5 of My Favorite Books on Writing [So Far]

I’ve read enough books about writing to make it a challenge to pick a top five, but not so many that I would dare consider this list definitive. I know there are many great books on the subject that I’ve missed or are yet to come. I’m always interested in hearing about the picks of others, so feel free to comment.



5.) Writing Fiction from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop: This book is one-stop shopping for the fiction writer. Besides offering lessons on writing, it presents exercises to help one get down to the nitty-gritty. It explores character development, plotting, pacing, dialogue, revising — i.e. the whole ball of wax. While the book offers the advice of many and varied experts, it uses a Raymond Carver story [which is included as an appendix] as a connective tissue across the various chapters.

 

4.) Wired for Story by Lisa Cron: Cron explores what it is about stories that appeal to the human brain, and how to take advantage of such knowledge in crafting effective stories.

 

3.) Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon: I bought the audio course from The Great Courses that this book is based upon and listened to it many times over. Landon’s approach to sentence crafting resonated with me, and while it might seem overly technical as one is perusing the Table of Contents, the author’s use of examples and his manner of explanation is clear and informative.

 

2.) The Anatomy of Story by John Truby: Like the GWW book above, this is a guide to crafting stories. However, while Writing Fiction gets into a lot of concrete details, Truby keeps a systematic emphasis on taking a flawed character through a course of events and decisions that will result in the character coming out of the story changed. Writing Fiction presents a greater diversity of views about what is important, but The Anatomy of Story offers a more cohesive approach to building one’s story.

 

1.) Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury: Ray Bradbury was, in my opinion, one of the best when it came to combining story-crafting and creative use of language. One gets a lot of the latter in this book. It’s not a guide in the sense that most of the books above are. It’s inspiration — explicitly, and by example.

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Woods by John Yorke

Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into StoryInto the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a book about story and story structure. While Yorke pokes fun at writers who have exacting structural formulae, one need not get past the subtitle to realize he’s advocating a form of structure himself: the five-act structure. And not just any old five-act structure, but Yorke proposes that there be symmetry around a third-act midpoint, and that the approach to story be fractal (to be elaborated upon below.)

The book is divided into five “acts,” or parts, but the theme of each part isn’t related to the role of that particular act in a story or play. The first act consists of five chapters that explain what makes a story. Yorke describes the three-act structure as well as five-act structure, and then explains how these forms are connected — i.e. how five acts can be overlaid, or mapped to, the three-act structure. One chapter, Chapter 4, is devoted to the crucial topic of change. After all, in a story we have a character who wants something and is put through the wringer as he / she attempts to get it, and the moral and / or psychological change that they experience as a result is a major determinant of how satisfying the story feels.

“Act II” explores the components of story – acts and scenes – and how they are arranged into a story. The first of the five chapters describes fractal structure. For those who don’t deal in mathematical concepts on a regular basis, a fractal is a shape that — if one zooms in — one finds smaller and smaller copies of the original shape. This applies to story telling in that one wants acts and scenes to follow a progression that echoes the overall story. That is, a character (at the scene level it may or may not be your hero) wants something, confronts opposition, and this clash either results in more conflict or a resolution. There’s a chapter devoted to the “inciting incident,” which is sometimes called the “first doorway,” and is an event that forces the hero to make a key decision that will put him or on the road of story.

The third “act” consists of only one chapter, Chapter 11, that is entitled “Showing and Telling.” This obviously references one of the most oft-recited (and trite) pieces of writing advice: “show, don’t tell!” As most writers soon discover, this advice is a great rule of thumb but a poor law. Hence, the need to discuss what would otherwise be a simple idea over the course of an entire chapter.

The penultimate “act” is about character, characterization, dialogue, and background. Like most books on story, the emphasis on making memorable characters is more about determining their wants, needs, and weaknesses, rather than being about figuring out how one will dress them or what accent one will assign them. Not that studying the latter isn’t worthwhile, but it’s a common error to produce a muddled character because one hasn’t given enough thought to who they are at the most fundamental level.

Chapters 15 through 17, address the subjects that are probably most responsible for poor story writing: dialogue, exposition, and subtext. The central challenge is to tell the reader just the right amount, neither letting the story get bogged down in needless information, nor leaving the reader thinking the story unbelievable because they don’t have the requisite background to understand what motivates characters. From “as you know, Bob” dialogue to Bond-villain monologuing, there are many ways to ruin a good premise by botching these story elements.

