Everything I learned from George Saunders on storytelling
By - skytext
Such a great summary, thanks for posting it! I’m going to add two other takeaways I’ve cited in few other /r/writing responses recently:
1. The quote from Milan Kundera about Anna Karenina is brilliant: “When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice … what I would like to call the *wisdom of the novel*. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.”
2. Early in the book when he was speaking about writing one of his earliest stories “The Wavemaker Falters”, before he’d realized he’d discovered his true voice, he knew something was different: “In this mode, I found, I had stronger opinions than when I was trying to be Hemingway. If something wasn’t working, I knew what to do about it, immediately and instinctually, in the form of an impulse (“Oh, that might be cool”), whereas before *I’d been rationally deciding*.” That non-rational *oh that might be cool* instinct is so terrifically useful.
Anyhow … Thanks again for posting your summary!
Thanks for sharing
the book is so good.
> A golden rule for Saunders is: Always be escalating. When a story goes nowhere, it’s like going on and on about the dream you had last night. The difference between an anecdote and a narrative is escalation. It effectively says, “Then something happened that changed everything.”
This is why the basic guage of "Yes but/no and" is an important one to grasp through every scene. Following that, things will escalate and the tension will expand.
> Saunders compares storytelling to a motorbike with a sidecar.
Damon Knight had a similar observation in his book "Creating Short Fiction", where he has the writer imagine the reader is at your side "constantly commenting on what they see and asking questions".
Thanks for this. What really stuck with me was his comment that you may not be capable of writing the kind of thing that you most admire -- the kind of thing that you want to write.
It’s kind of a curse: you’re probably not capable of writing the kind of thing you most admire and want to write like, but you may be able to write what someone else admired and will want to write like someday.
Its so important to be able to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and settle on an approach that capitalizes on them.
This is great, I feel like it's advice for the future me, once I'm done slogging through the basics.
You should go ahead and read it when you get the chance, even if you're new, the Russian stories inside this book are incredible primers for writing fiction.
This kind of advice, even with experience, is rarely a flick of a single switch. Start marinating this knowledge.
Thank you so much. I am constantly on the verge of leaving this subreddit because it doesn't seem like it's very useful, then something like this comes along. This hit me at a perfect time.
Thank *you* so much! Glad it was useful.
Excellent summary, and I appreciate all the detail you put here (and saves me from reading 500 pages at this moment that I definitely want to read later). GS is a hero to me as well!
Always be escalating: Like Billy Wilder taught, first you put your character up a tree, then you set the tree on fire, and finally you rescue them.
Thanks for sharing, I've been meaning to summarise these same notes for myself, but I'm only at the Tolstoy story. The book really is a gem. You feel a tremendous amount of care and charity being gifted over by Saunders.
I found this really helpful, thanks!
This list is fantastic, thank you so much for writing it. I especially like this one:
>Saunders compares storytelling to a motorbike with a sidecar. The writer = the driver, the reader = the passenger. The goal is to keep that connection as tight as possible, so whenever the writer turns, the reader follows.
>The reader’s default assumption is that no detail has been included by chance or as decoration. “Every element should be a little poem, freighted with subtle meaning that is in connection with the story's purpose.”
I'd disagree. Sure, it applies when people already know you as a bestseller (and he is reading *world famous russians*), but unless you've got a killer opening, a new reader is gonna assume that weird stylistic stuff in your first few pages/chapters are mistakes and not active choices.
That applies especially often when you try to subtlety in your first few chapters, reader is gonna mark it as a mistake and move on, instead of rereading it later and realizing that it was all good from the beginning.
Lots of agreement on the rest though, solid advice.
Most of the book's insights relate to short stories, not novels, but I still think they're good principles to bear in mind for any type of writing, even non-fiction.
The "reader" in George Saunders head is *not* the reader for most books. He puts approximately a hundred bajillion percent more effort into reading than most people do. My wife doesn't read like that. My mother and father don't read like that. My neighbors don't. My co-workers don't. Some of my old professors do, but even then some don't. They read to be entertained. They read as a fun little vacation. They are not nitpicking, dissecting, noting, or interpreting, and I think a quick glance at the best-seller list demonstrates that pretty clearly.
Saunders reads as a writer. You and I read as writers. We are the minority. There's nothing wrong with either style of reading, but if you're trying to write for a specific audience, it would serve you well to know who that audience is and how it reads.
This comment is not meant as a criticism of any of these suggestions. They're all incredible, and they all make for a better book. But I think Saunders overestimates the quality of readers simply due to the quality of his writing. It would be pretty damn disappointing to produce work of this caliber but to never have readers who rise to meet it, now wouldn't it? Good writing is best appreciated by good readers, and everybody wants to be appreciated... But that's not always realistic. If your goal is to better understand your audience, you probably shouldn't overestimate them. Or underestimate them. Recognize that most - not all, but most - readers are blowing through best-sellers in a week and have not been trained to pick up on word choice or literary devices or obscure references or any of the other things that make *writing* so wonderful but can sometimes bog down the *reading.* Many readers treat books as TV: tune in, turn off, and enjoy the ride. It shouldn't be work.
