Once upon a time not so very long ago, I was chatting with a fellow writer and editor about the writing process and how to make a good story. My companion said “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” So what exactly are the rules?
Let’s start by acknowledging that there are lots of things that can ruin a story. Maybe the narrative drags in a few places or the characters do things that don’t make sense. Perhaps the plot has too many twists or not enough, or the story is so philosophically complex or so intellectually unsophisticated that readers just can’t stand it. It might just be that the writing style isn’t particularly conducive to pleasurable reading.
So how do you avoid these pitfalls? In many disciplines, if you follow a specific set of instructions, then you should get the intended outcome, whatever that may be. But following rules does not significantly improve art, except incidentally. Art is not art merely because it has technical merit. In fact, some of the best art busts all the rules and gets away with it. If Tom Thompson or Vincent van Gogh had decided to do what a good painter is “supposed” to do, we might never have known their names. Fortunately, they chose to do things rather differently.
You have to ask yourself what is the value of making art that slavishly follows rules — are you hoping to please an audience? If all you want is a little money, maybe that’s best. People will probably enjoy your work because it’s easy to understand and they really don’t have to be bothered with all that thinking and feeling nonsense. They will read your novel and think “Now, wasn’t that nice?” Then they will walk away and forget about it because there’s another one just like it over there. Maybe that other novel is yours too, or maybe it’s someone else’s. What difference does it make? They’re all the same.
You may desperately want your book to be popular and well-loved, but writing a book that’s just like every other book out there is not the solution. You need to be prepared to break some rules and take some risks.
For example, using the so-called three-act structure has become something of a trend in screenwriting, but it has also become popular in novel writing. Proponents claim this is the best way to write a story, but detractors are quick to note its limitations. For example, writing coach John Truby argues that the three-act structure is arbitrary and simplistic, and it demands that the writer focus on plot rather than character — a cardinal sin in storytelling. The three-act structure may be useful in theatre, but it may not translate well to other media. By trying to follow a formula and play it “safe” you may actually be taking a bad risk.
However, it is not always obvious which risks you should take. I’ve seen well-intentioned advice listicles that say your protagonist should be likeable and your villain should be despicable. This is easy to do and readers will certainly get it, but it will reduce your characters to mere stereotypes, which is definitely not good writing. On the other hand, making your protagonist severely flawed or your villain sympathetic (or both) may make some readers unhappy, but if it’s done well, your book will be far more interesting and complex. Will it be popular? Who can say. But if it sounds just like any number of other books on the market, there is no reason to assume that people will choose your book over any other.
I’m sorry, but there really is no sure way to succeed in publishing except to write a lot, listen to constructive criticism, and hone your instincts. It will take time, and you’ll probably write some junk along the way — wait, no, you will write some junk along the way. Get over it. If you’re not prepared to take risks, you’re not prepared to make art.
If you really want to make art, become BFFs with your fear. Climb the stairs to the top of the highest tower, step out onto the ledge, close your eyes, and leap. Don’t look down. If you fail, you’ll meet the ground soon enough. If you succeed, however, you’ll soar for a while and then hopefully make nice soft landing. If you’re really lucky, you may never have to come back down, but don’t kid yourself — almost no one is that lucky. Just try to enjoy the flight while it lasts.