Michael Moorcock is a British author well known for writing dozens of influential novels over his long career and also for a rambling rant about how The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down are bad because of… reasons. I’d love to be more specific, but I’ve read the whole thing and that’s the best I could get. Fortunately, we’re not talking about Moorcock’s infamous essay* today. Instead, we’re looking at his ten rules of writing, making him the latest author to enter this prestigious competition. Will Moorcock finally unseat Vonnegut by achieving a rating of more than 50% useful? Let’s find out!
The First Rule
My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.
In this first entry, Moorcock partakes of the classic gambit: smuggle two rules in under the same heading. Is there a penalty writers have to pay if their list of rules goes over ten? Anyway, part one of this rule is exemplified by the sentence “Read everything you can lay hands on,” and it’s the same old cliché that pops up everywhere: that a successful writer needs to read a lot.
This is simply untrue. Reading can certainly be helpful for writers,* but what matters is that you read critically, not how many books you read. By reading critically, you can see how a story works and understand which of the author’s choices were successful and which weren’t. This is far more important than any page-count goals. Writers as a group don’t have a lot of free time, and there’s no need to waste what little they have cramming down words.
Then we get to the rule’s second half, and it’s even more wrong. If reading outside your genre enriches your life, great; that’s what fiction is for. But it won’t make you a better writer. You don’t need to read space fantasy murder mystery to get better at writing time travel steampunk romance. There’s simply no causal mechanism there. The only justification I can imagine is that reading outside your genre will give you fresh ideas, but fresh ideas can come from anywhere!
So if you want your fiction to be informed by 17th-century English puritanism, then go ahead and read some John Bunyan. Otherwise, there’s no need to torture yourself.
Conclusion: A misguided cliché.
The Second Rule
Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.
Hang on, I thought we weren’t supposed to focus on books in the same genre as what we want to write. So we should find a book from a different genre and then copy it? I don’t think it’ll work very well for Discworld’s Commander Vimes to show up and save the day in my gritty cyberpunk romance.
Joking aside, I’m not sure exactly what Moorcock means by “copy.” Is he recommending that we critically examine our favorite stories, then use what we learn to inform our own writing? If so, then sign me up! Watching Star Wars: A New Hope is a great way to learn how throughlines work, and those lessons can be easily applied to any work of fiction, scifi or otherwise.
If Moorcock is using “copy” more literally, then this might be a useful exercise for some authors, but not many. Most authors I work with are motivated to write because they have a story they want to tell, and copying another writer would destroy any motivation to finish. At the same time, it’s questionable whether this would actually teach authors anything.
To learn from a published story, you need to understand the mechanics of storytelling. And if you understand the mechanics, then you can apply them to your own work rather than copying something else, which is what I recommended in the first place. We’ve come full circle, and I still don’t know what this rule wants us to do.
Conclusion: Too vague to be useful.
The Third Rule
Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.
In our third entry, we have finally hunted down some good advice! Important story elements need to be introduced early; otherwise, they feel random and arbitrary. Few things are more annoying than a major character showing up in the last chapter to save the day, and this goes for plot and worldbuilding too. If a story pivots from romantic comedy to gritty action at the halfway point, that will only frustrate the audience that’s already invested in the romantic comedy. If your story is historical fantasy, introducing aliens in the final act won’t go over well.
That’s why we always advise authors to introduce their major elements as early as possible, by the one-third mark at the very latest, and it’s nice to see that Moorcock agrees. Why one-third? Because it’s our best guess for how long you have until the audience’s conception of the story has solidified. Before that, they’re still figuring out what kind of story you’re telling, so you have more freedom to introduce new stuff. In most cases, we should meet the major characters before then, or at least learn about them. Important plot arcs need to be started and big reveals should be foreshadowed.
Of course, this isn’t an exact science or a blank check. Earlier is usually better when it comes to introducing important elements, especially when those elements are story-defining. If your story is about a postapocalyptic wasteland, that should probably be clear up front. If the early chapters appear to be about starting a small business and you wait until exactly the one-third mark to reveal the truth, your readers will get mad.
Even so, this is a good guideline to use, and I hope more writers take it into consideration.
Conclusion: Very useful.
The Fourth Rule
If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction.
Uh, Michael? This is just rule three again, but this time you’ve added “plot elements.” I understand wanting to coast on previous hits – I’ve been harping on oppressed mages for three years now – but this is a little silly.
