• Writing Lessons by Richard Setlowe

    Table of Contents


    Lesson 1: Writing the First Novel


    Lesson 2: The Magic Formula


      The Event

      The Main Character

      Active Versus Passive Characters

      The Energy of Character and Plot

      Cognitive Structures

      The Old-Fashioned Plot & The Eternal Sitcom

      The Artistotlian Slope

      The Fictean Curve

      Clare Boothe Luce's Cat in Three Acts


    Lesson 3: The Theatre of the Novel


    Send Comments


  • Wizards cast spells by repeating ancient formulas that have proved successful over centuries of incantations. Whether they do it consciously or instinctively, successful writers also cast spells by repeating the ancient formula for story, structure, and suspense.


    There are wonderful and sophisticated story telling traditions that have developed throughout the world—the Native American folk legends, the magic realism of Latin American novels, Japanese Noh dramas, the prolific Indian cinema, the shadow plays of Malaysia and Indonesia. But it is the narrative form that began with the Greek poets and dramatists and evolved for three millennium into the popular novels published in New York and the movies produced in Hollywood that now enchant the world. The formula transcends language and culture. The novels published in New York are now translated into every language on earth and stack Tokyo and Tel Aviv bookstores. Dubbed Hollywood films dominate box offices from Singapore to Stuttgart.


    French critics and the official guardians of European culture despair. English department deconstructionists declare it dead. Yet Vonnegut's old-fashioned plots continue to thicken in our collective consciousness.

  • "Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy."

    — from Robert Fagles' translation of The Odyssey

    Lesson 2: The Magic Formula

    The structures employed by novelists as diverse as Anne Tyler, John Grisham, Dan Brown, and Charles Frazier basically follow the same Whammy Chart that plots Hollywood's megabuck, violent action spectacles, which in turn is based on certain rules laid down by Broadway librettists during the Golden Age of musical comedy. What all of them also have in common is their enormous popularity. Literary and dramatic criticism is irrelevant. These works make a psychic connection with their readers and audiences, and they have been making that connection since Odysseus plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.

    And this, ye students of storytelling, is the Magic Formula—




    Okay, this requires a detailed explanation…

    "For young people who are only learning the profession—and this is a very difficult profession—they should write a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. So that the reader doesn't say I was confused. There is no great art in confusing the reader."

    — Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize for Literature, author of Yentl and Enemies

  • Beginnings

    In the normal course of events the heroine or hero goes from A to Z…




    He or she may, in fact, be pursuing a goal…but nothing really extraordinary or unpredictable happens. This is a straight line. It is also flat. Your writing and characters might be charming as Anne Tyler, your dialogue sharp as Neil Simon, and description insightful as Isaac Singer, but your story is still flat. It may be as real, honest, and gritty as dirty dishes in the sink, but it is not drama.

    Drama occurs when forces or an event knock the protagonist off his or her normal but non-dramatic A to Z path.




    The writer must create and introduce an unstable situation in which the protagonist is compelled to ACT, to right a wrong, or perhaps just get back to the pursuit of his or her goal and normal life.

    Remember, ACT is the key word here. One of the major weaknesses of beginning writers is often that their main character is acted on, rather than acts out.

  • The Event

    That actualization of the main character kicks off with an EVENT, i.e. something happens. On page 4 of Anne Tyler's novelThe Accidental Tourist Sarah turns to her unsuspecting husband while they are returning from a vacation, driving through a torrential rain, and tells him, "Macon, I want a divorce.

    In Scott Turow's first novel Presumed Innocent, we are briefed about the murder of a smart, sexy assistant prosecutor while driving to her funeral. In the middle of page 3, the D.A., who is in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, turns to his assistant Rusty and charges, "Catch me a perpetrator and save my worthless ass."

    I use these examples, because they were critically acclaimed, commercially successful novels that adapted into equally acclaimed and successful films, i.e. their stories, structures, and suspense transcended any one media.

    Must that opening Event directly involve the heroine or hero?

    Unequivocally the answer is no.

    In that most successful of thrillers The Da Vinci Code the Event is the brutal murder of the curator of the Louvre by an albino assassin that explodes on page one. On page four the hero Robert Langdon is awoken at the Ritz Hotel and by an agent of the French police and summarily escorted to the Louvre.

    In my most recent novel The Sexual Occupation of Japan, the Event is the assassination of a Japanese government official. The style here may be of interest, because the entire novel is written in the first person. And this first scene is reconstructed from police reports to which Peter Saxon, the narrator and main character, only has access near the end of the novel. In fact, it is Saxon's ignorance of this event—deliberately hidden from him by his Japanese colleagues—that places him in increasing danger.

    In my previous novel The Black Sea The Event is a horrific delivery in Singapore. All the above are examples of I.B. Singer's Beginning —the introduction of the situation that compels your character to act. They are also the Exposition, which Aristotle defined back in the Fourth Century B.C. in Poetics, the seminal work on dramatic structure. Aristotle's Poetics are as valid today as they were in ancient Athens, because they define the story structure to which readers and audiences instinctively respond.

