Brooks Structures Story, Part 2

Larry Brooks, Story EngineeringBrooks Structures Story, Part 2

Larry Brooks. 2011. Story Engineer: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In his book, Story Engineer, Larry Brooks focuses on six core competencies which must be mastered to become a professional writer. Those competencies are concept, character, theme, scene execution, writing voice, and structure (23). In part one of this review, I gave an overview of the book and discussed the first five of these competencies. Here in part two, I will concentrate the last of these competencies, story structure, where Brooks focuses the most attention and reinforces with helpful exploration of milestones, how to work with an outline, and other details.


In Brooks’ thinking:

“Story structure is the sequence of your scenes that result in a story well told. Story architecture is the empowerment of those scenes through compelling characterizations, powerful thematic intentions, a fresh and intriguing conceptual engine, and a writing voice that brings it all to life with personality and energy.” (138)

He divides his stories into four parts separated by milestones that drive the plot.

Four-Part Story

Brooks writes:

“The mission of Part 1 is to set up the plot by creating stakes, backstory, and character empathy, while perhaps foreshadowing the forthcoming conflict. Basically, it’s to introduce the hero and show us what he has going on in his life…not for the remainder of the story, but before the arrival of the main antagonistic force (the primary conflict of the story) at the First Plot Point.” (147)

Milestones Separate the Parts

He sees part one as 20-25 being percent of the story and it ends abruptly with the First Plot Point. Part 1 Begins in Peace Ends with Conflict. Part 2 begins with a non-heroic response to this conflict (151). After the midpoint of the story, part 3 shows our hero going on the attack, but ineffectively (155). After information provided in the Second Plot Point, part 4 begins with our hero becoming equipped and emerging as a real hero (156). Brooks summarizes these transitions as the hero starting out an orphan, becoming a wanderer, growing into a warrior, and emerging as a martyr (157).

Brooks writes:

“Milestones are points in your story where new information enters the narrative and changes the direction, tension, and stakes. These milestones appear in the same approximate place, separating the four parts of the story.” (158)

He sees about eighty percent of your story focusing on these milestones, which makes understanding them critical to the structure of the story (159).

Milestones Defined

Brooks cites these milestones: opening scene, hooking moment, inciting incident, First Plot Point, First Pinch Point, Midpoint, Second Pinch Point, Second Plot Point, and resolution scene. He observes:

“If you allow three (or more) additional scenes that setup and surround these milestone moments, that’s at least thirty to forty scenes. Or about two-thirds of your entire story.” (160)

Given the importance of these milestones, virtually everything else in the story focuses on connecting to the next milestone, which makes understanding the story structure important in planning and executing your writing (161). Brooks makes this point repeatedly in his book, distinguishing writers who plan from organic writers who profess not to. Convincing writers to plan their stories is an important theme in this book.

First Plot Point

The First Plot Point introduces conflict into the story. Often the external conflict cannot be resolved until the hero’s inner conflict is dealt with. This is one reason the hero’s response in part 2 remains lame and incomplete. This inner conflict provides a starting point for the character arc of the story where the hero grows into someone much stronger than we see introduced in part 1 (93).

Pinch Point

A Pinch Point is a reminder of the nature and implications of an antagonistic force, unfiltered by the hero’s experience (200), which basically suggests that the hero is not making it all up. In some stories, the mental state of the hero may be questioned, because the response may seem disproportionate to observes not familiar with First Plot Point. The Pinch Point makes it clear either to the reader or the hero that the conflict is real.


The Midpoint comes at halfway through the story and occurs when the hero gains important information about the conflict that is being faced. The information is important enough that the hero ceases to be a wanderer and transitions to becoming a warrior.

Second Plot Point

At the Second Plot comes about three-quarters of the way through the story when the hero gains information critical to advancing on the attack. After this point, the hero is heroic and needs no more new insights, advancing from warrior to martyr, if necessary. The story advances into part 4 where the conflict is ultimately resolved (204-205).

Resolution Scene

In the resolution scene, Brooks writes:

[For part 4] “There is no blueprint for it…[and only one rule] no new expositional information may enter the story after the Second Plot Point that commences with it. If something appears in the final act, it must have been foreshadowed, referenced, or already in play. This includes characters—no newcomers allowed.” (210)

In part 4, our hero exhibits his personal growth and vanquishes his inner demons enough to resolve the basic story conflict (211).


Larry Brooks’ Story Engineer is an award-winning book on writing craft that draws on writing both novels and screen plays. Brooks reads easily and he uses examples from numerous well-known books and films. The target audience is authors serious about improving their craft.


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Warren Writes to Grow Characters 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Brooks Structures Story, Part 1

Larry Brooks, Story EngineeringBrooks Structures Story, Part 1

Larry Brooks. 2011. Story Engineer: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Goto Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In early July as I responded to my editor’s comments on my memoir, a disturbing thought came to mind. I have just written a novel with 98 scenes (from the perspective of a fiction writer) and I have no idea of how properly to write a scene. I scrambled that afternoon to find a writing book to rectify my problem. This search led me to Larry Brook’s Story Engineering.


