Storytelling

Six Pieces of Misunderstood Storytelling Advice

The faces of readers who wish the author had gotten better advice.

The internet is full of writing advice. Some of it is good, some of it is bad, and some of it is misunderstood. It’s that third category that we’re interested in today. If advice is misunderstood, it’s of no use to anyone, and this happens a lot. The more a piece of advice is repeated, the more it is shortened and meme-ified, until much of the original message is lost for anyone not already part of the conversation. That’s a shame, and it can lead to poor storytelling decisions, so let’s look at some of the most commonly misunderstood advice out there and see what it really means.

1. Stories Need Conflict

Bilbo and the dwarves from The Hobbit. Too many houseguests can create excellent conflict.

A lot of people hear this advice and think it means their stories need to have action and violence and explosions. The fate of the world must be at stake. Everything must be grim and dark, wearing down the audience’s spirit until there is no joy. The characters need to hate each other and constantly be at one another’s throats.

While those are all valid forms of conflict, they are far from the only ones. Conflict can take many forms. In one story, a hobbit might need to destroy an ancient ring of power to prevent darkness from sweeping over the land. In another story, a hobbit might need to earn the respect of some dwarves in a silly quest. Both are legitimate forms of conflict!

When storytellers think conflict is defined by explosions and death, it can discourage them. Authors working on lighter stories often think their tales aren’t worth telling because no one dies in them. Worse, some authors reject the notion of conflict entirely because they think it needs to be spaceships shooting lasers at each other. That’s how we end up with stories where nothing happens for chapter upon chapter.

Conflict is simply what gives the story direction. Conflict is a character wanting something they can’t immediately have or something happening that a character wants to prevent. If a story doesn’t have conflict of some type, then nothing is happening, and there’s not much reason to watch or read it. But within that requirement lies nearly infinite possibilities. It’s true that less-intense conflict sometimes has trouble hooking the audience, which is why lighter stories often supplement their conflict with humor, but it’s still completely valid to craft a story about children putting on a play or a squad of grandmothers on a road trip to find their favorite theme park. So long as the conflict matters to the audience, the story can work.

2. Keep Your Story Believable

Rey handing Luke his lightsaber. I trained with a staff my whole life. What’s your excuse?

Media critique is more accessible now then ever, and this has contributed to confusion around what “believable” means when it comes to fiction. By some definitions, it means a story must adhere 100% to the rules of reality, and any plot inconsistencies are a story’s death sentence. Sorry, this story was really cool but then it had sound in space, so it’s got to go in the trash.

This standard is neither attainable nor desirable. If there’s a story out there without any plot inconsistencies at all, I have yet to find it. Likewise, no one is knowledgeable enough to create a story that completely conforms to physical and social truths, even if we could agree what those are! Any story that tried to be totally accurate to real life would feel stilted and unsatisfying because real life is usually stilted and unsatisfying.

When storytellers take this extremist view of believability, they can get stuck in an infinite loop of trying to fix every single little problem, which is a great way to never finish a story. Worse, storytellers and critics both can become overly obsessed with realism in one area while letting it slide in other areas. This is why you’ll sometimes hear how it’s unrealistic for a woman to effortlessly learn lightsaber fighting, even in a franchise where effortless lightsaber learning is the norm.

Just as frustrating, at least for critics like me, is when people take the absolutist view of believability as evidence that fiction doesn’t need believability. Who cares that Frodo could have just flown to Mount Doom on an eagle’s back when fiction can be as implausible as we like?

The reality is that fiction needs to seem believable. Worldbuilding, character, and plot are all tools at a storyteller’s disposal to help audiences suspend their disbelief when the protagonist needs to make that one-in-a-million shot.

Likewise, if a story contains something so unbelievable that the audience can’t get past it, that’s a problem even though everything is made up anyway. Stories should be as believable as possible, but that doesn’t mean they have to obey the Standard Model of physics at all times.

3. Craft Strong Female Characters

A close in picture of Rosie the Riveter.

