It probably won’t surprise you that there’s a lot of writing advice out there. Everyone seems to have their own take on this endeavor we call storytelling. That’s to be expected, but it’s often hard to tell the good tips from the bad. Without the hard data of more technical fields, how can new authors tell what advice is worth following? I can’t give you a complete list of what you might find, but I can go over a few common suggestions and explain why they should raise red flags. When you hear one of these, be on the lookout!
1. There’s Nothing Wrong With Prologues
Prologues get a lot of much-deserved derision, to the point that “don’t use a prologue” is almost a truism. Unfortunately, we can’t just leave it at that and end this section early, because prologue-fans often get riled up in defense of their favorite book-starter. These defenses can go to some fascinating places; my personal favorite is that prologue-hate is forced on us by capitalism so we can get to the profitable violence faster. However, they all boil down to the idea that prologues are a perfectly legitimate storytelling device and you should use one if it fits your story.
Here’s the problem though: that isn’t true. Prologues present unique problems for storytellers; namely that by definition, they appear before the rest of the story. That means one of two things is likely to happen. In one scenario, the story hasn’t started yet, so the prologue is really boring. In the second scenario, the prologue has its own story and the reader loves it, but then they have to stop reading about that story and be jerked into a completely different one. You can see why neither of these is a great experience.
Because of this dynamic, authors usually end up either dumping a lot of boring exposition in the prologue or filling the prologue with action to try and prop up their story’s slow beginning. That’s where prologues get their bad reputation, and it’s well deserved. When readers start a story, they want to start the story. They aren’t interested in reading what is at best a completely different story.
On occasions when a prologue doesn’t have this disconnect with the rest of the story, then it’s probably not a prologue in any meaningful sense. Rather, it is simply chapter one. Calling it a prologue is just giving false expectations at that point. While it’s always possible you could find a good use for a truly disconnected prologue, that’s always going to be an edge case at best.
2. Don’t Care What Other People Think
I hear this one all the time in various online writing groups. Someone voices their fears of a bad review or of readers not liking what they’ve written, and then someone else loudly proclaims that you shouldn’t care about how anyone else might react to your work – speak your truth you beautiful auteur!
This one is a little complicated because the sentiment can come from more than one angle. On the surface, it’s obviously silly. If you’re writing a story for other people to read, by definition you care what they think, let alone if you want them to pay money for the story. If you actually don’t care what anyone else thinks, then you don’t need writing advice at all. Just jot down whatever makes you happy and call it good.
On that level, not caring what other people think is just code for not doing the work to tell a good story. Even worse, this tip is often used to silence criticism from marginalized readers. Why does it matter if people say a story hurt them? You’re not supposed to care what other people think! I’m assuming that most Mythcreants readers don’t want to hurt their audience, so it behooves us all to care what other people think in that regard. If you don’t care about that, then keep in mind that as progressive values become more mainstream, stories that hurt their readers will be harder and harder to sell.
However, it’s also possible for this advice to be used for good. Many marginalized writers past and present have had to tell their stories in defiance of what the privileged majority think. In that case, a certain amount of not caring is appropriate, just like it would be if you were to make the bizarrely controversial statement that every human being deserves enough food to eat.
3. What Even Is Story?
Words can be difficult to define, especially when any type of art is involved. Mythcreants has its own terms and definitions, but we recognize that not everyone uses them. Until a truly universal standard is adopted, we’ll all just have to muddle through. But then you get think pieces that go on and on musing over what various terms even mean. That’s an obvious red flag, and you should probably head for the hills.
If someone has a nonstandard definition of “story” or “plot,” fine, maybe it’s a useful one. If it takes them multiple paragraphs to explain it, not so fine. At best, this is the sign of someone more interested in musing on philosophical topics than giving actual advice on how to tell stories. More often, it’s a sign they don’t know what they’re talking about and are using a lot of words to obscure their poor understanding.
In most cases, once you fight past the endless waffling over a definition, you’ll find advice that is either really pedestrian or completely off the rails. I once read through over a 1000 words of an article trying to define what “story” meant, only to find a revolutionary suggestion that I should start my story with something cool or interesting to hook the reader. Thanks? And I was relatively lucky that time. In other instances, I’ve found similar articles that ended by explaining that the only proper way to tell a story was to consider everything through sexist stereotypes. So helpful!
Some ideas are complicated and take a long time to explain, but a definition of basic terms shouldn’t be one of them. Concepts like story, character, and plot are all well-trodden ground. If it takes someone a long time to define them, that person likely doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
4. Follow Another Culture’s Storytelling Rules
Thanks to improvements in information technology, it’s now easier than ever to consume stories from around the world. That’s a great thing, but it does have a downside: every once in a while someone will decide they’ve solved storytelling with this one weird trick from another culture’s lexicon.