The final “act” deals mostly with the challenge of writing series. Series writing presents a huge challenge unto itself. We are all familiar with examples — such as the television show “Lost” — that started out with great promise and devolved into a pile of rubble by the end. The first three of the five chapters in the final part discuss television and series writing challenges in detail. The last couple chapters close out the book.

The book has seven appendices. Five of these are examinations of the structures of stories known for being exemplary: “Raiders of the Lost Arc,” “Hamlet,” “Being John Malkovich,” “My Zinc Bed,” and “The Godfather.” [“Being John Malkovich” may be included because Charlie Kaufman was known for strongly rejecting “formulaic” approaches to story structure, but Yorke wanted to show that structure happens organically even if it might not be purposely pursued.] The sixth appendix considers first and last act parallels. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Yorke proposes that there is a symmetry around the midpoint that occurs in the third-act of a five-act story. The final appendix is a handy table that shows how the structures taught by masters of screenwriting (e.g. John Truby, Robert McKee, as well as Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” [which is referenced throughout Yorke’s book]) map to five-act structure.

I found this book interesting and informative. Like other great books on story, there is extensive use of well-known stories [particularly cinematic, e.g. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” “Casablanca,” etc.] to help clarify the author’s points. I would recommend this book for those is interested in story, and how stories are structured to be best received by an audience. The space the book occupies is bit different from Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” [which I reviewed recently.] While Truby’s book is the kind one would sit down with as a reference after reading it in order to help one build one’s story structure and scene weave, Yorke’s book is less of a hands-on guide and more of a light read to improve one’s ideas about story more generally.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master StorytellerThe Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Whether a story works or not is often clear to small children and demented lunatics. Why a story does or doesn’t work requires a level of technical understanding not much less complex than that required to know why an internal combustion engine is or isn’t working. Why? Story structure rests invisibly below the surface (except to the writer and those who mine for it, and sometimes even to them,) and structure is where the story wins or fails.

John Truby’s book systematically explores what components are necessary to have an appealing story, and how those components are best arranged. It’s written for writers, allowing one to systematically proceed through the chapters in order to build a detailed outline of one’s story, but it could be beneficial for those who want to understand story in contexts other than writing (e.g. business uses, film-making, etc.)

As the subtitle mentions, Truby’s model of story revolves around a 22-step framework. It should be noted that this division is neither the only one imaginable, nor the only one that works. There are numerous great books on story available, and most have their own unique ways of organizing the details. While some authors focus heavily on screenplay versus the novel versus other story forms, Truby keeps his approach generalizable. Like others, he uses examples from both film and classic novels. Having said that Truby’s way isn’t the only way, it is a way that works, and it’s among the most popular works on story building.

While would-be writers may seek out books that focus on “concrete” issues, i.e. building character details, describing setting, plotting actions, etc., this book keeps eyes on the conceptual details that make or break a story. That is, the story consists of a flawed character with a need who experiences a chain of events or trials that results in him or her having a revelation and coming away changed. This is not to suggest that Truby doesn’t investigate issues like character development and creation of setting (there is a chapter each for those issues,) but he does so always with an eye to how one takes that character from a psychological and moral need through to a revelation, coming away somehow changed. I don’t want to make the book sound boring because it focuses on concepts like moral need, theme, and symbolism. Such concepts are what good stories are built upon. If one wonders why even movies with blockbuster budgets sometimes fail, it’s often because they lack such a conceptual framework.

The book consists of eleven chapters. The first sets up the idea of story and how stories work. The second chapter is about the premise of the story, the one-line idea that shapes the happenings of the story. Chapter three describes seven key steps of story, the seven are added to / expounded upon to develop the aforementioned 22 steps. The seven steps are: 1.) weakness & need, 2.) desire, 3.) opponent, 4.) plan, 5.) battle, 6.) self-revelation, 7.) new equilibrium.

The fourth chapter is about characters. However, it’s more about arranging characters in webs of interaction and considering them as archetypes in order to advance the story, rather than the usual types of advice on making unique characters. Chapter five is about the moral argument being made by the story. The hero’s path from need to revelation will reflect some sort of moral lesson. The sixth chapter is about story world, which other books might call “setting.” Again, the approach remains focused on advancing the story, and not on picking a time and place that seems neat or interesting for their own sake.

