Category Archives: Write better (tips and techniques)

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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Novelists: Two Empowering Little Mind-Models That Just Might Change Everything For You

Some things in life are not measurable.

Like, which tastes better, a fresh strawberry or a juicy fat beet.  The answer doesn’t matter at all if the stakes are limited to you staring into your refrigerator, and while we can guess there is a vast majority leaning one way over the other in this preferential proposition, at the end of the day it means nothing to either side.

Until, perhaps, you seek to open an ice cream parlor and charge money for the dispensing of desserts that call for bright red toppings.  Then you’d better understand not only the difference between a strawberry and a beet relative to flavor, but also the difference in how the immeasurable math bottoms out on consumer tastes.

Then again you can open a beet emporium – because you really like beets – and take your chances.

You make the call, and your future rides on how close you come to right versus wrong once you get over yourself.  Even if you’re a big fan of beets.

As they say in the lottery business, adjust your dreams accordingly.

Writing a novel is much the same.

There are fuzzy little lines between a plethora of storytelling variables, making definition – if not outright measurement – an exercise in semantics and context.  For example, in my experience as a story coach and workshop speaker I’d say that at least half of the working writers out there – including published authors and agents – don’t understand or even comprehend the difference between a concept and a premise.

And yet, the different is a career-maker/breaker.

Understanding isn’t the issue as much as the degree to which concept and premise, as separate story variables, end up on the page as a contributing factor.  And that can happen if the author has no idea whatsoever what either essence is, because a keen story sense (or a half dozen drafts after a lot of harsh critique) can get you there.

Does this license ignorance?  I think not.

Today’s first of two little mental models addresses concept vs. premise.

Think of concept as a contextual framework – a notion, a setting, a special talent or gift or curse, a time and place, a “what if?” proposition, an arena, a landscape – within which your story will unfold.

Example: a love story set in the Vatican.  The setting is conceptual, it draws you to the story even before the story itself is introduced.

Concept is NOT the story.  It requires no hero and no plot.  When you begin describing hero and plot you are, in fact, talking about premise (which is the summary description of what your hero wants and needs in the story, within the conceptual framework, and why, as well as what blocks that path.  Which is a PLOT).

Here’s a quick way to know where you stand on this issue, by asking yourself this:

How COMPELLING is your concept?  Or did you skip it altogether, jumping right into premise instead?

In a great pitch, concept should be the first thing out of your mouth.

This matters because readers, agents, editors and book reviewers are looking for something fresh… story landscapes and notions (known in the trade as “conceits“) that are new and exciting and scary and seductive and provocative, even when the premise is familiar.

Aren’t all “love stories” familiar, to a great extent?  Sure they are, unless you’ve already rendered it fresh with something conceptual (like, a love story between enemy spies).  And if so, how do you bring something fresh to your next love story?  Answer: by having it emerge from a conceptual framework.

Here’s the mental model for concept:

An empowering concept, because it has no protagonist or plot yet, can become the landscape for any number of stories (because it is not, per se, a story in and of itself) that are rendered fresh and exciting… precisely because of the concept.

Need an example?  A guy in a blue suit with a cape, named Superman.

Think about it.  Clark Kent is the hero, not the concept.  Superman, as a proposition and notion, is the concept.  Hollywood has already made ten different stories (different premises) from this one concept, with more on the way.

Need another example: A murder mystery narrated by the 14-year victim, speaking to us from heaven (The Lovely Bones).


Did you wince when you read the word PLOT?

It may not be half, but a shocking number of serious writers (indeed, this seems to lean into writers who declare themselves as serious) don’t truly understand what the word “plot” means in the context of commercially-viable fiction.

Is there any other profession you can think of where the practitioners don’t even know the key principles of their craft?  That get to make it up as they go along, or backed into it after a series of swings-and-misses?  And yet, writers stumble into stories that work all the time, often after years and a great many drafts, sometimes without ever truly grasping what finally worked for them.

Any writer who explains their success by saying something like this – “Well, I just showed up and let the characters lead me to the next page” – is a case in point.  They are talking about their process, and in that case it is a blind one.