Of course, Brooks writes about more than how to compose a good scene. He cites his purpose in publishing another book on writing as:

“Interestingly, there are many books on screenwriting that do what most novel-writing books don’t—they show us what to write, when to write it, what follows what, what should go where, and why, and tell us the criteria for ensuring that our creative choices are effective ones. In other words, how to get it done.” (4)

This statement snagged my interest. Yes—I know what the hero’s journey is; no—I am clueless as to how to compose one. My memoir is an example of the hero’s journey, but how to write scenes that use the template effectively is not obvious, having never done it before.

Who is Larry Brooks?

Larry Brooks is the author of three books on writing fiction and has six critically-acclaimed thrillers, including Darkness Bound, Bait and Switch, Deadly Faux, and The Seventh Thunder. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, was educated at Portland State University, pitched [baseballs] for the Texas Rangers, and spent seventeen years in corporate marketing and training business. Brooks lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, and travels frequently as a speaker and workshop teacher at writing conferences.[1]

Outline of Book

Brooks’ six core competencies are: concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution, and writing voice. He structures his book in eight parts around these six competencies plus an introduction (why we care) and conclusion (putting it together). These eight parts divide into fifty chapters with the twenty-two of the fifty chapters devoted to story structure—the hero’s journey. Let me turn to these competencies.


A concept is a fresh look at an old idea. Brooks advises that a concept should ask a question where the answer to the question is your story. He writes: “story about ballet dancers is not a concept.” But, “what if a ballet dancer loses her leg at the knee but perseveres against great prejudice to become a professional dancer?” (31).

Notice the “what if” in this last statement. Drilling down into your concept with additional what if questions can help expand on your story and provide the fodder for twists and turns along the way (42). For example, what if your handicapped ballet dancer is also African America, a war heroine, child-prodigy mathematician, the daughter of the president, or lived in the nineteenth century? The possibilities are endless.


Brooks looks at the character through the eyes of the plot. He writes: “Character is the catalyst that empowers everything else in your story.” (56) Obviously, in order for a character to be larger than life, this character must be alive, at least on the page. Aspects of character that he notes are: surface affections and personality, backstory, character arc, inner demons and conflicts, worldview, goals and motivations, and decisions, actions, and behaviors (54-55).

Brooks’ insight into character comes in defining its three dimensions: outward appearance, the reason for behaviors, and inner person (64-65). Economists talk about firms in terms of their structure, conduct, and performance, which is essentially the same set of distinctions in different words. These dimensions interface with the plot because outward appearance and behaviors are observed with or without conflict. The conflict in the story, which drives the plot, is the only way, however, that you can reveal the inner person (71). Here is Brooks’ catalyst at work.

An important component of character, known as the character arc, displays “what the character does in the first part of the story probably won’t be the same flavor of action or decision that will manifest in the last part.” (93) The interplay with plot comes when an external obstacle in the hero’s quest cannot be eliminated until the hero deals with his own internal obstacles (94). The hero’s struggle with these two conflicts is an important subplot, according to Brooks (101).


Brooks explains that “Theme is the relevance of your story to life.” (118) Your story is essentially a case study illustrating a greater truth.  In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), for example, Jesus illustrates how we should treat our neighbors. The theme is neighborly love and the story illustrates this love. Theme has a sacramental characteristic in the sense that a sacrament is outward sign with an inward meaning. Developing a theme requires careful preparation of context.

Scene Execution

A scene is a dramatic scenario in one time and place that moves the plot (or character) along. It is a transition with a beginning, middle, and ending (229-230). Interestingly, Brooks sees scenes that illustrate character being the primary focus of literary fiction and scenes that move the plot along being the primary focus of commercial fiction (241). Obviously, if the purpose of a scene is motion towards an objective (either character or plot), the context of the scene in the wider story must be known in advance (238-239). For the sake of clarity, a scene should only make a single point. Changes in time or place motivate writing of a new scene (233).

Writing Voice

Writing voice is the attitude that you display as you write. Brooks makes the point that your attitude should be professional, clean, crisp, natural, efficient (247-248). It is a bit like a writer’s personal hygiene—it either goes without notice or it stinks up the place. It is most noticeable in dialogue, in part, because dialogue tends to mark your social position and flexibility.

Brooks notes that “Dialogue is also specific to variables such as age, culture, geography, relationships, and agenda.” (250) Like speech itself, it is hard to fake, prompting Brooks’ watch-phrase: “less is more.” (247)

Because Brooks spills most of his ink on story structure (the hero’s journey), in part 2 of this review will focus on structure.


Larry Brooks’ Story Engineer is an award-winning book on the craft of writing story that draws on writing both novels and screen plays. Brooks reads easily and he uses examples from numerous well-known books and films. The target audience is authors serious about improving their craft.

[1] @StoryFix.


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Warren Writes to Grow Characters 

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Soule Gives How-to Advice on Deep POV

Soule, Deep POV

Soule Gives How-to Advice on Deep POV

Sherry A. Soule.[1] 2016. The Writer’s Guide to Deep POV: Create Realistic Characters, Settings, and Descriptions. Sacramento: FWT.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of my goals for 2017 is to upgrade the quality of my writing. While I primarily write nonfiction, even nonfiction Christian writing includes significant storytelling and memoir is sometimes described as narrative nonfiction, both of which suggest that the line between fiction and nonfiction writing blurs more than occasionally. An important challenge in traversing the fiction and nonfiction boundary is learning to show rather than tell emotions, descriptions, and character development, which is often described as deep point of view (or just deep POV) writing.


