Let me tell you about the Golden Quill of
Storytelling. It is a magical, double-ended stylus said to
possess the power to transform an ordinary wannabe writer into
that most godlike of all beings—a master storyteller.
How is this possible? Well, I'm not certain, but according to
legend, one end of the stylus grants the possessor the wisdom to
recognize and create a good story while the other end bestows all the skills needed to
masterfully write a story, once created.
In this world of modern technology, why is such ancient
wisdom so important? Listen to the words of Donald Maas,
successful literary agent. Chapter 13 in his book
The Career Novelist opens as follows:
"It is one of the eternal frustrations of publishing: exquisite stylists
languish on the shelves while popular novelists like Harold
Robbins, Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins, and Robert James Waller
(The Bridges of Madison County) skyrocket to the top of the
He tells why a few paragraphs later, declaring: "What most people want from a novel is not fine writing, but a good
Someone once said that a good story can sell mediocre
writing, but even great writing can't sell a bad story. And, if
that's the case, it seems logical first to learn to create
good stories, then
learn the skills needed to write them well.
Someone else once said that bad writing can be edited into
good, but a bad story will never have the chance to be edited at
Do I believe in the Golden Quill? Well, I must, because I
have spent many years of my life in a quest to find it,
encountering along the way far too many counterfeit quills, mere
pretenders, possessing much glitter, but little power.
Still, I know the Golden Quill exists, because almost daily I read the works
of master storytellers who own and use it. I also
know it exists, because I think I've finally found it. In fact, I
now hold it in my hand and, even as I write, feel myself being
Have I really discovered the Golden Quill? Well, you'll just
have to read on and decide for yourself.
Genesis of a Quest
Years ago I wrote a mystery novel and nervously submitted it
for critique to three friends who were successful novelists and
members of the Southern California Chapter of the Mystery
Writers of America.
A couple of weeks later all three responded from the same
song book, "Chuck, your copy's good. Dialogue is clever, even
amusing. Descriptions are vivid, action exciting, characters
credible, but—well, frankly, Guy, your plot is kinda thin."
"Huh?" I said. "Plot? What are you talking about? I thought—"
"We mean story," they sang. "Yours is kinda weak. Get a better story and
you'll do fine."
Smarting, I replied, "Oh, yeah, sure. Thanks. Uh, I really
appreciate your help."
I stumbled away, scratching my head. What the blazes were
they talking about anyhow? Story? Better check this out.
Optimistically I went to the dictionary to look up the word
story. Among other
unsatisfying definitions I found the following: "Story—the
plot or succession of incidents of a novel, poem, drama, etc."
The dictionary rubbed salt into my wounds by giving an example
of using the word story
in a sentence. It said:
The characterizations were good, but the story was weak."
Obviously this was going to be harder than I thought. Still,
somewhere there had to be a clear set of specifications or at
least a simple recipe for a
good story! All I had to do was find it and when I did I'd have it
made. After all, I was already a pretty decent writer (my
friends had said so), and I had enough self-confidence to
believe, within reason that, if I could define a thing, I could
do that thing.
Thus began my quest for the
Golden Quill of
"Eureka!" I cried one dark night some years later.
I was reading a book on the art of composition copyrighted in
1934 (the twentieth such I had read during my search). The
passage that had flipped my switches said something like:
a story is a narrative in
which events are recounted in some sort of temporal sequence.
(Not so special. Kind of like the dictionary definition, in
fact.) But then came
the eye opener. Two sentences later it said:
the basic principle of all good storytelling is suspense.
"The basic principle!" I
Of course! Now I've got it. A story is just telling what
happened, but a good
story keeps 'em in suspense! Yeah!"
Excited beyond measure, believing I at last had found the
Golden Quill, I grabbed a dictionary and looked up the word
suspense. What I found
was: Suspense is a
condition or state of uncertainty or excitement induced by being
forced to await a decision or an outcome, usually accompanied by
a degree of apprehension or anxiety.
"Hee, hee!" I laughed fiendishly. Now all I had to do was
learn all the tricks for
creating suspense and I could become a truly diabolical,
master storyteller. Look out publishing world! Here I come!
Pretender to the Quill
It really was a dark and rainy night, unusual for Southern
California. Another of my professional author friends had just
looked up from reading the first 150 pages of my latest novel.
The book was a scifi thriller in which I had used every trick
for creating suspense I had discovered during more than a year
of research. I held my breath as my friend took a sip of chablis
and blinked at me.
"Well, don't just sit there!" I growled. "What do you think?"
"Well, ah—" Another sip of wine. "Ah, interesting, Chuck.
Remarkable, actually. It's a real page-turner, but—"
"Well, uh, what's it about, Chuck?"
"I mean, there seems to be something
missing. This is great
copy and you really grabbed me and kept me reading, but I still
don't know what it's about. What's the story?"
"Are you crazy?" I shouted. "How can it be a page-turner and you don't know
what it's about? That's—well, that's
crazy! What about all the
suspense I put in it? Huh? What about that?"
"Yeah, well, it's got suspense, all right. No question about
it. But it doesn't seem to have any focus. Couldn't figure out
what it's about."
I glared at him, struck dumb. Shrugging, my friend calmly
rose, placed the manuscript on his chair and gulped the last of
his wine. As I followed him to the front door, he muttered in an
embarrassed tone, "Chuck, I'm sure you've heard the old saying
no one ever waits in suspense for the suspense to begin?"
"Yeah, so what? I got lots of suspense here. Said so
"Well, just suspense isn't enough, either, Bud. My
suggestion? Get yourself a story. Then you'll do fine."
Devastated, I watched him climb in his car and pull away.
Bitterly I realized I hadn't found the Golden Quill after all,
merely a pretender. With a resigned shrug, I turned back inside
to begin the quest all over again.
Note from Hampton Bush: The preceding is from an Opening chapter in
Quest for the Golden Quill of Storytelling. And yes, I did
finally find that Golden Quill. You can read all about it when
the book is finally published in January.
Writing and researching about writing is great fun, so. . .
Go write something!