The misunderstanding in this entry all comes down to what people understand “strong” to mean. All too often, storytellers interpret it to mean physically powerful. They imagine that a character must know how to sword fight, shoot lasers, or pilot fighter planes in order to be strong. They also imagine that the character must be completely independent, never relying on others for support.

Do you see what all those traits have in common? That’s right: they’re all associated with masculinity, sometimes to a toxic degree. This is a real problem; when people associate positive descriptions like “strength” with masculinity, they end up degrading anything that’s associated with the feminine. This is when we get stories where the female protagonist makes a point about hating sewing, make-up, and anything that risks making her like other girls.

The “not like other girls” problem is bad enough, but there’s another weird consequence of misunderstanding what makes a strong character: heroines who are made physically powerful but are still led around by the nose. The story will make a big deal about how this character knows how to fight super good, but then her skills will never be relevant or the story will forget about them at a critical moment. It’s as if the storyteller thinks that giving their character fencing skills is insurance against destroying her agency.

Agency, it turns out, is what matters. That’s what “strong” actually refers to. It’s especially important for the main character to have agency, but it’s important for side characters too. When a character has no agency, they don’t affect the plot, which means they don’t really matter as a person. Unfortunately, literature has a long tradition of refusing agency to female characters, a tradition that is still alive and well. That’s why we still need advice about strong female characters, even if “active female characters” might be more technically accurate. What matters is that the character has agency. If the story is about violent conflict, that agency might come from knowing how to fight, but it doesn’t have to.

4. Write What You Know

Victor Frankenstein and Igor standing next to the monster's slab. Maybe Mary Shelley had a secret life as a necromancer?

One of the most common sayings in storytelling, “Write what you know,” is often misunderstood to mean storytellers should only convey what they have personally experienced. This is incredibly limiting and would disqualify most authors from telling most stories. Authors who haven’t personally been in combat couldn’t write war stories; authors who work outside of law enforcement couldn’t write mysteries; and no one at all could write speculative fiction, since the speculative elements, by definition, do not exist.

More often, authors take this entry to mean that they shouldn’t try to write characters who aren’t like themselves. Particularly, privileged authors think they shouldn’t try to write underprivileged characters.*  Sometimes, this is just an excuse, but often it’s sincere: authors think it would be inherently inauthentic to write a character who isn’t like them because they don’t have that character’s experience.

Fortunately, that’s not what it means to write what you know. Instead, the advice is simply that authors should use their own experiences in their writing. Sometimes this is direct. If an author knows the city of Miami really well, they can use that knowledge by setting a story there. Authors can all use their personal experience less directly. Most storytellers don’t know what it’s like to have their parents eaten by a dragon, but almost everyone has some experience with loss they can draw on to inform a story.

The same rule applies when authors set out to write characters who are different from them. A white author might not know what it’s like to grow up as a Chinese American immigrant, but the author can still infuse their personal experience into the story. When the character finally defeats their nemesis, the author can infuse the scene with feelings they remember from a personal triumph. The difference in race is unlikely to matter.

That isn’t a blank check for privileged authors to use their personal experiences for all stories, though. There are several scenarios in which that isn’t appropriate, which we’ll talk about next!

5. Don’t Tell Someone Else’s Story

Cover art from No Man of Woman Born No Man of Woman Born is about trans and enby people facing queer phobia, and it is written by a trans author.

This entry is easily the most sensitive on the list, because while many authors feel it is inauthentic to write about characters who aren’t like them, other authors do not appreciate being told there are some stories they shouldn’t tell. When these authors are asked to save space for others, they tend to interpret it as a demand that they not include characters from any group other than their own.

As with the previous entry, this almost always happens with privileged authors and underprivileged characters.* This is a serious problem because at least as things stand now, it’s not enough for only underprivileged authors to include underprivileged characters in their work. Privileged authors need to step up too if diverse representation is to become the norm.

