25 Of My Personal Rules For Writing And Telling Stories
Okay, what follows are really just mottos or sayings or made-up platitudes that I happen to live by, and for all I know I’ll only live by them for a couple weeks until I realize they comprise a fetid heap of horseshit.
But, I thought I’d like to write them down just the same.
Some of this is “greatest hits” stuff, no doubt — you’ve heard a good bit of this before. But a lot of it is also an evolution of my thoughts on writing and storytelling (and one’s thoughts in this domain should ever be shifting, squirming, changing). This seems like a doubly good time to lay this foundation coming into the stretch before NaNoWriMo strikes like a typhoon.
You don’t need to live by these. You do as you like, little penmonkey.
Warning: long-ass post ahead.
Put on your swimmy caps and arm-floaters. Let’s dive into dark waters!
1. Don’t Write What You Know; Know What You Write
Saying write what you know limits us from the outset — we only “know” a limited number of things, after all. I know the smell of honeysuckle on a summer’s day. I know what it’s like to have a toddler, to be a terrible bowler, to slurp up gin from my rat’s nest of a beard so as not to waste its herbal booziness. We should certainly write to our experiences, but we cannot limit ourselves only to that. We should be encouraged then to have new experiences. To know and learn — gasp! — new things. Write with authority and authenticity. Marry experience with imagination in a ceremony upon the story’s page.
2. Bleed On The Page
Don’t write purely to escape pain and fear. Mine it. Extract those wretched little nuggets of hard black hate-coal and use them to fuel the writing of a scene, a chapter, maybe the whole goddamn book. Cut yourself open. Color the words with your heartsblood. I am an advocate of finding the things you fear and opening old wounds to let them splash onto the characters and inform the tale at hand. We’ll know. We’ll feel it, too. This is where your experience matters — it’s not necessarily in the nitty-gritty of mechanical experience but rather in the authenticity of your emotional life. And this is true for the opposite, as well — write about the things that thrill you, that stir hope, that deliver unto you paroxysms of tingly exultation. Be true to yourself and we’ll all grok your lingo, Daddy-O.
3. Write The Song That Sings To Your Heart
Brands are for corn chips and car commercials. Trends are great for pop music and night-clubs. But you? Write the book you want to write. It’s not like being a writer is a fast track to a dumpster full of cash — so, why waste time writing stories that don’t speak to you in some way? Besides, the books that you wrench free from your own heart and mind will be far greater and far more meaningful than anything delivered to you from the expectations of others. Find the story in you. And find yourself in your story.
4. Show Now, Tell Later
Show, Don’t Tell is another one of those ‘false dichotomy’ nuggets of advice — anytime a piece of forbidding advice exists, you can nearly always produce a corollary example where X, Y and Z stories utterly violate that precept with great heaping helpings of success. It seems to be fairly well-regarded that a lot of the time it’s best to default to show, but sometimes, hey, tell is good, too. Only problem: when? Here’s a good guideline: never tell in the beginning. Always show first. You don’t want to begin the story with an expositional lecture. You read the cereal box as you eat the cereal, not before — you gotta get that first spoonful of Honey Boo-Boo Bombs on your tongue before you’re ready to settle in and read an ingredients list, yeah? Order of operations is key. Dessert first. Veggies later. Show now. Put off telling long as you can.
5. Aim Big, Write Small
Writers need goals. I don’t mean one goal. I mean a nearly endless and evolving series of goals — you don’t just say, “I’m going to write a novel.” Because, duh. That’s bare minimum shit. You want to have a career planned out. This isn’t a short game. It’s a long con. Look as far down the line as you can — to retirement, to cremation, to the time when nano-bots resurrect you to write one more bestselling holo-vid. That way, you can always course correct to try to move yourself further toward those goals. But — but! — whereas your career is a long-con, each story really is the short game. You want to keep your head in that story. You want to treat it like it’s everything, like everything hangs on this one project. (In part because it may.) To put it differently, have the larger path plotted out — but focus on each step upon that path as if it is your last.
