Commentary

Recognizing Bad and Good Storytelling Advice

This post is 2 in the series: Navigating the Jungle of Storytelling Advice
Writing advice comes at all levels of quality, from enlightening, to helpful in some circumstances, to story-ruining. For an example of all of these, just look at our breakdown of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing. Yes, Kurt Vonnegut, a famous writer, had advice that ran the gamut from great to terrible.

To instruct you on exactly what advice is good or bad, I’d have to teach you everything I know about storytelling. I’m working on that, but in the meantime, I’ll give you what tips I can.

What Advice to Ignore

Let’s look at some general categories of bad advice I’ve seen out there.

Opinionated Process Advice

Many people have strong opinions not only on what a good story is, but also on the process you must use to get there. They might tell you how often to write, how much you should plan your story before writing it, or what aspects of a story you should plan first.

For some writers, tips in this area can be very helpful. Maybe you have trouble motivating yourself to write, but once you do it every day as someone suggests, it gets a lot easier. However, process advice can never be more than ideas that may or may not work. The characteristics of a good story are universal, but the habits that people use to get there are not. If someone tells you that you must write every day, they are revealing their own ignorance and arrogance.

I do have some sympathy for advice givers who insist everyone has to plan their story ahead. For a lot of people, it’s much easier to get good results by outlining first, and not everyone who would benefit from outlining wants to do it right off. Even so, to insist that everyone must plan is to forget that stories are infinitely malleable. Unlike building a house or cooking a meal, you can modify your results as much as you’d like without starting over. For some, ad-libbing is worth modifying their results a lot. Ultimately, only you can judge if planning is for you.

More importantly, process advice can’t replace lessons in storytelling. Imagine you hand your story to an editor, and that editor tells you that your characters are weak. To make them stronger, your editor instructs you to go people watching and take notes. Who knows, maybe people watching will help you, but even if it does, that editor still isn’t doing right by you. You weren’t told what was wrong with your characters, so you didn’t get the opportunity to better understand storytelling and craft your own solution. If the people watching doesn’t make your characters better, you’re back at square one.

Genre Requirements

You might have noticed that though Mythcreants is a speculative fiction blog, most of the advice we give works for other genres too. When we specify a genre for an article, it’s because we are discussing something that most commonly appears in that genre, like magic for fantasy or spaceships for science fiction. Our advice is like this because genre has little impact on storytelling itself. A hook, climax, and resolution are exactly the same anywhere.

Yet I have seen lots of genre-specific advice in the wild, very little of it worth the paper or pixels it used. People are fascinated by genre, so it’s a natural thing for advice givers to gravitate toward. But they usually treat genre like it’s both more essential and more limiting than it really is. Somehow, industry professionals never get tired of making up stuff that is required for a genre and insisting writers follow their guidelines.

They also tend to ignore how different genres are defined by different things. For instance, romances and mysteries are defined by a specific type of plot, whereas most speculative genres are defined by setting or atmosphere. No matter what anyone says, there is no type of plot required by fantasy or science fiction. You’ll want a plot that makes use of the fantastical elements present in the setting, but the same goes for any memorable story element for any story in any genre.

It is true that your genre will give readers certain expectations. But in comparison to what stories have in common, these story elements are minor and more flexible. On top of that, if you are writing in a genre, it’s probably because you know and like that genre. In that case, any “requirements” you don’t already know are just as likely to make your writing less imaginative as they are to help you.

Genre’s real purpose is to market your story once it’s written. Traditional publishers care about genre, but they’re also very fickle about which genres they want. By the time you finish writing a novel, they’ll probably want something different.

The bottom line is that if you’re new, you should focus on storytelling itself. Getting into genre is putting the cart before the horse. If you’re an experienced writer and you are switching genres, then you might have reason to do some genre research.

Unpleasant and Elitist Advice

Unlike many writing websites, Mythcreants never uses the word “amateur.” Instead of having a list post on “Five Amateur Character Mistakes” we might have one on “Five Common Character Mistakes.” We don’t use the term “amateur” because I have banned it. In this industry, it’s a derogatory term, and those who use it are getting web traffic by instilling fear of humiliation in readers.

Most storytellers long for outside validation. That’s only natural. It’s also natural to hear about problems in fiction, realize our work contains these problems, and worry that it makes us look bad. But advice givers don’t have to blatantly capitalize on this insecurity. They should motivate you to sharpen your skills because it’s rewarding to do so, not because a few blemishes in your work would make you a fraud.

