My dear friend Helen keyed on a phrase I used in my last entry: tenants of storytelling. She asked me to enumerate them, and since then I’ve been trying to come up with a list of commandments for writers. Now, keep in mind that there is almost always a time to break the rules, but you need to understand them before you do that. These are also not rules for just the craft of writing, but for plot and story, so I’m going to leave my crunchy nitpickiness regarding the Oxford comma at home. You can thank me for that later. Let’s get to it!
Don’t write yourself into corners through poor planning.
Many authors end up using poor storytelling because they didn’t make a plan for their plot before they wrote it and then didn’t know how to get out of the corner they’d written themselves into. They then rely on deus ex or other means to squirm out of it. The way you avoid this is by having a plan for your story before you execute it. That isn’t to say you need to plan every tiny aspect of your plot, but if you don’t have a clear goal to write toward (your ending), you’ll probably end up with problems.
Over-complicating doesn’t make your story “complex” in a good way.
Some writers end up coming up with too many ideas and trying to stuff them all into a single book. This leads to a book turning into a catastrophe with so many threads the reader (and even author) end up lost and confused about just what is happening in the world of the characters. That isn’t to say complicated plots with multiple threads all happening at once are bad, but take care that you aren’t being complicated just because you have story ADD and aren’t focused on readability.
Some writers also develop the mistaken impression that this kind of thing makes your story “complex” in a positive way (like Game of Thrones). While complexity is good in the right circumstances, it needs to be woven well. Complexity doesn’t happen just because you have a high quantity of things happening all at once.
Not keeping your pacing moving.
Some authors run into issues where the plot either goes rushing by so quickly the readers don’t quite follow it or they drag things on so long the reader develops cobwebs. Now, pacing issues can be a function of poor writing rather than just storytelling, but sometimes it can be due to storytelling. A writer might not quite know how to get from Point A to Point C, so they meander around in the swamp trying to find their way out. That’s fine to do when you’re writing a first draft, but too often writers leave that kind of thing in the final draft and try to drag readers with them while they try to figure things out.
Confusing transitional scenes or lack of transitional scenes.
I’ve encountered manuscripts where the writer gives the reader no transition whatsoever between one scene and another. One moment the character is on the subway, the next they are in a hotel. No scene break, no mention of the character getting off the subway and into the hotel, nothing. Again, recognizing that this is fine in the first draft (you should see how many things I leave out when I write a first draft!), folks often overlook them in subsequent drafts and never go back to repair that lack of transition. It’s confusing as heck because it’s like a camera cutting from one scene to another without warning or indication they’re entering a new place.
Inconsistency within the manuscript.
A character whose height, weight, name and personality change through the manuscript is going to raise red flags. That isn’t to say a character can’t develop (they should), but if it’s just because the writer forgot something, it proves an issue. However, if characters are acting inconsistent with how you have created them just because you have plot needs and didn’t put together how to make it work… Well, you can see the issue.
Relying on clichés is a problem.
Most writing will employ some measure of cliché. They aren’t, innately, a bad thing, but many writers rely on these tropes too hard and pidgeonhole their characters, which makes their work predictable. Now, anyone familiar with stories can often see the direction of a plot—that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean clichés like “the butler did it”.
Even the best plots won’t go anywhere with poor pacing.
Pacing is a difficult thing to get on point. You don’t want to crawl through a scene, but you also don’t want to sprint, either. Pacing is also not just the speed of the scene, but it’s also in the technical aspects of the writing (passive voice or passive construction, for example!), so it’s a many-faceted issue. I’m not going to dig too hard into pacing in this post, since I could write a whole blog entry just on pacing. Suffice to say, pacing is somewhat of a nuanced subject, but the thing that’ll trip up an author most is not being aware of it.
Now, ultimately, most rules of writing are loose in some ways. These, however, are pretty strict so far as I am concerned. They’re loose in the sense that you can avoid them in a myriad of ways, but these aren’t rules to be broken. The only one that gives you much wiggle room is the clichés one because you can use cliché in satire and some other genres if you’re doing it almost as a parody of the fact that it’s a cliché.
If you would like me to elaborate on any of these points, please just ask in the comments section, and I’ll talk your ear off for you!