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'Rules of Story'
Nicki Hill
Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 1:57 PM
Joined: 4/22/2012
Posts: 175

Lisa Cron, the author of Wired for Story, offers 7 elements that are (in her experience) nonnegotiable as part of a good story.


What do you all think?

Atthys Gage
Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 3:50 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

It's not a bad list overall, but I take some exceptions.

 First off is number one:  All stories do make a point -- often a number of points, sometimes contradictory points.  At their best they make indefinable points that you couldn't put into a nutshell but which the reader gets anyway.   But this rubbish about 'beginning on page one' -- sorry.  There are far too many examples of great writing that doesn't get to any sort of point on page one.  Read the first page of Moby Dick and tell me you get any sort of sense of the central conflict of the book (Ahab?  Obsession?  Hubris?)  Even a book like Gatsby that begins with a straightforward statement about privilege and understanding other people (important themes in the novel) doesn't begin to touch the more important themes (desire, deception, illicit wants) until a long way in.  That whole 'put it on page one' sort of thing is boilerplate thinking.  Write well, get readers engaged in the story, and you can make your points as you go along.  I also don't think the best stories are necessarily obsessed with solving one single overarching question. 

The next four points -- stress conflict, be emotion based, show how plot effects the protagonist, (#5 is pretty much the same as #3) -- are all pretty basic, but yeah, we all need to keep them in mind. 

#6.  Well, sure, you don't want to get lost in a lot of trivialities that don't move the story along.  But when  apparently tangential material is presented in an engaging way, I doesn't make me turn on the TV.  Also, it can be a highly effective way of laying the foundation or establishing context for something that has yet to happen.  Eliminating the unnecessary is just good basic writing, but as an 'immutable rule', this one also sounds like something you'd see in How To Write A Bestseller For People Who Don't Like Books Very Much.

Lastly number seven.  Again, this just says 'Hey, the more conflict the better', and that's usually true.  But if your story just becomes a deluge of disasters, that can get pretty boring.  

I'm not necessarily disagreeing with anything here.  She makes some good observations (the JFK anecdote makes a great point), but I have a big problem with the notion that this is the only way to write.  Maybe a less grabby title, like Seven Good Basic Rules for Writing Popular Fiction would be more appropriate. 

Bottom line:  write well.  The rest is out of your control. 

Nicki Hill
Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 5:04 PM
Joined: 4/22/2012
Posts: 175

#1: I agree that the primary conflict, the main question, what have you, doesn't necessarily have to have a presence on page one.  I've read lots of great books where conflict doesn't start happening until the middle or end of the first chapter.  However, as a person who can't pay attention to things for long stretches of time (not ADD, just easily distracted/easy to bore), if it takes longer than one chapter to get to the point of the story, I will put it down and find something else to read or do.  You (generic) are telling me a story.  Don't make me have to work for it, because that's not why I'm here. 

#2-#5: I think these are really important points for the beginning writer (as well as, as you've said, Atthys, important things for all of us to keep in mind).  I've been writing stories since I could form letters, and while I'd never say my stuff was/is flawless and above reproach, it honestly physically hurt me to read some of the stuff my classmates would write.  By fifth grade I was informally peer editing stuff that classmates were writing on their own, and (though I couldn't have articulated this at 10 years old) THESE things were exactly what were always missing.  And I've read things by beginning adult writers that aren't much better at incorporating these elements, either.  I think when you've been writing for a while, and/or when you've been studying the craft, it gets easier to think of these things as, "Well, yeah, of course."  But there are many beginning writers who start out by pushing the plot externally and then forcing the protagonist through it like a paper doll, instead of writing from the inside (the protagonist's head) out.

#6: For me, this comes back to my inability to put up with authors messing with me.  If it's messing with me in a good way - plot twists, making me feel bad for the antagonist, etc - that's fine.  But I tend to glom onto weird details, and if those details don't lead to anything down the line, I'm going to be pretty ticked off.  For example, I read a book recently where one of the main characters took his wedding ring off before a televised political debate.  The act of taking the ring off was sort of off-hand (no pun intended), but I was like, he had better show up to that debate with no ring on, and it had better get all messy up in here when the media realizes it.  (Which is exactly what happened.)  I don't think I would have stopped reading if nothing further had happened with the ring, but it seriously would have bothered me.  Don't throw tidbits like that out there that could be completely relevant to the plot, and then not carry through.  Makes people cranky.

