The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers, by Matt Bird

Matt Bird has an MFA from Columbia and has been working as a screenplay writer since then. In this book he tries to capsulize what he learned after Columbia as well as some of the things from Columbia he had to reject once he began his career.

This book is filled with interesting advice using real world examples, both from Bird’s own experiences along with some notable and expensive Hollywood failures from a variety of writers. The focus of the book rarely crosses out of film into novels and stories, but there’s a lot to be said for using the condensed limits of a film script as a guide for working in longer and non-visual forms.

Bird presents ideas on getting attention at the start, setting mood, creating realistic dialogue, taking feedback or notes from other writers (or directors/producers if that’s your focus), rewriting, building tension, and, most importantly for Bird, creating characters the reader/viewer will care about and why that’s different from having a character who’s likeable.

With his focus on film he uses examples from film, most of them familiar, as examples for his ideas. If you are a fan of film this makes the book easy to relate to, there were hardly any movies used with which I wasn’t familiar. If you’re not a great moviegoer you might have more trouble seeing things as Bird does.

I can see this book as being a worthwhile guide and inspiration for someone just starting as a writer. I can also see it helping a writer lost in the deep woods with a story, novel, or screenplay to help them sort out why something didn’t click or why a piece isn’t selling. There are plenty of new angles provided for looking at a work, even a 120 item checklist at the end, to review characters, plot, pacing, dialogue, story arc, and writing a satisfying ending.

As of this writing the book is #25 at Amazon in the Kindle writing skills category and in the top 100 for printed books in that category. As a reader and only sometimes writer I can only hope that this means better writing is on the way from those reading the book. I doubt it, but I can remain hopeful. My feeling is that most writers improve by reading more and better writing from others, but even then a book like this can add a lot of clarity on what makes some writing better than others.