Unlike previous lists of writing rules, Emma Coats did not contain herself to a mere 10 or 11 entries. Instead, she forged ahead with 22, striking a powerful blow against bloggers who prefer to get all their commentary done in a single article. Out of the first 11 rules, six proved at least partly useful, a strong showing compared to previous lists. It’s time to see what the remaining rules have in store for us, and, personally, I’m excited. Coats has demonstrated a penchant for practical advice, and I’m sure that trend will continue!
The Twelfth Rule
Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
I am, of course, immediately proven wrong. This rule is so out there that, at first, I assumed there must be more to it, but no. As far as I can tell, it’s exactly what it looks like: advice to discard your initial ideas for no reason other than the hope that a later idea will be more of a surprise.
Let me be very clear: There is no reason to do this. Your first idea is just as likely to be as good as your sixth; discarding it out of hand is just silly. If anything, your first idea is probably the one you’re most passionate about, giving it an edge over any ideas that come later. You can, of course, discard any number of ideas because they turn out to be dead ends or you simply lack the energy to work on them anymore, but this arbitrary rule is absurd. I can only imagine the nightmare of writing an article each week if I had to skip past my first five ideas every time.
The best spin I can put on this rule is that discarding your immediate ideas might eventually lead you to something more novel. Maybe that’s how it works for Coats, I can’t say, but not the rest of us. We’d just end up with the dregs after dropping all our best material.
Conclusion: Do not do this.
The Thirteenth Rule
Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
At first, this rule reads as a bit too obvious. I suspect most writers already know that their characters should have opinions and not be passive. However, knowing something intellectually and putting it into practice are very different. The manuscripts I work on often include passive characters who don’t have much in the way of personality or motivation, and sometimes these characters even slip through into published stories. Looking at you, Boba Fett.
Such characters are invariably boring, and the more screen time they take up, the worse it gets. Going through the manuscript and making sure the major characters have opinions – and that you know what those opinions are – is at least a step in making your characters more engaging. Granted, having opinions is only one part of what makes a good character, but it’s an important part.
What sets this rule apart from other seemingly obvious advice like “find the right word” is that it’s at least specific. Most writers can tell whether their characters have opinions or not. There’s a high chance they already do, since that tends to be one of the first things writers come up with, but it’s important to double check.
Conclusion: Partly useful.
The Fourteenth Rule
Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
One of the big questions I ask every client is what elements of their story are most important to them. Sometimes, this is obvious. In a story about saving the galaxy, the hero who saves the galaxy is obviously most important. In other cases, it’s less clear. Maybe an author can’t figure out how to proceed with their favorite plot, so it disappears halfway through the story. Or, a new side character catches the author’s fancy in a big way, taking over the narrative and pushing out the original protagonist.
Once we figure out what’s most important to the author’s vision, it’s usually time for some serious revision. Everything crowding out the author’s favorite plot needs to be cut, while the overly important side character either needs to be made into the protagonist or shunted off into their own book. Whatever the specifics, it’s a lot of work.
A lot of that work can be saved if the author considers this rule ahead of time. If you know what the most important element of your story is, you can build everything else to support it from the beginning. That shiny side character can just be the hero – nothing’s stopping you! It’s a better writing experience, and it saves money on editing as well.
Conclusion: Very useful.
The Fifteenth Rule
If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
On a first read, this doesn’t sound like great advice. Your character probably isn’t you, so they wouldn’t react the same way you would. Also, if you’re writing spec fic, your character is probably in situations unlike anything you’ve personally faced, so how useful can this exercise be?
The trick is that few writers begin their careers knowing how their characters should make decisions, and the results are easy to spot. We can all think of stories where the characters make inexplicable choices, whether it’s Padme brushing off Anakin’s mass murder of Tusken children in Attack of the Clones or Daenerys burning down King’s Landing in the final season of Game of Thrones.
Few of us are psychologists, so we have to start with the basics when considering how our characters make decisions. Often, that means considering our own reactions as a baseline. That baseline then needs to be modified to account for different circumstances and life experiences, but at least we have a foundation to work from.