Chapter seven delves into territory that one doesn’t see in every book of writing advice, and that’s symbolism. The chapter describes building a symbol web that – like the story world – advances the feeling one is trying to create in the story. Chapter eight is about plot, and it fleshes out the seven key steps mentioned above to offer the full 22-step model. Chapters nine and ten discuss scene, the individual events happening in a story at a given time and place. The first deals with what Truby calls “scene weave” or how scenes are organized to create optimal tension. The penultimate chapter is about how individual scenes are constructed to advance the story. Chapter ten also explains how dialogue is most effectively written. The final chapter is a brief conclusion that explains how stories with good structure maintain relevance.

The book uses text-boxes, graphics, and notes as necessary.

I found this book to be tremendously useful. Truby spends a lot of time using well-known examples from film and literature to explore how the masters put together stories, and that benefits the reader greatly. 22 steps sounds like an unduly complex approach, but it works, especially as the focus remains so tightly on the hero’s arc. I’d highly recommend this book for writers, and anyone else who needs to understand story at a detailed level.

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POEM: Desert Story



Play it out, like a six-gun Western.
Let the sun hang in the mid-day sky.
Have him search for a cool-water cistern.
Croaking and choking that “the end is nigh.”

Hand him a glimpse of clear, clean water,
but let the mirage vanish into sand.
Trotting up to it as lamb to slaughter,
let him know he’s surely been damned.

Then he’ll succumb to a parched stupor.
The light fades from that cowboy’s eyes.
No spur-jangle of a nearing trooper,
but dark clouds off in the western skies.

A good story would see him wake with droplets on his cheeks.
But this ain’t that kind of story, the desert plays for keeps.

POEM: A Khasi Myth: or, Rodent, Lightening, and Sword

In a sacred forest

a Rodent roamed

who owned a sword

it freely loaned.

This was no hacking

machete blade,

but made of metal

of unmatched grade.

One day Lightening

made a request:

To borrow the blade

believed the best.

Lightening zigged,

sliced, and zagged.

Claiming ownership

 in its boastful brags.

The rightful owner

requested its return.

But the rodent’s

plea met only spurn.

So the critter devised

a clever, sensible plan

in order to bridge

the requisite span.

It needed to climb

from Earth to the sky

because it had no

wings with which to fly.

But it wasn’t just wings

which Rodent lacked.

It had only one item

 to be skyward stacked.

So it piled its poop

as high as it could,

from the base of a tree

past the top of the woods.

Stacking and piling, the

poop nearly touched cloud.

When a thunder crack

struck ear-splitting loud.

Lightening saw rodent

would reclaim the sword

that Lightening had come

to so ardently adore.

Down fell the Rodent

to a pile of fried dung

that had once been its

steps and its ladder rungs.

 You may think that

Lightening got its way.

But the Rodent piles

its poop to this very day.

Someday when Lightening

is momentarily distracted,

Rodent’s sword will be

surreptitiously extracted.

POEM: Trans-Temporal Vase–Possibly a Vaaz of Ming Origin

img_1075

 

Mama said, “Don’t touch that!

“That’s a Ming vase.”

[pronouncing it “vaaz”]

It probably wasn’t.

Mama calls things pricier things—e.g. Timex = Rolex.

Her gist is she can’t afford a broken one.

I’ll admit I’m no stranger to breaking stuff,

and not just flimsy stuff– cast iron, granite, you name it.

You could say breaking things is my superpower.

Anyhow, the vase is Chinese and looks old.

But my hand was already on it.

You’d think it would be cool and smooth.

But, it was tingly and, well, not solid.

My fingers seemed to sink into it–

like a hologram or a ghost.

So I nudged it a bit.

Turns out it was solid; it tipped.

I moved to catch it,

but it just hung there, tilted on air.

Well, I had to know how long it would stay tipped.

I stared, wondering if mama would snap a pic with her camera.

As I had this thought, the vase tumbled off its stand.

I grabbed for it, touching it with my fingertips

just as its lip—it was upside-down—crashed into the floor.

***

Time oozed; cracks spread through the vase and the world.

It shattered in slow motion.

A crackly light—blue and white—crinkled through the room.

Silence.

No breaking noise, nor the expected holler from mama.

Just white and blue arcs of light, becoming blinding.

***

Then I was squatting and reaching in another room.

