‘the shape of what is to come’

As I said in my previous post, I have launched into self-assigned curriculum of reading books on writing, beginning with Strunk & White’s classic work, The Elements of Style. The venture is already paying dividends.

I’m about 25 pages in, 25 pages packed with fairly compact instruction on usage, so far, with more coming on composition and style. I have found already, though, something I want to share from my reading and briefly commend to all.

This is a quote from the beginning of the section on “Elementary Principles of Composition.” What follows is the principle, the quote, and my thoughts upon it.

Principle: Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

“The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape” (15).

And again…

“The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success” (15).

My two cents: Structure matters. A lot. I know some view writing as a “create as you go” enterprise, but I think really good stories rarely emerge that way. I don’t mean you can’t sell lots of books and be a “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of writer, I mean that carefully crafted works of art are usually just that – carefully crafted. And craft includes thinking about it carefully before you even begin.

A thought for the writers out there, for what it is worth.

11 thoughts on “‘the shape of what is to come’

  • Well, I know, that I for one, am very, very guilty of the “fly by the seat of the pants” writing. I do that all the time.

    But, hey, there’s some encouragement for the “follow the trail and see where it leads” authors.

    O.K., I was unable to find it, but somewhere J.R.R. Tolkien says (in paraphrase) “I had no idea who Strider was at the Prancing Pony, nor where the hobbits would go after Rivendell, nor even what the mysterious “riders” were that were hunting the hobbits.

    On the other hand, “Many books require no thought from those who read them, and for a very simple reason; they made no such demand upon those who wrote them.”
    Charles Caleb Colton, Lacon, 1820

    And finally, there’s how I feel when I write sometimes:
    “Writing is simple. First you have to make sure you have plenty of paper… sharp pencils… typewriter ribbon. Then put your belly up to the desk… roll a sheet of paper into the typewriter… and stare at it until beads of blood appear on your forehead.”
    Jeff MacNelly

  • Joraiem – My friend Rob helped me set up this site, so I’m sorry, I won’t be much help with technical details.

    Evan – Thanks for the quotes and reflections. There are always exceptions to rules, and genius – like Tolkien’s – certainly helps. For most of us, some thoughtful planning goes a long way!

  • I often find myself agonizing over structure to the point that I don’t get anything written. But I think different people write differently. For some writers it seems like their thoughts flow out with excellent structure naturally.

  • I read “In the Hall of the Dragon King” a long time ago, and I don’t remember any specifics about it. In general, though, I have enjoyed Lawhead.

    I’m a fan of Card, and I did see a book of his on writing recently. I’m still busy with my stack, but perhaps I’ll add his to a new stack when I’m done with this one. 🙂

  • In the Hall of the Dragon King is a great book–though I believe Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle and the other trilogies surpassed it.


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