Conclusion: Useful for beginners.
The Sixteenth Rule
What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Behold, the good advice continues! Stakes are an essential ingredient for generating tension, because if nothing is at stake, then who cares which way the conflict goes? I also really like the focus on what happens if the characters don’t succeed. As a rule, audiences care more about negative consequences than positive ones.
Consider a story where the hero is trying to earn a promotion. If they get it, they’ll earn $70,000 a year instead of $50,000 a year. It’s great for them. They can get more stylish clothes, splurge for the latest video game console, maybe start saving for a new car. Most people would be thrilled if something like that happened to them.
But for audiences enjoying a story, it’s just not that big a deal. The character already had everything they needed, so getting some nice things on top of that isn’t exactly gripping. To make this conflict more tense, we’d have to add some negative stakes. If they don’t get the promotion, they won’t be able to fix their roof, and water will keep leaking in until their home is ruined. Now that’s a conflict with some meaningful stakes, even if they aren’t life and death.
Conclusion: So useful it’s a requirement.
The Seventeenth Rule
No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
This advice conflicts with the wisdom of rule eight, which advocates finishing your story above all. That’s okay, though, since rule eight was questionable at best, while this one is great. If a story isn’t working, it is, in fact, okay to put it down, especially if you’re writing in your free time and don’t depend on it for your income. In fact, that’s one of the main perks of not going pro!
Coats is also right that trunking a story doesn’t mean the time was wasted. Even if the only thing you learned was that you couldn’t make that particular story work, you’ve still gained knowledge from the experience. Chances are you learned more than that. Trunked stories are a great opportunity to learn why certain plots are more difficult than others, how certain characters might seem neat at first but then start to drag, or even just the best way for you to get words on paper.
And, of course, you can always come back to a trunked story later once you’ve built your skills out a bit. Just remember to print out a second copy if you feel like dramatically lighting the story on fire. We’ve all been there.
Conclusion: Useful for mental health as well as writing.
The Eighteenth Rule
You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
I honestly couldn’t make heads or tails of this rule, so I called Chris over to consult. After some discussion, we’re pretty sure the first sentence refers to the difference between fixing real problems versus making endless tweaks to a story that’s otherwise ready to go. For example, if your protagonist’s major arc about their parents’ betrayal is never resolved, that’s something you need to fix. On the other hand, if you’re endlessly agonizing over whether your hero should be in a complete triad with two cuties or simply dating two at once in a polycule, you can probably just pick one and move on.
If that’s indeed what Coats means, then it’s very important. It’s far too easy for writers to skip needed revisions by imagining they are trivial tweaks instead. This is rarely a case of intentional deception. Authors simply convince themselves that certain revisions aren’t necessary, because actually doing them is difficult and emotionally draining. At the same time, authors can also fall into the trap of making endless small adjustments. It’s important to know the difference, and while a short writing rule can’t give you complete instructions, it’ll at least get you thinking about the issue.
That said, I have no idea what that second sentence means, and neither does Chris. It seems like storytelling inevitably involves both testing and refining. Maybe it would make more sense if we were animators? Fortunately, you could remove those five words and the rest of the advice would still be great.
Conclusion: Useful, if confusing.
The Nineteenth Rule
Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Coats has hit on a great truth of storytelling here: audiences will put much less scrutiny on a coincidence if it makes things worse for the heroes than if it makes things better. If your protagonist wins the day because a random roof shingle falls on the villain’s head, you’ll be laughed out of town. If your hero’s romance is complicated because a rival walks in on secret make-outs, you’re on the right track.
This happens because of tension and satisfaction. When something coincidentally bad happens to the hero, it raises tension, and that usually makes the story better. But if a coincidence solves the hero’s problem for them, then your audience is robbed of their chance to see the problem skillfully resolved, and there’s no satisfaction. Such good fortune can also reduce tension, as it becomes obvious that your authorial hand will shield the hero from harm, no matter how contrived things get.