Maybe I'm wrong. *I would love to be wrong.*
They might not do it consciously, but they do it. They'll tell you the book is really good, or not as good as others by that author/in that series, and they won't have the ideas to pin it down or explain it - but they'll feel it.
I totally get what you're saying and you're absolutely right about Saunders as a high-level re-reader.
To tell you the truth, most of the stories in the book made me feel like a philistine because - on first pass - I did not appreciate them nearly as much as he does.
But I *do* still believe in his principle above that "unconsciously, the reader can tell."
You're correct to say that most people are not nitpicking, dissecting, etc. But the presence is in the polish. He's ultimately saying that the entertainment value stems from the underlying craftwork, whether it's obvious or not.
>To tell you the truth, most of the stories in the book made me feel like a philistine because - on first pass - I did not appreciate them nearly as much as he does.
Hahaha... Yeah, I may or may not have also felt like a complete disappointment as a reader, too, as I read these...
But you and another comment make a good point: maybe they don't recognize these things consciously, but they might unconsciously. These tools may still be effective even if they're not recognized consciously. I could see that. I'm just not sure how to test that. But it's a good point, and it makes me wonder now: do I write exclusively for the conscious mind? Or can I create a story that speaks to the unconscious even without the reader noticing? Is that even a possibility?
Excellent point. I think Saunders himself says you're never in full control of that process.
I think the best writing is writing with layers - that the casual entertainment reader will be gripped by the characters and the plot, and love the book, but that this need not be in conflict with the readers who scrutinize each detail to see how every last bit falls together. Some of my favourite books were incredible the first time, and later, when I returned, I found them to be even more detailed, brilliant, and thoughtful than I remembered.
There's something to be said for the kind of prose that demands study and deserves exploring the many layers. And some of this prose cannot be fully appreciated when read inattentively.
But a lot of great writing can be very rewarding to both the careful readers and the leisure readers.
Do you have any examples of the books you've found more brilliant/layered on second readthroughs? Only The Little Prince comes to mind for me, I'm wondering if this is more common with children's fiction.
It may appear that this is more common for children's fiction because it's easier to reread children's fiction, and easy to fail to fully understand those books as children.
The Golden Compass Series would be one.
Slaughterhouse Five was one that I loved on my first read, and found more layers on my second read. Quite an economy of words in that book as well.
Brave New World is one I've returned to that I found better layered when I read it later in life.
I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett, (and I'd wager other works of his as well).
The Old Man and the Sea is one I keep returning to, and always get a little more out of it.
I think when you read something for the first time and love it but can't explain what makes it so great, you should hold onto that book. It may be that your inability to explain what makes it great is that it's currently beyond your ability to fully appreciate.
An example of a book I intend to return to is Blood Child by Octavia Butler - a number of short stories that I still have a lot to learn from. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series is another one. I'm dying to reread In the First Circle, by Solzhenitsyn, because even though I haven't read it again yet, details of it keep jumping out (and slapping me in the face) in my life.
I think it was the 3rd time I read slaughterhouse five that i fully "got" how it was ultimately about the author's PTSD
Appreciate the answer, thanks for the recommendations :)
Absolutely agreed! Well said.
I was struck by that as well. Very early on in the book, he writes:
>Earlier, we asked if there might exist certain "laws" in fiction. Are there things that our reading mind just responds to? Physical descriptions seem to be one such thing. Who knows why? We like hearing our world described. And we like hearing it described specifically.
I'm sitting there thinking: George, if that's been your experience you've cultivated some high-calibre readers. His readers might respond positively to description, but the average reader these days will often skip passages of description to get to the next bit of action or dialogue.
Ha... I might even consider myself a slightly above-average reader, and I still have a habit of glossing over descriptions unless they're just absolutely spellbinding. Yeah, God bless him, I think he really overestimates his readers, which is flattering - I'm flattered, truly! - but probably not very realistic in general.
This is the quote that makes your case:
> “The reader’s default assumption is that no detail has been included by chance or as decoration”
The general audience absolutely considers some details to be there by chance or for the sake of details. They will even say so directly when trying to “prove” that symbolism/archetypes/arcs in story aren't real, that all writers do is line up cool action scenes/chapters with no underlying spine.
That's exactly the one that stood out to me the most. If I'm lost in a story, I'm living in that world, not on a rail-locked theme park ride. Of course there will be superfluous details. The entire universe is superfluous! And as a writer, when I'm building that world, I will also include details that aren't required, that aren't *necessary* but still help the world feel more realistic, more alive, and more believable. But, then again, I'm no George Saunders.
This seems great.
Thank you for compiling this. This is a gold mine!
Good tips. Thank you!
Thank you for the summary and recommendation. Already got through the intro and into the first story.
Nice! I'd be interested to know what you think...
