almost always

On WritingTwo weeks ago I started a three-part series about Emma Coats’ rules of storytelling, and then promptly disregarded my own schedule the following week, leaving you guys high and dry. Sorry about that. I’m back to the series again this week, and today we’re tackling the ‘almost always’ rules from Coats’ list.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
I don’t write for plot, personally. I like character-driven stuff, so I put my characters in situations and see what they do. Many times, I don’t know how a story or book will end until I get there, and I typically have a better understanding looking back than I did toward the beginning of the writing process. That said, I can’t agree that I never really understand the nature of my fiction until the end. Sometimes, but not always.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
That’s a really good basic formula for fiction. As formulas go, that’s probably as good as it gets. You know what the problem with formulas is, though? They’re formulaic.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Well, yes, kind of.

Don’t throw the opposite at your character just to do it. That runs the risk of feeling contrived, because (guess what!) it is. I get what Coats is trying to convey, but I’d say it this way: don’t spare your characters pain/confusion/discomfort. Allow for an authentic journey.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
I agree with this 99.9%. What’s the 0.01? Personal experience.

I’ve used elements of who I am, even pieces that should have been clear to me based on the stories I love, well before I understood them. I’m all for self-discovery, and I firmly believe a writer should know what moves them about the fiction they love. But–big but–I don’t think we should ever wait on understanding. Sometimes our own writing, even in ignorance, is what leads to understanding.

Oh, and I know you were just itching to make a Sir Mix-a-Lot joke in that last paragraph.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
This one almost made the ‘ironcad‘ cut, but I felt there was just a little too much solidity to it without room for the occasional spineless character. Yes, such a person in a pivotal role is a turn-off to the audience, but there are people like that out there. It’s entirely plausible one of them will make it into your story. Maybe you’re writing Snow White and there’s supposed to be a little poison.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
This is a great question to ask, but applied universally every character you write will end up feeling like the same person. In a way, they all will be. They’ll all be you.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
I agree with the first three sentences absolutely. The fourth, most of the time. Again, this comes back to avoiding situations and plots that feel fabricated.

Okay, yes, it’s fiction. It’s all fabricated. Put down the dictionary, smart ass, and listen. Good fiction is a fabrication that feels real. If you work too hard to stack the odds, you’ll mess with suspension of disbelief.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
More or less. I don’t agree that everything you write will be useful later. I’ve written some shitty stuff that I don’t think I’ll ever come back to. But, even the shit I’ve written helped to make me a better writer. So, yeah, kind of.

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
First of all, this is basically a re-wording of #15, so Emma cheated. Second, the same objection applies.

Next week, the Coats’ rules I deem suspect enough to be outright bendable.

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About Ash Martin
Ash Martin writes dark fantasy and horror, has a thing for classic monster legends, Nordic mythology, coffee, and sarcasm, and is currently working on multiple books.

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