Book Review: Fiction
First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld
© 2006, Belea Keeney
Has your manuscript stopped breathing? Are
its characters lifeless? Would CPR help bring your story back to viability
and readability? Then Raymond Obstfeld's Fiction First Aid may be
just what the doctor ordered.
Divided into six large chapters, Obstfeld covers topics such as Plot,
Characterization, Setting, Style, Theme, and The Writer's Life. Each section
within the chapter outlines a specific prose problem (like wallpaper
settings or flat characterization), and offers solutions. Each issue is
couched as a health issue: symptoms, ailment, diagnosis, and treatment. Some
sections even have a physical therapy component, which are writing exercises
to help overcome the specific ailment being "treated."
Chapter on Plot covers problems such as predictable plots, ho-hum suspense,
and flat payoff scenes. Characterization includes coverage on contrived
pivotal action, predictable traits, low stakes, and one-dimensional or
overly evil antagonists. Setting problems, such as under/over description,
clumping, and low-impact settings, are covered in Chapter Three. Style
encompasses bland phrasing, overwriting, emotionally shallow characters, and
gender-inaccurate details, to name a few. Theme issues discussed are
melodrama, lack of or overbearing use of symbols, and the photocopy effect.
The Writer's Life covers common questions, such finding time to write,
outlining, workshops, and revising a manuscript.
example, in the wallpaper settings, Obstfeld distinguishes between bland,
"…lies passively in the background, not actively contributing to the story"
and gaudy, which "screams for attention and distracts the reader from the
story." For the bland problem, he suggests a setting in which the characters
affect the surroundings and vice versa. For the gaudy, Obstfeld's tells
writers to tone down the volume of description and to let characters
interact with each other, in addition to interacting with the setting. A
setting can help set the tone and mood of a story: a quarrel held in a
flower shop has one feel; one set in front of a shark tank has an entirely
Obstfeld's advice feels very hands-on, despite having the challenge of
generic problems that affect many writers. He outlines various tactics to
use, giving specific how-to's on developing a style, oversimplified plots,
rehashed stories, and using symbols to reinforce a story's theme.
Fiction First Aid
is a terrific addition to a writer's library. Just flipping through the
chapters, a writer can find a description of--and solution to--common
fiction writing issues. If you have a specific issue that you've already
identified, you can find a section that will probably help solve the
problem. If you're not exactly sure what the trouble is, Obstfeld's thorough
handling of the variety of symptoms, ailments and treatments for fiction
writing issues, might help.
Fiction First Aid a try. It just may jump-start the heart of your
Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld
Writer's Digest books ISBN: 1-58297-050-5