Does the book Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain stand up to scrutiny?
I have a shelf full of books on fiction writing and a list of courses completed. One name that comes up again and again as offering sound advice is Dwight Swain. I’m going to test his ideas.
I’m reading The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Do Swain’s ideas match the first chapter of this book? (you can read the first chapter in the Amazon preview).
Swain’s book Techniques of the Selling Writer gives a clear structure for a Scene, which would be outward focussed and action-oriented:
- Goal — what does the POV character want to achieve in the scene?
- Conflict — what obstacles stand in the way of them achieving it?
- Disaster — what stops them them proceeding straight to their goal?
A Scene is followed by a Sequel, which is inward focussed and reflection-oriented. Again there is a clear structure:
- Reaction — what are the characters thoughts and feelings about the scene?
- Dilemma — what options do they have now?
- Decision — what decision launches them into the next scene?
The Goal comes in the first few lines:
My mind has gone blank. I don’t know who Anna is or why I’m calling her name. I don’t even know how I got here.
Goal — find out who Anna is and how I got here
There are then a sequence of Conflicts in quick succession:
‘How did-’ I’m cut short by the sight of my own hands. They’re bony, ugly. A stranger’s hands. I don’t recognise them at all.
Conflict — my body is not mine
Feeling the first touch of panic, I try to recall something else about myself: a family member, my address, age, anything but nothing’s coming. I don’t even have a name. Every memory I had a few seconds ago is gone.
Conflict — I have no memories
My throat tightens, breaths coming loud and fast. The forest is spinning, black spots inking my sight.
Conflict — I panic
Then there is a Disaster that prevents pursuit of the initial Goal
‘Help me!’ a woman screams back.
I spin, seeking the voice, dizzying myself, glimpsing her between distant trees, a woman in a black dress running for her life. Seconds later, I spot her pursuers crashing through the foliage after her.
Disaster — Anna is in danger
With the action coming thick and fast, the Sequel is delayed in the narrative, and we move straight into the next Scene
Goal — save Anna from her pursuers
Again Conflict follows
no matter how hard I run, they’re always a little ahead.
Conflict — I’m tired
Then we have the Disaster as Anna is killed
hear her scream. It floods the forest, sharp with fear, and is cut silent by a gunshot
Disaster — Anna is murdered
Now we get the delayed Sequel that tells us his Reaction, Dilemma and Decision
Thirty seconds. That’s how long I hesitated when I first spotted her and that’s how far away I was when she was murdered. Thirty seconds of indecision, thirty seconds to abandon somebody completely.
A new Scene starts with a new Goal
The sound comes again, footsteps crunching over leaves and branches circling round behind me.
Goal —I must survive
Then we have Conflict
The cracking of twigs moves closer, shallow breaths only a little behind me. My legs falter, the branch dropping from my hands.
I would pray, but I don’t remember the words.
Conflict — my nerve fails me
Then we have the Disaster
Warm breath touches my neck. I smell alcohol and cigarettes, the odour of an unwashed body.
Disaster — the pursuer is right behind him
Here the Scene takes an unexpected twist as he survives as the killer spares him
‘East,’ a man rasps, dropping something heavy into my pocket.
Finally we have a fully fleshed out Sequel, starting with Reaction
My relief is pitiable, my cowardice lamentable. I couldn’t even look my tormentor in the eye. What kind of man am I?
Reaction —feeling I am a coward
the killer’s instructions were clear. I’m to use the compass to head east
Reaction — thinking of the killer’s instructions
Then we have the Dilemma spelt out
For the longest time, I stare at the compass’s quivering needle. There’s not much I’m certain of any more, but I know murderers don’t show mercy. Whatever game he’s playing, I can’t trust his advice and I shouldn’t follow it, but if I don’t…
I search the forest again. Every direction looks the same, trees without end beneath a sky filled with spite.
How lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home?
Dilemma — should he trust the killer’s advice and head East?
And then finally the Decision ends the chapter
Easing myself off the tree, I lay the compass flat in my palm. It yearns for north, so I point myself east, against the wind and cold, against the world itself.
Hope has deserted me.
I’m a man in purgatory, blind to the sins that chased me here.
Decision — I will head East
My analysis suggests that the first chapter of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle follows Scene— Scene — Sequel — Scene — Sequel.
Each Scene consists of a Goal, Conflict and Disaster.
Each Sequel consists of a Reaction, Dilemma and Decision.
I was surprised at how easy it was to identify the elements Swain outlines and how neatly the chapter follows the patterns. Maybe I should be paying more attention in my writing to this structure. Certainly when I have scenes that don’t work, maybe this can help.
Do you agree with my analysis?