Storytelling

Seven Reasons It’s Definitely Okay to Neglect Storytelling Rules

Storytelling has rules, and the best way to tell good stories is to learn those rules so you can apply them to your own work. At least, that’s what we’d say if we were total squares who wanted to crush storytellers’ beautiful free spirits! Sure, maybe some authors do better when they stick to solid fundamentals and best practices, but not you. We all know that you’re very special and don’t need to follow any rules. But in case some rude editors or readers get on your case, just point them to one of these reasons, and they’ll recognize your true brilliance!

1. Frustration Means the Subversion Is Working

Some people (nerds) like to claim that if your story implies something is going to happen, then it should eventually happen. These nerds go on about how you need to build trust with your audience, or else why would they bother with your stories in the first place? Ugh, sounds like something you’d say if you didn’t understand the true nature of auteur genius.

Obviously your story can do whatever it wants. Foreshadowing? How droll. Satisfaction? Only fit for plebeians. No, your job is to make sure the audience never gets what they bought your story expecting to get. Start your story with the promise of courtly intrigue, then immediately shift into an axe murdering gore-fest. Open with a call to epic adventure that leads to several hours of bland accounting.

And when the audience doesn’t like your story? That’s proof of how well you’ve subverted their expectations! When they say, “This isn’t what I wanted,” they mean, “Thank you so much for opening my eyes, you very smart person.” They might seem upset because the story wasn’t good, but really their expectation for a good story has been subverted by a bad story. The latter is very different, I promise.

2. You Already Put Conflict in the Prologue

Everyone always says that stories need conflict, which already feels like it’s cramping your style and probably a form of censorship. But that’s fine, we can be reasonable and compromise: the prologue will have conflict, and then the rest of the story can go on doing whatever it wants.

All you have to do is have the prologue be a firefight with lots of explosions and action. It doesn’t matter that your audience has no context for who’s fighting whom or why it’s important. I promise they will be just as satisfied and engaged. There’s conflict, which is all that matters.

After that, the rest of your story can be as slow and plodding as you’d like. Spend five chapters discussing the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems, or have your protagonist monologue about a romantic interest who never appears on-screen. Any time someone complains or says they’re bored, you can just point them back to the prologue.

3. It’s the End and You’re in a Hurry!

If you believe the so-called experts, then as a story moves forward, it invariably lays down plot points that must eventually be resolved in the climax. Why was the mentor so careful to hide their face? How does the hero feel about their best friend who turned into a villain? How will Team Good defeat an enemy who seems impervious to all physical damage?

The “traditional” thought process here is that the more of these points you need to resolve, the more carefully you’ll have to craft your ending. You don’t want to leave anything hanging unless it’s a deliberate hook for next time. If there’s too much to resolve in the climax, you might need to go back and revise the story until it works with its own ending.

Or maybe do none of that? Look, it’s late, you’ve been working on this manuscript for a while, and Netflix isn’t going to binge itself. The obvious thing to do is hurry through each unresolved plot point until it’s technically addressed. The more you can make the ending feel like an assembly line, the better. Critics may claim the ending is “rushed” or “jarring,” but that’s just because they don’t understand efficiency.

4. Everyone Will Love Your Beautiful Perfect Hero

The absolute killjoys here at Mythcreants are always going on about candy and spinach. They claim candy is anything that glorifies a character, whereas spinach is anything that humbles them, and good protagonists need a mix of both. Too much candy means the hero isn’t relatable or compelling, while the much rarer issue of too much spinach means they aren’t fun to watch or read about.

These people are completely ignoring an obvious exception: If you really like a character, then you can give them as much candy as you want! If this is your favorite character, then the audience will definitely enjoy watching them be eternally badass with no drawbacks at all. Rave reviews will pour in as your protagonist vanquishes Satan and charms supermodels with ease.

And sure, some people will say that the only reason certain characters get away with this is that they’re part of extremely privileged demographics. It might even be pointed out that as the long arc of history bends toward justice, such characters will no longer be given a free pass. But I’m sure you can ignore all that. It’ll be fine.

5. Bigotry Is Bad, Maybe? Who Knows

These days, storytellers who care about silly things like “empathy” and “being a good person” typically don’t want to be racist, sexist, or bigoted in any way. As such, they try not to flood their stories with bigotry. They talk about how there are risks of normalizing bad behavior and re-traumatizing the marginalized people in the audience, even if they don’t directly endorse anything.

Sure, that all sounds nice, but how are you supposed to tell a story that’s dark and gritty and full of edges without all that bigotry? It’s probably impossible, which is why there’s a 100% guaranteed loophole. So long as you send the slightest message that actually bigotry is bad, then everything is fine. Just make your character shake their head mournfully at sexual violence or proclaim that human beings of other races are in fact human, and you’re good to go.

Pay no attention to those who say that such measures are insufficient and that we need to say something more meaningful. What could be more meaningful than a lackluster condemnation of something most people already know is bad? Further, don’t worry at all that your small message will get lost amid all the bigotry, making it difficult for audiences to tell what your story is saying. I promise that will never be a problem. Pinkie swears.

