Rules of Storytelling

At a recent meeting of my writers group, there was a lot of talk of “rules” for writing during the critiques. Among the advice offered was “it’s better to use short sentences in thrillers” and “try using at least three senses in description.” These kinds of “rules” bother me. They are more about the brushstrokes than the painting. They act as the writing equivalent of a hack, a shorthand for doing the work involved in telling a good story.

I don’t believe there are many hard and fast rules for storytelling, just as I don’t believe there are many hard and fast rules for writing. I can think of only one general rule for storytelling: a story should have a beginning, middle, and ending.

The meeting prompted me to re-read “the little book” a.k.a. Strunk & White, a.k.a. The Elements of Style. This book is about as close as one can come to a concise set of rules for writing. And even here, I’d qualify these more as guidelines than rules.

Ultimately, there is one and only rule for storytelling that I follow: tell the best story you can manage.

Why should thrillers require short sentences? Short sentences quicken the pacing of a story, or so the argument goes. I’d suggest that a good story swallows the reader whole, regardless of sentence structure. Few are the stories I have read where the sentence structure really stands out. If it did it would become distracting. When I write a story, I want the reader to forget they are seeing words on a page. An exception that comes to mind is No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, where the sentence structure establishes a rhythm to the story, a kind of backbeat that is always there. In the case of most good stories, I am almost unaware of the language as the story fills my mind.

When I write, I never sit down to construct an inciting incident or character arc. Instead, I consider if what I am writing is interesting. Do the words and images pull the reader along? “What happens next?” is my constant backbeat. When I review a paragraph I’ve just written I ask myself “how can I make this more interesting?” or “does that description create right image in my mind?” When writing dialog, I hear the characters talking in my head and try to capture it as quickly as I can. I don’t worry about whether I’ve used too many or too few attributions. (There can be rhythms to this, too. For a good example, list to William Dufris’s narration of The Human Division by John Scalzi.) Mostly I wonder if it is clear from the context who is speaking, and if not, how can I clarify it in such a way that it improves the story?

These discussions, during critique, often focus on the mechanics rather than the storytelling. Mechanics are rule-based, but story-telling is more intuitive. Where problems arise is when a writer has a good grasp of the mechanics, and good story ideas, but no intuition for how to tell the story. That is a problem I don’t know how to solve. Rules might help, and there are rules I find useful. They are the same simple rules of composition that you find in The Elements of Style. When my writing includes these elements, my storytelling seems to improve.

Most useful among the rules that Strunk and White have on offer is Rule 17: Omit needless words. When writing a story, particularly the second draft, I apply this rule not just to each sentence, but to the story itself: Omit anything that doesn’t drive the story forward. This means taking out passages which, while elegantly written, don’t do anything for the story. 

Other useful pieces of wisdom include: 

  • Do not overwrite
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers
  • Do not explain too much

Perhaps most important of all: Be clear. A story simply isn’t effective if it isn’t clear to me what is happening. But what is “clear”? Clear to the author is very different than clear to the reader. The author knows everything, the reader does not. I try to approach my stories with a split mind, a writer’s mind and a reader’s. It’s a tough game, because the writer knows what’s happening, but need to hide that from the reader until the proper moment.

I wish we talked more about story in these critiques, and less about mechanics, but I understand the desire. The mechanics act as hacks for the hard work of story-telling. In the end, entropy is a difficult force to overcome.

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

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