If you are reading clear advice, then at some point you will probably feel defensive about your own work. That’s okay, because we all need to learn about flaws in our work to get better. But while we should strive to be receptive to advice that challenges us, there are boundaries that the advice givers shouldn’t cross.

  • No one should tell you that you’re not a “real” writer or that you’re not a professional.
  • No one should say that you need natural talent to learn from them. That only means they’re bad at their job.
  • No one should make cutting personal remarks about you or other people who wrote badly crafted works. They should focus on the work itself and the flaws that the work has.

If you don’t feel good about the advice you’re getting, there are many other sources of advice available.

What Advice to Look For

Let’s look at a few characteristics that separate great advice from okay advice.

Not Just Ideas, but Lessons

Sometimes writers need a quick solution to a specific problem that won’t come up again. That’s fine. But in general, advice givers should not only give you a fish that will feed you today but also teach you how to fish so you can feed yourself tomorrow.

Let’s say you ask this question: “My protagonist is a gladiator, and I’m not sure how to make readers like them.”

An advice giver might toss a bunch of ideas your way:

  • Make the gladiator try to avoid killing others in the ring.
  • Explain how the gladiator is fighting to win the money needed to buy their loved one out of slavery.
  • Show how the gladiator has to work really hard to get better or they won’t have a chance to survive.

These are fine ideas, but if that’s all the advice is, you won’t learn the principles that make these ideas work. If you are also told that your character should demonstrate selflessness and invoke sympathy, you can come up with additional ways of showing that on your own.

Not Just Lessons, but Reasons

In the messy and unreliable realm of writing advice, it’s not enough to take someone’s word that you should do something. That person must explain why in a way that you understand.

Don’t get me wrong – storytelling is made of concepts built upon concepts built upon concepts, and a single article doesn’t have enough room to explain it all. But if I tell you not to give your protagonist an easy victory because it will lower tension, you can at least read more about tension elsewhere on the website. We’ll link to it.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen many advice givers make statements like “every story needs a triple-reveal latte” without explaining any of the logic that went into that guideline. That neither builds your understanding of storytelling nor gives you any reason to trust the advice. In comparison, the advice giver might say, “Introducing a single-reveal latte at the start of your story will make readers think that they’ll get a triple-reveal latte at the end. If you don’t give it to them, they will feel dissatisfied.” Now you understand why the rule exists.

What’s more, now you can judge when their advice doesn’t apply. Almost every storytelling rule should be broken in the right circumstances. In most cases when we’re giving advice, we’re aiming it at the 99.9% of stories that should follow an essential rule. We don’t have time to go into the complex topic of that .1% of stories that would benefit from breaking it. But if you understand why the rule exists, you’ll know when to throw it away.

Not Just Reasons, but Instructions

I have seen a lot of writing advice that I can paraphrase as “write well.” The reason it’s not constructive to tell someone to “write well” is that they are already trying to do that; they just don’t know how. Similarly, it’s really easy for advice givers to present vague guidelines without instructions that someone could follow.

For instance, let’s say someone tells you that your narration should have an “engaging character voice.” To follow this advice, you need to understand not only what makes characters engaging but also how to make that character’s personality show up in your wordcraft. A hand wave with a few statements about knowing your character is not going to cut it.

Let’s say the advice giver shows you examples of narration with and without personality. That a bit better; you can at least compare them in your mind and come up with your own means of creating personality. Now what if they link to a list of common words and they tell you to replace those words with synonyms that better match your character’s personality? Those are instructions that anyone can follow.

Offering actionable instructions is not always easy for advice givers. It takes transforming something that feels instinctual and subjective into something tangible. But if we can’t explain something so that others can benefit from it, there’s no point in mentioning it at all.


In my first post in this series, I explained how it’s difficult to judge who is and isn’t a storytelling expert. At Mythcreants, we don’t try to prove we are qualified to give advice with outside credentials; they don’t mean anything in this field. So how can we expect you to take our word for anything? We don’t. We want you to try out our guidelines, test them with readers, and judge the difference for yourself. We believe that the more you think about them and look into them, the better you will understand and appreciate them. Continue to do this, and each new guideline will feel more self-evident than the last.

However, not every advice blog works like ours. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the valid but confusing differences between our instruction and instruction you might receive elsewhere.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

 

Comments

  1. Dave L

    I’ve read numerous “amateur” stories that were better written than certain “professional” ones. Better characterization, plot, wordcraft, etc.