Fortunately, this advice has nothing to do with including a diverse cast of characters. Instead it refers to stories directly about the oppression people experience in real life. Stories of police violence against black people, stories of trans folk being attacked for their gender – the list goes on. These stories are incredibly important and very easy to get wrong. That’s one reason privileged authors are discouraged from writing these stories: someone without direct experience is likely to make a mistake. Perhaps more importantly, marginalized communities deserve to tell their own stories, especially when it’s still more difficult for marginalized authors to break into the mainstream.

All authors have to do when following this advice is incorporate underprivileged characters into stories that aren’t specific to their underprivileged status. It turns out that’s really easy to do, especially in speculative fiction. If an author is writing a tale of a government agency battling the occult, it’s the work of the moment to make the protagonist a lesbian. No need to include any conflict over her orientation; it’s just a background trait she has. Certainly the eldritch horrors don’t care.*

6. Show, Don’t Tell

Boromir struck by orc arrows. You need some major skill to put this offscreen.

We’ll finish today with an old classic. Just about every storyteller out there has heard the advice to show instead of tell, but neophytes and veterans alike have a tendency to misinterpret what this means. I’ve lost track of all the hot takes that excitedly point out that authors can’t actually show everything, and it’s true that they can’t. Some parts of a story should be told through summary because they are less important, not deserving of a highly detailed scene. When authors show something that should be told, it slows the story down with pointless minutia.

However, the danger of authors showing too much is fairly small. Most of the time, it’s the other way around. Authors are always telling when they should be showing, summarizing vital scenes as if they don’t matter. This can happen to anyone, but it’s especially common among less-experienced writers. Telling is usually easier than showing, and during the difficult task of drafting a story, it’s tempting to take any and all easy options that present themselves.

Overtelling is a far more common problem than overshowing, and so we arrive at condensed advice like show, don’t tell. Yes, there will always be exceptions. Sometimes those exceptions will be really striking, like how The Fellowship of the Ring doesn’t actually show most of Boromir’s death scene. Normally the death of a major character should be shown in as much detail as possible, but Tolkien builds extra tension by withholding that detail.

Of course, Tolkien was a master of his craft. He had the experience and expertise to break the rules in a cool way that served the story. Most new writers do not have that level of skill yet, and so it pays for them to keep “show, don’t tell” in their heads as a mantra. It lacks some nuance, but that’s okay; its purpose is to combat the common trend of new authors telling when they should be showing.


The more commonly a piece of advice is shared, the more likely it is to become shorthand. That’s a natural language development, but it can cause confusion when new people join the conversation. So if you ever see people sharing a piece of advice that sounds strange to you, consider digging a little deeper for context. Often you’ll find the advice is good, and you just needed some extra information to understand it.

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Comments

  1. Nite

    Man, you really adulate Tolkien. That’s an authority fallacy that really hits any writer’s ambition. It discorauge some, but, as for me, it annoys me, because it tells me what I can or cannot do, instead of dissecting what made it work for that author, proving it’s possible to make it work again, even if in a different way.

    • Cay Reet

      Just because of that Hobbit vs LOTR example and the eagles? The question why they didn’t just use the eagles to get to Mt. Doom in the first place is almost a cultural topic by now, that’s how often it has been talked about. And it’s actually nice to use The Hobbit to point out that conflict doesn’t necessarily mean violence. It’s a well-known story, so many people will immediately understand it. So far, Oren has never given the impression that he thinks Tolkien is the ultimate authority on writing or fantasy. Quite the opposite, it’s used as a bad example in a couple of the posts here – for its loss of women with an agency and for its ‘dark skinned’ orcs, as I remember right away. There’s also a fun post here where he pretends the movies came first and the books were written later and changed things.

      • Nite

        “Of course, Tolkien was a master of his craft. He had the experience and expertise to break the rules in a cool way that served the story. Most new writers do not have that level of skill yet, and so it pays for them to keep ‘show, don’t tell’ in their heads as a mantra.”

