Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction by Catherine Brady

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A friend once told me that in her MFA program, plot was a dirty word. When I read how-to books aimed at literary writers, I believe it. Literary writers emphasize pretty prose, without much thought about how to get from Once upon a time… to the end. STORY LOGIC AND THE CRAFT OF FICTION attempts to bridge that gap. It’s an admirable goal, but sadly, there is nothing new here. Even worse, Brady dresses up the information in that overblown, wordy style that academics are so fond of.

For example, she never uses so common a word as cliffhanger. She calls them “strategic postponements” and goes on to define them thusly:

Effective chapter divisions tend to splice plot at moments when literal discovery generates new pressure on characters–pressure that is only felt in the next chapter or chapters, that has yet to be acted upon, so that the action overflows the “frame” of the chapter.

Or when she is trying to discuss what to leave in and what to leave out, we get this:

When you write fiction, you are in the peculiar position of striving to discover and exploit multiple connections among the elements of a narrative and simultaneously working to submerge all surface traces of this coherent “argument.”

Um…what?

In addition to plot, Brady blunders through chapters on characterization and POV, although she seems more sure-footed when discussing things like imagery and setting.

The best section was on showing and telling. Brady breaks apart the “show, don’t tell” myth to discuss ways in which telling is useful and even necessary to a good story. Showing is for the important things, the main conflict. Telling is not. But besides being a bridge between chapters, exposition can also be used to establish intimacy with a character, raise the tension, and set up what’s to come. Brady gives decent examples of each technique, if you’re willing to wade through the jargon to find them.

Perhaps to Brady’s MFA students, the idea of plot is a new concept. But serious writers are also serious readers. We’ve been devouring stories our whole lives and don’t need a basic primer on how stories work. Dressing it up in academic speak doesn’t elevate it and won’t fool writers into thinking they’re getting new insights. I believe Brady can teach the craft of fiction at the sentence level, but her “story logic” leaves a lot to be desired.

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rating: 2 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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I recommend Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain or The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing edited by Writer’s Digest instead of this book.

4 thoughts on “Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction by Catherine Brady

  1. I dislike any writing that exists solely to showcase how clever and literary the author is. Fiction should tell me a story, not just bombard me with beautiful phrases. Plot and gorgeous prose can and should coexist.

    I don’t have an MFA. Your review of this book reminds me that as much as I love the idea of dedicated time to hone my craft, MFA programs are probably not the right place for me. I will not be picking up this book, either.

    Thanks for being willing to call BS,

    -aniko

    • Thanks, Aniko! I personally know people with shelves full of this kind of “how to” book: academic jargon that teaches the reader absolutely nothing. These are people who don’t write much, and it makes me sad. So I will keep calling out BS whenever I see it, in hopes of steering people toward the truly wonderful, very straightforward how-to books that are out there.

  2. Ummmm, as one of my writing professors would have said — Too many fifty cent words when five cent words will do.

    • True! And these were just a couple of random examples from the book. I could have opened the book on any page and found similar examples.

      Fifty-cent words, indeed.

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