The classic work of writing instruction back in print!
The complete, concise guide to writing fiction that sells from one of the most popular instructors of the Writers of the Future and Clarion workshops. Get a master's competitive edge in the writing business.
Bestselling writer, editor, and renowned writing teacher Algis Budrys, known as "AJ" to his many students, has distilled his fifty years of success into Writing to the Point. Write better stories. Fix mistakes in your current stories.
Writing to the Point contains all the writing articles that appeared in the classic Tomorrow Magazine, re-edited and expanded. Algis Budrys has taught hundreds of people at scores of workshops, and was a well-known critic, editor, and author in his own right.
"AJ's information is, and always has been, solid gold. Every writer can learn from this book."
—New York Times bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson
Algis Budrys was a teacher and mentor to many of us. "AJ" ran experimental and ambitious writing workshops, developing effective techniques to teach newcomers how to become *working professional writers.* When he took on the mantle as lead instructor for the Writers of the Future Contest, he shaped the careers of hundreds of writers. His book Writing to the Point is a classic, becoming almost legendary after it was out of print for many years, with copies listed for over $600 in eBay. At WordFire Press I was delighted to have the chance to bring it back into print—and with the NaNoWriMo Writing Tools StoryBundle coming up, we had a perfect excuse to rush it through production. – Kevin J. Anderson
The Basic Basics
Writing began at some early point in human history, and at that point was undifferentiated from science.
It certainly predates the discovery of fire. A man or woman tried to understand some aspect of a largely bewildering universe, and probably failed. Unlike most people, they did not then surrender to "practicality" and concentrate for the remainder of their lives on the things that were knowable. Instead, they told themselves something that might have been true. The chances are overwhelming that in fact it wasn't true, but it was an attempt to explain.
Some of the people who did this became scientists—hewers of rock into new shapes, experimenters with wood and cord, bringers of fire. Others told stories, and at some early point began to tell stories to others. These stories probably were for the most part exercises in imagination—earth, air, fire, and water were personified, and shown in action, to explain, or, rather, to account for what had happened—as distinguished from the usually more mundane and more "real" researches of scientists. Although the audience would contain both future writers and future scientists among it.
That audience—readers—were also apparently different from the general run of population. Most people did not overtly read, then or ever, and if asked would say that reading is useless. But in fact everyone reads, if we understand "reading" to mean not the decoding of written symbols but simply listening to another person who has something vital to say; how to wire a lamp socket, or how to wash a dish, for instance.
The only difference between "nonreaders" and readers is in the kind of thing they will admit to reading. It is really impossible, down at the basic levels, to separate writer from scientist or reader from "nonreader." (It is actually worse than that, but we have to draw the line somewhere.) We are all, in fact, pretty much the same at bottom; our various learned specialties are what differentiate us, rather than anything basic.
We have, of course, come a long way from our beginnings. Or perhaps we haven't really, but the number and kind of specialties have become so large that we think we have.
At some point, for instance, speculative fiction developed a branch—descriptive fiction—which for the past century or two has taken a serious look at "the real world," with interesting results. It is a fruitful subspecies, and will probably survive. Most of its writers and readers will have little to do with the far older speculative fiction, and speculative fiction in its own turn has split into various kinds of fantasy and, since the Industrial Revolution, into various kinds of science fiction. Some readers of one kind of speculative fiction will have little to do with readers of another, as a general rule. Most will happily partake of many branches of the tree.
And so it goes, as we continue to specialize. For another instance, we have in the past five thousand years or so developed "writing," so that now stories in most, though not all, cultures are "written down," in order that they may be read by someone at a distance from the "writer,"… provided, of course, that someone learned the same system of coding and decoding that the writer used.
We have, in many ways, in fact overspecialized. But that can't really be helped, because cultures are still, to this day in some cases, isolated from one another, and develop their own peculiar "speech" and "writing," unaware of what may be going on elsewhere. In a way it is unfortunate. But in another way, what one culture misses about the universe may be picked up by another, and there is something therefore to be said for "overspecialization," if that is in fact the correct word.
But, with all that in mind but not overwhelmingly so, suppose you want to learn to write—to somehow transmit stories from your mind to the minds of readers. Where do you begin, and how difficult is it? Well, you begin, if you will, here. And it's not very difficult at all.
Some teachers of writing, including some writers, have made writing a very complicated thing. They speak of "voice," and they speak of technical points like writing in "third person objective," and they speak of "narrative" as distinguished from "dialogue," and et cetera. Well, in an abstract sense that language may refer to real things. (I think they are real, but have to do with criticism, not with writing.) But remember that every specialty develops jargon, and remember that writing is one of the oldest specialties. Also, take my word for it, most of the people who are now so glib in discussing these matters did not know them at the time of their first sales, or, conversely, have never sold anything, but have simply learned the jargon. Writing is, in fact, a simple creative exercise. It takes practice, and with enough practice many people gradually learn the "rules" without any special jargon—picking it up later, as I said. But the very fact that they can learn writing by simple trial and error should tell you something. If you can learn it by trial and error, then all you need to do to shorten the process is to eliminate as much of the error as possible as early as possible—and that is what we are going to do.
Now, the kind of writing I am talking about is the production of work in volume for an audience—the kind you see in a magazine, for instance. And that kind consists overwhelmingly of stories. There are also vignettes, jokes, japes, and other small forms, which are small for various reasons, I think most of them transient.
In another time, the vignette, for instance—the slice of life, in which the characters are not subject to any process in particular—may become the preferred thing. Certainly it has a place in any age, and you will, from time to time, see vignettes published in many places. But what most readers want most of the time is story, and that is what we are going to teach you. Know how to construct a story, and you know everything you need to know.