I guess this rule is also a little different in that it’s specifically for “plot-driven” stories, but I have no idea why that would matter. When people say a story is plot driven, they usually mean it focuses on external conflicts more than internal ones, but important plots should be introduced early regardless.
For example, the anime Fruits Basket is what would usually be considered “character driven,” as it’s all about the characters’ internal and relationship arcs. But it still takes time early to introduce the plot of several characters being supernaturally tied to the zodiac animals. If that had showed up out of nowhere in the third season, it would not have been a fun time.
Conclusion: As useful as it is repetitive.
The Fifth Rule
Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.
I see what Moorcock is doing here: creating a set of rules for what to do with the beginning, middle, and end of your story. The problem is that the previous rule was to avoid a specific consequence, while this is much fuzzier. If you introduce important elements late in the story, it feels random and out of nowhere. But there’s no corresponding reason to declare the middle third of your story exclusively for developing characters and other elements.
Make no mistake, you should be doing that in the middle third, but not just the middle third. Important story elements can and should be developed as soon as they’re introduced, which is usually in the first third. Likewise, development often continues right up until the conclusion. There’s no reason to arbitrarily contain all development to the middle third of a story.
This advice gives the impression that you should be rigidly sectioning your story. Beginnings are only for introducing things, middles are only for development, and endings are for something else entirely. I suspect we’ll find out more about those in the next rule. I cannot think of a reason for structuring a story the way Moorcock suggests; it just seems to be a pointless limitation.
Or, if we take this to mean that you should be developing stuff in the middle as well as in the rest of the story, then this rule is just “develop your story elements.” Yes, you should do that, but such a rule is only one step away from “write good” in terms of actionable advice.
Conclusion: Not particularly useful.
The Sixth Rule
Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.
And there it is, the conclusion to this strange trilogy of rules, with exactly the same problem as the one before. It’s true that you need to resolve your major plots, be they mystery or otherwise, but the “final third” is simply too broad a time frame. Moorcock’s rule about beginnings was specific and actionable, while this one points to an entire third of your book and tells you to resolve stuff somewhere in there.
When to resolve a conflict is highly dependent on what kind of conflict it is. If it’s the throughline, then you should resolve it in the climax, and that should usually be near the end. If the story’s climax is just past the two-thirds mark, that’s too early! Some falling action is good, but not an entire third of the story. That’ll just be boring. And in most cases, major conflicts should be resolved together so they have more punch. Spreading the resolutions out just dilutes their impact. Imagine if Luke destroyed the Death Star and then a few scenes later Han Solo returned to help the Rebellion with a different problem. It just wouldn’t be as satisfying.
Likewise, some resolutions will happen earlier in the story, especially with child arcs. These are the stepping stones that form a greater conflict together, and they often resolve well before the final third. Getting safely out of the Shire is a child arc in Frodo’s bigger conflict of destroying the ring at Mount Doom, which is why it gets resolved early. Can you imagine if Tolkien had tried to drag out the Shire escape until the end of Fellowship?
Taken together, these three* rules remind me of those plot diagrams that make it look like the climax should happen in the middle of the story, with an equal amount of rising action before and falling action afterward. It’s a misguided attempt to create a symmetrical approach to storytelling, but stories aren’t symmetrical. You can’t always divide them neatly into equal parts.
Conclusion: Asymmetrically useless.
The Seventh Rule
For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.
Hey now, it’s pretty rude to make me go read someone else’s writing advice to judge how good your own writing advice is. Fortunately, the plot formula in question is easily accessed with a little Googling, so I took a look and…
I’m afraid it’s mediocre at best. Lester Dent certainly tells authors to do a lot of things, but he’s really vague on why and how. And that’s assuming you can even tell what some of this advice means. Twice we’re told to “shovel grief” on the hero, which I assumed meant to give the hero problems, but later we’re told to shovel “difficulties.” Did the earlier entries mean actual grief? Following this formula will definitely lead to a story where lots of things happen, but none of it will be particularly coherent.
To make matters worse, Moorcock seems to be a bit confused about genre terminology. While melodramas can be pulpy, and pulp can be melodramatic, they are not the same thing. “Melodrama” refers to either a historical theater category or a story with over-the-top emotions, while pulp usually means stories with highly sensational plots.
