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
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
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
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
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
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
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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