        Neither the first time I’ve seen such praise for Tolkien here, nor the first time it annoys me. Even if we don’t master, we should try. If we need to hold back for every craft we don’t master yet, then we should give up from the start.

        I don’t write to repeat sucess, I write to dare new horizons. My horizons.

        • Bunny

          It was just an example. The same concept applies to many experienced authors out there, not just to Tolkien. If you look at the rest of that entry, you’ll see that the point is not to deify Tolkien, but to provide a solid basis for the claim that “show don’t tell” can be bent, as a rule. Most people have problems with telling, not showing, so it’s a good thing for beginners especially to keep in mind. Tolkien was not meant to take center stage as the divine, golden standard against which we should all measure ourselves; on the contrary, the only reason he was mentioned was to provide details about how showing vs. telling can be used when you get the hang of it, and how there are always and can always be exceptions. The same point could have been made using, say, Elizabeth Wein as an author. The death scene in Code Name Verity is powerful, tragic, rending, and important to the characters, but we see very little of it and it is all the more meaningful for it. In fact, many parts of that book benefit from letting the reader’s imagination fill things in. Lots of authors do this technique right. Most certainly not just Tolkien. Definitely, definitively, 100% not just Tolkien.

        • Cay Reet

          Oren tends to use well-known stories and authors to make his points, simply because a lot of people know them and it helps them to understand his points. He’s using other authors and their works as well.

          And nobody says you should copy Tolkien. Copying the style of another author is a difficult thing and often doesn’t work out. You should learn from what they did well or badly, so you don’t have to make the same mistake and can build on their successes. Which is pretty much how you grow in any profession or develop any skill.

    • American Charioteer

      I sorta feel the same way as Nite, because of the scene with Boromir’s death. I thought that failing to describe his death was an error on Tolkien’s part, and an even graver error was having the aftermath of that battle occur at the beginning of the next book.

      In contrast, the film’s depiction of Boromir’s death ranks among the most moving scenes I have ever watched or read. Everything about it in the film is perfect, from the buildup of Boromir’s relationship with Merry and Pippin, to how Merry and Pippin worked to save Frodo and then futilely tried to avenge Bormomir, to that final scene between Boromir and Aragorn. Even the aftermath between Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas was more meaningful because of what we had just seen.

      If there really is something I’m missing about the way Tolkien did it, I would love to know.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        I wouldn’t say you’re “missing” anything, since not liking something other people like doesn’t make you wrong. I feel like that particular thing was well done, based on my analysis of the scene and how most people react to it, but I’m not here to convince you something you didn’t like was actually good.

  2. Cay Reet

    A very nice article again.

    I’ve always thought that a ‘slice of life’ story, for instance, could be about someone who always goes to the same place every week (alternating daily, but always going to place A on Monday, place B on Tuesday, etc.) and one day, the place they want to eat at is closed. So they need to find a new place to go to quickly (since it’s lunch break) and they’re very set in their ways and don’t know the area that well, because they only work there, they don’t live there. That’s conflict alright, but without any violence or explosions.

    I also made a character in my main series gay (a little on a whim and because I thought it would be nice to put that ‘will they, won’t they’ thing out of the way immediately and have a character nobody would expect to be gay, because he’s a great soldier and leader). It’s never been a plot point so far, but allows for nice interactions between him and my main character – they can joke around in ways which might seem weird if you don’t know there’s not the slightest sexual tension between them and they both know it.

    • Lizard with Hat

      Hi,
      I would read that slice of live story sound funny and interesting.

      As for the other thing. I realized a while ago that, since I’m reading this sides articles the cast of PnPs and Stories I create has become more and more diverse. Nearly every character I have no would be some minority in our world (… there are still white guys ^^). But it happened … naturally and I don’t think I going to change that.
      And after reading this article I don’t think I have to change that since these traits i gave to my characters aren’t focus points of their stories.

      • Cay Reet

        Perhaps I’ll write it one day. Usually, I don’t really write slice of life stories, but this one has been going through my head for a while.