I have yet to complete reading the book, but I’m having a marvelous time with it. At first I was worried the contents would be too simple or didn’t have space enough to dive deep into the selected short stories. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is exactly the kind of intermediate difficulty book I have been looking for. It doesn’t waste my time explaining every little thing, but instead focuses on examining specific techniques I have heard named in online articles, but never seen given such a detailed examination.
Thank you again for recommending the book.
This was probably the best book I've read on writing. I can't recommend it enough, if you are a writer it will improve your work.
I love George Saunders! I've only read Tenth of December (the whole book, not just the story), and it was amazing. I gave it a friend for her birthday I liked it that much. Thanks for this! I always love reading the thoughts of great writers.
Thank you for sharing this, good points.
This is very helpful, thank you!!
Fantastic advice, and beautifully summarised. Thanks for sharing!
"Your first draft just needs to exist. Revising takes it from ordinary to special. That’s the nature of writing."
THIS. Always this.
This is really great info. Thank you!
I loved the book by Saunders, primarily because I have not read anything like it. The in-depth analysis of each short story is a delight to read. I don't know if it made any changes to my writing (all my fault though), but it definitely made me a better reader. I notice nuances that just went over my head before.
I was wondering if there are any more books (or websites or any other sources really) that analyse individual short stories? I tried searching them online but could not find any.
I don‘t get what he means with the space in-between writer and reader. Can anyone please explain?
He's basically saying you and the reader need to be on the same page. You don’t want your reader three blocks away, unaware that you are leaning in a certain direction. You want her right there with you, i.e. "When I turn left, you *feel* me going left."
If you’re writing a bad story, a lot of intent will fall through the gaps.
To be truly in sync with the reader, you have to imagine where the reader's head "is" at that precise point in the story.
Thanks for sharing this - there's a lot of food for thought here and I'm definitely going to have to come back and read this again.
I'm slightly nervous about "A golden rule for Saunders is: Always be escalating." It seems to me that while this is good advice for some kinds of stories I think it creates two problems.
First, I think it will encourage some into a kind of breathless, never let up, style where changes of pace and tone only go up. Good books often have pauses, reflective moments, and cycles - should we \*always\* be escalating? No.
Second, while this advice feels like it's designed for adventure stories and other 'pacey' genres they certainly are not the only kind of story worth telling.
I've just read Leonard and Hungry Paul (which I highly recommend) which, when it comes down to it, is a book that encourages us to unwind - to find the love and humanity in the everyday. I'm not saying there's no structure to the book but the idea that this beautiful, award, winning book is "always escalating" is very far from the truth.
I suppose I have a concern that some writing advice I see implies that gentler, more philosophical books don't exist and end up pushing new writers into boxes they don't necessarily need to fit into.
Anyway, there's lot to chew over here but wanted to comment on that one specific piece of advice.
Thanks for the insight – and the recommendation!
Sure, I think if you take the "always be escalating" idea literally on a line by line basis, it would be unsustainable and get ridiculous quickly.
But if you use it as a more general principle to remind yourself of constantly, I think it helps keep you on track in terms of making sure there's something at stake, and that you're respecting the reader's time by not making unnecessary digressions.
In general I think you're right. A good rule of thumb is not to waste the readers' time and try not to potter around without purpose.
I think one of the reasons it jumped out at me was that it was a "golden rule" to "always" escalate - so it is advocating quite a hard line version of what could be useful guidance when taken in moderation.
>Readers will endure all kinds of reading states – even when they can’t stand a character – as long as there’s a payoff.
[*RoyalRoad.com*](https://RoyalRoad.com) *wants to know your location.*
Thanks for this!
Though for anyone who is reading this, I would like to point out that the summary, however good it may be, cannot really capture the essence of the book. You must read it and work with it. That is the only way you could really assimilate the writing advice Saunders gives. I am working with it right now.
Absolutely. Not intended or presented as a substitute. Just a taster if you haven't read it, or a refresher if you have.
These highlights are really a note to myself that I'll come back to time and time again.
>The story as a whole should alter the main character forever. It deliberately starts at one point and ends at another in order to frame that transformation. This is why you don’t hear about Romeo’s 10th birthday, Saunders says, or the years where Luke Skywalker doesn’t do much.
This forgets all the numerous books that doesn't have character change as the main focus, like pretty much the whole Mystery and Thriller genres.
>When Saunders edits his work, he pretends he has an internal meter with “Positive” on one side and “Negative” on the other. He goes over each line as if reading it for the first time, seeing if the needle on this imaginary meter tells him if the text is good enough or not.
I find this kind of revision slightly silly. It forgets that sentences are not a world onto their own. Sentences affect other sentences and you have to change them to reflect this. Sometimes a sentence itself cannot be a perfect thing but it does it's job to set up the sentence that is. Also this is why passive voice sometimes exists.
>Cutting text is a great way to revise. Just by deleting something banal, boom: you’ve got one less boring bit – and space for something better. But cutting also helps your voice emerge. This is why first drafts are bad: you don’t sound distinct from everyone else yet.
Except some writers have to add things to get better and make their voice emerge.