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The Elements of Story

Posted on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 1:12 PM

A reference book that is rich in advice it is and a pleasure to read.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I enthusiastically recommend for your reference The Elements of Story, Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing, by Francis Flaherty (Harper). It is wide and yet also deep in coverage.

Flaherty, an editor at The New York Times who specializes as "story doctor," includes in the book's 280-or-so pages a welter of points designed, if we follow the advice, to improve our own writing and that of folks who write for us. Each point, to add value, is given sufficient specifics so that the reader might gain a firmer grasp on the lesson.

Instructive Wisdom Throughout

Chapters begin with a well-phrased and summarized expression of the instructive wisdom that is to follow. For instance, "A writer must regard his story through theme-colored glasses" is the nugget leading into Chapter 6, titled "Bang the Drum Strategically," a section devoted to descriptive techniques.

Sounding Out

"The sound of words and the rhythm of sentences are a language wholly apart from the dictionary. Make sure your story not only says what you mean but 'sounds' what you mean." That's the prelude to Chapter 7, "What Babies Know," an argument about the importance of sounding out your copy, this to determine the potential impact of written words on the emotional membranes of the reader's heart or mind.

The Important Verb

"Verbs are the most important words in a story, and the most important verbs are those that reflect the main theme. They are verbs with a capital V." Flaherty offers that nugget for Chapter 8, "Temptation Alley," his discourse on how verbs should be selected and for what distinct and differing purposes.

Five Senses

The author reminds us in later pages that "The five senses are a writer's most formidable tools;" that you should "Look until you see something new, for the writer is the watcher of the world;" that "Writing is an act of assertion and judgment" and, therefore, you should "not evade that part of the job by hiding behind bland language or others' words."

The Lead

In a chapter on beginnings, he argues: "No words are more important than the lead. Invest the time to compose, and compare, several possibilities." He then offers factual (straight) and anecdotal (feature) leads for three stories, accepting all for having been written well but revealing his choices and the reasons for them.

A Must-Read Book

He addresses nut graphs and transitions, organization and empathy, humanization ("Every story, even the driest, has a human face") and endings ("the bow on the package" that "can also be something more substantial"). He deals with movement, pace, and symbols; with theme, story unity, and accuracy of detail. He even covers "The Big Type," meaning titles and subtitles, which Flaherty identifies as "turbocharged text ... your work distilled."

Samples abound, from nonfictional and fictional sources. "Sometimes in this book," he explains, "I quote from real, published stories and then invent an alternative to the published version to make a point. Other times, I sketch wholly imaginary articles, many but not all inspired by subjects that have been addressed in the City Section" to which he is assigned.

This is a help book I wish I could have written, so rich in advice it is and so pleasurable it is just to read. But there's no envy in that statement because, fortunately, Francis Flaherty did write The Elements of Story. It is available now for us all to use, and the "us" certainly, happily includes me.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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