In her new book, The Writer’s Guide to Deep POV, Sherry Soule writes:

“Deep POV is just describing everything that your character is feeling, observing, and identifying, along with whatever they’re seeing, hearing, touching, and smelling…” (4)

Deep Point of View

The point of deep POV is to remove the narrator and reduce narrative distance to bring the reader closer to the actual experience of the characters (8). She offers four tips in implementing deep POV:

  1. “Writers should try to reduce as many filtering references as they can from their writing. Words such as felt, saw, heard, smelled, and notices…
  2. Naming the emotion can become a bad habit….
  3. Be more specific when describing places, settings, people, clothing, objects, cars, etc. so you don’t create a weak visual…
  4. One way to rid your fiction of shallow writing is to use the ‘look through the camera lens’ method…[so that everything] is perceived through that POV.” (10-11)

While she admits that there are times when telling can pick up the pace in your writing, anytime that you can rewrite to show rather than tell you should do it. (12) Deep POV offers: “the reader direct access to the character’s moods, emotions, and perceptions.” (13) Showing the character’s reactions and views is what Soule sees as revealing a character’s true voice. (49) For the author, deep POV is the focus of revision work.

Use of Examples

At its core, The Writer’s Guide to Deep POV is a how-to book inventorying the different ways that deep POV can be used and illustrating its use in paired examples. Typically, Soule offers a SHALLOW example of a paragraph or series of paragraphs followed by a DEEP POV example of the same material. These DEEP POV examples are taken from her own published work, while the SHALLOW examples are presumably taken from an earlier draft. While this method may be tedious to read, it offers the aspiring author a cookbook of examples to study when writing in any part of the inventory covered.


For example, in her chapter on fatigue, Soule writes:

“When your character is tired or fatigued, I would show the character’s mental and physical exhaustion through Deeper POV. I realize that it is much simpler to just state that a character is drowsy or that a character looks exhausted, but I think it is much more fun to show the reader instead—don’t you?” (107)

Some of the “physical signs of exhaustion” she lists are: “loud yawning, heaving eyelids, droopy eyelids, weakness in limbs, cannot concentrate…” (108)

Example of Fatigue

After this, one of her examples for fatigue was:

SHALLOW: Dan looked sleepy and he fell asleep in class. He started snoring loudly. The teacher got mad and woke him up.

DEEP POV: Dan’s breathing slowed and his eyelids grew heavy. He rested his head on the desk and his eye’s closed. He must’ve been snoring, because the teacher shook him awake.” (109)

After such short examples of SHALLOW and DEEP POV writing, Soule often offers more lengthy examples running for several paragraphs. Much of her book consists of roughly 30 short chapters of 5-6 pages each taking this basic format of explanation, physical signs, and shallow/Deep POV examples. The inventory covers description, character development, emotions, and other places where an experienced writer should employ deep POV.


Sherry Soule describes herself as a bestselling author, editor, publisher, and writing coach, where her fiction writing focuses on urban fantasy, romantic suspense, and paranormal romance. Her book, The Writer’s Guide to Deep POV, remains one of seven books in a nonfiction series entitled: Fiction Writing Tools. Judging from this volume, the rest of the series is certainly worth a look.

[1] @SherrySoule,


Also see:

Wilbers Outlines the Keys to Great Writing and Then Some 

The Christian Memoir 

Karr Voices Memoir Clearly 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Stephen King Lives and Writes Through Situations

stephen_king_review_01112017Stephen King. 2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My primary writing project during the past year has been to write a memoir. Being new to the genre, I started by publishing my father’s memoir, enrolled in an online writing course, read numerous writing books, and reviewed a few good memoirs. Stephen King’s[1] book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, touches on each of these activities.

The breadth of this memoir comes as a surprise—what is a memoir of a craft anyway? King divides his memoir into several parts, including:

  • C.V. (17-101).
  • What Writing Is (103-137).
  • On Writing (141-249).
  • On Living: A Postscript (253-270).
  • And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open (271-284).
  • And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklike (285-288).
  • Further to Furthermore, Part III (289-291).

 His chapters are preceded by three forewords and, in spite of its length, this memoir reads quickly—but not too quickly. Still, the breadth of this work comes from the way that King weaves his life and his craft together—a visitor to the King house might be advised to forbear exploring the closets! What the heck; let’s explore.

King is an author and a household name. He has written numerous (35+) books, many of which have also appeared in film. As an example, his breakout work, Carrie, sold first as a paperback novel (1973) and was released three years later as a horror film.[2]

Interestingly, Tabitha, King’s wife, rescued an early manuscript of Carrie from the trash, as King recalls:

“I had four problems with what I’d written. First, … the story didn’t move me emotionally. Second, … I didn’t much like the lead character. Carrie White seemed thick and passive, a ready-made victim. … Third, … [I] was not feeling at home with either the surroundings or my all-girl cast of supporting characters. … Fourth, … the story wouldn’t pay unless it was pretty long. … I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell. So I threw it away.” (76-77)

But, confronted with his Ideal Reader (Tabitha) telling him that this manuscript had promise, King went back and gave Carrie his best shot.