#7: Agreed; I think there has to be a balance between things going wrong and things working out (or at least, the protagonist dealing with them in some fashion, even if it doesn't fix the problem).  A protagonist that just keeps getting kicked while s/he's down is not a fun character to read, and it doesn't progress the story.

I definitely agree that these are good guidelines for writing pop or commercial fiction.  And perhaps literary or pulp writers need to follow more individualized guidelines.  But I still don't think I'd be inclined to read a story that doesn't embrace most of these guidelines in one way or another:

Make a point somewhere early on, even if it's not on page one, or who's gonna care to keep reading?

Make me feel something for the characters, even if - maybe especially if - it's more than one feeling (and they're conflicting) per character. 

Base your story around your characters, not the environment - people in real life grow and change through reacting to events, things, other people, and a story shouldn't be any different. 

Don't contrive conflict - it needs to feel genuine, based on a mix of internal and external barriers. 

Don't throw in random details that could be construed as relevant to the plot and then leave them dangling with no resolution; don't throw in too many random details that aren't relevant, lest readers start thinking they are. 

Yeah, writing well is still important (or honorable, anyway - plenty of trash writing still gets published, but why would anyone want their name associated with it?).  But writing well - in any genre or artistic format - is only gonna get you so far if you have no point, no conflict, no emotional hook(s), no character development, and a bunch of extraneous material that has nothing to do with the plot.

Her "rules" might feel a little superficial, and maybe there are other elements that should be included (or rules that should be consolidated, since some of them are very similar).  But I don't think she's off-base.

Herb Mallette
Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 5:39 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

I thought most of these were pretty good pointers, although #7 will destroy verisimilitude if taken literally. (I also object to the metaphor of story-as-bully. The world doesn't need any more bullies. There are plenty of them. Stories should pretty much be the opposite of bullies.)

The one I really disagree with, though, is #6:

6. Everything in a story must be there solely on a need-to-know basis.

This one is a recipe for disaster in any story that is meant to keep the reader guessing, especially mysteries. I recently read a Jack McDevitt book in which almost everything that happened factored directly into the plot. The result was that whenever something happened that wasn't obviously linked to the plot, I started waiting to see how long it would take to loop back in, and the result was that I saw lots of things coming that might otherwise have been a surprise. This didn't make me feel clever -- it made the story feel forced and artificial.

Maybe what the writer meant was that everything in a story should have a purpose. That's certainly true. But sometimes, the purpose is to make the story feel like more than just a story. It's hard to do that if you don't include more than the reader needs to know.

Atthys Gage
Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 6:44 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

Nick:  I don't consider her particularly off-base either.  They're all points that need constant weighing and reweighing as you work your way through whatever it is you're writing.  But I still find the first bit to be a problem.  I mean, really, can you define the point of a story?  I'm damned if I can.  If a story is going to have the complexity, the richness, required of it to mirror real life, then it will BE as irreducible as real life.  I far prefer it when a writer can catch the feeling of reality without trying to make a point about it.  I'm not trying to be snotty.  I'm asking a serious question:  What is the point of Harry Potter?  Of Anna Karenina?  Of Wuthering Heights?  of Lord of the Rings?  It irks me when I am told I need to be sculpting my work around some sort of point or message or overarching and soluble problem, because to me that usually comes off as forced and artificial, as in UNreal.  And surely, unreal is not what we are going for, no matter how unlikely the plot. 

And Herb:  "Sometimes the purpose is to make the story feel like more than just a story."  Well said!   
Nicki Hill
Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 7:12 PM
Joined: 4/22/2012
Posts: 175

I guess I didn't take "point" to mean "moral" or "message."  I took it to mean "focus."  The point of Harry Potter is that he's this otherwise unremarkable kid who starts having some weird things happening to him and finds out that he's more than meets the eye.  (I haven't read any of the others, so I can't tell you, though judging from the movie trilogy, the point of Lord of the Rings is that there's this hobbit who's been entrusted to destroy this magical ring.)  It's the thing that first makes you go, "What?  What's going on here?  How is this going to go?" and makes you want to keep reading.