        I’ve also learned a lot from this site since I’ve started reading the articles. And I love making the cast of my stories a little more diverse, because it means I can work with a lot more different skills and backgrounds and that makes writing more fun for me (and, hopefully, reading more fun for the audience).

        • Lizard with Hat

          It got better when I learned that I don’t have to make a big deal out of every trait my characters have, brought back the fun for me.
          This entries here are really great – took me a while to get used to them because at the time they challenged my worldview (they still do from time to time) but that’s why I’m here.

          What kind of stories are you writing … I’m interested now.

          • Cay Reet

            I’ve written a lot of different stuff, but for a while, I’ve been mostly working on a series of espionage/adventure stories, the “Knight Agency.” Main character is Jane Browne, infiltration agent, specialized on breaking and entering and assassination, born with a gene which makes her a berserker (a skill she has to control all the time – as she once says, the trick is not to let the berserker out, but to keep it under control). She works with a team made up of agents of all four branches of the agency: soldier-agents Zachary Brock (the gay guy) and Edith Grand, her handler and former infiltration agent Steven Quinn (assassin and pilot and still good at both in a pinch), business-specialist Frank Lucas (who can get his hands on everything), and engineer and inventor Liam Fawkes.

            I also wrote a spin-off to my own series, though, based on a backstory Steven and Jane make up in the third novel, the “Black Knight Agency,” set in an alternate reality where the Knight Agency doesn’t exist and Jane and Steven ended up on the other side of the law together – Steven as a criminal mastermind and Jane as his right hand whom he raised for the job. I have them lose their organisation during the first novel and open up a small agency in the grey areas of the law in the second (the third is not yet written). The “Black Knight” part came up in a talk about the name when Jane pointed out neither she nor Steven were regular knights, but black knights at best – the kind you’d hire to guard your tower while you bring about the end of the world.

            In addition, I’ve written a heist story with a pair of jewel thieves (which is not yet out), six novellas with my version of Loki, which are partially released already, and a few novellas about John Stanton, who lives in a Steampunk version of our reality and works for a secret government agency, investigating crimes which can’t be solved by the police for some reason. There’s also a couple of other Loki-based novellas which might be released professionally at some point, but I’m not definite on them yet.

        • Lizard with Hat

          Since I can’t reply to your reply…

          That sounds very interesting and I’m usually not very interested in spy/hitman/agency stories.
          My own work is more fantasy related (a graphic novel about three people and their new village) but a have a Cyperpunk-inspired Superhero-story too.
          Most of my idea came from being a GM, is that weird?

          • Cay Reet

            You could theoretically reply to yourself, but, yes, there’s a limit to the amount of replies to each other…

            I don’t think it’s weird for a GM to switch to writing (or to write in addition to being a GM). As a GM, you are used to plotting a story for your group – and unlike real players, your characters won’t completely ignore all the nice hints you lay out for them.

  3. Alex McGIlvery

    Nice work on unpacking the advice. As an editor, I dig into these questions often.

    On the conflict one, a while back I read an article about an Eastern story structure which wasn’t based on conflict. From what I could understand, it worked like a novel length haiku. I couldn’t find any examples translated into english. Reading one would have been an interesting experience.

    When talking conflict I might as well argue that while physical/violent conflict is exciting, it gets numbing after a while. Without some emotional and dare I say spiritual conflict (no religious, but in the sense of where they get there strength and hope from) characters are flat and hard to emphasize with.

  4. Tony

    I’ve even seen creators tell good stories about the struggles of marginalised groups they don’t belong to, but with input from members of those groups. For example, George Miller made sure to get feminist input on his depiction of fighting patriarchy in Mad Max: Fury Road.

    • Cay Reet

      It is possible, but demands a lot research which quite some creators aren’t prepared to do. That’s why having a member of the group writing a story which focuses on the group’s struggles generally works better. It doesn’t mean someone who’s not part of the group is forbidden from doing that or that they are fated to fail, it’s just that they have a much higher risk of failing.

