The So-Called Rules of Storytelling
Hans Ness, Oct 15, 2023
In the beginning, Ugg told stories around the campfire, and the people were entertained. Then Ogg told stories that people liked even better. Ugg accused Ogg of being a “hack”. Then Igg retold the stories in a way that was even more popular, and Ogg accused Igg of being a “sellout”. There were no classes on storytelling yet, or books or blogs, but people intuitively discovered how to make stories more interesting.
Thousands of years later, stories became a business: plays, books, operas, movies, radio plays, television, holoshows, and cybernovels. These cost money, which means they could lose money. So businesses need a way to predict which stories audiences would like. But taste is so subjective, and crystal ball technology is still decades away. While most people tend to think they know better what the majority will like, experience soon proves how wrong and egotistical we humans are.
So, to assess stories more accurately, we’ve looked at successful stories for centuries, analyzed their common elements, and wrote them down as guidelines. Then we use those guidelines to transmute subjective quality into an objective assessment — which is why now everyone agrees which stories are good and no one produces bad stories anymore. Right?
Don’t get me wrong — the guidelines are definitely helpful, but there is a fundamental limit to such objective analysis. Even when millions of dollars are at stake, and dozens of creative execs collaborate in water-bottle-filled conference rooms to pick which movies and books to produce, they still make big mistakes. When they think a story will be popular, but then it flops, that’s a false positive
. Or when they reject a manuscript they think won’t sell, then someone else publishes it and it becomes a bestseller, that’s a false negative
. (Think of the 12 publishers who rejected Harry Potter
.) False positives make you look foolish and might get you fired, while false negatives often go unnoticed. This imbalance creates a subconscious bias for critics to be more negative, pedantic, and rigid.
My biggest gripe is how overconfident some people are in the guidelines, sometimes mistaking them as “rules”. If anyone says a story “must” or “should” have certain traits, that might be a rookie mistake, especially if you can point to exceptions in very successful stories. Instead, a wise advisor says “most stories...”, “a common practice...”, “a generally safe bet is...”, and “readers often like...”. Accurate advice must not say “must”, should not say “should”, never say “never”, and always avoid “always”.
My second gripe is how much mentors oversimplify the guidelines. I see two possible reasons:
The mentor thinks you’re not advanced enough for all the options, so they advise only the most common techniques
(a teaching tactic rudely called “lie to children”).
The mentor has an oversimplified understanding of their craft.
Admittedly, simple rules are good for turning beginning writers into intermediate writers. But to become an advanced writer, we need to look deeper — i.e., learn the rules before you break the rules. So instead of red lights, the guidelines are merely blinking yellow lights, where it’s worthwhile to reconsider your options before proceeding on the path less traveled.
Several of my upcoming posts will look at the oversimplified “rules” and debunk them with supporting examples — not to incite anarchy, but to put things in perspective, and hopefully encourage rigid pedants to appreciate the wider variety of storytelling techniques.