Guide to the Guides: Making Shapely Fiction

This edition of Guide to the Guides will focus on Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. It’s a slim guide priced like any other trade paperback, but I got my copy as a textbook for a college fiction workshop. If you’re in similar circumstances, you’re going to have to make peace with the book, but at least with this you can know what you’re in for.

The Great Parts

Style—I’ve praised past guides for clarity, and to be sure Stern’s guide meets that criteria; for every technique or element he discusses, he provides a brief but sizeable scene or paragraph of his own making, to the point that it seems like he wrote three books and fit them inside one. But I don’t believe I’ve ever called any craft book, even the best written, an enjoyable read, but I have to say this one is enjoyable. Stern’s voice is light and witty without detracting from the seriousness of his subject or commentary, so you read out of desire as much as obligation. The best examples come in the naming of story shapes (more on those in a moment), including the apt and highly memorable “Bear at the Door” form or the “Bathtub Story” fallacy. Every writer has to learn craft and technique (and maybe even relearn them from time to time), and the methods for doing so are rarely as exciting as reading actual fiction, but Stern manages to serve a heaping dollop of sugar to get the pill down.

Focus on Form—I’ve also praised guides for their organization, noting that the best guides treat the elements of fiction separately and also show their interplay. Stern doesn’t do that, but it’s still helpful and organized. Much of the book is devoted to the “shapes” of fiction, the forms that focus and propel narrative, plot, and character; the “Bear at the Door” shape, for instance, opens with a severe problem requiring immediate action and builds tension from there. Within these shapes, Stern can still discuss issues such as characterization and point of view, but in a more holistic way. When technique guides divide and conquer the elements of fiction, they gain clarity at the expense of sometimes making fiction look like a math formula: narrator + backstory + conflict = story. While storytelling does involve a lot of plugging in the parts and making sure they work, there is still the work as a whole to consider, and that whole is not always constructed piece by piece; sometimes you have to start with the whole—the shape of the story—and fill the pieces in accordingly, like layering colored sands in a jar. While other guides talk about unity and form, Stern’s guides is the best expositor of that principle and the only one I’ve seen that uses it as its core.

The reference guide—
Shapes only take up one part of the book; Stern devotes the bulk of his project to a short yet exhaustive dictionary for writers. Here is where he gives more focused attention to the stock subjects of craft books, with entries on plot, theme, revision, and the like. He also covers unconventional subjects, such as how to take advice on your writing, and fancy-pants terms you can use to justify your education to your parents, like the objective correlative. It replicates the organization and clarity of a more traditional technique guide, emphasizing anything lost in the discussion of shapes, and it’s refreshing to see a dictionary of literary terms meant for writers and not scholars. The guide is not only a useful addition to the book, making up for what the rest of the discussion may lack, but is a useful tool for any writer.

The Not-So-Great Parts

Reference guide could be clearer—I know I just got done praising the reference section, but let me clarify: it’s good and adds a lot to the book, but I’m not sure that it does enough. As I’ve been writing this series, I’ve become convinced that every writer ought to have at least one clear, organized technique guide as a reminder for the fundamentals of writing. There are guides that go beyond that basic role, but nothing can replace that essential reference. Stern’s guide is one of those advanced books, with a lot of great information and insight, including some on technique, but it can’t serve the same function as a basic manual of technique and craft.

A note on theme—
This is a petty thing to critique, but it’s something that bothered me as I prepped for this review. In the entry on theme, Stern writes, “many writers like to think of themselves primarily as storytellers, yarn spinners, and fabulists,” which is a worrying notion. I follow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s credo, “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” I read strictly for pleasure on occasion (I’m on book four of A Song of Ice and Fire), so I understand the need for fabulists, but advice for a young George R. R. Martin is of a different breed than advice for a young Fitzgerald. This comment made me worry about who this book is for, or if Stern was trying to rob fiction of its purpose and its value. Fortunately, this is the only spot that raised those concerns, and even there Stern relents and says that greater meaning is unavoidable, but that moment was jarring enough to give me this lingering doubt.

Truthfully, I was prepared not to recommend this book, based mainly on my memories from using it in class, or not using, as the case may be. I only kept it because I compulsively keep my textbooks, but I haven’t turned to it until now and I don’t remember it being a huge help during the class. But when I reviewed it for this posting, I had a different experience: what I remembered as being banal is now insightful, and sections that I thought were unhelpful are now relevant to my work. I think it’s because I used this book in my first fiction class, when I was young(er) and dumb(er) and this book was above my head. I needed a book devoted only to technique; I wasn’t ready for Stern’s advanced, holistic approach. So, if you’ve got a handle on technique and you’ve got a good technique guide, you’re ready for Making Shapely Fiction and it’s worth your time to read and own. If you’re still missing the technical foundation and a traditional technique guide, cover those bases first and then get Stern’s guide. It’s the finishing school of writing guides, not the first grade.

Ian McCaul has spent his whole life in Kalamazoo, MI, except for a brief detour at Grand Valley State University, where he recently graduated with a degree in English and writing. He is currently blogging, volunteering, writing, and applying to graduate schools.