This notion of an Ideal Reader is interesting. King writes for his wife, Tabitha, who happens also to be an author, which seems most fortunate because she can articulate her opinions to King in actionable language.[3] King explains:

“Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed.” (219)

King sees the Ideal Reader as particularly helpful in judging story pace—“the speed at which your narrative unfolds”—and the details to include in your backstory—“all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story” (220-223).

Part of the back story in King’s memoir evolves into front story in his postscript where he describes in detail his experience of being run over by a Dodge van in June of 1999, while walking down a country road in rural Maine (253-255). This story of his near-death experience might have been just an interesting aside, except for the fact that King had motivational problems in finishing this memoir back in that summer (265). I suspect that his life story suddenly became a slightly higher priority, having been thrown 14 feet in the air (259) and improbably lived through the experience.[4]

Before I wrap up this review, let me make one more observation. King has an interesting view of plot. He describes plot as too big a hammer (a jackhammer) for normal use by fiction author and he prefers to motivate his characters through stressful situations (164). If you believe that we act out of our identities, then no two characters will respond the same way to a given tricky situation. How a story evolves out of a situation is therefore interesting and potentially surprising because people discover the character in themselves as they are challenged by life’s situations—we are ultimately strangers to ourselves; that is, until we are not. The thrill in the thriller is therefore hard to duplicate with a plot-line where the author already knows where the story will go and how it will get there—it is better to scrape the plot and discover the character the same way that a reader might. Therefore, King looks for strong situations and explores interesting what-if scenarios to challenge his characters and writes intuitively about how they respond (169).

Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is an interesting and helpful book for wannabe and experienced authors both, because he explores both writing and the writing life. Film buffs might also read this book to garner the backstory on his films, many of which are now cult classics. Personally, I read this book mostly because I like to read and love to write—perhaps, you do too.



[3] My wife teaches mathematics and chemistry, seldom reading anything outside her field so my Ideal Reader is probably my mom who has trouble explaining her likes and dislikes.

[4] If it had been me, the improbability might have instigated a new interest in inspirational fiction, rather than memoir, in part, because it is more of a baby step away from other fiction and towards an explanation for why God was not through with me yet.

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Karr Voices Memoir Clearly

Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

Karr Voices Memoir Clearly

Mary Karr.[1] 2015. The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Writing a memoir evokes a special brand of fear. No matter how you approach the topic, the fear is that your life story is not worthy of being told and the mere attempt to tell it is to be guilty of exaggeration and pride. No matter how good the writing, the fear is that you do not stand in the company of presidents, kings, and celebrities. Against this fear, one can only aspire to write clearly with distinction and to seek out a good book or two to aid in this vain enterprise.


In her book, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr points to other motivations, somewhere between the writer “trying to make sense of the past” and “readers thirsty for reality” (xiv). Memoir invites the reader into the private life of the author in a verbal strip-tease, undertaken for catharsis or paid therapy (xxi). Something anyone can aspire to writing memoir, even if the readers may be limited to an immediate circle of friends and family. The primary requirement is having memories that you are willing to analyze against a particular theme and to share with readers. These memories need not be absolute truth, but they need to be spoken with an authentic voice.

Author Voice

Karr emphasizes voice as the authenticator of good memoir, writing: “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice.” (35)

The truth of memoir is not absolute—sworn on a Bible—truth, but rather a more interesting subjective truth—truth told with an authentic voice. It is subjective, in part, because we lie more often to ourselves than we do to other people. Karr validates her own accounts with the people she writes about (5). It is interesting, in part, because an authentic voice embeds the veils that we use to cover our inadequacies. Uncovering the veils and exposing the lies they cover up is painful, as Karr explains: “You have to lance a boil and suffer its stench as infection drains off.” (12) Yet, this catharsis liberates our true selves, a necessary step in healing and in personal growth, as Karr admits: “I often barely believe myself, for I grew up suspicious of my own perceptions” (22).

Part of authentic voice is admitting your motivation in writing. Karr argues: “Unless you confess your own emotional stakes in a project, why should a reader have any?” (97) While this advice might seem to be a terribly female observation to make—why can’t I just lay out my hypothesis, you say?—communications professors often admonish their students that complete communication requires both an idea and an emotion. Authenticity requires complete expression—why is that hypothesis so important that you spent at least a year or more examining it in great detaiI? Chances are good that the emotional stake is already substantial and its substance needs only to be recognized in your writing. A novelist might refer to this stake as an emotional hook to grab the reader.

Mary Karr

Karr’s voice shows ironic tension. She is consciously literary—dropping great quotes from famous memoirists and dotting her work with cutesy new ways of expression. The tension arises when you see her photographed wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots more fitting of her Texas upbringing.[2] “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet.  Voiced tension is a source of conflict and, as such, is interesting.

Cowboy boots aside, Karr writes prescriptively in 24 chapters, each with its own theme. A particularly important theme in her writing comes in chapter 6: Sacred Carnality. One’s mind naturally runs to carnal, as in carnal knowledge. But, Karr uses carnal to mean sensual in description, as in the five senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling (71). For those of us more comfortable in non-fiction, analytical writing, this carnality is necessarily forced, as she readily admits (75). By utilizing carnal description to move the action, dialog can be used more like a spotlight.


Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir is helpful addition to any writer’s library. Karr’s cites from numerous famous memoirists (check out the appendix listing) aptly makes the point that memoir is a wider genre than the usual political and celebrity autobiographies. The creative potential in memoir is also greater than the usual A-B-C chronologies. A favorite film of mine, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) was, for example, a memoir by William Herr:  Dispatches (1977). Karr’s book has already encouraged me to purchase a memoir that she recommended[3]; it has been a great encouragement in my own memoir project; and I have already gifted this book to a friend. Great book; read it.


Angelou, Maya. 2009. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” New York: Ballantine Books.

Herr, William. 1977. “Dispatches.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[1];; @ArtSciencesSU; @MaryKarrLit

[2] @MaryKarrLit

[3] Angelou (2009).


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Wilbers Outlines the Keys to Great Writing and Then Some

Keys_review_02292016Stephen Wilbers. 2000. Keys To Great Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Seminary taught me many lessons, many of which took the form of words. Of course, many words in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin were entirely new to me. But even in English seminary gave me new words to express ideas which were previously unformed and unattended. Writers may find themselves similarly challenged in Stephen Wilbers[1] book: Keys to Great Writing.

What are the keys here? Wilbers lists five keys: economy, precision, action, music, and personality. Let me say a few words about each.

Economy. “Make every word count.” Wilber illustrates his point by chunking up a poem by Langston Hughes, “Harlem”, and asking the reader to edit it by bracketing out unnecessary verbiage. Then, he brackets the verbiage himself. The word count falls from 112 to 54, but the power in the poem rises as the word count falls (11-13). He then moves on to offer fourteen techniques for eliminating wordiness.

My favorite technique was number 5: “Delete ‘hollow’ hedges and meaningless intensifiers” A hollow hedge is an unnecessary qualifier. For example, in the expression, “rather surprised”, the word, surprised, is sufficient which makes the word, rather, a hollow hedge. Likewise, an intensifier normally adds emphasis, but not all emphasis is necessary. For example, the word, very, is everyone’s favorite unnecessary intensifier. Wilber recommends that if the meaning of the expression is unchanged when omitting hedges and intensifiers, then leave them out (21).

Precision. “Use the right word.” Prefer action verbs and concrete nouns; appeal to the five senses; be careful with modifiers; avoid sexist language; speak plainly and directly. (37-47).

Action. “Use action and movement to engage your reader.” Wilbers reinforces his earlier comments here about action verbs and cautions about pompous nouns—nominalizations. What makes this presentation differ from a typical treatment is that Wilber includes punctuation in this discussion and outlines rules for using both nominalizations and the passive voice. For example, he offers five reasons to use passive voice:

  1. To emphasize the receiver of the action.
  2. To de-emphasize the performer of the action.
  3. To avoid responsibility.
  4. To create smooth connections between sentences.
  5. To maintain a consistent point of view or sequence of subjects (56-57).

His treatment here stresses the principle that a skilled writer uses language forms appropriately rather than blindly following rules.

Music. Wilbers advises the reader to “listen to your voice”. Language is simply a representation of the spoken word (67-68).

In representing the spoken word, Wilbers classifies punctuate marks into three categories: marks of clarification (hyphens, quotation marks, and parentheses), marks of inflection (question marks and exclamation marks) and marks of separation (periods, commas, semicolons, and dashes) (72). He then offers a rhythmic interpretation of separation marks. Think of a period as a whole note rest; a colon as a three-quarter note rest; a semicolon as a half-note rest; and a comma as a quarter-note rest (73-75).

Another important way to represent the spoken word is through using different sentence structures. Wilber classifies twelve sentence types in three broad categories: functional (declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory) sentences, grammatical (simple, compound, complex, and compound complex) sentences, and rhetorical (periodic, loose, balanced, and antithetical) sentences (89). Some of these sentence types are familiar; others require definition. A sentence type new to me, for example, was a periodic sentence which is defined as a compound sentence where the subordinate clauses precede the main clause creating a sense of expectation.  A loose sentence does exactly the opposite having the main clause precede the subordinate clauses (89).

Personality. Wilbers advises writers to “be lively, unpredictable, playful, and genuine” (107). For example, Wilbers writes: “A good metaphor has three qualities: aptness, novelty, and simplicity” which might satisfy each of these conditions. (114) More generally, this chapter pulls together elements from the previous chapters and talks about how to use them.

The five keys are discussed in the first five of Wilbers’ eleven chapters. The complete list of chapters are:

Part One: Keys to Great Writing
1. Economy.
2. Precision.
3. Action.
4. Music.
5. Personality.

Part Two: Elements of Composition
6. Purpose.
7. Point of View.
8. Organization.
9. Support.
10. Coherence.

Part Three: Drafting and Revising
11. The Writing Process.

Part one described above accounts for 126 of 262 pages, or about half of the book.

Part two is perhaps of the most interest to experienced writers. For example, Wilbers reviews six purposes for writing:

1. To inform the reader.
2. To entertain the reader.
3. To persuade the reader.
4. To transact business (or accomplish a task).
5. To express oneself.
6. To create a literary work (131).

Note that the first three purposes focus on the reader and the last three focus on the writers—the more that you know about why you write, the more precise the writing will be. Clearly, how you write informs what gets written.

Having offered a flavor of Wilbers’ writing, let me sum up.

