Write Right: Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative by Chuck Wendig

Damn Fine Story is not a book about writing.

You won’t find tips for writing tighter dialogue, cleaner prose, better transitions. There’s nothing inside its pages about how to make your action scenes sing, improve your descriptions, or increase your word count. It’s not a worldbuilding bible.

It is a book about storytelling.

The art of telling a story.

And, it’s damn fine.

Damn Fine Story focuses on the construction of stories—the understanding of how compelling stories are structured, how they work on a macro and micro level. It examines the way characters pull against one another, and create story out of the tension. It discusses the way an author can affect and determine the wend and weft of their plot, increasing tension, and also letting it breathe when necessary. Damn Fine Story demands the reader recognize that storytelling happens at all levels of its narrative—from the overarching themes and motifs, to the construction of sentences as a means of controlling pace and mood.

One of my favourite passages in Damn Fine Story was simple:

We like to think of a plot as external, but it’s not. Like the skeleton, it is internal—and often invisible. It is controlled by the characters. It does not control them.

I am guilty of falling victim to this easy-to-grok, almost comfortable idea, that, as an author, we control and command everything that happens in our stories. As a heavy outliner, I like to know what’s ahead—but the best moments in my stories are the ones that appear organically when the characters are given freedom. Avoid the straight line, as Wendig reminds writers.

The worst shape of a story is a straight line because the straight line is a flat line, and a flat line means dead.

But, neither are we powerless.

If you wait for inspiration to show up, you’ll never get the work done. Sometimes you just have to start telling the story. The act of writing, of telling the tale, is also the act of laying traps. And it is in these traps that we capture our muses. In other words, we capture them, they don’t capture us.

When I first started seriously writing fiction in my twenties, I often fell victim to the idea that the circumstances need to be right before I could write—that otherwise I would write the wrong words, and the story itself would end up… wrong. Damn Fine Story gives readers the tools and knowledge they need to recognize that not only are they in control of their projects, and that inspiration is something that comes from within, rather than without. This lesson alone was hugely valuable to me, despite having felt like I’d moved on from chasing the muse years ago.

Chuck’s well known for his ability to weave storytelling through his non-fiction on his blog, and that’s on full display here. He walks writers through ever step of the storytelling process not by telling them what to do, but by showing them. You know that old little chestnut (that Chuck blithely debunks in Damn Fine Story): show, don’t tell. Chuck disassembles famous narratives—notably, Star Wars, Die Hard, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer—to illustrate his lessons, but also peppers each lesson with stories from his own life. He opens Damn Fine Story with a story about his father, who he illustrates as straightforward and “thrifty,” and warmly remembers him as somebody who did not read, but was a damn fine storyteller. There’s something wise in the way Wendig tells stories, something he picked up from his father, something that resonates with the time when all stories were told orally and felt like an intimate encounter between the teller and their audience.

And, he’s super fucking crass. Like, he ends the book with a story about Canada geese, a shotgun, and a masturbating elk that somehow turns into a bittersweet, evocative, and powerful statement about storytellers and the stories they leave behind. As valuable as Damn Fine Story‘s straightforward and obvious lessons are, there’s a lot of value in simply examining how Wendig tells the stories scattered throughout the book.

I’ve been a fan of Wendig’s writing advice on his blog, Terrible Minds, for years. I’ve learned a lot from him over the years. Damn Fine Story is an essential handbook for any kind of storyteller—novelist, short story writer, film writer, or a new grandma who’s looking to delight her grandchildren with ribald stories from her youth. Even if you’ve been writing for years, Damn Fine Story will make you interrogate your work in a new way, and shed light on the often mysterious and temperamental act of storytelling. Highly recommended.