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On writing: 3-by-5 file cards and happy endings

Writing for Story, by Jon Franklin. New York: Atheneum. 233 pp. $19.95. Jon Franklin is the kind of writer who wanders into a situation after the police and the beat reporters think they've gotten the facts and the drama just about nailed down. A few months later, these same police and beat reporters see Mr. Franklin's version net him a lordly sum from a magazine, or a major award (he has several, including two Pulitzers at the Baltimore Sun), and these same police and reporters smite their brows saying, ``Why didn't we write that up?''

In this excellent book lies their answer. Here's how to find the story, how to prepare it, develop characters, arrange structure, and take advantage of a host of other tricks and shortcuts that can shorten your time at the Underwood or the Kaypro.

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For example, if you want to be a writer, Franklin tells you to get organized, use 3-by-5 cards, know where the plot points are, and so on. Not very original, you say? That's a major point. The art of writing is still the art of storytelling, and writers waiting for some ethereal inspiration are warned that's not the way it happens.

Franklin specializes in nonfiction, and he includes his Pulitzer winners in the book, together with his notes and structural comment. His message is that writing is rather more a craft than an art. There may be ``gut'' writers who work totally from inspiration, but they are few. And more importantly, ``gut'' writers can't explain what they do. Franklin can, and pretty clearly, too.

For instance, he defines a story as a complication in a character's life that is resolved by something the character does. This basic definition is embellished and supported with theorems and postulates, but it's most useful to the prospective writer because of its simplicity. From the initial mapping to the final polishing, Franklin's advice is to the point.

And there's practical market advice here as well. If you want to get published, he says, try for happy endings. Why? Essentially because people want to believe, and hence read, that problems can be resolved happily. ``Sad endings are tricky, tricky. . . . It takes an experienced writer to make a reader sit still and read on when the story in front of him begins to take on the unmistakable grimness of all-too-familiar reality.''

The best recommendation for this book is its value to experienced writers as well as beginners. First of all, Franklin reminds both categories of the basics, the mechanical aspects of story writing, and distills most of these basics into useful mnemonics, short rules. Secondly, he reminds experienced writers that their professional misery and indirection are not unique; everyone who tries to write seems to go through the same breakdowns. And, believe me, when your story breaks down, you welcome a good mechanic.

When you get to the end of the chapters on resolution, action, plot points, characters, structure, and polish, you might ask if that's all there is. And Franklin is ahead of you. Of course, that isn't all, but from then on a writer is on his own. But again, so you don't feel alone, in the last chapter he goes through his experience of trying to write -- the plodding, the slipping feeling that you're losing it, the despair, and so on, and finally the inspiration to go on.

It's an inspiring chapter, and at least you leave persuaded that Franklin has gone through the wringer and got his Pulitzers the old-fashioned way. He earned them.

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