was a good idea at the time, but it turned out to be a pretty darn good idea. I decided to teach the class starting with the most pulpy genre-y novels I could find and then go through a kind of spectrum until the end of the class we got to the most literary kind of novel you could ever find.

[00:35:16] All right, so I just chose a bunch of novels, and what I did in the first couple of weeks is that we all the students and I read all different ones: romance novels and detective novels. And I've done this class now four times, and it's actually one of my favorite things to go to the bookstore and hang out in the romance novel section for about an hour or two while the lady at the bookstore looking over there, you know her eyeglasses wondering what in the hell I'm doing. And I took a long time, I've really gotten into these romance novels; I really like them. You know, they just have great titles like that The Damsel in Distress.


Or they're just kind of really ones like Ride the Heat…anyway.

So I had the students and we all read these together, trying to understand how they function, how they worked. And so we went through the spectrum. And the novel that we ended up at the end of the year with was The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, that won the National Book Award. It's an extremely, extremely literary book, and lo and behold, it was structured exactly as most of those romance novels. It was a love story. It was all the other stuff, the language, the point of view, the tone, the voice, all of those things that were different and that made it a National Book Award Winner, but the structure was exactly the same.

So what I hope you'll do is, is you won't discount looking at structure in a movie or in a romance novel, or that novel you're reading on an airplane. In fact, I think you will learn more from those. I think in some ways there's more to be learned from bad writing than good. And I also want to say too, I'm not saying that in any way that genre fiction, even those romance novels are necessarily bad writing. Sometimes, not always, I was actually impressed with some of the things that I read. Very, very impressed.

So genre. Let's see here. I have a couple things I'd like to read about genre. This is what Somerset Maugham. He also said, “Let tradition be your guide, not your jailer.”

Genre, (now this is me speaking) genre is more than formula. It has to do with a story refined in a way to make a visceral appeal to its audience. Either you're working with genre or you're working against it. And that's absolutely true. I don't care what kind of writing you're doing, you are working in a genre. If you're writing literary short stories, you are writing in that genre. It's a genre. And you need to understand its forms. 

Plot devices. Plot devices are very simple things that have been used over and over in literature. All right? And are very often part of genre stories. Okay. Well, I'll just read a few. The MacGuffin. Alright, the MacGuffin is that thing that everybody wants but is not really necessary to the story itself. The Maltese Falcon, for those of you younger, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. All right, it's the thing that makes the story move. Everybody wants that. It's the object of desire, but it's meaningless.

And if you think about it, that's the way most stories are. Most of the time, the thing we want, it doesn't have as much meaning as we think it does.

There's things like the procedural, the eavesdrop, the cliffhanger, chekhov's gun, the discovery. For example, the eavesdrop, it might seem like a cliche, someone overhearing a conversation. It's done time and time again in Shakespeare plays and plays throughout history, novels throughout history, and you might think I don't want to do that, it’s corny

You know, the truth is, it happens in life. We overhear something. It complicates everything. All right, there's something compelling in it because not only is the reader hearing and understanding something new and important, the character is doing it as well. All right, that's called a plot device.

Investigate and learn and understand what plot devices are.

Myths. Wally Lamb last night, talked about myths and using myths and his story, that all his books are based on myths. Why myths? Well, same old thing. These are the stories as they were first presented in our culture, and they've been repeated time and time again. So, to understand story is to understand myth or vice versa.

I used for a while in classes, Campbell's hero's journey. And I'm sure many of you this, and I'm sure many of you know that this hero's journey paradigm, or whatever it is, is used now in Hollywood in nearly every movie that gets made. And if you know about the hero's journey, you can watch a movie and you can tick it off. You know, the Star Wars movies are basically an exact replica of the hero's journey. That does not mean it's not useful to you, okay.