It’s even sillier to claim that Dent’s formula is broadly applicable to different types of stories. Not only is the formula hyperspecific to pulp stories, it’s hyperspecific to pulp stories of exactly 6,000 words. I’m not sure what would make Moorcock think otherwise, except that Dent divides stories into four chunks of equal length. We’ve already seen how much Moorcock likes symmetrical storytelling advice, so maybe that’s what’s going on here.
Conclusion: Outsourced uselessness.
The Eighth Rule
If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.
Good news, this is great advice! Although, to complicate things, not for the reason Moorcock gives. Exposition and philosophizing have the same potential to be boring regardless of what else is happening in the scene. If anything, having an action sequence at the same time can make the boredom worse, since it’s taking the audience away from something exciting. If you pause a sword fight for dialogue about the inner workings of your fantasy tax bureau, that’s just as boring as if it happened in a conference room. And you will have to pause the sword fight since, given the linear nature of space-time, you can’t narrate two things at once.
Avoiding boredom in your exposition is a separate topic, entirely unrelated to combining it with action. But guess what: you should still combine your exposition with other scenes whenever possible. Why? Efficiency!
Consider: you need a scene where two characters discuss the magics of a lost civilization, and you need another scene where the same characters investigate an archeological dig site. Combine those scenes, and, presto, your characters are now discussing the magics of a lost civilization while investigating an archeological site for clues. The combined scene is longer than either of its precursors on their own, but shorter than the two of them put together. Plus, it saves you at least one transition.
If storytellers can achieve the same results with fewer words, that’s usually the right choice. It costs less of the audience’s time and leaves more room for the story to do what really matters. Naturally, this method has its limits. Readers will get pretty frustrated if you keep interrupting an exciting chase for long paragraphs about how cars work. But, where possible, it’s a great way to make your story stronger.
Conclusion: Useful, but you need to figure out why on your own.
The Ninth Rule
Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).
This is the second rule where I’m having a difficult time figuring out what Moorcock means.* The carrot-and-stick metaphor would usually mean giving the character some kind of reward in addition to hardships, which, to be fair, is usually a good idea. But the part about pursuing while also being pursued throws that all for a loop, as I’m not sure how either of those could constitute a “carrot.”
My best guess is that he means the protagonist should be proactive as well as reactive. If that’s true, then it’s good advice that a lot of authors would benefit from. Most protagonists need to be both reactive and proactive at different points in the story, and it’s especially common for the heroes to be reactive at the beginning, when the villain gets in their shots and scores some early victories.
The problem is that many authors forget to make their hero more proactive later. Instead, it’s always the villain taking initiative and choosing the plot’s direction. This can rob the hero of agency or even make the story’s villain look like its real main character. It especially helps to give the hero goals of their own beyond stopping the villain, and I believe that’s what Moorcock is suggesting here.
Conclusion: Useful, if you assign it the right meaning.
The Tenth Rule
Ignore all proffered rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.
Believe it or not, I’m sympathetic to people who look at writing advice this way. There is so much bad advice out there that it’s easy to throw up your hands and ignore the whole thing. Heck, I wouldn’t have spent eight years writing for Mythcreants if I weren’t so frustrated by all the times I’ve seen people push bad plot formulas or invent fake genres to prop up their poorly researched ideas.
Despite all that, Moorcock’s final rule isn’t helpful. The only force equal to the tide of bad writing advice is a new writer’s certainty that they already know everything they need to know and can just do whatever they want. If that were really how storytelling worked, there’d be no need for anyone to give advice, whether it comes from spec-fic blogs or famous writers offering ten-point lists.
It’s especially disingenuous to advocate for writers to do what they like as part of a list of writing rules. It comes across more like a disclaimer than anything else. “If my rules don’t work, it’s not because my advice is bad; it’s just a sign you’re a free spirit and need to throw off the shackles of storytelling rules.”
The reality is that anyone can ignore any writing advice at any time.* People don’t need special permission, and including it here is at best a cop-out. At worst, it’s encouraging authors who already don’t want to follow best practices and who just needed an excuse.
Conclusion: Useless filler.
In the final count, four of Moorcock’s ten rules rate as useful. However, since two of those rules are nearly identical, I’m more inclined to judge it as three out of nine, or approximately 33.33% usefulness. That’s higher than some of the authors I’ve looked at, but not enough to dethrone Vonnegut’s score of 50%.
This is also probably the last author from the original Guardian article who’s worth looking at. The others are either obvious jokes or too out-there to even comment on. So if anyone has a suggestion for other storytelling rules to look at, please let me know in the comments!
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?