Strengthening Your Fiction The Ben Franklin Way

by James Scott Bell

For those who advocate the free-form, no-study school of fiction writing, let me call from the grave an expert witness for the other side, one Benjamin Franklin. No slouch as a writer himself, Franklin was also a lifelong student of the art of living well.

In a letter to Lord Kames, dated May 3, 1760, Franklin wrote:

Most people have naturally some virtues, but none have naturally all the virtues. To acquire those that are wanting, and secure what we acquire, as well as those we have naturally, is the subject of an art. It is as properly an art as painting, navigation, or architecture. If a man would become a painter, navigator, or architect, it is not enough that he is advised to be one, that he is convinced by the arguments of his adviser, that it would be for his advantage to be one, and that he resolves to be one, but he must also be taught the principles of the art, be shewn all the methods of working, and how to acquire the habits of using properly all the instruments; and thus regularly and gradually he arrives, by practice, at some perfection in the art.

In Franklin’s autobiography, he sets out his method of moral improvement. He settled on thirteen virtues he wanted in his life: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility.

Next, Franklin printed up grids with the virtues in the left column, and rows of seven boxes, representing a week. He determined to concentrate on one virtue per week, and leave the other virtues to their “ordinary chance.” In the evening, he would look at the day’s page and assess how he did in the main virtue, while making a mark in those areas where he sensed he needed improvement. Here is what a page on Temperance looked like:

In this fashion, Franklin could go through all thirteen virtues four times a year. Business and sales folk have been using Franklin’s system for decades to improve their own performance. Not via Franklin’s virtues, but by determining their own areas of competence. These are called critical success factors (CSFs).

For fiction writers, I identify seven CSFs: Plot, Structure, Characters, Scenes, Dialogue, Voice and Meaning (Theme).

If you were to set up a self-study program, concentrating on one CSF for seven weeks, in one year you will have covered them all––with three weeks to spare!

Improving just one of the CSFs is going to kick your fiction up a notch. But what if you improved on all seven?

What if your goal was to get 10% better in each? (I know there’s no way to measure that, but you will be able to feel it. So will your readers). If you did that, your writing would improve not just a notch, but exponentially.

If this concept is new to you, let me suggest that you start by regularly investing in craft books.

For plot and structure, modesty prevents me from recommending certain books, like Plot & Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. Collegiality, however, would have me alert you to Story Engineering by TKZ’s own Larry Brooks.

My favorite book on characters is Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress.

The best book on dialogue is How to Write Dazzling Dialogue. Modesty prevents me from naming the author.

Scenes? Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.

Voice? Voice (I’m over the modesty thing).

Meaning or Theme: Writing a Book That Makes a Difference by Philip Gerard.

There are, of course, many other texts you can add to the list. I love books on writing. I still read them. And Writer’s Digest. My philosophy is if I learn just one new thing (or a slightly different take on something I already know) that makes my writing better, it’s worth it.

We also have a stunningly good archive on the craft here at TKZ, too.

And if you feel like making in-depth investment in instruction on all of the above, I can sheepishly recommend the video course Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.  

Now, add to all that some of your favorite novels and authors who do these CSFs well. For example, when I want a refresher on dialogue, I might turn to Elmore Leonard or Robert B. Parker. For an action scene, I can whip out any of the Jonathan Grave thrillers by a fellow named Gilstrap. For voice, give me some Raymond Chandler or Ray Bradbury. Theme? To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye. Scenes that end so you have to turn the page? Early Stephen King.

Make your own list. Read those books again, or for the first time, taking notes on what the author does well. In my bookshelf in the garage (moved there so I could have more room for books in my house) is a big collection of paperbacks I devoured in the early 90s as I was learning the craft. They are filled with my pencil underlines and marginal notes:

Character sympathy!

Read-on prompt.

Mystery dropped in.

You still have pencils, don’t you? Use them!

And don’t forget movies. I use film a lot when I teach because some of the most important CSFs are complementary twixt film and literature.

Want to see a perfectly structured movie? You can’t go wrong with The Fugitive. how about a big theme wrapped up in compelling characters? Casablanca. Dialogue? Double Indemnity. All About Eve. Sunset Boulevard. A lesson in tension? Eye in the Sky (a recent favorite). The whole history of movies awaits you.

Finally, do some writing exercises that incorporate what you’re learning. Write practice scenes, experiment with voice, do several pages of nothing but dialogue.

And yes, right alongside your study, be writing your novels. When you write, write. Be loose. Don’t think too much. Be very careful about the demon perfectionism. Write your first drafts as fast as you comfortably can, leaving the CSFs, as Franklin did with the virtues, to their “ordinary chance.”