6. Character Is Everything
Here’s how you know that character is the most important component of storytelling — when you remove it, the story dies. It’s like yanking the walker out of an old dude’s hands. You can remove the plot, and characters will still make one. Setting? Story can work without one. Hell, no setting is a setting. Theme? Someone will add their own. Mood? You can steer the mood but you can’t control it — mood, like art and profanity, is in the many eyes of the monstrous D&D beholder. Character is why we show up. It’s why we watch movies and read books. Character is the lynchpin of story. To unpack that a little more…
7. Audience Is The Monkey On The Character’s Back
See, here’s the deal. We’re all humans. (Well, except you over there, YOU ROBOT ASSHOLE. No, no, don’t talk to me. I shall not abide your bleeps and blorps and murderous metal intent.) Humans tell stories and when we do, we tell them about other humans. And here you say, “Wait, that’s not right, we tell stories about unicorns and intelligent spaceships and mole-men,” and yes, technically true. But those are always stand-ins for people. We view all characters through the lens of our own humanity. (It’s the same reason trees only read magazines about trees. Printed on the flesh of humans. The circle of life!) Character is how the audience gets through your story. Character is the vehicle.
8. Plot Is Soylent Green
Said it before but let me codify it now: plot is not externally-driven. I mean, it can be, fine, yes. You can create a laundry list of external events that occur where characters are dropped into the proceedings like a pukey four-year-old forced to ride a roller coaster. But that’s not the strongest — nor the most organic — way to approach plot. Plot is Soylent Green. Plot is made of people. Characters create, drive, and modify plot. They’re not strapped into the ride. They’re building the fucking roller coaster as it barrels forward. They change the story with every bad decision, every punch thrown, every intense desire and madcap fear. Too many storytellers force events — they shove the plot around like a schoolyard bully. Let the characters handle it. Let it be on them. The simplest plot is: Your Characters Do Things; Other Characters Respond.
9. Conflict Is The Food That Feeds The Reader
Characters exist in a flat line until we challenge them — sometimes they challenge themselves, sometimes they’re challenged by other people, by nature, by robots, or by fungal infections in and around one’s nether-country. Stories need conflict across the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual spectra. Accidents, betrayals, cataclysm, desperation, excess — these are the letters in the alphabet of conflict.
10. Fuck Trust
We think we want trustworthy storytellers. Trust is a positive trait and why would we want anything different in a storyteller? The audience thinks it knows what it wants: happy endings, triumphant protagonists, defeated villains, a book that dispenses Chicken McNuggets at the end of every chapter as a reward. But getting what we want, what we expect, is *poop noise* SNOOZETACULAR. Trust in a storyteller is overrated. Safety is meaningless. The storyteller has to do what the storyteller has to do. Which is, hurt the character. And by proxy, the audience. The storyteller is like an evil dungeon master or a tricksy dominatrix — what the audience really wants is to acquiesce to the tale told. They want to be surprised by a particularly inventive dungeon trap or shocked when someone closes alligator clamps on your wriggly bits. We want to trust our storytellers only so far as to say, “I trust that I cannot trust you.”
11. The Dual Function Of Story
Good story serves two functions: one, it makes coffee, and two, it shoots lasers. Wait, that can’t be right. *checks notes* Oh, see, sorry, wrong page. Those are the two things I want my cybernetic arm to do. WHATEVS. Story! Yes. Story. Good story does two things: one, it makes us feel; two, it makes us think. It engages us emotionally and intellectually. Some authors misunderstand the story’s purpose and spend too long mired in action and entertainment and forget that we actually have to care about the characters, about the outcome, that it’s essential we come out of the book having both a visceral reaction and a reaction that makes us want to sit down with friends over pie and whiskey to talk about what we just read. Making someone think and feel is not “entertaining” in the strictest sense — but it’s why stories matter.
