Foster-Harris: a 1950’s-era writing instructor

Foster-Harris (no first name given) was a professor of journalism at the University of Oklahoma.  He ran the creative writing lab there, which Writer’s Digest praised highly.  He intends his writing system for authors selling both to the “slick” magazines and the pulps, but he’s a bit disparaging of literary fiction, and the advice he gives makes me cringe.  The back flap says he “has been rated by his editors as one of the ten leading American writers for pulp magazines.”

Basically, the stuff he’s talking about his students writing is what I myself find cringeworthy.  But, it is cringeworthy in a way that is recognizably very often published.  For example:

Angrily he whirled.  The dark figure behind him had not moved, had not made a sound.  But now the sullen lids were wide open and the dull eyes had a chill, basilisk stare to them, like the eyes of a great snake.  Something incredibly evil in that silent stare, something smirking, something filled with cold, nameless horrors.  A thin chill seeping through him, Don grinned back with his lips only, and swung toward the door  (Formulas, 50-51).

Well, really the man is writing about plot.  So perhaps his advice on story structure is better?  Judge for yourself, from his advice on writing a story for a woman’s magazine:

For example … you might write one about (1) a nice young doctor (2) engaged to a lovely youngster whose (3) very rich Aunt May doesn’t like him one bit.  Aunt May wants the girl to marry another man.  Very well, (4) Aunt May gives a very fluff week-end party at her country home for the girl, and for the young doctor, too, of course.  But (6) the young medico hasn’t the proper clothes for such a society event and can’t buy them unless he foregoes buying some surgical instruments he needs.

What happens?  You know at once he does not spend the money on white tie and tails, even though he has a quarrel with the girl about the matter and she announces defiantly that she is going anyway–alone.  And the bitter rival, Aunt May’s candidate, will be there, too, won’t he?  But our young M.D. buys the instruments and has his Black Moment.  Then Aunt May’s young hellion of a son, left to run wild during the party, strays off and breaks his neck.  Because our young doctor is the only medical man available, he saves the boy, but only because he has the new instrument.  Aunt May and the heroine fall upon his neck, loudly announcing that they realize how wrong they were.  Why, he’s a wonderful man to have handy, and preferably with the proper surgical tools, rather than the requisite tails! (Formulas, 103)

No, I don’t know what happened to #5, either.

Honestly, I’m not sure we can say that modern romantic comedies are much better.  The heroines range from spunky to bitchy, yet (always) vulnerable.  To be fair, usually comedic outcomes are coincidental, while tragic outcomes are inevitable.  But, as a friend of mine says, “Oh, come on!”

I think a study of pulp writing strategies can be valuable because the quality of the writing is so bad.  In other words, pulp stories succeed despite being poor-quality.  Therefore, whatever they’re doing correctly is important enough to over-ride their overall awfulness.

Modern production quality is higher, because with the advent of computer animation and tele-communications, there’s less market for fiction, and the pulp magazines have vanished.  And we’re generally a much richer society than we were in the 50’s, which means we can funnel more resources to art.

Pulp is funny to us because of the culture shock, I think, and because it’s so obvious in a way that lays bare the unspoken message.  I think these unspoken messages have to go unspoken, because, “Social convention X is a fundamental law of human nature” is embarrassing when you come right out and say it.

Also, if you look at news coverage, it seems there has been a trend over the past century or so toward less emotive news.  You see it in movies and TV, too.  We consider shows from the 1950’s to be incredibly naive.  Audiences want their emotions to be manipulated, but they keep catching on to the old strategies.  So modern audiences are more sophisticated, and jaded, than fifty years ago.

I want to study pulp, as it is taught by Foster-Harris, because it exposes those strategies very clearly.  Many of his techniques will need to be adapted to a modern audience’s tastes.  I leave that to you.

Foster-Harris tends to rave:  he’s a bit of a lunatic, and this seems intertwined with the kind of fiction, which is fundamentally propagandistic, that he teaches his students to write.  He doesn’t see the difference between teaching writing method and teaching what to write.  He probably wouldn’t acknowledge that there is a difference.  So he goes off on these tangents:

An effete, effeminate group, top-heavy with undigested, objective culture, may, and indeed probably does, form a large percentage of your reader audience for such [literary] tales, whereas only a scant minority of fine minds will be able to appreciate your perfect balancing feat.  One too-strenuous effort to cater to this parasite group, one misstep, and down you go into fictional perversion, all of your fictional purpose and pattern reversed, the devil quoting Scripture for his own ends.

Against the sewage flood of obscenity masquerading as fiction, stories, so called, appealing brazenly to sexual perverts, sadists, masochists, and homosexuals, may be matched in full stench and measure the equally perverted “quality” stories which have cursed our times.  And these so-called “quality” tales, it should be remembered, came first, pointing the trend (Formulas, 67-8).

Basically, he’s talking about degenerate art.