Stephen Wilbers book, Keys to Great Writing, outlines the major themes of writing without narrowing the focus to a particular genre. While this makes his book suitable as a composition textbook for college students, it has an engaging style which does not feel like a textbook. Authors serious about moving their writing style to a higher level will want to take notice.

[1] In another review (posting March 8, 2016), I give some back ground on Stephen Wilbers (Wilbers Offers Writing Tips to Remember;

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Wilbers Offers Writing Tips to Remember

Wilbers_review_02152016Stephen Wilbers. 2014. Mastering the Craft of Writing: How to Write with Clarity, Emphasis, and Style. Blue Ash: F&W Media.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Gutsy. Stephen Wilbers begins Mastering the Craft of Writing with a challenge—read this book twice. In a world where few people read, even fewer read with any depth, and most treat writing books as a sleep aid, any author encouraging a second read might appear delusional. But, on finishing a first read, perhaps gutsy fits.

Wilbers describes himself as a “writing consultant, award-winning author, and columnist”.[1] He has taught at a number of universities[2] and written a number of books on writing—the other one on my desk is Keys to Great Writing (Cincinnati: F&W Publications, 2000).[3]

Mastering the Craft of Writing focuses on 52 writing tips for weekly study complete with exercises and, frequently, a reflection illustrating the tip of the week. Many of Wilbers’ tips proved helpful in drawing attention to fine points in language usage that I was not—as a writer—sensitive to.  Early in his book he focuses on tips relating to clarity; in the middle of the book he focuses on tips about emphasis; and late in the book he focuses on stylistic writing tips.  Let me structure my comments accordingly.

Clarity. For example, the tip for week 1 advises the writer reading to: “Listen to Your Language” (5). Picking a few well-known, book titles, like Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, he teases us with alternative word choices (e.g. “The Elderly Man and the Ocean”) to make the point that word choice matters.

Another example of a clarity tip is found in week 19 where Wilbers lists 5 type of mid-sentence shifts to avoid—

  • Shifts in verb tense,
  • Shifts in person,
  • Shifts in subjects,
  • Shifts in voice, and
  • Shifts in modified subject (103-104).

—and cites examples of sentences both with the error and with the error corrected. While I was sensitive to the first two shifts (verb tense and person), the others were new to me. Oftentimes in speaking and writing we make these shifts without giving them much thought even though they muddle our message unnecessarily.

Emphasis. Wilbers’ tips on sentence construction and emphasis were interesting, such as in week 27, where he writes:

 “In the left part of your sentence, concentrate on topic. In the right part of your sentence, manage your emphasis.” (147)

Building on this discussion, he observes in week 29 that subordinate clauses can be used to put a positive spin on bad news—a talent helpful for writers who have daily interactions with the public (157).  This tip makes clear that Wilbers is sensitive to a wider range of writing styles and contexts than most writers, who tend to write for a particular audience and within a particular professional context.

Style. Wilbers offers a number of tips that can add polish to your writing—who can’t use more polish?  For someone, like myself, coming out of a technical writing background, these tips are perhaps the least familiar.

For example, in week 40 Wilbers outlines 4 types of compound sentences:

  • Balanced (or parallel) sentences have a list of similar elements,
  • Antithetical sentences are balanced sentences with a contrary element,
  • Loose sentences begin with a main clause and are followed by parallel elements, and
  • Periodic sentences have the main clause following the parallel elements (223).

What kind of sentence is this line—

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine.” (222)

—spoken by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in the 1942 movie Casablanca? (Periodic) By placing the parallel elements in the sentence first, a periodic sentence offers a drama introduction to the main clause according to Wilbers (223).

Stephen Wilbers’ Mastering the Craft of Writing is an interesting and accessible read. Even experienced writers are likely to find his advice useful. Wilbers’ challenge to read the book more than once is warranted, if you are like me, because—for the absent minded—practice still makes perfect.

[1] Backcover.  Also see:

[2] For example, he teaches at the University of Minnesota.

[3] My current writing instructor recommended both books—Keys to Great Writing and Mastering the Craft of Writing.

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Moore Crafts the Personal Essay

Dinty Moore, Crafting the Personal EssayMoore Crafts the Personal Essay

Dinty W. Moore. 2010. Crafting the Personal Essay:  A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Walking into a dinner of venison leaves one suspicious that you are too late for the hunt. An essay is more about the hunt and less about the dinner, according to Dinty Moore. It is the tension of the hunt that draws the reader in.


In his book, Crafting the Personal Essay, Moore both describes the genre of an essay and how it is constructed. There are, of course, numerous types of essays, each with its own particular interests and contributions to the genre. Moore writes:

“The personal essayist (that would be you) takes a topic—virtually any topic under the big yellow sun—and holds it up the big bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective, fault, and reflection, in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant. But it is always an effort, a trial, not a lecture or diatribe.” (5)

History of the Essay

The interest here in exploring and describing the world (a protestant or reformation idea[1]) and the focus on the essayist’s particular voice (or insights) suggests that the essay is a product of the romantic era of the nineteenth century.[2] In fact, Moore dates the earliest essay to a Frenchman, Michel de Montaigne, circa 1571 (39)—an antecedent to romanticism. Consequently, the work of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Romans would not qualify as a personal essay, even though there is tension between nature and nurture in his arguments, because he looks for the voice of God rather than trying to develop his own voice as a writer.[3]

Background on Dinty Moore

Dinty Moore teaches writing at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio and is the author of many books and articles.[4] In Crafting the Personal Essay, Moore divides his advice to the writer breaks into two parts: “writing the essay” and “reaching readers” (vii—viii). Eighteen of his 23 chapters focus on the writing the essay.


