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Make Another Choice For a Book on How to Write
on April 27, 2008
Make A Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld attempts to focus on how to create great scenes for a written work. She delves into many different types of scenes in an attempt to pick apart the elements that make these scenes memorable, engaging and keep the reader reading.
If you enjoy "literary" or "character-driven" books as opposed to "commercial" or "plot-driven" books (in reality the distinctions are far too artificial to be useful) then you will likely be familiar with many of the sources Rosenfeld uses. That is largely because with only one exception literary works are all she draws from. The only commercial reference she uses is from "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" when Vader uses those stunning four words that we all know by now.
And if you are a man, you might find reading the examples she provides to be a bit like watching a long series of previews of most of the movies on the "Lifetime" channel. Most if not all of the stories Rosenfeld picks from are stories where the man is abusive, controlling, usually addicted to alcohol and uses his fists to communicate to his wife.
One was about a naive young woman who is warned by her oppressive mother that men "only want one thing" and she goes off with a man against her mother's wishes only to find out that this man really DOES only want one thing and is abusive to her.
Edit - Saturday Sept 6, 2008
Another example of this involves a story about a daughter going to see her estranged father. She notices her piano teacher and it's obvious her father doesn't want to talk about it overmuch. The mother has long since died and was branded an insane woman. The father at that time was quick to hop right on the bandwagon. After some probing, the father is forced to admit that during his wife's "insanity" he was having an affair with the piano teacher. Suddenly the protagonist realizes that her "insane" mother was right the whole time, as she accused her husband of adultery, and the whole community, including her father was against her mother.
And there aren't any counter examples of this either. There are NO instances where the man is good, is trying to become good, is trying to redeem himself from a previous incident, or even cares if he ever becomes good. Just like in the vast majority of Lifetime movies, the men in the stories Rosenfeld quotes from are EVIL, EVIL MEN who must die. Obviously this is sexist, sexist against men, but sexist nonetheless. And if there's one thing a person should know about writers, it's that the things they read influence what they write, so man-bashing stories in, man-bashing stories out.
She is also a fan of symbolism. Now I am not saying symbolism is bad, but the ultimate goal of writing a story is to craft a work that allows another person to experience something that they may know themselves a little better. If the author wishes to include a symbol, then it should be there because it is a natural byproduct of the story itself and thus somehow contributes to the aforementioned end, not because the author can feel clever and sly. Artificially throwing in symbols for their own sake is just as convoluted as it sounds, and thus waters down even the strongest work considerably. I felt as though more than a few of the authors Rosenfeld quoted were only throwing symbols into their work for its own sake, although to be fair I have not read those stories.
Those writing commercial fiction may benefit from her suggestions, but there are many aspects that would feel out of place if not in a literary work.
One that comes to mind is her surprisingly strong suggestion of writing in second person. So instead of:
"My hands were shaking as I approached the door. What would be waiting for me? A dead body? My killer? Worse? Was there worse?"
"Joe's hands were shaking as he approached the door...." etc.
Instead she recommends writing this:
"Your hands were shaking as you approached the door...." etc.
She also recommends writing in the present tense, second person or no. So instead of:
"Susan grabbed her purse and found her cell phone inside. She frantically dialed 911 hoping she wasn't too late."
Rosenfeld recommends this:
"Susan grabs her purse and finds her cell phone inside. She frantically dials 911 hoping she isn't too late."
(All of these examples are mine.)
I for one find either style of writing to be very jarring and disengaging. I do not find narrating a story in the present tense to "blur the line" between reality and story, as Rosenfeld suggests, although she does point out, correctly, that anything that disengages your reader from your story is a sure way to kill your work.
The book also ends rather abruptly. I knew I was getting close to the end of the book, so I was expecting to get to the last page. What I was not expecting was what was the final paragraph on the final section to then see the index. No real conclusion or final wrap up. It just ends.
With all of the other really good books on how to craft a story, it's very hard to recommend this book, especially to people who want to craft stories that focus more on plot and less on character. For $15 one could do worse but there is precious little that makes this book a "must-buy."
Instead, I would recommend Todd Stone's "Novelists Boot Camp", Stephen King's "On Writing" or the "Write Great Fiction" series.