Naturally, there are caveats and limits. A coincidence needs to be believable, even if it gets the hero into trouble. When Han Solo charges into a room full of stormtroopers, that’s a believable coincidence that makes things worse for him. It would be less believable if he ran into a room full of giant scorpions. Coincidences also shouldn’t be used to undo the result of a previous turning point. It would be really unsatisfying for Luke to destroy the Death Star, only for the rebel base to be crushed by a piece of debris.
You can occasionally get away with positive coincidences, so long as they’re minor. Edge cases like those aside, this rule is a great one to keep in mind.
Conclusion: Useful in most circumstances.
The Twentieth Rule
Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
I can only assume this rule was written for me because this is something I do every day for fun. Well, maybe “fun” isn’t exactly the right word. It’s more because my standards are unreasonably high and this is the only way I can be satisfied with any of the endless streams of entertainment that surround us on a daily basis.
Ahem. Besides that, this is an excellent exercise, something to try once you’ve started following the previous advice of watching, reading, and listening critically. If you can analyze what does and doesn’t work about a story, you can then imagine how those elements could be changed and improved. This is essential training for a content editor, and it’s useful for authors imagining their own revisions. Who knows, you might even get some fun fanfic out of it.
That said, such an exercise is much more useful if you understand how stories work and what makes them popular. Otherwise, you might get caught up in your own personal tastes. I’m not a big romance fan, so I always remind myself that the presence of a romance probably isn’t the problem, but rather the romance’s execution. Also that not every story is better if you add airships. Just most of them.
Conclusion: A useful exercise, especially if you’re knowledgeable about stories.
The Twenty-First Rule
You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
With 22 rules, it was always likely that we’d run into a repeat or two, and here one is now! Specifically, this is just rule 15 again: using yourself as a model to determine how your characters feel or act. It was good advice then, and it’s good advice now, but not so good that we needed to hear it a second time.
The only difference is that this rule also talks about identifying with your characters, which might be slightly different from imagining how you’d act in their place, depending on how Coats defines “identify.” The way we use the term, it means seeing things that you have in common with the character. This can mean demographic categories like age or gender, but it can also refer to common experiences. Freelancers are likely to identify with a hero who works on contract for unreasonable clients, as a random example.
The problem is that writers tend to identify too much with their characters, rather than too little. It’s easy for an author to connect their own experience with the character’s in a way the audience won’t. When you spend dozens of hours developing a hero, it’s easy to see how their laser duel is similar to the time you convinced a teacher to give you an extension on your final paper. This can make the character appear more compelling than they really are. However, it’s questionable how much any of this even matters, since Coats doesn’t seem to be using “identify” that way.
Conclusion: As useful as it is repetitive.
The Twenty-Second Rule
What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Initially, I thought this was another case of copycat ruling, since it appears quite similar to rule 14. Upon closer inspection, I think there’s a key difference. Rule 14 refers to determining what aspect of a story is most important to the author, while this rule is for determining what a story is about.
Those two are not always the same thing. In fact, one of the most common problems I encounter during editing is when the story is about one thing, but the author is most interested in something else. That’s when significant revisions are necessary.
But how do you determine what your story is about? That’s where the throughline comes in, something we talk about a lot because it’s so important. The throughline is introduced at the beginning, drives the plot throughout the story, and is resolved in the climax. Without one, it will be difficult indeed to say what the story is about.
Once you know what your throughline is, you can flesh it out to make a complete story or “build out from there,” as this rule would say. If you find that you can’t say what the story is about, that’s probably because the throughline is missing, which is the first thing to address in revisions.
Conclusion: A useful diagnostic.
Wow, 10 out of 11 rules rated as at least partly useful. That’s not only good, it blows every previous entry out of the water. However, since two of the rules are essentially duplicates, I have no choice but to rate it as 9 out of 10 instead. That’s still extremely good, and when combined with the previous score, we have 15 out of 21, or a usefulness score of approximately 71%. That’s still much better than the previous high score of 50%, which means we have a new champion! Coats clearly has a strong understanding of storytelling, even if her wording is sometimes difficult to parse. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must begin the search for an author who can crack 80%. It might be a while.
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