    In thrillers an event that does not immediately involve the main character is a popular strategy. It allows the novelist to grab readers with appalling dangers that have international stakes in a setting that promises the adventure will be, as the lyric sings, "an airline ticket to romantic places." And then the writer may then more gradually introduce the heroine and/or hero with whom the readers identify. In the second chapter of The Black Sea Maggi Chancellor is introduced as a passenger aboard a cruise ship that has just left Singapore. And in the next chapter we meet Henry Stewart, the skipper of a U.S. Navy frigate sailing home after duty in the Persian Gulf.

    In blockbuster movies, the ultimate Event is the opening treasure hunt in Raiders of the Lost Ark which actually has nothing whatever to do with the Lost Ark but introduces the audience to the daredevil hero Indiana Jones and the villain who are going to take them on a breath-taking roller coaster ride.

    Thus the plot thickens and begins to define Homer's "man (or woman) of twists and turns driven time and again off course," who is…

  • The Main Character

    "Action is character."

    — F. Scott Fitzgerald

    The essence of a novel is the main character. And the main character within the plot of your novel is define by one simple question — WHAT IS SHE OR HE GOING TO DO?

    The more specific and concrete the goal, the greater the chance your novel will succeed.

    What kind of specific goals are we talking about? Find a murderer — Presumed Innocent and ten of thousands of less literary who-dunnits. Find true love on The Bridges of Madison County and in the thousand romances on the racks. To win the National Book Award, struggle back to Cold Mountain. And for the ultimate international best seller, break The DaVinci Code.

    The more elusive and ill-defined that goal is, the more elusive your readership will be.

    "When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell students to make their characters want something right away—even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time."

    — Kurt Vonnegut

  • The Energy of Character and Plot

    "That's the biggest story in movies. Some guy, or two guys, or a girl, or two girls, or a guy and his dog, or a dog and a cat, have to overcome something really difficult to feel good about themselves. And then the audience feels good right along with them. It's kind of a very broad story. I mean, how many of those stories can they tell? Apparently a lot, because they do many, many a year. We just did one ourselves."

    — Kevin Smith, writer-director of the films Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Jersey Girl

    The Greeks, of course, had a word for this: energeia. It means, according to Aristotle, "the actualization of the potential which exists in character and situation." That is to say — What is your character going to do?

    The relationship of the word to the English word energy is obvious. And there is a formula for it, as immutable as the laws we all learned in high school physics—The energy of your story is directly proportional to the character and the intensity of the situation with which she or he is challenged.

    A PERSONAL CAVEAT—Readers of these notes will become aware that I frequently refer to movies, TV, stage dramas, and even the occasional musical comedy. The PhD's in English Lit may disapprove of this practice, but there is method to my multi-media…

  • Cognitive Structures

    Noam Chomsky is a distinguished professor of linguistics — the science of language — at MIT. He hypothesizes that human beings are born with an innate knowledge of the universal principles underlying the structure of human language. He calls them "cognitive structures." In essence, we are wired for the structure of language.

    This is the Setlowe Corollary to the Chomsky Hypothesis. I firmly believe we are born with a cognitive structure for The Story. It kicks in at about two years old. Anyone who reads to his or her children will confirm this. In our high tech electronic age, just a few months later toddlers have also mastered the mechanics of the TV set and then video player to play and replay and replay their favorite cassettes, often Peter Pan for boys and The Little Mermaid for girls. And, of course, they hunker down for the Saturday morning cartoons.

    This is not a pitch to buy Disney stock; it is to underline the fact that by the time we begin school and our formal educations, we have already have been exposed to thousands of very well developed stories on television. Even we readers born in the pre-TV age-of-dinosaurs experienced the same conditioning with radio dramas—marvelously fast-paced, commercial-punctuated serials and half-hour and hour-long original radio plays and adaptations of short stories, novels, plays, and movies — Suspense, Escape, Sam Spade, Detective, The Lux Radio Theatre.

    What all this means is that readers sit down with a novel subconsciously pre-conditioned in their expectations of what a story is and what it must fulfill. If the novel—or movie or TV show for that matter—does not satisfy these expectations, then no matter how charmingly and cleverly it is written, how daring and experimental, how well packaged and promoted, we will still feel somehow unsatisfied, and the material will ultimately have a limited audience. If, in fact, it is ever published.

  • The Old-Fashioned Plot & The Eternal Sitcom

    "It's really kind of interesting how the sitcom form really hasn't changed all that much. A well-structured sitcom, whether it's Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or The Dick Van Dyke Show is still very much to be emulated. When you watched these shows, you're seeing the complete mastery of the fundamentals of telling a story and being very clear about what every character wants. That's the heart of the story: What do the characters want and how do you make sure they don't get it? And what do the characters not want and how do you make sure they get plenty of it?"