6. Stories Should Provoke a Reaction, No Not That Reaction!

You might think the purpose of storytelling is to entertain, say something meaningful, or otherwise enrich our lives. If you think that, then report directly to the noob train, because the real purpose of stories is to challenge people into reacting. It doesn’t matter how they react, just that they react.

This is why any shocking material you add to the story is automatically justified. Who cares if it damages the plot or negates entire arcs? What matters is that audiences react. That’s why every story should open with a minimum of five dead babies, regardless of what the story is actually about. Just get some dead babies in there.

And if by chance the audience doesn’t react in the way you want, remember it’s their fault for being too sensitive. Not only is the purpose of art to provoke a reaction, but also it’s to provoke the very specific reaction that makes you feel good. Anything else just shows a lack of appreciation for all those dead babies.

7. What Even Are Stories, Maaaaan?

Good stories have a lot going on. They need plot, characters, worldbuilding, a message, and a whole lot more. Keeping all those elements working in tandem is hard work, requiring either a careful plan or honed instincts and a lot of revisions. Which is why you should immediately pause the story any time you have a philosophical insight you want to tell the audience about.

Will these poorly concealed essays be jarring and distracting? Yes, but that’s a cost worth paying when you need to drop truth bombs like how stories are actually influenced by what people do in real life. Or maybe you’ve just realized that most cultures on Earth use words in their stories. Whoa, dude, that’s deep. No way anyone else has figured that out, you must share this amazing insight!

Now, you could always spend the time and energy to study actual philosophy, then build your story around whatever insights you wish to impart. But that sounds like a lot of work! Plus, have you read philosophy? There’s one guy who thinks lying to a murderer is wrong, apparently. If the audience is going to hear nonsense, it should at least be nonsense of your own making.


The problem with accepting that stories have rules is that suddenly, you can’t do whatever you want anymore. Some of the wonder dissipates, leaving storytelling much like any other skill that you have to hone and practice. That’s why it’s great to know there are so many, 100% real exceptions to those boring old rules. Once you’ve accepted those, stick around for a bit, because I want to talk to you about this cool bridge I have for sale.

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    Since you refer to Kant towards the end, I have to say something about a pet peeve of mine, particularly with regards to superhero comics…

    So Kant is infamous for that “you must NEVER lie!” stuff, even though it differs between different texts how dogmatic he comes out. But looking at Kantianism as a whole, I’d say the basis of this school of thought and the main difference from consequentialism is that the Kantian sees respect for others and not putting themself above them as the ultimate basis of morality, rather than, e.g., maximizing happiness. Someone can believe this without being super dogmatic.

    Still, even if more flexible than the historical Kant, a largely Kantian hero would tend to reason and act differently than a largely consequentialist hero (at least arguably; there’s no end to how much you can complicate these matters when looking into more and more long-term consequences and indirect consequences… but let’s keep it simple).
    Even if there are situations where our Kantian-leaning hero does think that, all things considered, it’s right to lie or deceive, they’d only do so very reluctantly. It’s exploitative to trick and manipulate others in order to reach your goals, and it’s disrespectful to lie to people “for their own good”; like the superhero trope where he lies to his girlfriend. since knowing the truth might put her in danger. It’s disrespectful of him to judge what’s best for her without consulting with her. So a Kantian-leaning hero should at least be more reluctant than the consequentialist-leaning one to lie, deceive and manipulate, and doing things like TORTURING their enemies should be out of the question.
    You get the gist of it.

    People sometimes complain about superheroes with rigid “no kill” rules, thinking it’s silly and dated… but I think the biggest problem is that these heroes are often portrayed as willing to do WHATEVER in the name of the greater good (sometimes with fairly little justification, even) – but when it comes to killing, they suddenly have this moral principle that they cling to regardless of consequences. They’ll happily torture people for a bit of information, thinking the end justifies even the most horrible means, except they won’t kill a bad guy even if the consequences of leaving him alive are absolutely disastrous.
    So it’s not JUST that the no-kill-rule is dogmatic, which some people might have a problem with on its own, but it’s also completely disconnected from the rest of the (anti-)hero’s values and reasoning. It ends up looking more like a neurotic obsession than an actual moral principle.

    • Cay Reet

      I’m not all that much into Kant, but what I remember most was his rather convoluted way of saying ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

      From that perspective, a Kantian hero has to keep in mind what consequences their actions have all the time, choosing not to do something which could lead to unwanted results, even if it’s not sure whether it will.

      ‘Don’t lie’ is a difficult principle, because the question is where the lie begins. Does it mean ‘alway say the truth and nothing but the truth?’ And if it does, do you have to say everything or can you, essentially, lie by ommission? It’s a slippery slope, once you think about it.

      I do agree that ‘don’t kill’ by itself isn’t necessarily a moral principle. You can do a lot of more horrible things to a person than to end their life, after all.

      • Jeppsson

        The categorical imperative can be seen as a version of the golden rule, that’s right. And you do have a duty to take in information if you can and not stay ignorant because, for instance, facing the truth is hard and ignorance is easier.