He claims a few times to be non-denominational, which tips his hand, as it is a term that pre-supposes adherance to some form of Christianity.  And his writing is shot through with metaphor, sometimes religious, sometimes scientific, but generally inappropriate and confusing.  Sometimes they’re just zingers, for effect:

We can agree to use a more informative sign than “versus,” for one.  We can say “plus,” or “+,” for “a happy-ending” story (do you notice that the plus sign is simply another form of the cross?) and “minus,” or “-,” for the “unhappy-ending” story (Patterns, 32).

Other times they’re kind of funny:

Note, if you will, that the First Commandment is also a rule for writers:  “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”  If that does not establish the primacy of the first person, “me,” of the subjective, and of the Indwelling God who is within us all, and who urges us constantly to creative expression, then I cannot read plain English (Patterns, 26).

But very often, he uses metaphors and analogies to make weirdly bogus metaphysical arguments, which go on for pages and hopelessly confuse the writing advice he’s giving you.  The person who had the book before me was, by his comments, utterly bewildered by the second page, writing things like:  Don’t understand this assertion.  And:  Meaning here eludes me.

Basically, this poor guy didn’t know how tell the chaff from the wheat, and made the mistake of trying to understand nonsense.

Now, having said all thay, I recommend reading these books.  They’re short, they’re (ahem) to the point, and they’re oddly entertaining.  I don’t at all recommend believing what they say or adopting their advice:  but they provide a remarkable and unique way of looking at story, and the author does have real insight into what makes stories go.

I will talk about what Foster-Harris teaches, leaving out his metaphors, his religiosity, and his social commentary, in following posts.  Meantime, these books appear to be out of print, but there are several available online:

Find them used on Amazon.

At the moment, the offers I’m seeing seem high, but I think I’ve seen copies for $2 or $3, and they’re worth that.  I got mine for 50c each.

The books are:

The Basic Formulas of Fiction, 1944, University of Oklahoma Press.

The Basic Patterns of Plot, 1959, University of Oklahoma Press.

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 2:51 pm  Comments (10)  
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  1. Thanks for the interesting post, a small time-trip for me. I met Foster-Harris in 1961, when I was a college freshman with A Restless Urge To Write. His books were discouraging and daunting. In retrospect, I think I learned a lot by bad example. He was so convinced of A, B, and C that I think a lot of people became better writers by investigating not-A, not-B, and not-C.

    I read his _Patterns of Plot_ and _Formulas of Fiction_ in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I think. Not much there for someone who wanted to be the next Hemingway, or even Heinlein. But after a degree and a war I did start publishing fiction, and 43 years later, I’m still making a living at it.

    Joe Haldeman

  2. You can try looking for them on Bookfinder, too.

    His non-writing books are pretty good: I just discovered his The Look of the Old West, though reading this piece makes for an intriguing contrast with the book’s illustrator, the late Evelyn Curro, who might’ve just found Foster-Harris amusing, or perhaps worthy to hit with a cane.

  3. I learned more and more has stayed with me from my classes with Foster-Harris than from any other class I took at Oklahoma University, though it took me years to understand some of the concepts he taught–such as the difference between 2 dimensional writing and 3 dimensional writing.

    I had moderate success writing fiction and drama, but finally I have found my niche–poetry. Foster-Harris’ classes don’t apply? Guess again.

    Carol Lavelle Snow

  4. Between 1962-63 I took three or four writing classes with Foster-Harris while completing my English literature degree (1964). The insights about writing he revealed in his lectures were invaluable. He provided me signposts and guidelines on how to make fiction narrative come alive and keep it moving.

    Everything I learned came in the form of lectures and, always, dialogs and Q & A at the end of each class. He never resorted to bombast in class. He didn’t use any material from his books on writing nor did I ever read anything from them. Foster, as we called him, was extremely personable and charmed all his students, especially the majority of whom were females. They were there to learn to write for women’s magazines, “true romance” pulp magazines, etc. Several female students were already successfully publishing and wanted to become better writers. In many of his classes I was the only male.

    Some of my English professors learned that I was taking his courses and expressed serious reservations about their value. I held all my literature professors in extremely high regard for the outstanding understanding of their specialities they taught me. But, I never took sides in the great opinion gulf about writing that yawned between the English and Journalism departments. To me, that gulf was a “yawn.”

    Foster-Harris was a relentless debunker of the self-appointed legions of western lore “experts” so common in the Southwest where I grew up. My Boy Scout buddies and I had to listen to numerous Scout leaders who would never shut off their egos nor shut up. Could never understand how they could talk so much about something they knew nothing about. Foster knew it all and had extensively researched Western lore “truths” and myths.

    After my 40-year career as a college library director I have begun my long-delayed interest to write fiction. My first effort is halfway completed. Many of Foster-Harris’s pointers come back to me when I sit down to write.