I toppled face-first onto brown floor boards.

The vase was upright, whole, and sitting by the wall,

seeming like a person watching me fall in quite amusement.

The vase’s glistening white and blue stood out in the dark brown room.

Dust or tarps covered everything else.

It was a storehouse packed with fancy junk.

It couldn’t be confused with the temple I’d been touring with my mom.

That was bright and neat, red and gold, and had ornamental dragons.

The door flew open.

I gasped, expecting a whooping, or at least a stern talking to.

I crab-walk scurried when I saw the man who charged in.

He wore an armor that looked like rows of little roof tiles.

And he had a straight sword stuck into his belt.

I feared he’d draw the sword and poke me in my tender bits,

but he didn’t seem to see me—hard to miss as I was.

Calmed by my invisibility, my attention went to soldier’s hand.

In it I spied the spitting image of the vase I’d knocked over.

I thought the soldier would notice the resemblance,

but he didn’t notice the vase on the floor–

even though it was clean and shiny like nothing else in the room.

He put his vase on a shelf with some cobwebby bric-a-brac.

Then he spun, moving back toward the door.

He didn’t get outside before a woman barged in.

She had a lot of hair parked up on top of her head.

She was pretty, except that her skirt went from her armpits to the floor.

She was shouting in Chinese.

I don’t know exactly what she was saying,

but she was angry and her gist was that she wanted the vase.

And it didn’t seem like she just needed to hold some flowers.

Well, the soldier shoved her roughly.

She fell square on her caboose.

He drew the sword, and started shouting back.

His gist was that the vase wasn’t hers anymore.

He pointed the tip of the sword right at her face.

I shouted, but he didn’t hear me any better than he saw me–

my voice like one of those whistles that dogs hear, but people can’t.

I was going to shove him,

but shoving an angry man with a pointy object seemed like a bad idea.

Anyhow, she stood, sobbed, talking less angry and more pleading.

He backed her out the door at sword point.

The door closed to wailing sobs and rattling chains.

It occurred to me then that I was locked in a storehouse for confiscated fancy junk.

I searched my musty new cell up and down.

There were stairs to a loft, and I climbed them.

It was more storage,

but there was a door to bring things up by a pulley that dangled from the ceiling.

But it wasn’t a door, more of a piece of wood cut to cover the opening.

I unlatched it.

It fell smack down onto the head of a green, glassy doggish-liony statue.

The dog-lion’s head broke right off at the neck.

[Establishing that my knack for breaking stuff extends to worlds in which I can’t be seen or heard.]

Anyhow, I looked out to see if I was clear to escape—

forgetting that no one seemed to be able to see me.

There was just the woman—once angry, now sad.

She was kneeling in the mud in her fancy up-to-the-armpits skirt.

She sure was broken up about that vase.

You’d think it was her dog or her granddaddy.

I couldn’t see why she was so upset,

but it only seemed right to give the vase back to her.

So I went and got the vase that the soldier put on the shelf.

[Right then, my plan was to put the vase that came with me in its place, but more on that…]

I couldn’t very well chuck the vase down to her, her all teary-eyed.

So I snagged a small tarp, folded it, and put the vase into the tarp.

Taking the tarp upstairs, I called to the lady.

But she couldn’t hear me—maybe she was just too sobby.

So I took a shard of the lionish-dog’s neck, and winged it in her direction.

The green piece bounced, spattering some mud onto her skirt.

She looked over.

She scurried toward the storehouse, wiping her eyes, when she saw me lowering the vase.

Wouldn’t you know it, that slippery vase shifted in the tarp, falling out the end.

I gasped again, remembering that my superpower worked here,

but the woman caught it, hugging it to her chest.

I dropped her the tarp, and she swaddled the vase in it.

She cradled the vase like a baby,

looking up in my direction, seemingly happy and grateful.

I had to work my nerve up to jump out of that loft,

but figured I should put the other vase in place of the one I’d given away.

I was sick with sad and lonely.

I was stuck in a place where I knew no one and couldn’t speak the language.

Even if I had spoken Chinese, no one could see or hear me.

But an idea formed.

I picked the vase up, and, instead of putting it on the shelf,

I smashed it against the floor.

***

[blue and white crackly light]

And there I was once again, a tourist in a temple in a far away land,

my fingers barely touching the vase.

I yanked my hand back like that vase was a scalding pot.