Herb, I can see what you're saying about the, perhaps, necessity of including non-relevant material in a mystery.  In that case, though, aren't you essentially crafting two different plots - the true and the false?  I wouldn't think that you would necessarily be throwing out random false clues that don't still somehow make sense together (in an effort to lead the reader astray).  But I haven't read much mystery since I was a kid, so I could be approaching this with a completely false idea about that.

Atthys Gage
Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 8:19 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

Well focus is certainly a better word, but it renders the advice a little obvious.  Introducing the main characters and themes early is pretty basic.  

But even there, I think we have some disagreement.  I certainly don't need to have the central conflict laid out for me on the first page or even in the first chapter.  If the writing is good, the characters interesting, I'll stay on board for a long time before we get to the main plot driver.  More often than not, the thing that keeps us reading -- the hook -- is a mystery (as you put it, the 'what's going on?' part).  But that's not really the same thing as a point or a focus, and the author can leave you deliciously dangling for a long time before tugging on that line and reeling you in.  

The truth is, I like it when a writer messes with my expectations, lays some false trails, diverts my attention with a little razzle dazzle. (That doesn't mean purple  prose, necessarily.  Just well crafted and interesting.)  Good writing for me, even with a very serious plot, involves elements of play.  Games are a part of writing, mystery or otherwise.   Like Herb, I don't particularly care to be bullied by a story, but  play me like a violin, by all means!  As long as the music's good.  

I also don't really mind it if an author make me work.  In fact I kind of enjoy it.  Sure, there are limits, but I think most of us want our work to be striking and thought-provoking, even challenging -- while still providing a plot and characters that engage the reader emotionally.  From what I've read of your own work, I'd say those are your goals as well.  

Herb Mallette
Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 11:02 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

Nicki, you make a good point about building a true plot and a false one with respect to mysteries and rule #6, and maybe there's a good case to be made that the need for red herrings in a mystery is a special subset of that rule. But I still don't like the assertion that the rule is immutable, because I think a lot of good fiction violates it.

The point of The Lord of the Rings is that life is cruel and hard and beautiful all at once, full of tragic impermanence and moral frailty even in the noblest of us all, whether brave or meek -- and that what we do outlasts us if we do it right.

And because that's the point, the book is chock-full of things that have no bearing on the plot, things that (taken individually) the reader has no need of knowing at all. Tolkien is not writing to give the reader details that are needed in order to follow the plot; he is writing to give the reader an experience, in hopes that the experience will guide the reader toward a place of understanding.

I read LoTR twice without getting it, and spent much of the time wondering, "Why is this bit in here?" and, "What was the point of that scene?" The third time I read it, I'd grown up enough to absorb its point -- a part of which is that some things are beautifully pointless and others despairingly so.

If we reword #6 slightly, I agree with it wholeheartedly: "Everything in a story must be there in order to make a contribution to the whole." But I think that's different from "needing to know."

Maybe I'm nit-picking, though. I have been known to do that.

Audrey McKenzie
Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 11:37 AM
Joined: 11/14/2011
Posts: 6

Great discussion. Niki, thanks for posting. I enjoyed reading the article and all of the responses. Everyone covered my own points so I have nothing to add.


Jay Greenstein
Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 6:27 PM
•  I have a big problem with the notion that this is the only way to write.

She's said nothing about how you write it, though. All she's done is point out the elements of Story. And as I read it she's pretty much restating what most of the teachers of writing advise.

The question isn't if we can or can't write as we please. It's can we sell our own work if we choose to ignore those points.

Remember, it's not what we believe that counts. And our intent dribbles off the words at the keyboard. It's what that damn acquiring editor thinks we left out or got wrong that matters.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 6:38 PM

The result was that whenever something happened that wasn't obviously linked to the plot, I started waiting to see how long it would take to loop back in, and the result was that I saw lots of things coming that might otherwise have been a surprise.

Are you sure you’re not just reading a poorly written mystery? What she mentions doesn’t say you have to foreshadow everything. Just, as
James H. Schmitz observed, “Don’t inflict the reader with irrelevant background material—get on with the story.”

The problem is that as we read we don’t know what we have to remember for later and what’s just fluff. We filter that to an extent by how important the writer makes it appear. Mention a brick building and no one cares. Describe the façade in detail and we assume it’s important to the story. Avoiding that is the point I think she was trying to make.