12. Embrace The “Holy Shit” Moment
I want to punch you in the stomach. With my words! With my words. Relax. Put down the restraining order already. When you read my work, the ideal thing for me is to provide you with at least one moment where you gasp. Where your eyes go wide and your jaw hangs loose like a broken porch swing. Where you let out three, maybe four drops of pee because the story caused you to lose your bearing for just that moment. It’s key as a storyteller to try to orchestrate those moments where you violate expectation and drop a bunker buster on the characters — be careful, though. The trick to the holy shit moment is that it needs to feel organic. So that, after the smoke has cleared and the trauma is worn thin, the events that transpired seem in retrospect like the only way it could’ve ever happened.
13. Here Is How Description Works
A persistent question in terms of writing is, what, and how much, do I describe? Lovecraft describes every lamp and carpet fiber with intimate, bewildering detail. (Which he could get away with and you most likely cannot.) Here’s how you know what to describe. Ready? Is your mind quivering like the dumpy haunches of an overweight pony? Describe those things that break the status quo. That defy expectation. We know what a chair looks like — so, you don’t need to describe it. Unless it’s got a broken leg. Or is of some unusual art period. Or has blood on it, or is made of mouse bones and rat whiskers, or sings showtunes. The things that need description are the things that, to risk redundancy, the audience needs described. If they cannot escape this chapter without knowing how This Thing smells, then you’d talk up that stench posthaste.
14. The Rule Of Threes
When in doubt, the rule of threes is a rule that plays well with all of storytelling. When describing a thing? No more than three details. A character’s arc? Three beats. A story? Three acts. An act? Three sequences. A plot point culminating in a mystery of a twist? At least three mentions throughout the tale. This is an old rule, and a good one. It’s not universal — but it’s a good place to start.
15. Every Story Is An Argument
Every story is you saying something. That’s theme. Maybe it’s the theme that the audience discovers, maybe it isn’t — but just the same, every story is you making a case for something. It’s a thesis you’re trying to prove. You’re trying to say that love is everything. Or love is hopeless. Or that nature will defeat man. Or man will defeat himself. Or bees will defeat bears. Or robots are fucking awesome. I DUNNO MAN, I’M NOT YOU. Have a point of view. Have a perspective. Let your fiction state a case and argue that shit till it’s blue in the face. It’s not about being right or being wrong. It’s about saying something.
16. Metaphor Is What Elevates Us Above The Chimpanzees
I’m just going to leave this here, wink a couple times, maybe nudge you, and walk away.
17. Stories Are Like People: They Need Oxygen
All aspects of a story need time to breathe. Your story isn’t one of those amusement park rides that shoots you 100 feet straight up into the air — a story isn’t a race to the end. (Plus, that kind of thing will surely cause you to void your bowels upon whatever meth-scarred carny is operating that so-called “amusement” ride, a ride that hasn’t been serviced since 1972 and still has the blood of the teenage girl who died on it greasing all its diabolical gears.) Let the tale have peaks and valleys — peaks of action, tension, violence. Then valleys of reflection, emotion, fear, desire. The oxygen is thin at the peaks, thick in the valleys. The peaks get taller as the story goes, and the valleys grow deeper. To go back to the show-versus-tell thing, it’s better to show at the peaks, and tell only in the valleys.
18. Care Less
This is a recent revelation for me but one I’m keeping close for the near-future — sure, it seems an odd thing to suggest that we should care less than we already do. It seems dismissive. Disrespectful, even. But authors care too much, in my experience. We care well-beyond the gates of rationality. We let The Perfect sit in its impossible-to-reach treehouse pelting us with sticks and stones and pieces of old GI Joe figures when really we should be happy aiming firmly for The Good. Caring less frees you. It frees you to write a bad draft and fix it later. It frees you from feeling stung by every not-five-star review. It frees you from the fear of the editor’s slashing pen. It frees you from the paralysis of rejection. IT FREES YOU FROM ESCAPED RUSSIAN CIRCUS BEARS WHO WANT TO SEX YOU UP WITH THEIR URSINE — whoa, wait, no, actually, I’m still afraid of that. Um. Where was I? Ah. Yes. Care less. Note that the lesson here isn’t don’t care. You should care. But you should also calm the fuck down a little, is all I’m saying.
