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The Rules of Writing … or Not

Nothing polarizes, angers or at least frightens writers quite like the use of the word “rules” when discussing craft.


The word is rhetorical.  Contextual.  Imprecise.  Misunderstood.  At least where writing fiction is concerned.

It is the wrong word to describe the essential criteria for what makes a story work, or causes one story to work better than another.

There are no “rules.”

But there certainly are principles And there certainly are consequences borne of playing loose with them in your fiction.

I believe this to be true.  I know this to be true.  And yet, because I strongly advocate, teach and apply principles to the craft of storytelling – that’s a much better word for it, orders of magnitude more contextually accurate – I’ve been accused of being an mouthpiece for rules.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

If you’ve ever been in a position to teach others, you know that it is both amazing and frustrating how some people have selective hearing (I prefer to think of it as that, versus the  thick-headed inability to comprehend), and how their old tapes kick in at such a high volume that it actually distorts the thing they should be understanding.

For example, in my recent post about 50 Shades of Grey, I heard from one huffy and embarrassingly confused writer who said that I should have never set out to defend that book and film based on (her words here) “it’s structure.”  Read the post again, you’ll see that I never once even mentioned the word “structure,” I was illustrating the use of story physics (which I do mention by name) as an explanation as to why the story has proven so popular.  No matter how you judge the art of it, you cannot misinterpret the commercial success of it.

Story physics, not structure. She reacted to something that wasn’t even on the page… because she obviously doesn’t understand the difference between story physics and story structure, which to the enlightened writer are as different as gasoline and a metal can.

I mention this because this is the same type of uninformed confusion when it comes to the difference between rules and principles.

Do you understand the difference?  You should, because while there aren’t any rules, per se, when it comes to writing fiction… there certainly are principles and consequences involved that will dictate the quality and fate of what you are writing.

Here’s what Robert McKee says on this issue.

This morning I received a marketing email for an upcoming workshop featuring Robert McKee, who is the reigning and unquestioned Grand Wizard High Priest Puba of writing workshops.  He leads his pitch with this:

Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form — then innovate. Register for the upcoming Story Seminar and join the 1%.

Let’s break that down.  I agree with this in terms of intention, but it’s not totally clear and accurate. It implies there are rules to either follow or break… so it seems that even this guy is confused.

And yet, when you swap out the word “principles” for “rules” in that lead, the meaning totally changes, actually becoming the exact opposite of what is true.

Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules… unless they don’t.  As stated, this is only half the problem out there among newer writers.

Just as often, inexperienced writers aren’t even aware of anything that might be perceived as “rules,” or even principles, for that matter.  They don’t follow or obey anything except their instinct, which – because the complexities of writing effective fiction are vast and challenging – isn’t yet enlightened or developed to the degree required to succeed.

Anxious, inexperienced writers who do honor principles… experience a much shorter and efficient learning curve than those who don’t.

Which is why, when a “first novelist” publishes, you’ll almost always discover a drawer full of unpublished novels over years or decades of work. The road to a “first novel” is paved with the discovery of the principles that make a story effective.

One of the burdens of being inexperienced is that the writer may not even appreciate the purpose and application of what they perceive to be “rules”… or – again – even the promise and benefit of principles, for that matter.

The better insight here is to seek out and understand the truth about the principles of effective storytelling.  They aren’t rules, they are proven guidelines, forces, structures and tools that lead the writer toward a story that will actually work.  They are malleable, multidimensional, presenting infinite creative choices and latitude.

Instinct, when it results in publication, is nothing other than the internalization of these principles.

That’s what I teach, here and elsewhere.  These principles are the basis of my speaking and coaching, as well as my own work as an author.

I have never once, in nearly 1ooo Storyfix posts and five writing books, referred to them – or inferred from them – that the principles are “rules.”

And yet,it’s just as true that ignoring or short-changing them can kill your story.  Which is why the word “rules” is at best rhetorically leaning into the ballpark.  Yet the principles don’t care what you call them… they are as impersonal as gravity, taxes and death.

They are always there.  And there are almost always consequences when you aren’t aware of that fact.

Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules… precisely because they are unschooled.  McKee implies here that there are rules – there must be, if there is something to rebel against – when in fact the more accurate context here is that of principles being ignored, challenged or stretched.  Certainly, newer writers do this out of ignorance, and rebellious writers need to learn for themselves that trying to reinvent the art of fiction is a fool’s folly.

The consequences of that ignorance will eventually cure this problem.  They’ll either change their minds, or quit, or die trying.

Every single novel that works adheres, to some defensible extent, to the principles of what makes a story effective.  Even the radically creative and unusual ones.

What McKee is really saying here is simply that some people don’t get it, or buy into it, or know the difference.  They’re more like literary anarchists, they don’t want to adhere to any principles at all… which is why you’ve never heard of them.  They never get published.

Artists master the form — then innovate.

“Mastering the form” isn’t the rejection of the principles, it is the complete, seamless and enthusiastic adoption of them.

