Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Book Review: Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld

By Belea Keeney
© 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."

The 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.

For 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 different tone.

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.

Give Fiction First Aid a try. It just may jump-start the heart of your fiction writing.

Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld

Writer's Digest books  ISBN: 1-58297-050-5