    Look at the “Lessons from the bad writing of” articles on here to realize that just because a writer got paid, even well-paid, that doesn’t mean that the story is all that good

    Conversely, some writers aren’t actively seeking pay. Their story is fanfic, or heavily erotic/fetishistic, or just simple practice. Or they just want to avoid the spotlight or the hassles that come w/ publishing. Or they (wrongly) think their work is so bad it’s unpublishable

    I do make a distinction between amateur and professional BEHAVIOR, but again, many so-called “professionals” are worse than the “amateurs”

  2. Cay Reet

    Great article!

    I’ve waded through tons of advice when I started writing ‘for real’ (trying to really put time in it and get all necessary skills down) a few years ago. I’ve been telling stories since I learned to talk, essentially, but that’s not the same as writing. After a while, I learned to tell whether or not some piece of advice worked for me.

    For instance: as a discovery writer, I can’t do much outlining. It’s not that I couldn’t sit down and plot something – I’m good at plotting otherwise. No, it’s that once I have my story plotted out and know what every scene will be, I can’t write it any longer. So I make a slight outline, just what I expect to happen in a chapter (where, you might have guessed, it often does not happen). Like this, I have a basic outline to cling to and can see where I’ll be going next, but I can’t get more precise before I get to the part in question. So a lot of books about writing aren’t of much use to me, because they are about doing a good outlining before you start (especially stuff like ‘First Draft in 30 Days’ which is highly geared to writers who plot everything out before they start writing).

    Funnily enough, the most helpful book on writing I’ve found so far was ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Writing Erotica.’ While the book does deal with writing erotic scenes, 90% or so of it are normal writing advice and most of it is more focused on making characters or moving the plot – things I can make a lot of use of. It’s a bit unorganised and some chapters rehash what was written before already, but the advice is still good. The ‘Cheater’s Guide’ pretty much cuts down to the bones, showing you all possible short-cuts, which often translates to giving you the mechanics of writing.
    Of course, Mythcreats has also be highly useful for writing advice since I found it.

    I’ve actually tried out quite some advice, especially on the mechanics of writing (like ‘write every day,’ ‘have a quota’ … which I actually do, in a way, or ‘plan everything in advance’), but not everything worked for me. I actually often found books which were focused on writing a specific genre more helpful – because they go into the mechanics of that genre while also adding general things like character generation, plot points, handling different settings etc. So even a book on writing mystery stories can be useful, if it also goes into crafting the characters, spinning the plot, or detailing the case.

    • C.C.

      I completely agree that explanations (instead of vague advice) and examples are brilliant. I also agree fully that finding out what kind of advice works for you is part of learning the craft. My own writing history is so, so close to Cay Reet’s. I wrote for years, but about five years ago I decided to take it more seriously and write novels. That was completely different to my “hobby”-writing, and I had to learn a lot of new stuff. A lot! I wasn’t an outliner, and had to create my own method for combining discovery writing with a rough outline that would steer me some and set up some goals to write towards, but without taking away the fun for me.
      Finding my own method for novel-writing was crucial, and it came from trying out a lot of stuff from books and online advice. Like Cay Reet I also find that craft books geared towards a genre helps me most, maybe because they don’t go through the absolute basics and talk more about the stuff that I find interesting at this point. “Writing Mysteries – a handbook by the mystery writers of America” is up there as my favourite, even though I don’t even write crime (so far), but some of the chapters have great examples on things like setting descriptions and style.
      Finding my writing gurus whose advice suited me was really important, and they all do different things for me. Some have less examples, but motivates me a lot, and Mythcreants works so well for me because of all the great articles on characters.

      • SunlessNick

        I like Writing Mysteries too. The Horror Writers of America have a similar book which is just as good.

        • C.C.

          Thanks for the tip, I’ll definitely check that one out.

        • Cay Reet

          Thanks for both tips, I’m looking into them and might get them at some point.

    • C.C.

      I see I unintentionally replied to you, Cay. It should have been a reply to the article. Sorry about that. I loved reading your comment though.

      • Cay Reet

        I surely don’t mind such a good answer to my comment, though

        And replying to another comment instead of the article can happen pretty quickly here.

        • C.C.

          Classic rookie mistake. Which will probably happen again.

  3. Tiberi

    could you clarify what you mean by “The characteristics of a good story are universal,”

    “genre has little impact on storytelling itself.”
    how do you define genre? Do you think it is definable, or that its just a blanket marketing term.

