Too many people in positions of influence and power–from craft-of-writing bloggers and authors on through agents, workshop speakers, and publishing industry professionals–insist that there’s a single right way to craft stories. They say there’s a formula you can apply to a story or novel to insure it’s a success, even a bestseller.
The most dogmatic and silly of these “how-to” manuals is the cult book Save the Cat! by screenwriter Blake Snyder. His system has sadly been hailed as The One Way by far too many fiction writers and publishing industry professionals.
According to Mr. Snyder, for a story to succeed, everything has to be rigidly structured and happen right on the beat, down to the page. Miss one of those beats or try for originality, and your chance of success, the cultists will tell you, goes down exponentially. A glance at the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet will tell you that the theme must be stated on page 5 of a script; that the catalyst occurs on page 12; that all is lost on page 75; and that the curtain comes down on page 110. “Isn’t this pure? And easy?” the author tells us.
This is, of course, nonsense.
The truth is that there’s no one right way to write, and that adherence to a formula is guaranteed to do one thing—kill originality. Yet a great many newer and intermediate writers with fresh story ideas and good potential are taken in by this hogwash. The bottom line—and I speak as both a seasoned indie author and anthologist (the Panverse series) as well as a freelance editor—is that the tired writing dogma and “rules” that get endlessly recycled in writers’ groups, on popular blogs, and elsewhere pale in the face of story. Because story is what it’s about. It’s why readers buy books.
Unfortunately, writers get so many stupid so-called rules about adverb use, “show, don’t tell”, proactive protagonists, character change, never using prologues and flashbacks, and so on rammed down their throats until, like young recruits at army boot camp, they break and conform. In the process, what might have made their work unique is left by the wayside.
Don’t misunderstand me: some few rules are necessary, and it’s important to understand all the commonly-quoted rules of any craft or business before you go breaking them. But when a newer writer, out of timidity or simple faith in what they’re told, unquestioningly follows the conventional wisdom, their writing will suffer.
Consider exposition, where the cure is often worse than the disease. The key with exposition is to make sure it’s both interesting and well-timed. Nobody wants a lecture; on the other hand, if the author’s concern over infodumping borders on the obsessive—as it does for many—readers will find themselves dissatisfied, even disoriented because they’re not getting the background they needed to make sense of the tale. When readers need to know something, let them know it.
Often the information can be slipped in deftly, but sometimes it’s just more expeditious and painless to tell—yes, tell—the reader what they need to know rather than stand on our heads trying to slip it in under the radar.
It’s the same with show, don’t tell, possibly the most dangerous and misunderstood piece of writing advice ever.
Here’s the dirty little secret: the show, don’t tell dichotomy is entirely false—all fiction is telling; if it weren’t, it would be called storyshowing. The author is telling you a story, and you, the reader, agree to either play along or not. And given that you’re paying for the privilege, it had better be well-told.
The nonsense spoken on this subject is legion, with the result that writers drive themselves mad, often wasting days of their time trying to dramatize, in onstage action and dialogue, scenes that could be far more effectively and economically handled another way.
My approach has always been to question all conventional writing wisdom, which is why I just wrote an entire book about it. Because in the end it’s all about story and the reader experience—nothing else. All that really matters is to keep the reader turning the pages to the end, leaving them satisfied and feeling their time and money was well-spent.
You see, there is really only One Rule, One Rule to rule them all, and it is simply, Don’t Piss Off the Reader.
Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing. Drown the Cat: the Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, July 4 2017) is his second nonfiction work.
His first novel, Sutherland’s Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic, was published in 2013. Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario’s short science fiction work, was released in June 2014.
His 2015 novel, a supernatural suspense thriller titled Black Easter, pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island. Dario’s nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK bestseller for several months in 2012.
Dario lives in the Los Angeles Area. Check out his blog at http://dariospeaks.wordpress.com