      • Tony

        A very good point. Not everyone is up to the challenge of making something like Fury Road.

  5. Boromir

    Would you care to comment on the advice to “kill your darlings?” To still eliminate any bits you might feel are good if they are not in service to the plot. Might this be misunderstood in any common ways? Or anything else to say.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hmm. That’s a good question. I’ll have to give it a think.

      • Bunny

        Stephen King references that saying a /lot/ in “On Writing.” I thought I knew what it meant until I read that book, so yes, it would be helpful to have a good clarification.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So upon reflection, the advice “kill your darlings” is best applied in two situations.

      1: As a reminder that characters need to have problems, and the more serious the story, the more serious those problems need to be. Some authors like their characters so much that they don’t want to make anything bad happen to them, and that doesn’t make for good storytelling.

      2: On the importance of cutting things that don’t fit with the story, even if the author really likes them. This can apply to side characters, special powers, or even entire scenes. Everything should be in service of the story, and if something isn’t it has to go. It can be used in a different story.

      The way some people interpret it, that you have to literally kill your favorite characters, isn’t very helpful.

  6. Tifa

    Yay! Yet another great article! Very helpful.
    The ‘stories need conflict’ and “show don’t tell” bits have confused me for years; I’m glad that it makes sense now.

  7. Kannik

    All nicely put. For #1, I have been using the term “challenges” rather than conflict. This tends to avoid the short circuiting leading directly to the interpretation of needing violence in the story.

    “Obstacles” would also be a good term, I think. In light-hearted slice-of-life stories this could be something out of the ordinary; not something that needs vanquished in a pillar of fire, but something to be overcome, even something as simple the change of habit.

  8. Mouse

    Well put about the “strong women”. I never really understood why I left several recent movies unsatisfied, but slowly realized why. You see so many cool, “strong” female characters nowadays but it often comes across as shallow or cheap, almost as though they are a token “strong female” characters. They are not thought through or developed, but seem more so the producers can be like “look! Strong woman! How relevant of us! We believe in raising up the confidence of our female youth with these cool role models! Good for us!” The idea that this strength is linked to masculinity really makes it clear now why I feel so cheated after these kinds of movies.

    I personally love the characters in Miss Fishers Murder Mysteries because of the very different representations of strength. Miss Fisher, of course, is overly cool in a way parallel to James Bond, where it is not exactly believable but easy to get caught up in the glamour. I have no problem with that, though. She is one of the first characters I’ve come across that is unapologetic about falling into – what are sometimes seen as unfairly negative – female stereotypes, such as loving fashion and caring about her appearance. Why would you? It really doesn’t get in the way of being a bad ass, as is often implied (eg. being afraid of breaking a nail). Young women should not be limited to being either a Tom boy or a girly girl. You just like what you like and be confident about it.

    But one of my favourite characters in the Miss Fisher series is her companion Dot. Miss Fisher is so modern and bold that she stands out in the era, and I do love her for it. But Dot is a much more realistic character, and therefore the strength she shows in the show is so much more powerful. She is timid but brave when she needs to be; she is meek but sticks strongly to her morals; she quiet but is intelligent and kind; and even though she really wants to marry and have a family, she is not willing to trade her freedom for it. I think this is the representation we need to see more of when we ask for “strong women”.

    • Cay Reet

      I love Dot, too, especially the way she grows throughout the series. She’s a wonderful character and a great example of a strong woman who is not physically strong, but has a strong will and learns to follow her own agenda.

      I also do have a soft spot for Miss Fisher’s aunt, I have to admit. She’s not a ‘modern’ woman (not even by 1920s standards) and has a lot of predjudices, but once she has decided to help with something, she’s hard to dissuade from it again and she will see it through, no matter what.

      I also do love Miss Fisher herself, but she is not the average character. Of course, her character is fitting for the life she’s living and I love seeing a woman who represents all about the ‘modern’ woman of the 1920s, but a series full of women like her would just be too unrealistic and, in the long run, too boring.

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