Moore’s advice takes the form of description, story-telling, examples, writing assignments, and handicapping his own and other people essays. Many of his chapters, for example, end with a short-list of tips for writers.  In chapter 14, Writing the Humorous Essay, Moore offers these three tips:

  1. “You need a story, not just jokes. If your goal is to write compelling nonfiction, the story must always come first…
  2. The humorous essay is no place to be mean or spiteful…
  3. The funniest people don’t guffaw at their own jokes.” (162)

The different kinds of essays that outlines might make distinct genre in their own right, but add color to as segments of other essays. Much like I might not see myself writing a stand-alone humorous or a gastronomical essay, knowing the basic premise of each helps in throwing a bit of spice into any meal, err—essay!

Although a slow read is appropriate, I found myself anxiously turning the pages to see what would come next. This was especially true in chapter 10 (A Closer Look: Ah Wilderness) where Moore writes about a canoe trip that he took down the Rio Grande River. Moore starts this chapter with a question:

“You can steer, can’t you?” (114)

What an introduction! Can you image being stuck in a canoe for several days with a hyper-active, know-it-all canoe partner?  (At this point, I was having flashbacks to my days as a canoeing instructor in a scout camp). The point is that Moore doesn’t just tell you how to write, he shows you—that is, in fact, one of his tips.


As a lifelong writer, I found his advice on rewriting most convicting. He writes:

“What is required, if your essay and writing skills are going to improve by leaps and bounds, is a total reconsideration of each every element of yours essay.” (220)

It’s like starting a remodeling project by moving absolutely all your furniture and furnishings into the front yard and only bringing back to room items that fit your new concept for the room (220-221). Ouch! That sounds like real work—like typing your dissertation on a manual typewriter before the invention of whiteout type work…

Dinty Moore’s Crafting the Personal Essay is an interesting and helpful read. Writers of all genre and skill levels will want to take a look.


Dyrness, William A. 2001. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids:  BakerAcademic.

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York:  DoubleDay.


[1] Calivin, for example, writes: “let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in the most beautiful theatre.” (Dyness 2001, 53).

[2]“For some, the intellectual leaders of society were poets—the ‘unacknowledged legislators of mankind,’ as Percy Bysshe Shelley called them. The poet bore the heavy weight of articulating a moral vision for humanity, grounded in reason and nature, and inspiring a community to yearn for a new and better order…” (McGrath 2004, 50). Instead, what they got were the French and Russian revolutions.

[3] See: Romans: Faith Seeking Understanding (



Also see:

The Christian Memoir 

Karr Voices Memoir Clearly 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:

Newsletter at:


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Franklin: Writes Structured True Stories

Franklin_review_08212015Jon Franklin. 1994. Writing for Story:  Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner.  New York: Penguin Books (Plume Book).

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Having grown up reading Boy’s Life, Reader’s Digest and Life Magazine, I love a good, real-life story. But as I remember it, even fiction once focused on ordinary life lived extra-ordinarily. The newer idea that fiction would be structured in the manner of an Indiana Jones movie—jumping from one action scene to another—still bothers my sensitivities. Perhaps, this new fictional form reflects a new reality—a life lived with less time, more routine, and impatience throughout.

In his book, Writing for Story, Jon Franklin likewise reminisces about the move away from short story publication with a slightly different focus. Traditionally, these short stories offered aspiring fiction writers an entry point for learning their craft. Back then, young writers could easily write and sell short stories. Today, the non-fiction narrative (NFN) provides a new entry point. Consequently, Franklin views NFN as “a profoundly important event in the history of modern literature.” (27)

According to Franklin, the NFN “combines the appeal, the excitement, and reading ease of fiction with the specific information content of nonfiction.” (26) The NFN likewise adopts the structure of a short story with a complication, development, and a resolution and marked throughout by twists and complications (21-22).

Jon Franklin is a professional writer and has taught both writing and journalism.  He has written a number of books. He received two Pulitzer prizes for his non-fiction writing while working as a journalist for the Baltimore Evening Sun[1]. In Writing for Story, Franklin writes in 10 chapters:

  1. The New School for Writers.
  2. Kelly’s Monster.
  3. The Ballad of Old Man Peters.
  4. Stalking the True Short Story.
  5. Structure.
  6. The Outline.
  7. Structuring the Rough.
  8. Contemplating the Structure.
  9. Polishing.
  10. The Nature of Art and Artists (xiii).

 Acknowledgments and a preface precede these chapters.

Appendices at the end of the book outline NFN stories featured in Chapters 2 and 3. The two short stories—Mrs. Kelly’s Monster and The Ballad of Old Man Peters

illustrate Franklin’s writing points in the chapters that follow.  Mrs. Kelly’s Monster earned Franklin his first Pulitzer prize for feature writing in 1979.

