Do you think writing can be taught?
It makes economic sense to a lot of vested interests to say yes, it can. I’m not so sure. Yes, you can learn the structures, tropes and styles of writing, but without the innate ability to tell a story well, you’re working at a disadvantage. Not that this stops some of the crime writers you’ll find selling very nicely in WH Smith or Tesco.
It’s an odd thing; no writers can win an award without being able to write, but if you dare to say that all artists must be able to draw, you’ll be branded a fool by the art establishment. So it’s a combination of style – which develops naturally in the writer – and knowledge of construction, which is partly innate and can then be further developed or learned. When I occasionally take a writing class, there’s always someone who has the natural ability to be interesting in print.
There are a lot of How To Write books out there – most of them will only teach you to write to a market. They’re the kind that take out ads saying ‘You can make big money writing! Start earning today!’ And yes, you might be able to make money at the lower end of the ad industry, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
The best writers have no magic formula, and often switch styles and formats. Or they may specialise and mine one subject for years. There’s an excellent book called ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ by Christopher Booker, who goes through history outlining the stories that have stuck with us. But even those successful stories have stayed around partly by accident.
I’d actually suggest reading some screenplay books if you’re interested in construction. I rather like Blake Snyder’s ‘Save The Cat!’ books, although he focusses very narrowly on Hollywood and makes terrible generalisations. For example,he calls ‘Fatal Attraction’ the best cautionary tale about fooling around ever made, but that prize clearly belongs – by a long margin – to ‘Elles N’oublient Pas’ (They never forget), which suggests that a man’s indiscretions will haunt him forever. Of course, you can’t see the latter because it wasn’t made in Hollywood and therefore does not exist.
But the books are a fun overview on telling stories well and worth thumbing through. After that, the best How To Write books are the novels that do it will. The best way to learn is by example and experience. But if there are other good ones out there, please share.