Nicki Hill
Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 9:04 PM
Joined: 4/22/2012
Posts: 175

Jay, I think you're spot on - her point is that this is the way to write if you want to sell commercial fiction.  Anything non-commercial may not encompass all of these elements (and may or may not get published in a traditional market, thought self-publishing is increasingly a viable option).

Carl E Reed
Posted: Thursday, September 6, 2012 1:42 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Great discussion, one-and-all! Another “must-read” for the site.

1st Tangential Thought: Where are you, Tom? G.D.? Angela? LeeAnna? Kevin? Laura? Mimi? Anyone else I inadvertently left out . . .

2nd Tangential Thought: I suppose my first comment simply reveals me to be another of those tiresome, amateur, “nicey-nice” writers killing the art of writing by being far too cordial to my fellow writers in publicly-posted discussions and book reviews (as a recent “big-name” book critic opined), eh? I’ll try and save some venom for y’all later . . .

As to point #6: “Everything in a story must be there solely on a need-to-know basis”—the problem as I see it (and Atthys has done such a good job of pointing out) is that every reader has a very, very different opinion of what constitutes this sublime “need-to-know” basis which will ensure huge-selling, critically-acclaimed art.

Understand that I am not trying to disavow and/or gainsay Lisa Cron's point entirely—no less authorities than both Poe and Chekov have made similar points—but the Devil’s in the details, yes?

Fer instance: I love the colorful, metaphor-laden prose-poetry of Ray Bradbury and Clark Ashton Smith, but others have cried: “Purple prosody!”

I love the dense, recondite and abstruse crunchiness of H. P. Lovecraft’s mechanistic-materialist prose—it’s essential to the mood and effect of his stories—but others (such as H. L. Mencken and Jorge Luis Borges) merely shuddered (not as HPL had intended!) and moved on . . .

What about those readers who are barely literate, for whom even the simplest and most accessible of lean, pared-down prose styles is still too much for them to parse? You know the person I’m talking about: the co-worker who criticizes (to your astonishment) the writing of best-selling, big-name Author X thusly: “Far too many words. Details, images, thoughts. My god, if I wanted every blade of grass described in a scene, I would have . . .” (Note: It’s always this shop-worn, hackneyed phrase the doltish mind regurgitates when expressing their dissatisfaction with the impenetrably-dense syntactical thickets of such high-brow littérateurs as William Goldman, Ira Levin, Dean Koontz, Stephen King. It’s never: “If I wanted every sun-burned freckle and curling, fragrant cunt hair in this porno novel described . . .” or “If I wanted every aquiline-nosed, Vulcan-eared detail of elves described to me in the melodious, sylvan prose of high-singing green . . .” No. Nothing will serve to communicate their rage and frustration with an author’s writing but the trite-ism “every single blade of grass” . . .)

Where was I . . .     

Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Thursday, September 6, 2012 8:51 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hey all,

I think one big cause of confusion in this thread is that folks are unaccountably equating "story" with "novel." That's a hell of an equation and nowhere stated in Ms. Cron's article. It'd be a pretty brief, one-dimentional, interminable short story of a novel if yours told only ONE story. Sure, there's an overarching story, a main story, but along the way, dozens of stories had better get told if the reader's gonna walk away without feeling cheated.

Look at the way so many novels get written. The author has previously written a series of related short stories and some so-called friend tells her she should make it into a novel! And, lo and behold, all those stories somehow make it into her book because a novel is not just one story, but many, many stories that pull you deeper and deeper into the author's imagined world.

A mystery doesn't "violate" the rules of story, it simply tells a series of CONFLICTING stories on its way to revealing the "true" story at the end of the novel.

I think that's the real challenge of the article. She's not asking us to follow all these rules once per novel, but dozens of times throughout the novel, every time there's a definable story being told. Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday is one story. Frodo's flight from the Shire is another. Y'know what I mean? There's at least one story to be had in every chapter of most books, no?

Novels describe worlds. The "red herrings" of a good mystery novel will give you insight into the novelist's created world. Raymond Chandler was writing ABOUT Los Angeles. His writings more than any other author's DEFINE Los Angeles in the 1940's. What's the point of Lord of the Rings? To tell you what Middle Earth is like. What's the point of Moby Dick? To tell you everything you wanted to know (and never wanted to know) about whaling.

