A review of Advanced Writing by Wells Earl Draughon

Throughout Advanced Writing, author Wells Earl Draughon is careful to define his terms, and uses his close analysis of words normally used to designate the tools of fiction – things like dynamics, consummation scenes, character appeal, architecture, and setting as the basis for his book. This does make his book quite different from many other fiction writing and screenplay books, and perhaps lies at the heart of what Draughon calls “Advanced Writing.”

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Advanced Writing: Fiction and Film
by Wells Earl Draughon
iUniverse
2003, pb, ISBN 0-595-28311-X, 293pgs

Is it possible to divide creative writing into categories of “beginning” and “advanced”? The distinction may be murky, especially when most writers have been “at it” since they were children. Was I a beginner when I first took up the pen, but now, many decades later, am advanced? With any kind of art, and fiction writing is both art and craft, the difference between beginning and advanced can be as murky as pinpointing the first visit from the muse. Even a first time fiction writer has to grapple with characterisation, plotlines, point of view, setting, and narrative voice. Throughout Advanced Writing, author Wells Earl Draughon is careful to define his terms, and uses his close analysis of words normally used to designate the tools of fiction — things like dynamics, consummation scenes, character appeal, architecture, and setting as the basis for his book. This does make his book quite different from many other fiction writing and screenplay books, and perhaps lies at the heart of what Draughon calls “Advanced Writing.” Another way of interpreting the title, and this may not be part of Draughon’s original plan, is that this is an excellent book for use after you’ve written something, but not perhaps before, when it might have a stifling effect.

The book goes into some detail about the reader, and is very much reader/audience focused. It looks at the reasons reader’s read, and describes some specific techniques to address a variety of readers. Nearly every technique described in the book is tested against reader belief, satisfaction, personal needs, etc. The chapter on global constraints looks at things used to reject a book like lack of originality, lack of credibility, contrivance, monotony, and repetition. The Chapter on large scale desiderata looks at things which will make a reader accept a book, such as reader benefit, depth, importance, and an appealing story. Dynamics look at three key ways of moving the story forward, including threat, hope, and need to know. The chapters on characterisation once again focus on reader impact, including the character’s role in the overall story, ways of ensuring appeal, and setting up character relationships. Other chapters address the structure of a book, including setting up formal structures, creating scenes, beginnings and endings, setting up conflicts, and embodiment (or the playing out of an event in a particular setting). The book also looks at, briefly, line level writing (the actual putting down of words as opposed to the structuring of a story), and other stylistics like character voice, using comedy and description.

Throughout the book there are many examples, particularly of classic novels and films, and some exercises that can be followed. Since the type is relatively small, and there is little white space, this book provides a lot of information. Draughon approaches each topic with a philosophical approach and is very careful and logical about the terminology he uses and the ways in which his suggestions can be applied. Where words or phrases don’t exist to describe something he needs to talk about, he will invent them, such as the “consummation scene.” There is much in this book that writers of fiction and screenplay will find useful, and fairly original, such as the “criteria for line-level steps,” which lists a series of actions that a character might take in reaction to a situation, or the chapter on mistakes in character appeals, which looks at the ways in which a character can repel a reader. The many examples help illuminate some of the trickier concepts, and there are many exercises suggested to help the writer visualise application.

The book is not without problems though. The most obvious is the continual references to “late-twentieth-century-academic-literary-fiction.” Clearly Draughon has a vendetta against both academia and publishers who perhaps wouldn’t classify his books as “literary.” The unsubstantiated and plainly incorrect comments on this made up class of fiction which Draughon aligns to the publisher’s classification of “literary fiction” and “art” films detracts considerably from what would otherwise be a very valuable book:

The late-twentieth-century “academic-literary” novel is based on prescriptions that a good novel must have most (though not necessarily all) of the following characteristics: very little suspense, no physical fights (verbal fights are okay), any violence, sex or physical struggle must occur offstage (that is, it must be told, not shown), characters who are not overly likeable, characters who are not extremely dislikeable, characters who do not do very much of anything except go about their daily mundane lives, a fizzle ending with at least some ambiguity, no strong affirmative emotions (strong negative emotions are okay), a number of “symbols”, “images” and “themes” as long as these are not too clear. (viii)

I am sure that any publisher would agree that, however fickle the term “literary fiction” may be, it is meant to be fiction which doesn’t specifically fit into a formulaic genre classification and which has deep and generally positive characterisations, rich, original plots, strong themes, and clear suspense and dynamics. Broad based statements about “academics” eg “Academics are suspicious, for example, of any event that causes either great pleasure or affection or whatever” (24) are similarly unsubstantiated (which academics are these? All of them?!) and “New York Publishers” are equally vindictive and distracting. Another difficulty with this book is that the heavy emphasis on the reader can make the first drafting seem like an overwhelming task. It is very difficult to constantly check your fiction against what a reader might and might not like – there are simply too many possible variables in potential readership, and too many different reasons why readers read to make the profile charts which Draughon suggests valuable. Fortunately the suggestions which Draughon makes for making your fiction appealing to a wide varieties of readers are simply suggestions which also will improve the quality of your fiction, regardless of reader. When the recommendations are used to deepen the character’s veracity, or the overall verisimilitude of the work, they will add value to your work.
If the antagonistic tone can be ignored, Advanced Writing is actually quite a useful book and whether you are a “beginner” or “advanced” writer, the approach this book takes is a novel one which will raise new questions and help the writer see their work from a different perspective.

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