• Writing Lessons by Richard Setlowe

    Table of Contents


    Lesson 1: Writing the First Novel


    Lesson 2: The Magic Formula


    Lesson 3: The Theatre of the Novel

      Dickens Reads Like Teleplays

      Gardner Loops

      To Be Continued…

      The Setlowe Twist

      The End

      Polymythic As Dickens

      Driving Across the Country at Night

      The Ancient Art of Storytelling


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  • The late John Updike revealed his secret for writing successful novels to interviewer Charlie Rose–"I always know where it ends. And I know the beginning. Those two things, very important. And something about what happens in the middle."


    The occasion for the interview was the publication of Rabbit Angstrom in 1995, the collection of Updike's four Rabbit novels for which he had won two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, two National Book Awards, and two National Book Critics Circles Awards. "That's just the shape," Updike explained, "the curve of action that Aristotle said was important. Aristotle said that action was the most important thing about a work of narrative art. He was talking about plays mostly. But, (in novels) there should be some action that makes a sort of brand on the reader's mind."

  • Lesson 3: The Theatre of the Novel

    John Updike was certainly one of the great American novelists of the 20th Century, perhaps our last true man of letters, and universally acclaimed for his elegant prose style. Yet, he regarded action shaped along Aristotle's dramatic curve as the key to the success of his novels.

    "Every writer of fiction, though he may not adapt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage."

    — Charles Dickens, quoted in a 1858 speech


     Dickens reads like teleplays 


    The above was a headline in an April 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times arts and entertainment section, reporting that PBS had scheduled three new adaptations of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, and The Old Curiosity Shop, along with a revival of David Copperfield that spring. The Victorian Age's most popular writer is hot programming in the 21st Century.

    Historically, television and movies are, to parse a phrase, full of the Dickens. To date, Dickens has had 272 film adaptations of his work, flashing back all the way to the very first silent flicks in 1897 of short films dramatizing scenes from Oliver Twist. In comparison, Ernest Hemingway has 53 separate adaptations of his work in movies and on television.

    Not that this is a criterion of great writing. One of my favorite novelists, Saul Bellows, the Nobel Prize laureate, has had only had one minor work, Seize The Day, adapted, and that by PBS. Bellows writes like the hero of his The Adventures of Augie March goes at life–"I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not-so-innocent."

    Hey, if you aspire to write a Bellowsian narrative with poetry, philosophy, stunning interior monologues of eloquent, fascinating, eccentric characters, have at it. These are graduate writing class notes for the yeoman novelist.

  • Gardner Loops

    In The Art of Fiction the late John Gardner—novelist, teacher of creative writing, and Chaucerian scholar—broke down the structure of the modern novel. "The ascending action is, in fact, not smooth, but moves through a series of increasingly intense climaxes (the episodic rhythm of the novel)," according to Gardner's analysis.


     Gardner Loops 


    To be specific, these "increasing intense climaxes" end the scenes and chapters of a novel. And each—in a well-constructed story—should leave the main character in progressively deeper trouble. But this increasing jeopardy may be subtle, quiet alarms that warn of more serious danger as the story progresses.


  • To be continued…

    The Deal

    We don't question this sort of crafty plotting for thrillers, but what in the holy name of Literature does it have to do with really serious work, novels written in emulation of those giants of the Nineteenth Century? Everything! Dickens, Balzac, Dostoevsky all wrote many of their most celebrated novels as serials for newspapers and magazines, with an acute editorial awareness to hooking readers from issue to issue.

    French newspapers first published serialized novels–romans feuilletons—in the early 19th century. The phrase "to be continued" was first tagged an installment in an 1829 issue of the Revue de Paris. Alexander Dumas—notably already established as a successful dramatist whose plays were produced by the Comedie-Francaise—became master of the new literary genre with the enduring classics The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte-Cristo, both published in 1844.

    Dickens' serialized novels were so popular, in fact, he was published on both sides of the Atlantic as simultaneously as the fastest packet ships could carry the latest installment from London to New York. In 1841, an excited throng of 6,000 fans impatiently crowded the downtown dock, eager for the last installment of The Old Curiosity Shop to unload, shouting to the sailors, "Does Little Nell die?"

    As noted in Lesson 2, at point B the main character, despite his or her heroic efforts, is at the greatest danger; the stakes, jeopardy, and suspense are dramatically at their highest level.


    This is the Denouement or Resolution, and in a classic tragedy, whether Greek or Shakespearean, it at this point that the hero is overwhelmed and destroyed.


  • The Setlowe Twist

    In the chart below, I have modified Gardner's schematic to illustrate a big opening, suspenseful scene. And I have randomly drawn the loops to indicate graphically that the individual climaxes need not be of the same intensity or length—in fact, a certain variety is probably more interesting to readers—but each should place the momentum of the story, and the hero or heroine, at a higher level of suspense along the Gardner/Aristotlian line of "ascending action." I've also inverted the diagram, flipped it upside down to graphically illustrate that the hero or heroine is getting deeper and deeper into trouble, and at point B is at the deepest, darkest level.


     The Setlowe Twist to Gardner's schematic 


    And I've added one final twist.

    For a satisfying story the heroine or hero, for all her or his struggles, should prevail, and eventually get to a higher place than the old A to Z rut. They should be richer, wiser, win a promotion, prize, and/or a terrific guy or girl with whom to walk off into the sunset.

