The 39 Steps: a primer on story writing by Frederick Barthelme

Frederick Barthelme
Frederick Barthelme

Author and writing teacher Frederick Barthelme used to hand out at the beginning of his workshops. This is great advice. Be sure not to follow it to the letter.

  1. Step one in the great enterprise of a new and preferable you in the house of fiction is: Mean less. That is, don’t mean so much. Make up a story, screw around with it, paste junk on it, needle the characters, make them say queer stuff, go bad places, insert new people at inopportune moments, do some drive-bys. Make it up, please.
  2. Don’t let it make too much sense.
  3. Do use stuff that you care about when you’re making it up. If you’re mad at your mother, husband, boyfriend, wife, lover, neighbor, dog, take it out on a mother, husband, etc. and put it in the mouth of one of your characters. If you’re full of love for the sea, say something nice about the bath.
  4. Leaven the piece with some merchandise (figurative) you don’t particularly care about but that seems to you odd, intriguing, curious, baffling, quirky. Attach this material to your characters.
  5. Do not use the above to rationalize disconnected, ersatz, or unrelated oddball debris. “I’d like to talk to you but there’s a giant in my room” isn’t the answer to any narrative question.
  6. Long plot explanations aren’t going to get it. Like, when something neat (horrible?) happened to one of the characters a real long time ago, and you really really want to tell us about it, you know? Don’t.
  7. It doesn’t particularly matter which characters these things you care about (see #3) get attached to (these are things like pieces of dialogue, bits of description, some gesture, a look somebody gives somebody, a setting, tabletops). In fact, you’re probably better off if the stuff attaches itself in unexpected ways to wrong characters (so you don’t go meaning too much, see #1).
  8. Remember: Many things have happened which, to the untrained eye, appear interesting.
  9. Grace Slick.
  10. At every turn, ask yourself if you’re being gullible, dopey, pretentious, cloying, adolescent, Neanderthal, routine, dull, smarty-pants, clever, arty, etc. You don’t want to be being these things.
  11. Be sure there’s a plot for the reader to grasp; while not necessarily the center of the story, it’s key to lulling the reader into that comfort zone where he’s vulnerable.
  12. We can’t care about sand mutants; if you do, or think you do, kill yourself.
  13. Coherence is a big part of the game. Make sure the story is coherent, that the scenes flow each from the last, that the reader has the clearest sense at all times of what is going on. Err on the side of clumsiness to start with; back away later.
  14. For dramatic purposes you’re probably well-served sticking close to an objective narrative (1st person unvoiced, or 3rd person objective-in either case, the camera view). This forces you to write scenes in which characters do and say things to/with/for each other; these things will then construct the story for you. This expedient blocks the “telling” problem.
  15. Organize the story’s structure around the simplest available strategy. For example, if there’s no obliging reason that the story be told in flashbacks, don’t use flashbacks. Don’t use flashbacks simply because you get to a certain point and then think of something that requires telling in flashback if it is to be told at that point. Instead, return to the front of the story and add the material in its appropriate spot.
  16. Plain chronological storytelling is a good idea. Rules on deviations:
    (a) avoid disruptions in time as much as possible;
    (b) flashbacks (and similar) are ten times more confusing to the reader than they seem to you (keep in mind for use in strategically confusing parts);
    (c) flashbacks, dream sequences, drug-induced beatific appreciations, Mongol hordes, etc. are not good excuses for lumbering attempts at the high rhetorical bar;
    (d) deviations from a norm tend to draw attention away from the story, away from the characters, away from the emotional/spiritual center of things;
    (e) sometimes you may want to do this.
    16(a) In the redundancy department: Give us as much of the ground situation as you can as soon as possible. The first paragraph is not too soon. The first page is not too soon. Tell us who, what, when, where, etc.
  17. Do not do this “artfully.”
  18. Remember that you want something to change over the course of the story. Something big and visible to the reader. Start with one situation and end with a clearly different situation. In between tell us how you got from the one to the other. Don’t be subtle designing this change-for purposes of nailing dramatic structure be as reductive as humanly possible.
  19. Remember this simplified structure is not the story, but the hanger on which the story hangs. The story is shirts and jackets, ribbons, the perfumes of the closet, details, bits of persuasion, rubber gunk underfoot, attitudes, hints, suggestions-everything you can attach to this hanger.
  20. Obviously, these carefully hewn 39 steps must be adapted to your way of working. If you’re murky, then take these as bible and pare away. If you work bare bones, then murk up what you do. Throw stuff in. Make a mess. Don’t clean up.
  21. If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work. Don’t just leave it there. Don’t let anyone see it.
  22. To repeat, there is no place for rubbish & slop in the highly modern world of today’s fiction. Every sentence must pay, must somehow thrill. Every one.
  23. Also: Obscurity is not subtlety; intentional obscurity is pinheaded and unkind.
  24. Doing odd stuff is good, especially like when you make characters do it in the story, like when stuff i s happening to them and they just do this unexpected, even inappropriate stuff, and then somehow it makes a little sense. This fills the heart.
  25. Don’t let too many paragraphs go by without sensory information, something that can be felt, smelt, touched, tasted. Two or three paragraphs is too many.
  26. Don’t be enamored of the idea you start with, or the idea that comes to you after you’ve been working on a piece for a time. If you’re lucky the idea will keep changing as you write the story.
  27. Don’t reject interesting stuff (things for characters to say and do, things to see, places to be, etc.) because the stuff doesn’t conform to your idea. Change your idea to wrap it around the stuff.
  28. If you have a story in mind to start with, leave it there. Ditto a “character.”
  29. Apropos the big issues, note that parents don’t sit around getting heartbroken about abortion, they get heartbroken because they killed the baby.
  30. Or, because the baby was born with fins for hands. It’s the particular.
  31. Sometimes it’s useful to shut your eyes and imagine a scene as if it were in a movie; this helps flatten things and helps you “see” what the scene looks like.
  32. Also, when doing the above, notice the things you notice in your own “real” life-like what’s at the horizon, how the sun is in the sky, what kind of light’s going on, the way the street, ground, grass, dirt looks, your interest in bushes, what’s happening at the edges of things-buildings and signs and cars, the sounds of stuff going on around the scene-who’s that wheezing? what’s that rattle? are those leaves preparing to rustle? Etc.
  33. No characters named Brooke or Amber.
  34. Study steps 1,7,13,16a, and 24

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