    — Billy Grunfest, then supervising producer of Mad About You

    And that, not coincidentally, is also the heart of the story of The Odyssey by Homer, circa 8th century B.C., and the 1997 National Book Award Winner Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. What do the ancient hero Odysseus and Inman in the more recent epic both want? Simply to get the hell home to Penelope/Ada after a terrible war. And what do both not want and gets plenty of—a man-devouring Cyclops, the murderous Home Guard, the enchantress Circe and the Sirens, the lascivious Lila and the house of sluts, the six-headed monster Scylla, a rampaging bear, witches, storms, and starvation. A simple diagram illustrates this—

    The Aristotlian Slope


    the aristotlian slope

    With that beginning Event, a succession of other events, enemies, forces, etc. (the red arrows) conspire to drive the heroine or hero off course, make the situation increasing unstable, dangerous, even deadly. She or he is compelled to act and struggles — hopefully aided by allies, if not alone – (the blue arrows) to get home, catch a perpetrator, save his marriage, or restore Truth, Justice, and the American Way. That is, the red arrows represent the plots twist driving Odysseus off course or the sitcom character getting plenty of what he doesn't want.

    The writer must create increasing suspense by making the forces and events thwarting our hero-person stronger, the conflicts increasingly daunting, and the stakes higher and more dangerous. By danger, I am not just discussing thrillers. For me, an incurable romantic, the greatest danger in life is losing your One True Love. Literary examples—Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, Love Story.

    For a story to transcend its genre, the conflicts should be both active and psychological. As William Faulkner once noted, the best fiction emerges from the heart in conflict with itself.

    At the end of Aristotle's Slope the main character is faring rather badly. Despite his or her heroic efforts, he or she are off course and at their greatest danger; the stakes, jeopardy, and suspense are schematically, and dramatically, at their highest level at point B. This is the Denouement or Resolution. In a tragedy, whether Greek or Shakespearean, it at this point that the hero is overwhelmed and destroyed.


  • The Fictean Curve

    The Middle Ages—along with the plague and the auto-da-fe—gave birth to the Morality Play and the Happy Ending. Everyman is beset at every twist and turn by the Deadly Sins, but at point B Everyman finally summons up all his pluck, wit, and virtue to triumph in The End. Hallelujah!

    About the time of the American and French Revolution, the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte—he also founded Berlin U. —analyzed the contemporary drama with a schematic—

    the fictean curve

    Simply stated, the hero-person exercises his/her pluck and wit (Virtue is not as popular as a heroic attribute as it once was.) to explode from point B where the danger, stakes, jeopardy, suspense, etc. are greatest to point Z back on course. Now the dramatic skill here is to make this transition as rapidly as possible—in the last chapter, the last scene, even the last page.

    In the previously cited example, Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, a National Book Award winner, the primary force driving Macon away from a reconciliation with wife Sarah, is his increasing involvement with the kooky but bizarrely lovable Muriel, who follows him on a business trip to Paris during which Sarah shows up. Macon finally reconciles with his ex, but realizes he is no longer the obsessive drudge who was Sarah's husband. He leaves her.

    Anne Tyler hits her denouement with the last spoken word in the last paragraph: "And there on the curb stood Muriel, surrounded by suitcases and string-handled shopping bags and cardboard cartons overflowing with red velvet. She was frantically waving down taxis—first one ahead, then Macon's own. 'Arretez!' Macon cried to the driver. The taxi lurched to a stop."

    If Macon had told the driver to drive on, it would have been an entirely different story, and ending. The point here is that whether you are escaping at the end from the ex-wife Sarah in a Paris taxi or a tyrannosaurus rex in a streamlined helicopter in Jurassic Park, get the hell out of there and wrap it up toute de suite.

  • Clare Boothe Luce's Cat in Three Acts

  • The classic definition of a love story —
    Boy Meets Girl.  Boy Loses Girl.  Boy Wins Girl.

    — author unknown

  • "Act I chases the cat up the tree. Act II keeps him there while the crowd gathers, and Act III brings him down again."

    — Clare Booth Luce, playwright of The Women

  • The National Book Award-winning poet, playwright, and critic W.H. Auden summarized the murder mystery: "A murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one are eliminated; the murdered is arrested or dies."

    In modern novels and Hollywood films Luce's formula was "opened up": Act I, the hero goes up the tree to rescue the cat. Act II, the crowd gathers and they throw rocks at the hero and cat, and Act III, the hero rescues cat.

    Then came all the contemporary variations of the formula. The hero and the cat hate each on sight, yet are strangely attracted. Act II, the cat and hero realize they must work together to get down. Or the hero discovers the cat is really a decoy set up by a secret government agency to lure him up the tree, and then the cat also throws rocks at him. Or the cat is not really a cat, but an illusion. Or the cat to which the hero is sexually attracted is really a tomcat, and the hero questions his manhood. At the end of Act II the crowd sets the tree on fire.

    Act III, the hero is killed, but the cat is inspired by his sacrifice and saves itself in a great feat of daring. Or the cat and hero swing into another tree, climb down, wade into the crowd, and kick ass.

    It all boils down to Aristotle's Introduction, Development, and Denouement and I. B. Singer's Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. But the devil is in the details, so I will add a few subjective adjectives. The story—i.e. our COGNITIVE STRUCTURE that will satisfy the reader's and audience's expectations—must also have a challenging opening, a suspenseful middle, and a satisfying end to which the previous all builds.

    "When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball."

    — Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely


    proceed to Lesson 3: The Theatre of the Novel »

  • Copyright © Richard Setlowe 1993–2010