Then, when you edit, think about and apply what you’ve learned.

Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Do that, and Ben Franklin, flying his kite somewhere near Alpha Centauri, will look down and smile.

25 thoughts on “Strengthening Your Fiction The Ben Franklin Way

  1. I have read my fair share of craft books (Larry brooks, James Scott Bell, Donald Maass, and others) and I taken in technics a lot and faster then I would have just by reading alone and I do agree that rereading and picking up new craft books along the way can be beneficial too. although I think there is a certain point where repetition sets in and is more of a hindrance than a help.

  2. ‘Strengthening Your Fiction The Ben Franklin Way’

    I expected hookers, whiskey and weeks without bathing

    • Aw, c’mon. No line of prostitutes for Ben. A young man must be restrained from “ruining his Health and Fortune among mercenary Prostitutes.”

      He did like flirting, but he also gets a a bum rap on the whole women thing.

      As for bathing, perhaps an argument can be made that he preferred air to water!

  3. At last, a reliable listing of recommended help books from a reliable teacher. Thanks, Sir.

  4. One thing you haven’t mentioned, that I am an adherent of, is quiet time. I think I would pretty much go all out and use the word “nothing” in stating that nothing unleashes my creativity quite like a walk in the woods. I would go further and say this applies to more than just art in the literal sense of the word. Brain surgery may be more science than art, on balance, but I have no doubt a walk in the woods would make me a better brain surgeon, assuming I had all the scientific skills mastered.

    • Edward, right on. I’ve written many times about my practice of taking one day off a week from my writing. Usually Sunday. Even if my mind is itching to write, I resist it. Not always successfully, mind you, but I have found that it sets me up nicely for Monday … and the rest of the week. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Thanks for the list of books and movies, Jim.

    I was happy to see that I had all the books but two. I’ve been listening to your advice for a long time.

    I have recently started studying successful series, keeping in mind those CSF’s. Reading first for enjoyment, then reading a second time, dissecting scene by scene.

    I’ve also enjoyed watching how you create great posts, taking analogies from other areas and applying them to writing – teaching with parables. Now don’t let that go to your head.

    Thanks for your great teaching!

    • Steve, I know you’re a good student of the craft. Thanks for the good word. As for analogies … I’m already cooking up one based on the greatest baseball player of all time. Stay tuned!

  6. I love Ben. He’s one of my personal heroes. I love this quote of his:

    “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”

  7. Amen, brother, amen. I wonder if Ben got dissent from the govern-by-the-seat-of-your-pants constituents? Appreciate the shout out, as well. The choir sings on!

  8. Wonderful Post.

    I have a number of your craft books, which I wholeheartedly endorse. They’re terrific.

    On dialogue, I feel obliged to submit McKee’s. It is just an extraordinary tome. It’s as definitive as transiency allows. I’ve gone through it a number of times and each I manage to dig up a new pearl of wisdom.

    It’s a masterpiece.

  9. Count me in as another Ben fan. I agree with him that the eagle is not a good national symbol, but old Ben wanted the turkey to represent America. That leaves me with a thousand punchlines, but I will say that though it’s never been official, we have had our share of turkeys and other odd birds.
    I also think reflection and quiet stimulate creativity. In fact, I think I’ll go for a walk now.
    Thanks for another good blog.

    • The great Stan Freberg did a skit about the first Thanksgiving, where a pilgrim accidentally cooks the turkey, which was supposed to be the centerpiece and national bird. He was supposed to cook the eagle.. He gets castigated by the host of the feast, who says everybody was hoping for some roast eagle, but now they have to use the eagle as the centerpiece. And that’s how we got our national symbol.

  10. I’m currently reading Story Engineering, and it covers character, theme, and voice, as well as structure. I’m enjoying it and hating it at the same time. Great information, but I can see a lot of revising in my future …

    I’ve also recently Story Genius by Lisa Cron, which also focuses on character. It’s excellent as well. I think Nancy Kress may be next on my list.

      • Hey Lola – nice to hear you’re diving into my book (Story Engineering), and I hope the ‘hate’ part (I get what you were going for) quickly turns into the simple realization that in the equation – success is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration – that Einstein gave us, the sweat part is actually the fun part. Another saying: there is often simplicity on the other side of complexity,” we just need to get over that hill. I wish you great success! Larry

  11. In Ben Franklin’s autobiography, he wrote that he only had two or three years of formal schooling. He taught himself how to write by reading others’ works and then practicing writing like them. As a young man he lived frugally and used his savings to buy books. And at one point, he had an on-going deal with a book seller to borrow a book from his store, read it overnight, and return it the next morning.

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