One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard – or repeated – is to forget much of what your high school and even college creative writing teacher told you about storytelling.
No, you do not need a three page description of the setting of every scene prior to beginning any action or dialogue. Watch how fast that will get you rejected.
Everybody already knows what a bank lobby looks like. Give it a rest.
There’s a significant pile of such misnomers still lingering out there, most of which used to be labeled as conventional wisdom.
Nothing about publishing or movie making is the same as it was even ten years ago. The enlightened writer continues to evolve and to reinvent themselves to keep up with the changing times.
Here are a few things to consider… all of them dead wrong.
Character is plot. Plot is character.
No, it’s not. Either way. That’s like saying that salad is dessert, or if you prefer, that your dessert is salad.
This rusty old truism tries to sell the same type of convoluted belief system where storytelling is concerned. It’s as over-simplified as it is misleading.
Plot is the catalyst, the stage, that allows characters to show themselves and to grow. Without plot, character is without reason to be, and without a means of revealing itself.
Character is what makes plot interesting, because we care so much more when we can feel the pain or the thrill of it all. Otherwise the story reads like a press release.
Make no mistake, they are different elements. One requires dressing, the other whipped cream.
Adjectives are evil.
So sayeth many writers, including Elmore Leonard in this list of writing rules that apply mainly to him and no one else.
Adjectives may be many things – risky, self-indulgent, unnecessary, redundant, insulting, etc . – but they can also make a narrative moment sing.
That’s the art of it. As a writer of stories, you have to learn how to carry that tune.
Your characters will begin to talk to you.
Ah, the mantra of the pantser. Waiting for the completely fictional construct of your imagination to take over the story.
This is like asking your nine year old to drive so you can enjoy the scenery.
If you have to wait until the character figures out what’s required in the story before you do, then your story is already broken.
Because the story isn’t completely and solely about the character. It’s also about the narrative landscape upon which a drama unfolds – conflict and tension – which may not yet be fully realized within the character’s perception.
Like a nine year old who can’t see over the dashboard.
Bestselling authors are better than less-than-bestselling authors.
Absolutely wrong. But you have to read both to know this.
Bestselling authors have a different standard than new authors or B-list authors. They need to be pretty good to stay on the A-list, that’s true.
But for a B-list author to move up, they have to be better than good. They need to deliver something that the publisher – long before the reading public discovers it – will decide to promote at the level of a bestseller.
Everybody sets out to write a bestseller. Once you submit that manuscript, however, you have no control whatsoever over whether it becomes one or not.
Published authors are better than non-published authors.
You have to be better than good to break in. The slush pile at any major publisher is full of good and even great manuscripts.
Good isn’t the point. Market upside is.
If you write a good story, somebody will eventually buy it.
Right. And all good dogs go to heaven, too.
Sorry, that’s not what happens. There is a hefty handful of factors involved that have nothing to do with your story – your agent, timing, the mood of the acquisitions editor, what they just bought, what just hit the bestseller list, and in no small measure, pure blind luck.
Publishers and producers are looking for new talent.
They say that. They’ve always said that.
Take a look at the crowd during the keynote address at your next major writing conference. Among the 800 people sitting there, a handful will end up being published. Enough to fit into a booth at Denny’s.
Is the rest of that room untalented? I don’t think so. And neither do you.
What publishers and producers are really looking for is the next home run. Which has very little to do with talent.
Writing novels is different than writing screenplays.
The format of the page itself is definitely different. The way the script reaches its intended audience is also completely different.
But the principles that drive the effectiveness of the story on that page… almost identical.
Writing novels is a better, higher art than writing screenplays.
The average advance for a first-time novelist is a few thousand bucks, at best.
The Writer’s Guild minimum for a motion picture screenplay will buy you a new Mercedes. The kind with a retractable hardtop.
Better? Depends on who you ask. That’s like saying becoming a dermatologist is better than becoming a podiatrist.
Depends on what itch you need to scratch. Better is always relative.
Writing what the market wants is a sell out.
Call it what you will, you’ll never sell what the market doesn’t want.
Friends and family will be the first to read your published work.
An informal poll of published novelists says this just isn’t true. Don’t count on it, you will be sorely disappointed.
It doesn’t mean they don’t love you. It means they don’t love what you love: books.
The batting average is much better for screenwriters. Everybody loves a premier.
Literary novels (and art films) are different than commercial novels (and art films).
On one level, yes. Character trumps all in a literary work of art. Which means the reading experience is indeed different.
But the writing experience isn’t different. Same six core competencies, same sleepless nights and insecurities. Just a matter of emphasis and depth.
You can try for Moby Dick or you can try for The Lovely Bones, which is literary as all hell. Or you can swing for the fences with Dan Brown and Janet Evanovich. Your call to make.
There are no rules.
No, there aren’t. You are free to fail as you please.
Trouble is, too many people interpret that statement to mean they can write a viable story any damn way they please, too.
If they hope to sell it, they can’t.
Because there are principles involved – which at a glance look an awful lot like rules – that define the nature and parameters of a successful story.
It’s like music. Unless you’re riffing contemporary jazz, you have to concede to a baseline and a beat. The rules of the song, one that hopes to play on drivetime radio.
Symmetry, rhythm and flow – principles – are the hallmarks of all art.
If doesn’t matter if you buy this, or not. What matters, and critically so, is that the people who write checks for manuscripts do buy it.
If you wish to attach some weird sense of nobility to your unpublished status, that’s your call.
If you are writing for them, then you must play by the rules and expectations of solid storytelling – principles – that they hold dear.
If you’re interested in learning more about those essential storytelling principles, please consider my ebook, Story Structure Demystified. You can read a review HERE written by bestselling author Kay Kenyon.
Also, look for my new release from Writers Digest Books next February, Story Engineering: Understanding the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, which is available for pre-order now.