Franklin defines a story with these words:

“A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” (71)

The need for a “sympathetic character” explains why, for example, one sees very few economists starring in television dramas—almost no one considers a brainiac researcher a sympathetic character[2]. Franklin observes that:

“Complications that are more fundamental to the human condition, involving love, hate, pain, death, and such, are very basic to the human dilemma and thus are fair game for the professional storyteller.” (75).

Here is a second reason why economists do not normally appear in television dramas:  the complications they face and solve are typically abstract and not basic, not matters of life or death. When the government shuts down, economists are not typically among the essential personnel required to work the night shift.  By contrast, medical personnel, police, fire fighters, and military personnel are considered essential and often appear in television dramas.

Franklin’s final point is about the resolution of the story:

“A resolution is simply any change in the character or situation that resolves the complication…A resolution, like a complication, can be either physical or psychological, external or internal… A resolution, by definition, destroys tension.” (76-77)

Resolutions are helpful to authors because while complications can exist without a resolution, every resolution has a complication. News stories are often endings without complications and may soon be forgotten.  Resolutions with interesting complications involving sympathetic characters are priceless.  Franklin’s advice?  “Never fixate on just one part of a story.” (78-79)

Franklin offers insight into the perianal question:  does a story have to have a happy ending?  He opines: “successful stories generally have happy endings…[because] the reader’s world has a surplus of sad endings…What the reader really wants is to be show some insightful choices that have positive results.” In a practical sense, sad endings are harder to write successfully so young writers should be wary of them (80-82).

It is hard to capture all the good advice that Franklin offers in a short review. A key takeaway is this—outline the structure of the story and pay attention to transitions that are labored. The problem may be in the underlying structure, not the polish of the writing. Another is to start with the climax, not the opening. Foreshadowing leads to the climax so starting the climax helps clarify what to foreshadow.  A further point is to show emotion, don’t just talk about it.

Jon Franklin‘s Writing for Story is a helpful book for authors which bears reading and re-reading. Even though I write primarily non-fiction, I still write a lot of stories and tell a lot of stories when I preach. Knowing the rules for story writing makes me a better writer. It may help you too.



[2] In fact, The Brainiac is the name of a cartoon villain (

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Jepson Explores Spiritual Practices in Writing Craft

Writing_as_a_Sacred_Path_01052015bJill Jepson. 2008. Writing as a Sacred Path. Berkeley:  Celestial Arts.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The journey home requires travel in foreign lands.  The prodigal son could not love his father until he had left him; his older brother never came to love his father (Luke 15).  Much like contrast reveals the outlines of what we see, sometimes it is helpful to explore foreign lands in finding our way home.

In her book, Writing as a Sacred Path, Jill Jepson teaches writing through exercises in alternative, especially eastern, spiritual traditions.  She writes:

One of the writer’s highest goals is to express the inner workings of the human spirit in ways that evoke understanding and empathy. By making it possible for people of different regions, beliefs, and cultures to communicate, by allowing people to share each other’s experiences and views of the world, the writer acts as a warrior for peace (198-199).

Because many screen plays employ eastern spiritual practices and sometimes even eastern themes and settings, it is not surprising that this book would be published in California and writers there would find these exercises helpful.

Jepson writes in 10 chapters organized in 4 parts:

1. The Mystic Journey (Transcendent Awareness; Crazy Wisdom),
2. The Monastic Path (The Writer in Silence and Solitude; The Writer in Community)
3. The Way of the Shaman (Darkness and Healing in the Writer’s Path; Sacred Ground), and
4. The Warrior Road (Honor and Courage in the Writing Lift; Strategy and Skill for the Warrior Writer).

She describes these 4 parts as gateways to the sacred (9). The first two chapters (The Call and The Sacred Gift) function as an introduction. A conclusion (Walking the Sacred Path) follows chapter 10. The conclusion is followed by endnotes, a bibliography, an index, and a brief description of the author. Jepson describes herself as: a writer, traveler, linguistic anthropologist, and college professor (246). She knows her stuff.

Chapter 2, The Sacred Gift, bears special attention because it focuses on the critical role of stories in affecting personal and social change (21). The writer, as storyteller, plays a pivotal role in culture. Citing Buddhist and Hindu origins, she defines the idea of a mandala—a geometric depiction of the cosmos making our universe understandable—the opposite of a monkey mind—a chaotic, rapidly changing state of mind (21). A mathematical model or graph might, for example, function as a mandala. Jesus’ use of parables might form such mandalas and illustrate the transformational potential of stories.

Jepson applies her lessons through spiritual exercises which she annotates as: sacred tools. The book provides dozens of these tools. These exercises can have a couple steps or be rather lengthy. One tool, for example, is a visualization exercise:

1. Write your experience,
2. Imagine your opponent’s experience, and
3. Create a character (195-196).

Walking in someone’s shoes is certainly an old idea, but it is also a helpful writing exercise in any tradition.

Jepson has written an insightful writing manual. Writing as a Sacred Path is a fascinating book. The blend of Christian and pagan references, however, could easily lead to spiritual confusion. Christian spirituality begins with God, not with us. When we engage in spiritual practices designed to enhance our talents or power over ideas, we stray from Christian into pagan practice. This is a journey that writers need not and should not take lightly.  Nevertheless, the journey home requires travel in foreign lands and we are better for it.

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