Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Fiction Writing


It’s rare to read an essay on craft that takes your breath away: Jeremy Zerfoss’s illustrations, however, for Jeff Vandermeer’s essays on fiction technique are pretty stunning.

(I include the one above on the understanding that copyright remains with Jeremy Zerfoss, and that I include it only to encourage you to buy a copy of Wonderbook, from where these images are drawn.)

Vandermeer’s essay, published by Electric Literature, is great fun and full of interesting craft observations. Plus the illustrations are killer.

The first thing I wanted to show you is this image, which is about how you decide what the story is in the first place. Basically, I thought it would be useful to take some very dramatic job that a character has — in this case, a dragon slayer– and demonstrate how it is that the average day of a dragon slayer is no different than the average day of an insurance salesman, in terms of not necessarily being of any interest to a reader.
When you’re first thinking about story and scenes, you have to choose what to dramatize, and what you won’t. A lot of beginning writers will think that the continuum of a day, a week, or whatever else in the life of someone is a story. It’s not necessarily. The first part of this is reminding you that all of these things do not need to be in your story. Maybe some of them are dismissed in a sentence or two.
Then the second dragon timeline says to you, “Here are some of the things that indicate that there’s a story present,” and ratchets it up a notch by also putting the character into a more unusual situation. The dragon’s actually destroyed the dragon hunter’s house at the beginning, and that sets off a chain of events.
There is one lie in this diagram in terms of the difference between a person’s day and a story. It’s a built-in defect of the diagram. The lie is that, yes, you can do a day in the life of a character as a story. However that’s not usually good to tell a beginning writer because a writer has to learn how to apply the right elements that sustain a character through a story in such a way that it’s not just a character going through their normal day. Often, when you get to the intermediate stage, or if you’re a particular kind of writer from the very beginning, you can make that kind of A to B work. So long as you know this is what you’re doing, that you’re not just defaulting to a drawing a particular pattern because you don’t know any other patterns.

Read the whole essay: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Scenes and Stories

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