    John W. Zwick

  5. I wish I knew more about Foster-Harris. He was kind of a shirtsleeve relative; his sister Dorothy was a close friend of the family in my mother’s generation (in Oklahoma City) and was married to one of my uncles for awhile.

    We met one time, at his office on the Norman campus, when I was about eighteen. He was gently encouraging, but I have to admit I don’t remember anything specific that he said. Cancer had taken part of his vocal apparatus, and he spoke through a hole in his throat. He smoked a pipe, and it was kind of disconcerting that he could talk and puff at the same time, the smoke coming out of the surgical opening. Distracting to a young kid.

    Until the above comment, I had forgotten his The Look of the Old West, a solid well-written reference for anyone writing in that era, either the real one or the pulp-fiction version.

    Joe Haldeman

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  7. I just had another “Ah-Ha!” experience due to the teaching of Foster-Harris. He taught a principle mentioned tongue-in-cheek in the introduction. He taught us that every viewpoint but first person viewpoint is suspect. He insisted that we either use first person “I” or use one single viewpoint –at a time—using “he” or “she.” He claimed an omniscient viewpoint (in which you look down on your characters as if you are God} is not just bad writing. It is morally wrong.

    I was pondering the story of Noah. Genesis 7:19 “And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered.”

    However, science tells us that though there is proof of a catastrophic local flood in the area where civilization existed at that time, the waters did not cover “all” the high mountains under the heavens. Then it dawned on me. The story was written from Noah’s viewpoint. I’m sure it looked to Noah as if every mountain had been covered and as if the whole world had been flooded.

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  9. […] Source – The Basic Formulas Of Fiction by Foster-Harris […]

  10. First, Snaker Guy, you didn’t do your homework. Foster-Harris’ first name was Bill.

    Second, you didn’t do enough research or ask enough people or read his books well enough to understand Foster’s theory of writing. Writing, he often said, is a highly stylized form of drawing. So, the principles of drawing–use of light, movement, structure, shading, darkness, and so forth–held true in writing. For example, as for movement, he would ask, “What was the Mona Lisa doing as, or just before, or just after the moment of her portrait. Was she hearing a renaissance joke, contemplating renaissance music, hearing the last of the formula for a poison she could use to eliminate Da Vinci? We take control of the story when we supply the movement. For example, “She bit off her grin. The formula was now complete, and she knew it. Taking a deep breath, MonaLise realize she could be free. Tonight. She wanted her freedom before moonrise. She held up her forefinger to stop Da Vinci’s mumblings and patter. She would be free of those early evening. She hurried off, leaving the master opened mouth, before he could erupt with the rage he was famous for. That would stop, too.” See? Movement. He noted that motion pictures used the same principles in editing. The sheriff prepares to draw against Black Bart. Close up: his gun hand twitches a bit, a tiny bit. Another close up: Black Bart sneers. Johnny Law is afraid.

    As for structure, you pose the wrong scenario. NOBODY knew story structure in the days that Foster taught writing at OU. (Go, OU!) How do I know that? At the same time I took Foster’s fiction writing course, I also took the screenwriting course from a former Hollywood TV and screenwriter. We spent an entire semester being entertained with stories about the film industry above- and below-line personalities, Hollywood workings and throat-cuttings, dramatic pauses. Camera movement in the script. A million-and-one things, but absolutely–absolutely–nothing about story structure. Several years after my study as a special student–meaning I was not seeking a degree–at OU, Syd Field came out with his first book on screenwriting–about 1979. I read it, and it was a complete revelation, not only to me, but to the entire screenwriting and novel-writing world. We now not only had an explication of Plato’s three act structure, we could now identify where the plot points, the story mid-point, and the beginning and ending of the acts, were. Mr. Field first began to put together his concept of story structure when a mentor of his said, “Something happens about page 60.” Of course, he was talking about the mid-point. But even the mentor didn’t know exactly what he himself meant. It was up to Mr. Field and his successors to figure all that out. Now, such great novelists as James Scott Bell and even take the structure apart even more. One of Mr. Bell’s books is about structuring (and outlining) one’s novel outline from the middle–what he calls the mirror scene. His book on that way of outlining has opened up vast new ideas and creative adventures for me.

    So, fie, varlet. I shame thee for thine analysis of William Foster-Harris without knowing the context of either his writing–OR his life. He considered himself the last American Rebel. He said that, when he died, he would go to Rebel heaven and tell ole Jeff Davis to nail the door shut: there’d be no more coming. (Excuse the mixing of metaphors. I don’t think the English playwrights knew of Jeff Davis.) And, he did not believe that John Wilkes Booth died in the barn fire. He was of those who believe that Booth survived and died in the early years of the 20th Century in north central Oklahoma.

    To Foster, rebellion had been a good driver behind his own writing. I don’t believe it. I rebel against that notion. I believe his writing theory was the basis for his wide-ranging pulp publication success. That, and good shot of Southern whiskey or two.

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