        Still, it can be the case that you ought to do something, or refrain from doing something, even if you foresee that this will lead to something bad. There could, for instance, be a situation where you ought to tell the truth even if you’re pretty certain that this is going to create loads of conflict and hard feelings between the people concerned with this truth. Ultimately, they have the right to decide what to do with the facts of the situation; you shouldn’t hold things from them just because YOU deem that they’re better off ignorant and happy.

        But yeah, ethics is always complicated and there will always be grey areas etc. My main point was that characters should make sense, but superheroes written as dark and gritty but still with a No Kill rule often fail that.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, dark and gritty plus ‘no kill’ is quite strange. First of all, those heroes often injure their enemies severely (there’s, for instance, the question whether Batman just leaving beaten henches lying around couldn’t be killing by not seeing them taken care of). In addition, there must be a very, very good reason in a grimdark world for not killing, not even in self defence. I mean, I don’t say a hero should mow down people left and right, but in certain settings, killing with good reason and in certain situations is not something which would make them lose hero status.

  2. Cay Reet

    I think this article goes well with the one about French Neoclassicism.

  3. GeniusLemur

    In terms of #4, you should also realize that everyone will love your asshole psychopath with absolutely no redeeming features. It makes you “edgy” and “realistic,” and if your audience can’t stand this horrible, selfish alleged person for two pages, let alone an entire book, it just shows how cool your protagonist (and you) are.

    • Cay Reet

      Yep, unlike that villain protagonist who is definitely in the wrong, but does have redeeming qualities like caring for the people around them and not causing hurt willingly.

      Sorry, but I love Dominic Noble’s take on the difference between the Artemis Fowl novels and the Disney movie (which is an ‘in name only’ thing).

  4. Innes

    You forgot the most important one Oren: that dictatorship that is spelling, grammar, and formatting rules!

    They say its for readability. They say it can shape your prose. They don’t know your prose from jack. Don’t let The Man chain down your muse! Use as many fonts as you like!! Get those italics!! Extra exclamation points? I think so!!! — use an em dash wherever your want — Paragraph breaks are for suckers, not an enlightened author such as yourself, who knows the only limit to how many clauses are allowed in a sentence is the thickness of your comma button.

    Truly let us genius writer rise up against the tyranny of the copy edit.

    • SunlessNick

      I think so!!! — use an em dash wherever your want —

      I admit I use those a lot, but I think I’m still comprehensible.

      I have (tried to) read a novel by someone who thought his prose was too lofty to use speech marks for dialogue – there was other punctuation he neglected too, but that was the main one.

    • Bunny

      The worst example of this I’ve ever seen comes from Greg Weisman, of rightful infamy after the two horrendous War of the Spark books he released. Looking over all the terrible plot elements, bi erasure, character assassination, pervasive casual sexism, and so much else horrible with those books, they’ve also got the most terrible formatting. For instance, there’sachapterwithtwoentiresectionswherethenarratornarrates
      inasinglewordlikethisbecauseIguessthatmakesitmoreimpactfulso
      mehowanddefinitelynothardtoread. There’s also a case of the (extremely bland cardboard) villain thinking in ALL CAPS and referring to HIMSELF in similarly all caps whenever HE or HIM is mentioned in the narration, sometimes paired with ALL CAPS PLUS ITALICS in the internal narration and obligatory villain monologue. Later, the villain’s brother does the exact same thing. Urgh.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Oh my lord that sounds amazingly terrible.

        • Bunny

          My friend has been doing a hate-read of those books in order to write a fix-it fanfic for the bi character who got erased and I’ve been getting frequent updates on all the worst bits, which is honestly just the entirety of both books. I think he’s got something like 70 pages of notes on all the horrible parts of the second book and he’s only 2/3 of the way through. It’s more hate than read by this point!

  5. Erynus

    Well… that author actually CAN do all that, as in he is able to. Also he is able to pay for his book to be printed and eat every and all the copies that noone will want to read.
    That is an argument that i get entangled often in, some people argue that everything is relative, but i think that history has taught us what is the best way to tell a story. Of course you can mix and match to whatever works for your story, but going against the “rules” just make it harder to work.
    They are the same people that asked me once “but then, Who is the villain? Batman? Joker? who knows?” and my point is that (it is Joker, come on!), while an hero can do questionable things to achieve his goals, there must be a red line that he wouldn’t cross, and the hero should be different enough to the villain for the story to work. The villain must be orders of magnitude badder than the hero (or antihero if is less heroic)
    Making both the same can work for a spy story, where everything is grey and you must root for whoever you want to success (ideally the protagonist), but if you are writing a hero vs villain story, the hero must be clearly heroic and the villain clearly villainous (wether you can understand his motivations or not, he wouldn’t be less objetivelly villainous).

  6. Lexy

    Ahh Oren, your articles never fail to disappoint :’D This is amazingly funny, thank you. May I ask what motivated you to write this?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey, glad you liked it!

      This article wasn’t motivated by any one thing, but rather a long line of bad stories and people giving bad writing advice. The second part really gets me. When helping storytellers is your job, it’s incredibly frustrating to see people share bad practices with writers who don’t know any better.

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