As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, there’s a lot of writing advice out there. Some good, some terrible, a lot of it contradictory. But there isn’t a lot of storytelling advice on offer, which is a beast of an entirely different nature. Into the fray steps Chuck Wendig with his book Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of A Powerful Narrative.
If you read Wendig’s blog Terrible Minds or follow him on Twitter, you have an idea of the tone and approach the book takes. It’s snarky and hilarious and decidedly NSFW but with a juicy inner core of genuinely giving a crap about writing, stories, and his readers. And that last bit certainly comes across in Damn Fine Story. Perhaps what truly sets this book apart from other writing advice books is that Wendig treats his readers like equals. Sure, you may have never written a New York Times bestseller, but if you’re reading this book then you obviously care about good stories written well, and that’s really the only qualification you need to get started. Wendig may judge bad writing, terrible tropes, and flat characters, but he doesn’t judge you the reader who is aspiring to write. Which is why his pulls-no-punches advice somehow feels encouraging despite the underlying message that you will probably fuck up as a writer.
How does he manage this balancing act? First, Wendig uses stories we all know. Pop culture stories like Die Hard and Star Wars that are decidedly not high-brow art but are compelling. Even if you’ve somehow never seen these movies or read the other stories he uses as examples, you know them. They’re so embedded in our culture that we’ve all internalized their beats, their rises and falls and character archetypes. They are stories that hold up a familiar formula and yet still feel original because of characters, nostalgia, or memorable dialog. This is not an MFA class where you dissect modern classic literature and tear your classmates apart trying to show off how discerning you are.
Second, Wendig comes across as genuinely humble and relateable. Despite a robust and pretty damn successful career, Wendig leans less on “hey I wrote canonical Star Wars books!” than on his belief that no one is really an expert on writing, including himself. He points out very early on that not only does he not have all the answers, no one does. Because storytelling is not a science. It’s not a math formula where you plug x character into y function and turn out a blockbuster. Each piece of advice in the book is presented as, “this is what has worked in many stories, try it and see if it works for you.” More importantly, if something doesn’t work for your story, figure out why and then find what does. And when in doubt, remember that you were born to do this. Not because you’re some special snowflake writing prodigy, but because storytelling is human nature.
Bottom Line: This book is like Stephen King’s On Writing but less absolute, less preachy. It’s a pep talk perfect for when you need to be reminded that all stories are slippery, wiggly things, not just yours. Read when you’re planning a new project or just need a kick in the pants from your wise, sarcastic uncle who’d never describe you as the smartest person in the world, but definitely knows you’re not a total fuck up.