You don’t have to do this work wearing blinders, folks.

Do you have years to invest in a story?  Wouldn’t you rather know what works? And then write your story in context to those principles?

I’m thinking you would.

In commercial genre fiction, what works is called a “plot.”

If you’re truly writing literary fiction – Jonathan Franzen kind of novels – then plot may indeed be a ways down your list of narrative priorities.  But most of the writers crowding into the conference room are writing romances and mysteries and fantasies and Young Adult and historicals (which absolutely DO require a plot)… and for all of those, you need a PLOT, pure and simple.

The notion of writing a “literary mystery” or a “literary YA” is an example of where so many writers shoot themselves in the foot, believing that their literary aspirations trump the need for an actual conflict[-driven plot.  They are so character-focused that they unknowingly drift out of their genre lane to tell an episodic life story of a fictional hero… which pretty much never works in commercial genre fiction.

Think of plot and genre as being synonymous. 

That will keep you in the right lane as you construct your narrative sequence.  Backstory, episodic narrative, inner demons, and the ultimate story goal of “being happy” or “resolving their childhood”…

… that’s not the recipe for genre fiction.  It’s a recipe for failure, because until you add conflict and confrontation leading to something – a plot – the story is incomplete.

It’s like a graduate with a nice suit with no job… nobody is getting paid.

Backstory is good, but it can be toxic in genre fiction when it is over-wrought at the expense of plot.  Same with inner dimensions and demons.

But wait, I hear you saying.  I read episodic “life story” novels all the time.

Yes you do.  But when you look deeper – a process that doesn’t work until you know what to look for – you’ll likely find such stories building toward a resolution, giving the reader something to root for and the hero something to resolve.

If you don’t, you’re reading “literary fiction.”  Many highly literary genre novels are indeed character driven… but if they’re published and successful, they will be something more than the life and times of a character.  They’ll have a PLOT that gives that character something to do – which is the best way to demonstrate character in any genre – every time.

The dirtiest word in fiction is “episodic.”  When you hear it about your story, that sound you hear is the drawing board calling you back to it, hoping you’ll find a plot that will save the thing.

Which leads to today’s second powerful mental model.

Plot is the creation of character and dramatic dynamics that lead to, point toward,that call for, that require… resolution.

A story in any genre (other than literary) that asks the reader simply to observe a character or his/her life…  a story that episodically tells the life story of a fictional character without it leading to something that must be resolved… a story that exists to show us eras of a character’s life, novels that read like a collection of shorter stories, moving from one period in that life to to the next… if they are in any genre other than “literary fiction,”  the project is at risk.

One of those just crossed my desk, from a graduate of an MFA program, where the word “plot” is likely never uttered aloud.  It was a YA, and it was nothing other than “the adventures of” the hero.  Unconnected “stuff that happened” to this protagonist, peppered with backstory and inner landscape.

There are magic words found at the bottom line of this issue:  genre fiction needs to give readers something to root for… rather than just something to observe.

Ask your reader to care about where it is all headed.   To root for someone and/or something, to fear something or someone that is antagonistic blocking your hero’s path along the core story spine.  To engage them emotionally, not just because they sympathize with the hero, but because feel and relate to the stakes of the story.

Genre fiction is the antithesis of “slice of life” storytelling.

Plots are driven by stakes.  Even in YA and romance, where any and all of the available sub-genres are available fodder.

In closing, remember this:

Good stories are never simply ABOUT something.  Rather, good stories are about SOMETHING HAPPENING.  Because there are STAKES, because something must be RESOLVED.

These target contexts will be there when your story finally works.   It may be an early draft – even your first draft – depending on how well you understand these principles.  Or it may take years and many drafts before you evolve the story.

Criticism, other than voice, almost always touches on weakness relative to these issues: concept… premise… dramatic question posed… proactive action taken… pace… conflict… empathy… all leading to resolution of a singular plot proposition.

The sooner you truly understand this stuff,the sooner you will be the driver, rather than the passenger, of your own writing journey.


Click HERE if you’d like to see if your concept, relative to your premise, is in the right storytelling lane.





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