    I am of the opinion that for Sci-fi and Fantasy there is more to it than setting. Star Wars for example is Fantasy, in a sci-fi setting. The corollary of course is that you can have a Sci-fi story in a fantasy setting (I speculate that at least parts of the Simarillion are more sci-fi than fantasy)
    pinning down the distinction and key qualities has eluded me to this day however. Not even sure if they are genres, or if genres don’t actually exist, in which case I suppose Sci-fi and Fantasy would be modes of Writing or modes of some aspect of writing. Like how Mystery is a mode of plot. Horror is a mode of atmosphere.

    It makes me sad that amateur is derogatory. It has two meanings now; One who does it for the love of it, and A beginner lacking experience. Neither of these should be looked down upon.
    To do it for the love of it is a noble thing. The best professional writers are almost always amateurs at heart. The two states are not mutually exclusive. To be this Amateur should be glorified (but don’t start demonizing professionals. Artists need to eat too)
    To be a beginner is both nothing to be ashamed of (we all need to start somewhere), and is an opportunity for unbridled creativity. Amateurs do not yet know the “rules”, or what is “wrong” to do. So they just do. They do. They create. And the more they are able to just do without constant self doubt about “rules”, the more they will develop their own style and voice, and the more different stuff you’ll get. it may not always be good different stuff. but even bad different stuff is important, because it can be taken as inspiration to make good different stuff.
    related- I think good advice is never “that is wrong”, but “that doesn’t work here (and is hard to make work”. Not “You didn’t do X with character Y” but “Character Y could benefit from X”

    Triple reveal latte? what?

    Good article, looking to be a good series

    • Chris Winkle

      By “The characteristics of a good story are universal,” I don’t mean that personal taste plays no role in someone’s enjoyment, it definitely does, but that there are also characteristics that make stories better independent of taste. Like any craft, storytelling has basic principles. I almost want to call them natural laws, but since it’s all built on human psychology I’m not sure the word “natural” applies. For an example of what types of characteristics I’m talking about, you can look at this post for instance: https://mythcreants.com/blog/the-four-critical-elements-that-make-stories-popular/

      Everyone has strong and different opinions about what defines a genre, and I think that’s a big reason why there’s so much bad genre advice out there. Someone will be like: “fantasy is about tradition,” but not every fantasy is about tradition and it’s still fantasy. In a best case scenario, it’s a philosophical debate that might be fun for participants but isn’t helpful for learners. In a worst case scenario, someone is doing genre policing – trying to make everyone else write their favorites genres in the same way they do. In the end, the only reason writers have to pay attention to any kind of genre definitions is that it might change the marketability of their works. And I think most writers are much better served by writing what they want to write than trying to guess what publishers will want by the time their novel is finished.

      I don’t think “Amateur” has to be negative, and I’m all for reclaiming it. I’ve just seen the label used as a scare tactic on too many writing websites. For anyone who wants to reclaim it, you have to be very clear you’re using it in a positive manner.

    • Chris Winkle

      Oh, and the “triple reveal latte” was a sort of joke. Apparently a poor one

  4. Tiberia

    “Conversely, some writers aren’t actively seeking pay. Their story is… heavily erotic/fetishistic…”

    *slowly raises hand*
    I sure would like to get paid tho. Or just to get a bigger audience to share with.
    Also, unrelated, but a lot of people think less of writing that is erotic. “don’t think about it, its porn” this is wrong. It is a mode of writing deserving of
    just as much consideration as other modes. And there is a lot to discuss about it. much of it applicable elsewhere, just more obvious in erotic writing.
    Ok, off my soap box

    I would also add people who write to help themselves work through things. I would not have started HRT 2 days ago if I had not made one of my characters trans, and worked out a lot of my feelings through her.

    • Tiberia

      This was supposed to be in reply to Dave L

    • Cay Reet

      People simply underestimate how hard it is to write erotica so a lot of different people can enjoy it. Well written erotic scenes are pretty rare and something to treasure.

  5. Amy Marie

    This is very encouraging and I can’t wait to come back and slowly go through your links. Thank you!

    • Jenn Nixon

      You’ll be here all day and not get bored!

  6. river

    I hope you don’t mind me mentioning a site that I like.
    A website I found very helpful (other than Mythcreants of course!) is Fiction University http://blog.janicehardy.com
    It was started by an indie author frustrated by bad advice. The articles are easy to understand but not dumbed down. You can search topics easily too. When I was starting out I practically lived at the site. I am a writer focused on character, and my plots had a tendency to get lost in the weeds. Through Janice’s website I learned the concept of a ‘premise novel’, which accurately described all my work up to that date. It was eye-opening. No wonder I was frustrated and finding it difficult to end otherwise interesting work. Mythcreants added to this the concept of ‘throughlines’, and I am a much happier plotter and writer now.

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