A story subjects its characters to a process; to a growing up, or an enlightenment, or, in the case where a villain is the central character, to an enlightenment and a disaster. It is a reflection of the Judeo-Christian ethic, if you will. For whatever reason, it satisfies. It satisfies the reader and it satisfies the writer. And it has seven parts.
They tell you, if you listen, that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Well, this is true enough, but so does a note from your bank, which says: "Dear Mr. Smith, you are overdrawn $18.75, pay or die." The simple statement that a story must have a beginning, middle, and end is no more useful than another old saying: Write what you know. (What do they mean by that one? How can you write about what you don't know?) To understand what is meant by a beginning, middle, and end, draw a diagram:
You will notice there are three story components in the beginning. These three are actually interchangeable; none is more important than the other two, and we can number them in any order. But for the sake of convenience, let's number them: (1) a character (2) in context (3) with a problem.
You can, as I say, begin with a context, and introduce a character with his or her problem; you can even, in some cases, begin with the problem, and introduce a context and then a character. What counts is that all three must be present before the beginning is over.
(1) A character must be placed in (2) a context. If Joe walks up the side of a wall, it is vital to know if this is happening in downtown Detroit today or aboard a space station; two vastly different stories will result, much more from the context than from Joe. Then, Joe has to have (3) a problem; he has to get somewhere, or get something.
Now, perhaps obviously, you want to pick a character who's vitally interesting. But to do this you will quickly find you cannot avoid filling in the context to some extent, and then you very quickly come up against the problem.
The problem need not seem very large, at first; it's just that the character can't let go of it. But as the story progresses the problem becomes more and more compelling. Its basic nature does not change, however. Put it this way: Laurine spots a white thread on her black dress. She pulls at it almost casually. She discovers, however, that it is endless, and while the part that showed was white, the rest is black and her dress is unraveling. In other words, Laurine thought her problem was a stray thread, and easily solved, but it rapidly develops into another order of problem entirely—without changing the basic nature of the problem.
Similarly, the context cannot change without motivated traveling, but we learn more about it. And the character cannot actually change past the beginning, though we learn more about him or her, too. The purpose of the beginning is to lay the ground rules; establish the (1) character (2) in context (3) with a problem, and then go on. Once the beginning is over, you can't call in the cavalry, you can't have the character develop a rich uncle, you can't have the character decide the problem doesn't hold his or her interest anymore. If you want the cavalry at the end, you have to have the character wave at a friend in a cavalry patrol in the beginning, or else the totally unforeshadowed arrival of the cavalry will (A) jar and (B) make your hero look ineffectual.
And that brings us to the three parts of the middle. Here is where the story develops.
(4) Is an attempt to solve the problem. This attempt must be intelligent and logical, and represent the character's best guess as to the nature of the problem and an adequate response. The character mustn't think that the problem is overwhelming, because at this stage it apparently isn't. He produces a nice, easy response—and (5) encounters unexpected failure.
Well, if the character could solve the problem immediately, it wasn't much of a problem. So, despite the seeming intelligence of the attempt to solve, it must fail—and as a result of that failure, the character learns more about the problem, and begins to learn a little more about himself.
He does not actually change, mind you, because that would be false to the reader's observation of people. People reveal hidden facets of themselves, from time to time, under stress, but the facets all fit in with what was known before. So you must put your character under stress and reveal hitherto concealed facets, but they must fit. The character reaches a little deeper inside himself, makes another attempt to solve the problem, which is revealing additional aspects of itself in turn, and fails again. And again. Three times.
Why three times? Because anything less is unsatisfying, because anything more is redundant, because Aristotle and Lewis Carroll said that what I tell you three times is true. Three times, on a rising scale of effort, commitment, and depth of knowledge of the problem and one's self, is the correct number. Human beings believe that three times has an effect which two does not. Conversely, four creates overkill.
All right. (6) Is victory. At the last possible moment, wagering everything, in a do-or-die situation, the hero wins. Conversely, if he is the villain, coming closer and closer to his goal results, at the last possible moment, in defeat, snatched from the jaws of victory because of some flaw in his character.
So the middle of the story consists of (4) effort to solve, (5) repeated failure or increasingly near-attainment of the goal, and (6) victory or death.
You must make sure that the reader understands it is victory or death. Even in a story about winning the garden club prize, you must get to the stage where the aging, widowed, and lonely woman realizes, near the end, that nothing is more important than the prize; that if she fails to win it, she will spend the last of her declining years disappointed, with nothing to look forward to except the grave.
But since victory or death has been achieved at the end of the middle, according to this diagram, what is left for the end?
What is left for the end is (7) validation. Someone who has no other vested interest in the story has to step forward and say, "He's dead, Jim," or, "Who was that masked man… I wanted to thank him," or the like. Think about it; all through the middle, it always looked like things were going to come out well, but they didn't. Certainly, now the villain has plunged from the top of the Empire State Building and is lying splattered on the terrain below. But… But… The possibility exists, however slight.… And that is what the independent authority forecloses. He is the one who actually validates the fact that the story is truly over. Until he speaks, even with something so seemingly clichéd as "Who was that masked man?" the story is not truly over in the reader's mind.
What have we learned? We have learned the seven parts of the basic story, including part (7) validation. In the next chapter, we will learn that the manuscript is not the story, that writing is not the reverse of reading, and other useful things, including a demonstration of how the seven parts work. But you have already learned more than enough to get started on your career.