UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS NORMAN
2800 Venture Drive
Norman, Oklahoma 73069
Copyright © 1965 by Dwight V.Swain. Assigned 1973 to the University of Oklahoma Press,Norman,
Publishing Division of the University.Manufactured in the U.S.A. Paperback edition
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording, or otherwise—except as permitted under Section 107 or 108 of the United
States Copyright Act— without the prior permission of the University of Oklahoma Press.
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to
Permissions, University of Oklahoma Press, 2800 Venture Drive, Norman, Oklahoma 73069
ISBN 978-0-8061-1191-9 (paperback : alk. paper)
ISBN 978-0-8061-8657-3 (ebook : mobipocket)
ISBN 978-0-8061-8667-2 (ebook : epub)
This eBook was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers
who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact
the publisher at
Be warned in advance that we here shall deal with one topic and one only: writing.
By writing, I mean the process of creation as applied to fiction . . . the conjuring
up of original stories out of the nether reaches of your mind.
My purpose is to help would-be fiction writers learn how to carry out this process
less slowly and less painfully. The devices set forth all are used, consciously or
otherwise, by selling writers.
This is because said devices have proved effective in making stories enjoyable and/or
enticing to readers. The selling writer, as a commercially-oriented professional,
can’t afford to write copy that
enjoyable and/or enticing.
Since they’re primarily tools, these techniques have little bearing on literary quality
or the lack of it. No writer uses all of them. No writer can avoid using some of them.
How well they serve will depend on you yourself.
They are, in brief, tricks and techniques of the selling writer.
They’re all this book has to offer.
It would be fitting, at this point, to give personal credit to all the people who
helped show me the literary ropes in years gone by. But such a list would of necessity
run too long, for it would include each and every writer of each and every book and
magazine I ever read
. . . plus the many friends who taught me about assorted joys and the enemies who
taught me about trouble . . . plus the editors like Ray Palmer and Howard Browne and
Bill Hamling who pushed and poked at me and bought my stories . . . plus such colleagues
as Ned Hockman (who, though I’ve worked with him on fifty fact films, still can show
me new tricks about how to put together a motion picture) and Foster-Harris (who knows
all that there is to know about plotting and about how to be an inspiration) and the
late great Walter S. Campbell, founder with Foster-Harris of the University of Oklahoma’s
courses in Professional Writing . . . plus, above all, my students, who for a dozen
years now have backed me into corners and made me figure out ways to say things so
that they make sense to someone who
already sold a million words of copy.
Truly, one and all, I’m grateful.
Fiction and You
A story is experience translated into literary process.
You need to know only four things in order to write a solid story:
how to group words into motivation-reaction units;
how to group motivation-reaction units into scenes and sequels;
how to group scenes and sequels into story pattern;
how to create the kind of characters that give a story life.
Are these things hard to learn?
Not at all.
At least, not if you take the job a step at a time, so that you understand
you do each thing, as well as
Then why do so many people find it difficult to learn to write?
They fall into traps that slow them down and hold them back.
Eight traps, specifically:
1. They take an unrealistic view.
2. They hunt for magic secrets.
3. They try to learn the hard way.
4. They refuse to follow feeling.
5. They attempt to write by rules.
6. They don’t want to be wrong.
7. They bow down to the objective.
8. They fail to master technique.
Every one of these traps is a major hazard. Therefore, before we get down to specific
skills, let’s consider each in detail.
Reality and the writer
Can you learn to write stories?
Can you learn to write well enough to sell an occasional piece?
Again yes, in most cases.
Can you learn to write well enough to sell consistently to
or Random House or Gold Medal?
Now that’s another matter, and one upon which undue confusion centers.
Writing is, in its way, very much like tennis.
It’s no trick at all to learn to play tennis—if you don’t mind losing every game.
Given time and perseverance, you probably can even work yourself up to where Squaw
Hollow rates you as above-average competition.
Beyond that, however, the going gets rough. Reach the nationals, win status as champion
or finalist, and you know your performance bespeaks talent as well as sweat.
So it is with writing. To get stories of a sort set down on paper; to become known
as a “leading Squaw Hollow writer,” demands little more than self-discipline.
Continued work and study often will carry you into
But the higher you climb toward big name and big money, the steeper and rougher your
At the top, it’s very rough indeed. If you get there; if you place consistently at
or Doubleday, you know it’s because you have talent in quantity; and innate ability
that sets you apart from the competition.
Now this doesn’t seem at all strange to me. The same principle
applies when you strive for success as attorney or salesman or racing driver.
Further, whatever the field, no realist expects advance guarantees of triumph. You
can’t know for sure how well you’ll do until you try. Not even a Ben Hogan, a Sam
Snead, or an Arnold Palmer made a hole-in-one his first time on the links. To win
success, you first must master the skills involved. A pre-med student isn’t called
on to perform brain surgery.
Good–that is, salable–stories presuppose that you know how to write, how to plot,
how to characterize, how to intrigue readers; how to make skilled use of a hundred
A book like this one shows you these basic tricks and techniques.
What you do with those devices, however; how well you use them, is a thing that must
ever and always depend on you: your intelligence, your sensitivity, your drive, your
facility with language.
But before you shrug and turn aside, remember just one point: In writing, more than
in almost any other field, initiative is the key. Ernest Hemingway had to write a
first line and a first story too. So did John Steinbeck and Edna Ferber, Faith Baldwin
and Pearl Buck and Frank Yerby and Erle Stanley Gardner. Each followed the same path.
Each linked desire to knowledge, then took his chances.
Try it yourself. You may prove more able than you think.
The hunt for magic secrets
Observe Fred Friggenheimer, a non-existent beginning writer.
This morning, the postman brings Fred a shiny new Mephisto Supersonic Plot Computer.
This device has cost Fred twenty-five dollars. Its value, in terms of the benefit
he can derive from it in his efforts to write better stories, isn’t twenty-five cents.
Unfortunately, novices in the field of fiction often tend to a child-like faith in
magic keys or secret formulas.
No such key exists. There isn’t any formula or secret.
At least, no single secret.
That’s worth remembering. No one can call his shots as a writer until he abandons
his dreams of magic keys and, instead, looks reality straight in the eye.
What is reality?
Reality is acknowledging the complexity of fiction. It’s accepting the fact that both
you and I are human, and that we must crawl before we walk, and that the journey of
a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Corollary: A lot more steps must of necessity follow Number One.
Thus, four boys in Friend Friggenheimer’s town last night stole the chalice from a
church. Caught, they reveal that they’ve been reading up on witchcraft and want to
try to evoke Satan.
Fred reads about the incident in his morning paper. It intrigues him. “Here,” he tells
himself excitedly, “is a story!”
Fred’s wrong. The theft is an incident. With skilled handling and the development
of a point of view and dynamic characters and complications and climax and resolution,
it quite possibly may build into a story. But for now, it remains an incident and