    The last lines of Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist—after Macon leaves his wife and picks up Muriel in that Paris taxi—are, "A sudden flash of sunlight hit the windshield, and spangles flew across the glass…They were so bright and festive, for a moment he thought they were confetti." A story should FADE OUT ON CONFETTI.

  • the haunting of suzanna blackwell

    The End

    Is the Happy Ending obligatory? Of course not…but violate it at your own risk.

    There is a extraordinary dramatic and psychological alchemy at work at The End. At the climax of The Godfather, Michael Corleone arrives, in terms of power and wealth, at point C, but spiritually he is at the depths of point B. Randle McMurphy, the hero of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is killed at B, as in classic tragedy, but his example and rebellious spirit infuses all the patients in the asylum and lifts them up to C.

    If not exactly colorful spangles of confetti and the walk into the sunset, there should always be a sense of redemption at The End. Let me repeat this, because it is very important—There should always be a sense of redemption at The End. If the characters begin and end in the same place, the reader will feel unsatisfied, cheated that you have engaged their interest, time, and energy to no purpose. You have violated the fundamental tenet of storytelling and the purpose of Myth.


  • Polymythic as Dickens

    Many of the best novels are polymythic, i.e. they have more than one story line. They may, like Dickens, have a separate one for each of the main characters. An excellent contemporary example is Herman Wouk's epic two volumes Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

    The characters' story lines may begins separately, converge for a while, then diverge, and eventually converge again. This is especially true of love stories whose classic three-act structure is boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl. We won't even attempt the more modern variations.

    Some of the most powerful love stories are based simply on the dynamic of getting the lovers' lines together. And when they do, they are at point C. It takes more than a thousand pages (or 30-hours of the TV adaptation), through the most harrowing battles and horrors of World War II, for the two lovers of Winds of War and War and Remembrance to finally get together.

    In thrillers where the villain is as strong, or even more interesting, as the hero, the lines play out as a menacing love story. They often do not come together until point B, which is the deepest point of suspense and jeopardy, and, of course, only the hero eventually gets to C. Novelist Ken Follett is a master of this kind of parallel plotting.

    One of the most fascinating crossings of plot lines was the novel Silence of the Lambs (the faithful film, not incidentally, won the '91 Oscars for best picture and screenplay adaptation), in which the heroine Clarice Starling was in a triangle with two villains. The horrific courtship with Hannibal the Cannibal helps get Clarice to point B with the serial killer she is hunting, while Hannibal escapes to his own separate C (and a sequel).

    This then is The Magic Story Formula—


     Diagram of The Magic Story Formula 


    It works. But, like Mickey Mouse playing the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia, just repeating the incantation doesn't quite do the trick. You have to work the formula with well-honed experience and years of craft, personal style, and, yes, the real magic known as imagination.

    But a word of caution…

  • Driving Across the Country at Night

    Few of the readers of these notes have yet written the first draft of a novel. So you don't really know yet what is the story you want to tell. And you can't really dramatically shape a novel as you write that first draft. Nor should you try. If you attempt to adhere to the Magic Formula, you'll end up with writer's block and write nothing. The first draft or two should be an exploration, a voyage of discovery. The Magic Formula is something to keep in the back of your mind as an ultimate shape of your plotline.

    The writer Kurt Vonnegut once noted that writing a novel is like driving at night. You can't see any further than your headlights at any moment, but you can drive across the entire country that way if you just keep driving.

    So just write. And add and construct the "episodic climaxes" later out of the raw material you now have down on paper. But, keep writing. You don't have to know Act Two or Three, the Denouement, or Resolution at this point.

    Like Vonnegut's nightrider just keep driving.

  • The Ancient Art of Storytelling

    Hark, I hear the protest howling through the ivy-cluttered cloisters of academe and tapping on the latte-splattered laptops at Starbucks—This all leads to formulaic writing. Mea culpa. But let me draw an apt metaphor. With the Wright brothers' first launch off the dunes of Kitty Hawk, all airplanes have flown according to the Bernoulli equation, the formula for the air flow over a wing first defined by the Swiss mathematician and physicist Jakok Bernoulli centuries before any man actually flew. Bernoulli's equation dictated the flight of the World War I multi-ace Baron von Richthofen's scarlet tri-wing, the gull-wing Navy Corsairs that dominated the fiery South Pacific skies in WWII, the acrobatic Blue Angels in their supersonic F/A-18 Hornet jets, even the space shuttle in its final landing glide. Violate this ancient formula, and all aircraft stall and crash. I won't belabor the literary analogue, but violate the above formula and your story will also stall and crash.

    This lesson began citing the classic dramatic structure of Dickens and John Updike. It simply defines the ancient art of storytelling. The above chart plots the way Homer instinctively navigated The Odyssey.

    Shakespeare opens Hamlet with the event of the ghost of the king stalking the ramparts of Elsinore wailing "Murder most foul," punctuates his episodic climaxes with the stabbing of Polonius and Ophelia's madness and suicide, and dramatically hits the climax at Point B with the tragic duel with poisoned swords.

    This then is nothing less than the ancient formula that transforms the chaos and energy of individual human experience into a myth that echoes in our collective consciousness.

    "Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words."

    —Ananda Coomaraswamy, metaphysician, author of The Transformation of Nature in Art

  • Copyright © Richard Setlowe 1993–2010