Most people who read our storytelling advice either appreciate the help or decide it’s not for them and move on, but there’s always someone who will accuse us of using arbitrary rules to tell them how to write their story. It has happened enough times that I’ve decided to just go with it. From now on, all authors must follow the strictest set of storytelling rules I could find: the French Neoclassical Ideals.
What are the French Neoclassical Ideals, you ask? They’re a set of rules developed for French Renaissance theater and eventually codified by the Academie Francaise. These rules were serious business: when French playwright Pierre Corneille broke them writing Le Cid in 1637, he was censured and essentially driven out of theater for four years. Now Mythcreants is bringing the Neoclassical Ideals back! Anyone who doesn’t follow these strict requirements is a bad storyteller, and they should feel bad.
Now it’s just possible not everyone knows what the French Neoclassical Ideals are, which would make following them hard. Fortunately, I’m in a generous mood, so I’ll lay out the important ones for you. You can’t say you weren’t warned when the story police pull you over!
All Stories Must Have Verisimilitude
The first rule of French Neoclassicism is that all stories need verisimilitude. Since literally no one knows the definition of “verisimilitude,” in this context it means that the story must be believable. That sounds easy, right? We already try to make our stories as believable as possible. Au contraire, for those Renaissance-era French folk had a very specific interpretation in mind when they said “believable.”
First of all, no gods, magic, ghosts, aliens, or any other speculative elements. Those are all too unbelievable. No one can take a book seriously when it has that sort of thing in it. That’s right – Mythcreants is no longer a speculative fiction site. We’re now a regular fiction site, and our name is Creants.
Second, absolutely no breaking the fourth wall. Ever. People just can’t handle it. Can you imagine, you’re reading a book and then the book acknowledges itself? Oh no, I’ve fallen down the existential well just thinking about it. What is fiction? What is truth? How do I end this tangent?
Okay, I’ve gotten my existentialism under control. It might seem overly harsh to ban the very speculative elements we’ve spent five years talking about, but that’s clearly the only option. People can’t suspend their disbelief; it’s impossible. The only correct path is to make stories so normal and mundane that audiences fall asleep before they get confused.
Decorum Must Be Maintained
To us, “decorum” sounds like good manners, but to the venerable Academie Francaise, it meant that stories should aim to teach as well as please. On its face, that doesn’t sound so different from what we’ve always advocated. After all, we firmly espouse that all stories are political and that if you can give your story a positive message, you should, because why not?
But we’re following the Ideals, and those were specifically out to teach the upholding and promulgation of French morals. So your story had better be in line with whatever France thinks is moral. Admittedly, I don’t know the first thing about French morals, so you should probably catch a flight across the pond and ask. It shouldn’t take you too long to interview the entire country; it’s only got about 70 million people!
Luckily for us, the Ideals are specific on at least a few points of decorum. First, good people should be rewarded, and bad people should be punished. That sounds a lot like the concept of character karma we’ve talked about on the blog before, but we should take it to the extreme just to be safe. That means no morally questionable anti-heroes get a happy ending, and no upright characters are brought low by a single tragic flaw. That sort of gray morality is counter to the right thinking of French citizens.
Finally, absolutely no violence. Apparently that’s against French morals, which is weird considering how many wars and conquests France has been involved in, but never you mind. From now on, all stories must be solved with words and hugs. If I see even one blaster or broadsword, we will have words.
There Shall Be No Mixing of Dramatic Styles
Finally, an Ideal I don’t have to define in painstaking detail! From now on, all stories must firmly pick one style and stick with it, because no one ever wants to lighten the mood of their tragedy with a joke or hear a somber speech in their comedy. Literally no one wants that. It’s never been done successfully.
Do you remember how The Martian used Mark Watney’s humor to give the reader some relief from the never-ending barrage of danger on the red planet? Yeah, that was a terrible decision. The book would have been so much better if the tension had just gone up in an uninterrupted line. Granted, many people would have never finished the book, but it would have been purer from a stylistic perspective.
Similarly, absolutely no one likes how Terry Pratchett infused meaningful, often tragic ideas into his funny Discworld stories. Like that time when Commander Vimes found the strength to escape from certain death because he knew his young son was waiting for a bedtime story. That didn’t work at all. I’m not crying – you’re crying.
This also extends to an absolute ban on mixing speculative genres. Star Wars taught us that no one is interested in fantasy elements popping up in a scifi universe, so I don’t want to see any mixing and matching. Woe betide any author who has their high fantasy characters invent a steam engine! Of course, we already banned any spec fic elements two ideals ago, so hopefully this won’t be a problem.
You Will Respect the Three Unities
The Unities are a set of rules that the French sort of inherited from Aristotle. I say “sort of” because the Neoclassical version of the Unities doesn’t quite look like what Aristotle published in Poetics, but we’re only interested in the Academie’s rules today.
Unity of Time
Every story must take place within one rotation of the sun, or 24 hours. I see you sneaky scifi writers thinking you can squeeze in extra hours by setting your story on a planet with a longer day. We already banned all spec fic elements, so none of that. Who would even believe in a planet other than Earth? Nope, you’re stuck with the same 24 hours as the rest of us.
This is necessary because there’s just no way to hold an audience’s attention for more than 24 hours of in-universe time. For that matter, 24 hours is probably pushing it. To truly fulfill the spirit of this Ideal, your story must pass as much in-universe time as it takes to read or watch. “But people read at different rates,” I can already hear you saying. Sorry, but I don’t make the rules. Take it up with the Academie.
Unity of Place
Your story must take place in only one location. Just one. If we want to be really generous, we can say multiple rooms in the same building count as the same location. But don’t let me catch your characters going to visit the neighbors. Not only is it important to limit your locations so as not to strain the audience, but it also saves you the effort of having to describe a second location. Who needs that extra work?
Unity of Action
Your story must have only one plot. Okay, that actually sounds like what we’d have said before adopting the Ideals of French Neoclassicism, with how much we go on about throughlines and such. But now we’re serious: no subplots ever, no matter how well they tie into your main plot. Did you want a chapter about your protagonist learning to cook in preparation for the main plot of political intrigue in a fancy restaurant? Too bad, only one plot for you. And don’t even think about using an exciting external conflict as the background for your romance story.
Five Acts Is the Only Possible Length
The last Ideal is that all stories must be exactly five acts, no more, no less. That makes sense – how are you going to tell a story in four acts? That’s just impossible; there’s not enough time! Also, everyone in the audience will die of old age if you extend a story to six acts.
Now that we’ve got the rightness of five acts settled, there’s a problem: these Ideals were meant for plays, and I’m not really sure what an act translates to for prose work. Let’s say a chapter. That sounds appropriately idealistic. So now all prose fiction must have exactly five chapters, no matter how long it is. Yes, that does include your 500-word flash piece.
While we’re improving on the Ideals, each chapter must be exactly the same length by word count. You may have heard that chapters will often vary in length based on the needs of the story, but that’s quitter talk. All you need to do is divide your total word count by five, and then put a chapter break at each multiple. Yes, this may cause some slight inconvenience like chopping an important scene in half, but if anyone complains, tell them you are employing an artistic cliffhanger!
At Mythcreants, we understand that discussing best practices for storytelling can be frustrating because stories are extremely personal. However, we’re only offering advice. We couldn’t force our advice on anyone even if we wanted to, not unless someone is prepared to make us the next Academie Francaise. On the off chance that anyone is considering that, you know how to contact us.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?