Monday, October 26, 2009


As part of my ongoing quest to improve my abilities as a writer, I’ve recently started to delve into Barry Longyear’s excellent book on fiction mechanics – Science Fiction Writer's Workshop -I: An Introduction to Fiction Mechanics.

Over the years I have read a lot of books and articles on the craft of writing and managed to take away at least a little bit of useful advice or practice from each, but few of them have engaged my attention in the same way as Fiction Mechanics.

Mostly, this is down to the non-nonsense approach that Barry Longyear starts and ends with and the insistence, almost from the opening lines, that this book is designed to be used rather than simply read. As a result there are dozens of useful exercises contained within the book, generally pointed towards specific outcomes that all fiction – but in particular science fiction – requires.

Thus there are chapters on story structure, starts, backfill and the constituent parts of a story – all of which contain examples of both how to and how not to do it (one of the things that makes this book so endearing is Mr Longyear’s willingness to share his mistakes as well as his triumphs and the examples include first drafts as well as re-written drafts so that the would-be fictioneer can compare and contrast).

One of the most important things I’ve taken away from it so far is the Obstacle in Fiction. Put quite simply, the Obstacle is anything that stands between a character and his or her goal. These can be both big and small, overarching the story-line or directly linked to a specific outcome or motivation.

Thus, to use a very simple example: if a character is hungry and wants to eat but has no money to buy food, the obstacle is that particular lack of cash. How they go about getting the money provides the narrative and their success or failure provides the outcome.

Alright, so the above example (which is my own rather than culled from the book) would hardly provide the most exciting story in the world but as soon as you start to build upon the notion that obstacles - both great and small, physical and abstract - exist within the narrative and within scenes and sections, the business of creating fiction starts to become a little clearer.

If the hungry character decides to steal a loaf of bread to feed himself, the obstacle then becomes different. It can be a physical one (the ever watchful shopkeeper) or a moral one (is it right to steal, regardless of circumstance). If the character decides to steal the bread and is chased the obstacle becomes different again – how to get away with his skin and lunch intact.

Fiction, like life itself, can be full of these little obstacles and it is by striving against them (and creating more in the process) that the structure of a story can begin to evolve.

Longyear also delivers some sterling advice on opening a story: in particular the all important ‘hook’ and frequently uses diagrams to illustrate his points, showing how aspects of the story can be moved along its narrative line to create a point of entry for both the writer and reader (at its broadest and crudest, this is simply a character facing the muzzles of a firing-squad and then going back to tell the reader how this came to be).

In particular, there is a refreshing lack of literary pretension about Fiction Mechanics. Although this is not to say that it is a crude book, rather that it sets out to do exactly what it says – to help the reader/writer understand the building blocks of genre fiction and to apply them to his/ her own work.

Winner of the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Awards (for his excellent novella Enemy Mine) Barry Longyear’s advice is grounded very firmly in the practicalities of crafting speculative fiction and is a worthy addition to any writer’s bookshelf.


  1. I always appreciate these reminders on craft just to make sure I don't let the story run away with itself. I have to remind myself that things that are clear to me may not be clear to the reader. I'll have to find this

  2. Me too. Sounds like a book worth reading.