It starts. I'm not going to go through it. All starts out with the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, and goes on and on. One of the things I did in a class I taught was we talked for two or three weeks about the hero's journey, and we applied it to different things. And then as a test, I showed them the movie Rambo: First Blood. All right, and it follows the hero's journey exactly step by step.

[00:40:51] You know, Rambo goes to wherever he's going trying to find his friend who’s died of something or other like, you know, exposure to Agent Orange or something. And somebody asked him to help them and he won't. That's the refusal of the call. And, and in the journey, there's the moment of no return. Okay. And in Rambo it's when he's walking into town and the sheriff, that mean guy. What's that actor's name? Brian Dennehy, who's great? And he's the sheriff, and he's like, you know, we don't want your kind in this town, get the heck out of here or whatever. And you know and Sylvester Stallone sort of meekly accepts that and turns around and starts to walk out of town, and then he pauses. And the camera’s still on him, and he slowly turns around and starts walking back into town.

You will see that moment in so many stories in so many movies. There's something very, very important about that moment: when the character decides I'm going to be part of the story; I'm going to make this story.

Okay. Anyway the story goes on, there's lots of fighting and shooting, whatever. At one point, he ends up in a coal shaft or coal mine or some kind of mine. Now, one of the steps of the hero's journey is entering the cave. And this is where the hero has to go down underground and battle the forces of darkness. Sometimes it's the character battling him or herself. Sometimes it's just, you know, battling a dragon or a demon.

So at some point is walking around down there, and he can't get out, and then he feels some air or something. And he follows it because he's got a torch, and it's flickering and so he follows the source and then there's a shaft and he can get out. And that's called the moment of light. It's called many things. It's where they were the character’s able to escape. 

So I gave the test of the students, and I said, “Where in the story does entering the cave come? Where in the story did the moment of light come?” 

And not one of them got it. They were all thinking about other things. They're all thinking, “Well, that entering the cave had to be when you know, he thought he was dead because all the guys were shooting him who's on the cliff face and there was no way out.” They were getting metaphorical with it instead of realizing, no, he was just in the cave. He was entering the cave, and there he was, and then he found some light.

They've been trained not to see things in a literal way.

And as writers, you have to be able to see things in very literal ways. Don't attach meanings to things. Understand how the writer is doing it in a literal way. How this story is working in a literal way. Don't get too cute. Don't make it too complex.

The other thing you can go to is drama. There's a lot of work on drama structure in drama. There's Aristotle, The Poetics if you haven't read those. The early 20th century stuff: Freytag, the German, Stanislavski, the Russian. The Russians and the Germans were very good at this. And those, those are the ones I would go to. The French were pretty good, too. There's actually a guy named Michael Chekhov whose is Anton Chekhov’s son, who wrote quite a bit about it. All right. He was an actor. An actor’s coach, he wrote Marilyn, Monroe. Wrote lots of great, interesting things about character and action and structure and stories. 

And then the last thing I would point you to is screenplay theory. All right, probably the best stuff written right now about structure, story structure is done for screenplays. And why? Obviously, there is a lot of money in it, and lots of people want to write screenplays. So if you pick up a book say by Robert McKee called Story, or the book by Syd Field called, I think it's called Screenplay–you're going to read it, and you're going to think this is too simple. This is, this is baby stuff, but it's not, it's stuff if you're going to write a novel, that can be very helpful to you. All right. 

So, what the thing really to do is look at the big picture. Broaden the scope of your vision and look, and it's difficult sometimes. We as writers, we focus on the sentence or the clause, or the line, the paragraph, the scene, but as a novelist occasionally, you have to broaden that scope and try to see the story as a whole. That's why planning is so important. I'll tell you how I do it. I don't really plan but what I do, when I started, I will not start the novel until I know more or less how it's going to end.

If I don't have that, I will trail off into any direction that comes my way. I don't know how a writer can control it without having at least some ending in mind. Of course, that changes in a novel. It changes. It doesn't stay the same. But I need that in my head; I need to have that destination, that thing I can see at the end.


Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.