Mama said she had something called “temple fatigue.”

So we went for ice cream.

Ice cream is safe.

Ice cream never banished anyone to ancient lands or to an alternate dimension.

At least, I’d like to think that…

POEM: A Zombie’s Dilemma

brain

 

I ambled out the gate, down the street, and noticed:

  • Everyone was going my way.
  • Everyone was on foot.

 

Well, you can imagine what I thought,

I’ve fallen in with a zombie horde!

 

But, how to check?

Somehow asking,

“What is your stance on raw brain?”

seemed awkward.

 

So I concluded that I was—unquestionably—among zombies.

 

A sadness followed.

Couldn’t they smell that my brains were fresh, disease-free, and everything a Zombie finds delicious?

Did they know something that I didn’t?

Had my brain gone bad without my knowing?

And how could one ever know whether the thing one knows with is sour?

 

The sadness was short-lived.

A dilemma followed.

For I saw a man walking toward me, against the horde’s flow.

If I didn’t club him in head and try to eat his brain—given his clear unhorde-like behavior–would the horde realize that I was an imposter?

 

If I did… Well, I would be worse than Tom Hanks trying to get into that coconut in “Cast Away.”

Quite frankly, I had no idea how to get to the brains.

Should that be something I should know?

A piece of common knowledge I’d lost when my brain curdled?

 

But the horde didn’t descend on the man.

 

So I concluded it was–unquestionably–a defective zombie horde.

 

And I went about my day.

“Ankō” Itosu Transforms a Thug

Source: "The Okinawan Times" February 28, 2006

Source: “The Okinawan Times” February 28, 2006

One day Yasutsune “Ankō” Itosu walked down to the waterfront to have lunch at a local restaurant. As the renowned karate master rounded a corner, a ruffian leapt forward, launching a punch at Itosu-sensei’s midsection. The elderly Itosu subtly shifted his position and the punch glanced harmlessly off his ribs. But Itosu trapped the thug’s arm before the young man could retract it. Pivoting to face the same direction as the young hoodlum, the karate teacher scanned his surroundings seeing that the young man had friends nearby, but they weren’t coming to his assistance.

Maintaining a vice-like grip on the young man’s forearm, Itosu-sensei switched the arm under his other arm–attacking pressure points as he did.

Establishing control and taking the fight out of the young man with jolts of pain, Itosu said, “Come join me for lunch, we have much to talk about. But first, what is your name.”

“Kojo, everybody calls me Kojo,” the young man said through gritted teeth

“Pleased to meet you, Kojo. My name is Ankō Itosu,” the karate master said.

Itosu led Kojo into the restaurant. At a cursory glance it looked like the older man was walking arm-in-arm with the younger. The two sat down side-by-side.

“So, Kojo, do I know you? Have I done something to lead you to give an old man such a start?” Itosu asked.

“No. My friends dared me. They told me you were Itosu-sensei. We often come down here to test our skills,” Kojo explained.

“And how does your karate teacher feel about this?” Itosu asked.

“Uh… well, I don’t have a teacher,” Kojo replied.

“Ah. Then that’s the problem. You’ll become my student. Your technique could use improvement, and you need to stop this brawling, and especially stop trying to scare old men,” Itosu explained as he released the young man’s arm.

Kojo was taken aback, but didn’t dare turn down the teacher’s offer. He never brawled again, and eventually became a committed student.

STORY: The Most Inaccessible Place of All

I ran across this little story quoted in an academic paper while I was doing research for a writing project. It was written by Dorothy Gilman in a book called A Nun in the Closet. At any rate, I found it clever and thought you might as well. [I’m assuming that Gilman made this story up, rather than borrowing an old folktale–but that–as with all assumptions–could be wrong. Please feel free to correct me if you know otherwise. If she did come up with it from scratch, she perfectly captured the folktale.]

 

brain



“Once upon a time, [Bhanjan Singh, a guru-like character in the book] said, when God had finished making the world, he wanted to leave behind Him for man a piece of His own divinity, a spark of His essence, a promise to man of what he could become, with effort. He looked for a place to hide this Godhead because, he explained, what man could find too easily would never be valued by him.



“Then you must hide the Godhead on the highest mountain peak on earth,” said one of His councilors.



God shook His head. “No, for man is an adventuresome creature and he will soon enough learn to climb the highest mountain peaks.”