Innovation, in this context, is creativity that is judged as artful.

And he’s right… only about one percent of writers who set out down this path actually get there.

But the good news is this: it is a choice.  You can make it, you can choose it… or you can hope that, in your rebellious ignorance, you stumble upon the power of principle-driven fiction as you trudge along the path, eyes on your feet instead of the horizon.


Story Coaching Discount for March

To fill some open slots in my late March and April schedule, I am discounting my Full Story Plan Analysis by 25% if you enroll by the end of March.  Once enrolled you can take all the time you want to use the Questionnaire to help develop your story plan prior to submission.  This is a great way to save some money by acting now, while greatly empowering your story in the process.

The normal fee for this Questionnaire-driven process is $245.  Opt-in by March 31 and the cost is only $183.75 (first quartile pages remain available at the normal $350 add-on fee).  Use the CONTACT tab to request billing at this discounted rate.

Would you like a list of publishers who are a) paying advances, and b) accepting queries and submissions from unagented authors? 

Click HERE for a great – and FREE – online resource providing this information.  Publishers in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland are listed, in addition to others globally.







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Two Video Tutorials on Nailing Your Concept

Some of us are visual learners.  This is for you.

Some of us take more than a few passes at it before it sinks in.  This is for you, as well.

I’m talking about CONCEPT within a story. 

What it is.  What is isn’t.  How and why concept and premise are different things entirely, and why you need to wrap your head around this before your genre-based story will work.

That’s an absolute, by the way.  In genre – including romance and mystery, which are the two most challenging stories relative to coming up with something conceptual within the story – concept is essential.

If you’re writing “literary fiction,” not so much.

Concept is always a matter of degree. 

It can be so flat and obvious and completely lacking in compelling energy that it could be said that such a story has no concept at all.

But that’s never true.  There is always a concept within a genre-centered or commercially-ambitious story.  The question becomes, does it add value?  Does it create a stage upon with a story will unfold… does it define a story landscape… does it pose a question or a proposition or a notion… does it show a unique or unusual character attribute…

… and then… is that stage, landscape, question, notion or character attribute compelling, and to what degree?

Perhaps a more accessible way to put it is like this: does the concept empower the premise that tells “a” story from a specific concept?

I put quotation marks around the “a” in that sentence to punch this point: a compelling concept often yields more than one story – any number of stories, in fact – from it.

Concept is the thing that makes a series work.  But within genre, it is also the lifeblood of the stand-alone novel.

Examples: Superman.  James Bond.  Hunger Games.  Harry Potter. Pretty much any series story.  Or stand-alones like The Lovely Bones, The Davinci Code, The Help… just name a bestseller from a new writer, and you can be sure there’s a killer concept in play.

Concepts for these stories are all propositions that are not yet premises – they are completely void of plot, meaning the concept stands alone as compelling before a plot is defined - by virtue of the arena, setting, stage, landscape, notion, proposition or hero/villain attribute that resides at the heart of the concept…

… BEFORE it becomes a premise.  Because to become premise, you need to add a PLOT.  A hero’s quest, goal, problem or opportunity… with something at stake… with something blocking the hero’s path.

And THAT is premise, pure and simple.

Concept and premise are different things.  Keep that in mind as you watch these two movie previews, both of which display their concepts front and center, but only one of which goes on to add (after the concept has been introduced) a premise (a plot).


This preview is nothing other than concept.  There isn’t a plot, or anything close to a plot, even hinted at.  But it’ll be there when you see the movie… but it’s not what will sell the story.  The concept sells the story.

George Clooney sums it up in the final moments of this trailer: “You wanna go?”  When the concept is rich and compelling, the answer will always be yes.

Click HERE to view it.

Jurassic World

This is a trailer for the new version of Spielberg’s classic, and the first half of it is nothing other than concept.  Pure and simple.

But then, you actually get a preview of the story itself (which doesn’t happen in the Tomorrowland trailer), with a glimpse at the plot.

View the new Jurassic Park trailer HERE.

You wanna go?  Of course you do.

Plot (which is premise) is a different realm of compulsion altogether.  And yet, when a compelling concept becomes the raw grist for a compelling plot… yeah, you wanna go.  Straight to the book store or theater.

The Learning

It is, pure and simple, this: within genre stories, concept is the reason the reader will come.  Sure, they’ll appreciate your great characterization and your stellar prose (they are wonderful and essential, make no mistake), but don’t kid yourself.  You’re not writing “literature.”  You are writing in a  genre, and genre can be considered to be synonymous with concept.

Concept is the presence of something conceptual at the heart of story that imbues everything – plot and character – with compelling energy.

Look at your story and ask if your reader, at a glance, will answer the question – “You wanna go?” – with an enthusiastic nod.  Character needs to earn that response.  Concept, however, elicits an immediate response.

If you’ve been confused by this, I hope these visual tutorials (in the form of movie trailers) will help you differentiate concept from premise, and moreover, understand how the former empowers the premise toward something that readers will engage with.



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