14 Rules for Writing
From Scheherazade to J-School
- every great story has a beginning a middle and an end
If you can come up with an idea, and write down the beginning, middle and end, from there you can flesh out details. A lot of great fiction, however, comes about through 'process-art' which can involve documenting your own particular style of writing, technique, the physical process you use to write, draft, revise. Such that a story might start out with a great beginning, middle and end, but you’re only able to flesh out the middle. This is fine. Why not?
- the exception (to the beginning middle end rule) is probably the 1001 nights entertainment:
it is a construct, a framework for storytelling, the meta-story of Scheherazade frames, gives an excuse for, the storytelling there-in
There can be many forms of constructs. In the story of Scheherazade, two brothers have kingdoms and each has a large harem, with eunuchs to guard it. One brother finds one of his wives cheating and in different variations kills her and tells his brother not to trust women. The brother laughs at him, because his wives are more faithful, his eunuchs more trust worthy and so on. And it goes on, and then the brother finds one of his wives cheating as well and goes into a fit of rage, and not to be outdone by his brother, declares he will execute a new wife every night. Ergo, problem solved. And Scheherazade has the task of saving her life each night with a new story.
This can be read as an origin myth, for Arabs, it can be associated with Iran and Iraq, people have tried to associate it with Persia and Arabia, with Sodom and Gomorrah and so forth.
But from a writer’s perspective, one can see how it forces the action, makes for a great narrative device for storytelling. If you can come up with a great construct, the more power to you.
- you should know the Aristotelian arc
rising action, falling action, blah blah blah, get a book on it, if you don’t have one.
- you should then break the Aristotelian arc
- journalism should be written in the present tense
Not all of course, and this is generally a Journalism 101 rule, so far as a I know, for capturing readers' attention: it makes things feel much more immediate and therefore compelling. It is a trick you can use.
there are a number of great fiction writers who got their start writing journalism, of them Edgar Allen Poe being my favorite. Clearly, he prefers a "captive" audience!
When all else fails: the ol' who what when where and why. This can work for storytelling, but it can make your writing feel bogged-down in detail, overwrought or overthought, stuffy. But it can work very well for revision: reread through your edit and ask yourself those questions, as the reader. It cannot only fill out missing detail, it can lead your story in new directions when you’re stuck. A technique which some actors use, writing a backstory for your character, can also be helpful. It can be lifted entirely, cut-and-paste back into the story, or merely make them seem more real, more believable. It is, in fact one way to write, after coming up with a construct or a beginning middle and end, you might have characters by that point, and you start to write who they are, where they are and fill out a sort of profile for them. Then you might imagine a circumstance where these characters might interact and suddenly you’ve got a story or the frame for one.
- In screenwriting, you’re taught that the first five minutes of a script is where you’ll either win or lose an audience. There is some truth to this. This is a truism that gets told over and over and so takes on a certain weight of its own. The first American film makers stole the cameras they were renting, in Fort Lee, NJ, mainly to make the sort of VR of the day, viewfinder Nickelodeon shorts for Atlantic City (of Monopoly fame) and ran off to Cali. They then made fun of the 'Keystone Cops' tracking them down. Rodeo (read: row-day-oh) Drive starts out as a rodeo, this was rancher territory and naturally all the first movies are cowboys, train heists, westerns. The storytelling evolves out of the actual filming of rodeos and what amounts to a travelling circus.
Then Charlie Chaplin, eventually, forms United Artists, we’re out of the era where they were afraid of being hauled back to Jersey and thrown in jail, do not pass Go. And finally we get talkies, the Hayes Code and the Studio system. So a lot of the idea that you have to capture an audience in the first five minutes results from this crazy mash-up of trends verging with what sells leading to a studio system with too much talent, a 'director’s couch' where the 'talent' is 'auditioned' meaning where women are undervalued for their actual talent and only known as 'talent' for their tits and ass. A studio system of 'hacks' gritty been there no-nonsense paid by the word, no interest in art writers and copywriters and editors punch up scripts, strip them down. And the writer has five minutes, at a page per minute, to sell them on the script.
So take that one with a grain of salt. On the other hand, shysters, hacks, spell binders, spiel (spiel, related to both meanings of spell, involves selling someone on a story) spinners, salesmen, advertisers, newspapermen, newspaperwomen, journalists, even musicians call it a hook and have a radio-friendly song for promotion, the art of selling a story to an audience is probably part of storytelling, the craft.
Another technique borrowed from the studio system is storyboarding. Think of it as writing and drawing a cartoon comic in panel boxes, once you have the story idea. The actual physical act of drawing, a different craft and skillset than writing but related to storytelling can actually activate different areas of your brain. This has been known to spark that lightbulb cartoon Eureka! (I have found it- Greek discovering water displacement, proceeds to run through town without clothing) moment, ie inspiration.
- Tolstoy and Dickens invented the art of serialized fiction, which in another form, the netflix streaming binge, is so popular today- while it is well known that teasers, cliff-hangers, promos, chunking chapters or ideas are great ways to attract readers or an audience, these same tactics can help one as a writer. I’m sure there are others who have done it, maybe that is what the Entertainment was to begin with? Who knows.
I don’t know to what degree they relied on 'feedback' to alter their stories. I know that the first half of War and Peace was written by Tolstoy in serialized form. I’m not particularly interested in big data analytics, moneyball, Nate Silver, at least as regards bots telling me what I should be writing to be more popular with the kids. But. But every writer craves an audience and every writer writes for at least one person, even if that person is just themselves.
So, if you want to accommodate the direction your story takes based upon reader feedback, be it in some form of new-fangled big data cloud hashtag format, or comments in an online comment section feedback poll or the friendly critical review or whatever, I bet Tolstoy did the same thing or Dickens, in whatever form it took at that time. Then again, they might have been facing issues with declining revenues at newspapers, the need to increase the tallies of the dailies of their particular imprint, and might have faced deadlines and been facing so many words per as stipulated in a contract for cold hard cash. Which you may or may not be facing as well. So, whichever.
- A lot of American writers try and imitate Hemingway. Write short, staccato sentences. Keep it brief. Great writers like Elmore Leonard admire this. They also advocate for it. This is fine. Don’t forget there are other styles of writing and other schools, namely Proust and Tolstoy. Verbose verbatating verbosity doesn’t have to be your style if it ain’t, but neither should you feel you have to conform to what may turn out to simply be currently popular.
- There are differences in style-guides with regards punctuation.
- Eventually, in a perfect world, everything ends up in translation; don’t get so hung up on the particulars- if you do what you set out to do, your aim, if it be to be widely read, it stands to figure the more popular you are as a writer, the more your work will get translated and be, in some degree, further from what you wrote or intended.
- The art of storytelling was probably developed around a fire, it probably still takes place around one, from time to time. Storytelling started out as oral, spoken and part of it was listening; who doesn’t love to listen to a great story? It also involved memory, which then involves either misremembering something, faulty memory, imagination, filling in the gaps, fibbing, lying, stretching the truth, but also perspective and point of view.
- Words have the magical power of description, to create worlds or reality. According to the philosopher Wittgenstein, that is all there is.