“Hide it then, O Great One, in the depths of the earth!”



“I think not,” said God, “for man will one day discover that he can dig into the deepest parts of the earth.”



“In the middle of the ocean then, Master?”



God shook His head. “I’ve given man a brain, you see, and one day he’ll learn to build ships and cross the mightiest oceans.”



“Where then, Master?” cried His councilors.



God smiled. “I’ll hide it in the most inaccessible place of all, and the one place that man will never think to look for it. I’ll hide it deep inside of man himself.”

The Jujutsu Murders, Plus Some Brain Science

Jujutsu

Imagine you’re a detective in Edo Period Japan (1603-1868), and you’re told to investigate a case in which three highly-trained practitioners of one of the most well-respected jujutsu schools have been stabbed to death. Each of the three bodies has only one mark on it–the lethal stab wound. The wound is on the right side of the abdomen in all three cases. There are no signs of a prolonged struggle, despite the fact that each of the three had many years of training and none of the men was an easy victim. The stabbings happened independently, and there were no witnesses to any of the killings. So, who or what killed these three experts in jujutsu?

 

Nobody knows who killed them, but a rigid approach to training contributed to what killed them. As you may have guessed, the killer took advantage of knowledge of the school’s techniques, i.e. their “go-to” defense / counter-attack for a given attack. It’s believed that the attacker held his scabbard overhead in his right hand, and his weapon point forward in a subdued manner in his left. All three of the defenders must have instinctively responded to the feigned downward attack as the killer stabbed upward from below with the unseen blade.

 

It’s a true story. I read this account first in Jeffrey Mann’s When Buddhists Attack. That book offers insight into the question of what drew some of the world’s deadliest warriors (specifically, Japan’s samurai) to one of the world’s most pacifistic religions (i.e. Buddhism–specifically Zen Buddhism.)  Mann cites Trevor Leggett’s Zen and the Ways as the source of the story, and Leggett’s account is slightly more detailed.

 

This story intrigues because it turns the usual cautionary tale on its head. Normally, the moral of the story would be: “drill, drill, drill…”

 

Allow me to drop some brain science. First, there’s no time for the conscious mind to react to a surprise attack. The conscious mind may later believe it was instrumental, but that’s because it put together what happened after the fact and was ignorant of the subconscious actors involved. (If you’re interested in the science of the conscious mind’s stealing credit ex post facto [like a thieving co-worker], I refer you to David Eagleman’s Incognito.)  Second, our evolutionary hardwired response to surprise is extremely swift, but lacks the sophistication to deal with something as challenging as a premeditated attack by a scheming human. Our “fight or flight” mechanism (more properly, the “freeze, flight, fight, or fright” mechanism) can be outsmarted because it was designed to help us survive encounters with predatory animals who were themselves operating at an instinctual level. (If you’re interested in the science of how our fearful reactions sometimes lead us astray when we have to deal with more complex modern-day threats, I refer you to Jeff Wise’s Extreme Fear. Incidentally, if you’re like, “Dude, I don’t have time to read all these books about science and the martial arts, I just need one book on science as it pertains to martial arts,” I just so happen to be writing said book… but you’ll have to wait for it.)

 

So where do the two points of the preceding paragraph leave one?  They leave one with the traditional advice to train responses to a range of attacks into one’s body through intense repetition. Drill defenses and attacks over and over again until the action is habitual. This is what most martial artists spend most of their training effort doing. A martial art gives one a set of pre-established attacks or defenses, and it facilitates drilling them into one’s nervous system.

 

Of course, the astute reader will point out that the three jujutsu practitioners who were killed had done just what was suggested in the preceding paragraph, and not only didn’t it help them but–arguably–it got them killed. I should first point out that the story of the three murder victims shouldn’t be taken as a warning against drilling the fundamentals. As far as their training went, it served them well.  However, there’s a benefit to going beyond the kata approach to martial arts. One would like to be able to achieve a state of mind that once would have been called Zen mind, but–in keeping with our theme of modern science–we’ll call transient hypo-frontality, or just “the flow.” This state of mind is associated with heightened creativity at the speed of instinct. (If you’re interested in the science of how extreme athletes have used the flow to make great breakthroughs in their sports, I’d highly recommend Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman.) Practicing kata won’t help you in this domain, but I believe randori (free-form or sparring practice) can–if the approach is right.