19. Realize Your Reach
You can only control so much. You can’t control agents. Or publishers. Or the audience (unless you’re some kind of Pied Piper Svengali, which actually explains how some tremendously poopy books gets such rabid fan-throttling). You can control your story. You control characters, plot, the words on the page, rhythm, pacing. You control the quality of the work. So: control that. Write the best book you can possibly write. Everything else is a leaf on the river — you can maybe puff out your cheeks and blow it (heh, blow it) this way or that, but so much is left to the vagaries of fate. Control what you can control. Abide the rest.
20. Harden The Fuck Up, Care Bear
The writer’s back is studded with arrows, blow-darts, quills, one-star-reviews, red pens, rejection letters rolled up into tight little tubes and shellacked with editor spit so as to form the equivalent of prison shivs — it’s hard out there for a wandering penmonkey. We don’t have the equivalent of a hobo code, with chalk marks on the sidewalk indicating Dangerous Vanity Press Lives Here or Deluded Self-Publisher Blog High On His Own Ego Incoming or Thatta Way Lurks A Mean Old Editor-Face. So: cultivate calluses. Secrete enzymes to build your own authorial exoskeleton. Learn to take a punch. No glass-jaws in writing, pal.
21. Completo El Poopo
Finishing a story will separate you from most of the other writers — er, sorry, “writers” — out there in Authorland. Finish your work, space-case. Here, let me put it to you this way: finishing the worst piece of shit story you’ve ever written will feel a thousand times better than not finishing the most brilliant tale you’ve even spun. ACHIEVE NARRATIVE ORGASM. Ngggh. Yes.
22. Read Your Work Out Loud
Don’t give me that look. Read your work aloud. Don’t argue. Don’t fight. It will help. I promise. I promise. I guarantee it. If you find it didn’t help you, lemme know. I will let you Taser me in the face. And by “me,” I mean, some other guy who will be my stand-in. Probably some real estate agent or tollbooth attendant.
23. Haters Gonna Hate
Fuck ‘em. They’re part of the ecosystem. Drink the hate like it’s a Kahlua-and-cream. Inspiring love and hate is better than inspiring a middle-of-the-road mushy moderate shrug. I’d rather have, “YOUR STORY MADE ME MAIM THE MAILMAN JUST FOR DELIVERING IT TO ME” than a quavering “meh.”
24. On The Nature Of Writing Advice
Writing advice is neither good nor bad. It just is. It either works for you or it doesn’t. No one piece of advice is truly golden (with the exception of maybe Finish your shit and Don’t be a dick) — it’s all just that. Advice. It’s no better or worse than someone telling you what route to take to get to the zoo or what shirt to wear to that trailer park wedding. Like with every tool, pick it up, test its heft, give it a whirl. It works? Keep it. It fails? Fucking ditch it. Give writing advice no more importance than it is due.
25. Write Like The End Is Nigh
Best advice I can give right now: write like you have no time left. Write like you’ve got a slow-mo bullet tumbling toward your head and you can’t get out of the way. Write like the end times are here, like the Mayans were right and in a few short months we’re all going to die in a tidal wave / earthquake / pyroclastic shit-fit / bird attack. Think about that: let’s say you had two years left on your clock. What book would you write? What story inside you struggles to get to the front of the line, screaming and yelping and waving its arms like a drowning man? Write that story. It doesn’t have to be the only thing you write. You can take paycheck jobs. But make time for that kind of writing. Writing isn’t just about giving the audience something. It isn’t just entertainment. It’s about giving to yourself, too. Because, bad news: maybe you have two years left, maybe you have twenty, or forty, or sixty, but we’re all gonna end up under the Grim Reaper’s riding mower. So get busy writing what you want to write, or get busy sucking exhaust.
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