Rules of Good Writing

I hate the idea that you have to follow certain rules to write a good story.  There are plenty of books and blogs and magazines that have different rules to follow so that you write a good story, but I don’t think that any rules will make a story truly great.

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve been thinking about different software tools that can help a writer.  For example, one idea was a program that helps the writer create a character.  The writer can input information such as age, gender, hair color, worldview, personality, etc.  But as I thought about this, I realized that it had a few problems.  Mainly, it forces the writer to think inside the box.  The software can only handle certain inputs, and if the writer wants to add others, it could be difficult if not impossible.  Writers have to be able to think outside the box, be flexible, experiment with things that have never been done before.  If a writer always follows the same outline for creating characters, their mind will eventually become dead to new ideas.  Characters will begin to seem identical.  The imagination will die.

Imagination thrives on new thinking.  Following tried and true methods is what you do as a beginner, but once you are more advanced, if you do not move on, you will not grow as a writer.

Of course with software, the computer requires rules, methods, data.  The computer cannot think outside the box, but that doesn’t mean you are constrained by what the computer can do.  Interactive stories will require certain character outlines, but I’m not talking about interactive storytelling.

Yes, that’s right, I’m not going to talk about interactive storytelling in this post. I am a writer first and foremost  and it is what I have the most experience in, so I am going to talk about something I’ve actually done.

And in case you didn’t know, I’ve written three novels and several short stories.  Nothing is published, yet, though, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Finding Premise

Premise, premise, premise.  I’ve been throwing that word around a lot lately.  It’s starting to lose meaning to me.  One question I’ve been thinking about, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, is how do you come up with a premise, and when?  Do you start writing first, and then find your premise?  Or do you have to come up with a premise before you can start even writing?

Well, the answer is you can do whatever you want to.  I’m not going to force you to do anything.  Heck, you can write a story without a premise for all I care.  I’m simply going to talk a little about the experience I have with planning a story before writing, and writing a story before planning.

After reading The Art of Dramatic Writing and The Art of Creative Writing by Lajos Egri, I started to practice creating a premise and character sketches before sitting down to write a story.  I have found that it is very beneficial, at least for me.  A premise gives my story that forward momentum; without it, a story can easily fizzle out and die before it is finished.  This especially happens with novels.  I’ve tried to write many novels which have died because they had no driving force, and the premise is this driving force.

Character

The character sketches are very helpful as well, perhaps more so than the premise, because they tell me everything I want to know about the social, psychological, and physiological aspects of the characters in my story.  It helps me to know what that character would actually do in any given situation, rather than have me draw from my imagination and hope I get it right.

I have found that when I don’t really plan out a character and just make it up as I go, the character ends up looking just like me, with a few characteristics exaggerated.

I have been using the character outline from The Art of Dramatic Writing as a starting point, but I have modified it slightly, and I can see myself modifying it even more in the future as the need arises.  There are some parts of it which I never use, and there are some things that are missing that I use fairly often.

Even after writing an entire book which seems like a bunch of rules on good writing, Lajos Egri admits that to become truly great, you must experiment with the rules, and if necessary, break them.  Perhaps your story is strong enough to not need a clear premise; perhaps it is simply meant to ask questions without answering them or proving anything.  This is a worthy purpose of a story.  Sometimes good stories don’t teach you something, but they make you ask questions and think for yourself.

Looking Back

It’s funny to look back at what I used to enjoy writing the most.  When I first started writing, around age five, I just wanted to write exciting, explosive action.  My stories were simple character interactions interspersed with extensive scenes of action.  Now my favorite scenes to write are those which really reveal the emotions of one of the main characters.  In the book I am writing now, I spent a hundred pages building up to one small moment, which was about two sentences long, but I had anticipated writing it for months.

I have found that writing fiction is a powerful way for me to talk about the way I am feeling, or questions I am asking, or trials I am going through.  I do not believe I am the only one.  Many writers use writing to explore what they are going through, to try and make sense of it all.

When I am writing, I can become very attached to the characters.  One book I wrote, I had planned early on which characters I was going to kill off.  When it came time for the characters to die, I had become so attached to them I felt bad about killing them off, even though I had planned on it the entire time.

Then of course there are the characters that truly express what I’m going through.  You form a special bond with those characters, because in many ways, they are you.  You feel the same pain they feel, and the same burden, and the same fear.  They make the same mistakes that you make.  They say the same things you say and believe the same things you believe.  Sometimes when I’m writing these characters, I wish I could help them out of all their problems, and fix their lives, and set them straight.  But a lot of the time I haven’t worked out all these problems, and so I cannot help these characters.

I have found that this is a very dangerous trap to get yourself into.  If you write too close to home, you may not be able to finish your story, because the real story has not yet ended.  Even if you know what should happen, if you haven’t yet experienced it, you won’t write it like you believe it.  That’s one of the hardest things about writing.  I don’t know everything, so there are some stories that I cannot write no matter how much I want to.  Not yet, anyway.

One piece of advice I would give at this point is this: write what you have already conquered.  Don’t write about something that you are currently struggling with.  It doesn’t work.  I’ve tried working through things this way, and the story dies in my arms.  If your purpose is to help the reader conquer something, then you must have already conquered it yourself.  The blind cannot lead the blind.

There is a common saying to “Write what you know.”  I’m sure everyone has slightly different interpretations of this saying, but I believe it means this.  If you do not believe something, then you cannot write as if you do.  If you hate someone so much that it makes your blood boil, then you cannot truly write about love.  It will seem artificial.  And if you are struggling through depression, your stories will always have that melancholy taste.

I hope that somewhere in this post you found something worthwhile.  If you are a writer and have any thoughts, feel free to leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.

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One thought on “Rules of Good Writing

  1. I really enjoyed this piece. I just finished read Egri’s “Art of Dramatic Writing” and I think it has convinced me to adopt the approach you have outlined here: constructing a premise first, and then outlining the kinds of characters that premise requires to be brought to its conclusion. I have possibly hundreds of short stories and novels that I’ve written over the years, and I can count on one hand the ones that reached any conclusion at all, let alone a dramatic one! And yes, as you surely just guessed, the protagonist in every instance is a thinly veiled version of myself, not attached to any dramatic premise, and more often than not wallowing through some emotions that I myself have yet to fully process or understand.

    Basically, I have been writing memoir more than fiction, while thinking — or hoping — that I was writing fiction!

    You ask the question of where you look for premise, and then I think your provide the answer when you say write about that which you have already conquered. I do think this is our best bet for finding dramatic premises that we understand and believe in.

    However, we often think we have conquered things that we have not! Not many things in our own lives will ever, in fact, reach the complete and neat resolution necessary for dramatic story on the Ibsen scale. Here is the paradox: You are taking events from your own life, because really, what other material is there? But, the events from your own life are precisely the ones that are most mysterious for you.

    So there must be a moment when the complex, ambiguous, and probably unresolved episode from your past that you choose as the basis for a story is converted into something clear, unambiguous, and fully resolved. This, maybe, is almost a definition of art: to impose, for a fleeting moment, meaning on chaos. And I think it is an inherently artificial thing to do.

    All this is my long way of saying, choosing something that you have conquered is maybe less important than being willing to artificially impose a clear dramatic premise onto whatever material you are working on. It is by doing this that it ceases to be your story and becomes instead the characters’ story. And characters, unlike us, can taste the forbidden fruit of catharsis.

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