Tag Archives: Story by Robert McKee

Reference Books and Style Guides, #amwriting

I use the internet for researching many things on a daily basis. However, in my office, some reference books must be in their hardcopy forms, such as The Chicago Manual of Style. I (and most other editors) rely on the CMOS, as it’s the most comprehensive style guide, and is geared for writers of essays and novels, fiction, and nonfiction.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is an acceptable beginner style guide, but is presented in an arbitrary, arrogant fashion and sometimes runs contrary to commonly accepted practice. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is still the same book it was when it was originally conceived, as it has not changed or evolved, despite the way our modern language has changed and evolved. Because the Elements of Style is somewhat antiquated in the rules it forces upon the writer, I no longer even own a copy of it.

Instead, I refer to my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. If you are an author writing fiction you someday hope to publish, and have questions about sentence construction and word usage, this is the book for you. The researchers at CMOS realize that English is a living changing language, and when generally accepted practices within the publishing industry evolve, they evolve too.

Writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of occupation. No one style guide will fit every purpose. Each kind of essay and type of book may be meant for a different reader, and each should be written with the style that meets the expectations of the intended readers.

The Chicago Manual of Style is written specifically for writers, editors and publishers of literary and genre fiction and is the publishing industry standard. The editors at the major publishing houses own copies and refer to this book when they have questions.

What is the best style guide for writing technical user manuals?

Are you writing for a newspaper? AP style was developed for expediency in the newspaper industry and is not suitable for novels or for business correspondence, no matter how strenuously journalism majors try to push it forward. If you are using AP style, you are writing for the newspaper, not for literature. These are two widely different mediums with radically different requirements.

For business correspondence, you want to use the Gregg Reference Manual.

If you develop a passion for the words and ways in which we bend them, as I have done, you could soon find your bookshelf bowing under the weight of your reference books.

We’re driven to look at what we just wrote the day after we committed it to paper, despite our intent to let it rest. Did it say what I meant? How many times did I use the word “sword” in that paragraph and where am I going to find six different alternatives for such a unique weapon? Sword? Blade? Steel? After all, an epee is not a claymore, nor is it a saber.

Many readers have a little knowledge about weapons and will know more than other readers. If I mislabel a blade, they could note my lack of knowledge with an uncomplimentary review, so I have done my research and continue to study medieval weaponry. My characters swing a claymore-style of sword which is rarely referred to as ‘steel,’ so I never refer to it that way. In literature, ‘steel’ is more commonly used for epees and rapiers, which are radically different weapons from the claymore.

Sometimes we get stuck on a word and can’t think of any alternatives. For that reason, I have the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus on my desk, and I refer to it regularly. This book is far more comprehensive than Roget’s’ Thesaurus, even more so than the online version. I have found it saves time to use the hardcopy book rather than the internet because I am not so easily distracted and led down rabbit trails.

If you only have two books on your desk, one should be the Chicago Manual of Style, and the other should be the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus. Besides those two books, these are a few of the books I keep in hardcopy and refer to regularly:

Story, by Robert McKee

Dialogue, by Robert McKee

The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler

The Sound on the Page, by Ben Yagoda

Rhetorical Grammar, by Martha Kolin and Loretta Gray

You may not be able to afford to take writing classes or have the time to go to college and get that degree. But you may be able to afford to buy a few books on the craft, and it’s to your advantage to try to build your reference library with books that speak to you and your style. You will gravitate to books that may be different than mine, and that is good. But some aspects of our craft are absolute, nearly engraved in stone, and these are the basic concepts you will find explained in these manuals.

Education comes in many forms, and it’s up to you to take advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow as an author.

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#amwriting: Too many characters?

my-books-cjjasp-own-workYou’re writing the first draft of your novel.  A beta reader has pointed out that you may have too many named characters to keep track of, and now you’re on a mission to whittle down your cast of thousands.

But who should go and who should stay? What is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen, but I say introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but use common sense. Put the reader first–they must be able to keep them straight without any effort.

When you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember. Does he or she offer information the protagonist and reader must know? Some characters will give us clues to help our protagonist complete his/her quest.  Others show us something about the protagonist, give us a clue into their personality or past.

Does the person return later in the story or does he or she act as part of the setting, showing the scenery of, say, a coffee shop, or a store?

Only give names to characters who advance the plot.

In an excellent article on screenwriting, Christina Hamlett of the Writer’s Store writes:

In a screenplay, the rhythm you’re attempting to establish–along with the emotional investment you’re asking a reader to make–is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:

  1. Advances the plot,
  2. Thwarts the hero’s objectives,
  3. Provides crucial background, and/or
  4. Contributes to the mood of the scene.

If you’ve included characters who don’t fulfill one or more of these jobs, they’re probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.

While she is speaking of screenplays, this is true of a novel or short story. A name implies a character is an important part of the story. Ask yourself if the character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does this character serve a purpose the reader must know? If not, don’t give them a name.

One of my current works in progress has this passage, which takes place in an inn and involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to my protagonists:

The older merchant’s face darkened at the mention of the prince and his henchman. Quickly looking over his shoulder at the other guests in the common room, he hushed his son. “We’ll have no more mention of them at this table. If the wrong person overhears such talk, we’ll all end our days in our own beds with our throats slit!”

Culyn’s eyebrow rose, and he looked at Jack, who nodded.

Despite the fact the merchant and his sons give my protagonists information they needed, they are in this scene for only one purpose: to be overheard and don’t appear again. For this reason, only Jack and Culyn, and the three others of their party are named in the full transcript of this scene.

Novelists can learn a great deal about how to write a good, concise scene from screenwriters. An excellent book I have gained a lot of knowledge from is Story by Robert McKee. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it.

We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. The second draft is where we make every effort to find the distractions we may have have inadvertently introduced in our rough draft, and extraneous named characters is an easy one to fix. Simply remove their name, and identify them in general terms. The reader will move on and forget about them.


Credit: Minor Characters Don’t Need Major Introductions, Christina Hamlett, Copyright © 1982 – 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated.

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