The first problem with using another culture’s storytelling method is that at least half the time, whoever’s giving you the advice doesn’t understand the very thing they’re recommending. Storytelling is complicated, and it’s even more complicated in a different cultural context. Instead of a true understanding, you’re often dealing with pure exoticism, where some other culture* is put on a pedestal for being wise and mystical, so much better than our mundane Western stories.
Assuming the advice giver does understand the storytelling device in question, you have to ask if you can understand it yourself. It’s hard enough to learn the ropes of your own culture’s storytelling conventions; are you ready to put in the work to learn a whole new set of them? If you don’t, chances are high that this shiny new concept will fall flat, missing some essential element you didn’t even know it needed.
Then of course there’s your audience to consider. If you give them something steeped in a culture that isn’t theirs, you’re rolling the dice. They might love it the way so many Americans love Japanese anime, or it might just confuse and frustrate them since they don’t have the cultural context to understand it. This is a problem even seasoned professionals struggle with, so it’s a lot to take on if you’re still early in your career.
5. Set Your Story Somewhere Non-Western
This comes up most often with fantasy stories, though you hear it in other genres as well. The advice goes that you should use non-European culture for your worldbuilding inspiration, either because readers are tired of Europe-inspired fantasy or because our stories should have greater diversity. This advice is usually well meant, but it’s misguided.
First, there’s no evidence that I’ve been able to find that audiences are in any way tired of fantasy based on European or Western history. If readers are tired of anything, it’s the same slice of Medieval England that gets used over and over again, but there’s a lot more to European history than that. Of course, readers are also more than happy to accept a non-Western setting, but this isn’t something you need to do for the sake of your sales.
Then we get to the question of diversity, and that’s where things get messy. A lot of white writers try to use non-European cultures as worldbuilding inspiration because they want to craft a more progressive story, but it often doesn’t work out because representing someone else’s culture is hard. If that culture is at all marginalized, then any mistakes by privileged authors can cause real damage. Marginalized people have seen their cultures appropriated and mangled for generations, and many of them aren’t interested in more.
It’s tempting to think you can solve this problem with more research, but the level of research required to do so is simply beyond the reach of most authors. But this isn’t obvious at the start, so a lot of authors follow the advice to use a non-European culture and then feel betrayed when the negative reviews roll in. At Mythcreants, we recommend that privileged authors use marginalized characters rather than marginalized cultures to make their stories more diverse. It’s simply much easier to portray a few characters respectfully than it is to portray an entire culture.
That’s why in most cases, portraying marginalized cultures should be left to authors of those cultures. Looking for more ways to support diversity? Great! Buy marginalized authors’ books and spread the word about them. Those direct contributions help people financially benefit from their heritage.
6. Your Process Should Look Like This
This section is a little broader than previous entries, but that’s okay because we’re dealing with a broad selection of advice, and that’s anyone telling you how you should be putting words on paper. But wait, isn’t that Mythcreants’ entire reason for existence? Close, but at Mythcreants, we focus on craft advice and tread lightly with process advice. We tell you what needs to be in a story, we don’t mandate how to get that story down on paper.
Process advice is incredibly common. People will tell you that you need to write every day, only write in the mornings, or write even when you feel like garbage. They’ll give you very specific requirements for when you should or should not go back to correct mistakes in your writing. They’ll expound that outlines are always necessarily or that you should never let yourself be constrained by an outline. The list goes on.
The problem with all of this advice is that it’s incredibly subjective. The rules of storytelling are consistent and broadly applicable, but which process works best depends on the person. For some, writing every day is a requirement. For others, it kills their motivation and leaves them burnt out, unable to write at all. I personally can’t ever stop to correct existing chapters if I want to finish a draft, but other writers need to or the thought of all those typos will eat at them, sapping their energy.
If a process works for one author, there’s no guarantee it’ll work for anyone else. That’s why you should be wary of anyone telling you the one true way to get your words on paper. Of course, it’s totally valid to experiment until you find a process that works best for you. To do that, it can be helpful to learn about how other people write their stories. At Mythcreants, we’re big fans of outlining and think a lot of writers would benefit from it, but we’d never claim that’s the only way to write a story.
In most cases, people who give you questionable writing advice do it with the best of intentions. They’re only trying to help, but that doesn’t mean their advice is good. New writers especially need an understanding of what advice to be wary of, since otherwise they’ll waste the early phase of their career chasing unhelpful tips.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?