Welcome to How Great Books Work! I started this newsletter because I want to figure out what classic novels, poems, and plays can teach us about writing.
My name is Bill Gonch, and I’m a writer, a literature teacher, and a writing coach. But for years, I’ve struggled with writing.
Writing well isn’t easy, but learning to write is harder than it needs to be. I think there’s a better way.
If you want to write, you need to learn two quite different things: how language works, and how stories work. A lot of books, writing groups, and tools will teach you how to write. You can get an MFA in creative writing (I did, and learned a ton), you can study sentences carefully, and you can learn to trust your instinct for language.
But often, people who can write prose that is clear, fun, and alive, struggle to answer the simplest questions about any story: what happens? How do you make your story live?
Story Structure Today: What Film Can Teach Writers
Here, writers for film and TV have a language that writers for print (or for the internet) can use. Screenwriters talk about story structure like carpenters talk about wood. They study plot points, A-, B-, and C-stories, reversals, and other key elements that go into making a story—especially the kind of story that fits into a 120-minute film or an hourlong TV episode. That’s why you can find smart, thoughtful analyses of Indiana Jones, Alien, or the pilot of Breaking Bad on podcasts and YouTube channels.
Screenwriters have written some great books on story, but most of them teach you how to write the kinds of stories that make a good movie. A protagonist will begin with a problem and a flaw; she’ll be pushed, harder and harder, until she digs down, overcomes her flaw, and solves her problem. In the structure of their stories, Luke Skywalker has a lot in common with Elle Woods.
Learning Story from the Great Books
What about all the novels that are not set up like movies? A novel can delve into a character’s consciousness, like Henry James or Virginia Woolf does. It can render a story in dialect, like Huckleberry Finn or Beloved. It can modulate an entire story based on who tells it—James Joyce does this, but so does The Lord of the Rings. Writers deserve a vocabulary for stories with all the technical awareness of screenwriting, but written for people writing novels, stories, or memoirs.
That’s what How Great Books Work is for. Every week, we will unpack an element of a great work of fiction, approaching it as a writer would. Our first series will be on Pride and Prejudice – starting with a post on why Jane Austen’s characters are always doing things. I also have a series on how to begin a story, with articles on openings by Charles Dickens and Frederick Douglass. There’s lot’s more to come.
I’m writing about the great books, but whatever you like to read, or whatever you write, there’ll be something for you. Today, there’s less difference than ever between good genre writers and good writers of literary fiction. The Library of America has published mystery novels and science fiction; Umberto Eco wrote mysteries and David Mitchell writes fantasy. Essayists and historians use techniques pioneered by the great novelists. Personally, I’m a lifelong fantasy reader and fan; maybe you are working on a memoir, a thriller, or a work of creative nonfiction. If you have a creative project, I want to help you make it as fresh, original, and exciting as you can. I hope this newsletter will help.
And if you’re not a writer? If you love books, or if you’ve ever wanted to learn more about literature, I hope you’ll find that reading HGBW gives you some new ideas about old books…and I hope you’ll have fun reading it, too!
If you have thoughts, questions, or suggestions, please email me at [email protected]. I look forward to chatting with you – and please, forward this newsletter to your friends!