One of my favourite books on writing story is Jerry Cleaver’s Immediate Fiction, yet sadly, I rarely hear it recommended to emerging authors.
I first stumbled across it ten years ago at my university bookstore. I’d never heard of Cleaver or his book, but I was instantly intrigued after flipping through its pages.
I bought it, read it, and fell in love with its ideas.
It has guided my writing and teaching practice, and I’m so passionate about its ideas, my kids joke that I want to start a little story cult to spread the word.
But why do I have such a fanatical obsession for this book? For that, we need to go to the beginning.
When I was first learning to write, I spent a lot of time researching story structure. I figured if I could unlock its secrets, I’d finally get past my insecurities and confusion and get my ideas on the page.
I read a lot of the usuals: Robert McKee, Blake Snyder, Syd Field, Aristotle… The list is long. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on how to tell story (there’s even more now).
Yet, despite all this, I never found the answers I was seeking.
I always felt these teachers were trying to reinvent the wheel. Unfamiliar terms, alternative systems, and new story shapes, all of which over-complicated the process.
As well, many of their structures are built on rigid formulas: “In your third act, X must happen at point Y…” This approach seemed like they were reverse engineering successful stories, and making stories feel like cookie cutter shapes of each other.
But what really bothered me was that many of these folks seemed to prey upon the fears and insecurities of writers. Rarely are they helping, but only selling us old, broken ideas in new clothes.
So the day I stumbled onto Jerry Cleaver’s modest little book, his no-nonsense approach truly struck me.
First things first, this book isn’t just for beginners. It’s for all writers.
I’ve been teaching for what has been nearly fifteen years, and I think and talk about story regularly. Yet, even as I prepped for this essay, I was surprised by how much Cleaver still informed and inspired me.
Right away, you get the sense he cares. He strikes an accessible tone and designs his book to be a complete writing course. He isn’t here to sell you stuff but genuinely get you writing, and every step of the journey, he coaches you along.
I believe this is his modus operandi.
He was a writer too, who struggled for a long time. He had taken many lousy writing classes, taught by writers who didn’t know how to teach. It wasn’t until he took a course from another man, Bernard Sabath, that he started making sense of things.
Sabath defined story and technique in such simple terms—so simple Cleaver almost missed it. Once Cleaver used the lessons and found they worked, he helped other struggling writers, because as he states in the book, “there’s no need for anyone to go through what he went through.”
The book is an extension of his work. Each chapter is a lesson in story theory and the creative process. Yet, if you’re not interested in the theory, he tells you where the practical lessons are. Or, if you are feeling overwhelmed, he slows it down and gives you more manageable steps and advice until you feel comfortable.
And as he does this repeatedly, you get the sense he’s not here to make money off you but helping you do the damn work.
Of course, what really blew my mind was the story theory.
As I said, I’d been searching for a long time, trying to understand how story worked. Still, time and time again, people created overly complicated systems and structures that were either too rigid, too formulaic, or filled with logical gaps that were glossed over.
But Immediate Fiction wasn’t like that. Cleaver didn’tover-complicate things, or reinvent terms, or fall into complex theory. He shared a simple formula comprised of only five elements:
STORY = CONFLICT, ACTION, RESOLUTION, EMOTION, SHOWING
That’s it! It seems deceptively simple, right?
Like I said, even Cleaver himself almost missed it, but it is the DNA that makes up story, and once you understand and practice it, your craft increases exponentially.
Of course, there is more meaning and depth behind each element, and he spends several chapters laying out the pieces with explanations and clarifications, making it even more straightforward and clean.
But all of this simplicity comes with a caveat.
Although the story theory is easy, to really understand it we must do the work, and he offers step-by-step writing exercises to take us through the process.
But before we begin, he reminds us:
You will make a mess…You must write badly first….Mistakes lead to discovery…Letting yourself be bad is the best way to become good.
Learning to write can be hard. Hell, writing, in general, can be hard. Half the time, it feels like we’re wandering in the dark with a broken flashlight, trying to find the path.
Cleaver reassures us that doing the work, practicing it over and over and over again, leads to discovery and growth. Yes, we’ll make mistakes, but they can be fixed.
Everything that happens is OK. No matter what problem you have (confusion, worry, self-doubt, panic, emptiness, paralysis), it’s OK.
Because he’s here with us, guiding us along, giving us the most straightforward tools to travel along the path.
When I was prepping for this essay, I went back and reread parts of Immediate Fiction. Since I hadn’t touched the book in years, I knew I had forgotten lots of the details, but I was also surprised how much I seemed to have remembered.
As I learned it and integrated it into my teaching practice, I reshaped the ideas into my own form. This choice wasn’t to add complexity but clarity for myself and my students and build on concepts connected to other disciplines like business, psychology, or theatre.
Yet, when I revisited the book, I was surprised to find many of these ideas already present on the page. I’m confident I hadn’t integrated them unconsciously, but reinforced why this approach to story is so special.
I believe that what Cleaver teaches about story is engrained in our lives rather than built around the artifice of plot. He speaks to something far more universal.
As humans, we all have our WANTS, and OBSTACLES stand in the way of them. This creates CONFLICT, and we take ACTIONS to get around those obstacles. This leads to a RESOLUTION: we either achieve our want or fail. And then we repeat this process over and over again.
At the heart of Cleaver’s story theory is the struggle of being human. And to me, this is the beauty of his book.
Instead of over-complicating the writing process with complex terms and formulas, he simplifies it, stripping it down story to its purest form. Through empathy and kindness, he teaches us to write about the one thing that transcends story in its many forms and genres: the human experience.
And this is why I think Immediate Fiction is one of the best writing books of all time.