I think a story needs to have a point. Yes, and a story better have a point on it's first page. Not the overarching point of a 400+ page novel, not necessarily--poor Ms. Cron never suggested any such a cockamamie thing!--but the point of sitting down and reading your book instead of somebody else's.

I read a book recently that I was expecting to be a fluffy new-agy feel-good bs-fest called "The Golden Theme: How to Make Your Writing Appeal to the Highest Common Denominator," but it was actually a pretty decent read. I recommend it.

One of the salient points the author made was that people listen to stories as a matter of survival. That's the "the way our brains have evolved" part of Ms. Cron's article. We read stories to imagine ourselves dealing with the problems of the people in the stories. Either we'll read them as models of how to, or as cautionary tales of how not, but we all want to know what the author has to tell us about his chosen subject. Even if it's fantasy, we want to know what it's "really" like. 

What's it like to commit murder? What's it like to be cheated on by your husband while you're pregnant? What's it like to win the lottery? What's it like to be the bearer of the One Ring? And we judge authors by how convinced we are that what they're telling us is the truth. 

On the first page of Moby Dick the narrator tells us that whenever he feels like killing himself, instead, he signs on to a whaling ship. He tells us that all men are drawn to the sea, just as all men are, at one time or another, drawn toward death. That opening blew me away the first time I read it and every time since. That's a hell of a point for Melville to make before we know anything else about the book. And the genius of it is that it really is the main point of the book, right there, on page one. Fascinatingly, a lot of readers don't even notice, but it's there.

I think the real art of opening a novel is to give the reader that intangible experience of "there's a point to this" without making what that point actually is too obvious. How do we do that? How do we assure a reader that, yes indeed, we have a point, without giving the whole book away in the first paragraph? Well, that's the art of writing, I'd say.  

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Thursday, September 6, 2012 8:53 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

I believe that you were telling the class about how people always refer to grass when complaining about the level of detail in a book.

Yes, I've been here the whole time, Carl, but have been holding off on my BC lurkings to get my book done.

That said, I am one of the proponents that everything must have a purpose because, as a writer, I would run off on a detail loving tangent if I did not have such a rule. I'm already over 100k and am working to trim it down.

I do have limits on the amount of detail I do love in other people's work. Martin's much loved series makes me nod off during its paragraphs about food, clothing, and bowl movements. Sometimes less is more. I know that sounds cliche, but in some cases it is true.

That said, I got lost in the lovely meanderings of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. I really need to finish it.
Nicki Hill
Posted: Thursday, September 6, 2012 9:52 PM
Joined: 4/22/2012
Posts: 175

Ooh, Kevin - I love it.  I need to figure out how to make words come out like that, because what you wrote jived with the wordless ideas rattling around in my head.  It wasn't until I read what you had to say, though, that I figured that out.  Nicely put, sir!

Mimi Speike
Posted: Friday, September 7, 2012 10:03 AM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

Thank you Carl,

I saw this yesterday, and it is certainly a topic that gets me going. I am preparing my response.

I have been MIA for a while now. It is partly from discouragement, but mostly from my recurrent health problems, which bring me much misery, but which also have affected the vision in my right eye, my better eye - I have that Lazy Eye thing - making it harder to read. I don't know of anything more depressing than not being able to read.

I have recovered from this so far undiagnosed situation (despite the long list of specialists I've been to over the past 15 years) and I hope to do so again, and get back on track.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Friday, September 7, 2012 12:45 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Not to hijack Nicki's thread, but: Mimi:

I understand. A couple of month's ago I woke up with permanently-blurred vision, the result of general aging issues + other. (Not going into the deatils; suffice it to say that I suspect all of us over 30 are dealing with any number of aggravating physical ailments of one sort or another, eh?)

Hang in there; read and write when, while and where you can, in only those amounts that are comfortable for you.

I wish you well.
Laura Dwyer
Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 10:36 AM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192

Hi, gang. I've been away far too long. Nikki, interesting list - thanks. It's obviously inspired some lively discussion, as always. I'm not going to weigh in on this one. Lately I've also been uninspired (and life has definitely sucked some of the fun out of me), but will now surely lurk here in the hopes that some of these threads will rekindle my desire to be creative.

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