4 min read

Assumptions I make about writing

I've noticed a few assumptions in my approach to creative writing and learning about it. Some I even agree with. These remain subject to change on new experience. Here are a few:

  1. Experimental prose, poetry, etc. is 'not for me.' I don't read much of it and I don't write much of it. I once read a story that was formatted as a list of hints for a cross-word puzzle. It's an interesting format idea. However, the story didn't resonate enough for me as a story to remember the events more than vaguely.
  2. I don't need to know much about unconventional storytelling because I'm unlikely to have ideas that I need unconventional techniques to tell. I can't remember the last time I came up with a story idea that couldn't be told conventionally.
  3. "Unconventional" stories when done well usually follow structural conventions. It's the content that's weird.
  4. If a conventionally-told story feels confusing or surprising-in-a-bad-way the way it's told, the telling probably has poor structure in some sense. It's lacking appropriate build-up.
  5. Structure is mostly about clarity.
  6. Clarity is mostly about buildup.
  7. Buildup is mostly about making promises for the events or topics you are going to deliver.
  8. Making promises is mostly about setting up and then repeating a theme.
  9. A theme is simple. First, something happens or is discussed. Later, something else happens or gets discussed that is similar. Then a different similar thing comes up... and so on. This similarity could be as strong or as loose as I want, as narrow or as specific and in any sense or dimension I want, so long as it keeps coming back.
  10. Resolving a theme is just about bringing back that theme.
  11. Themes don't have to be profound, abstract, or to make sense outside the context of their host story. This is especially but not exclusively true for the kind that show up as promises—i.e. lowercase themes. A lowercase theme/topic could be as simple as "Johnny and the karate tournament he wants to enter."
  12. Capital-T Theme is scary and to be handled with some care. But not too much, or I'll never write the damn story.
  13. The difference between a theme and a Theme is that the latter gets repeated more often, and the connections are more big-picture and more abstract. Capital-T Themes are abstract enough they are not confined to the host story. The story seems to be commenting on this topic in a way that goes beyond the story itself.
  14. The Rule of Three is a pretty good building block for creating structure. I know I got the Rule of Three from some podcast, but can't begin to remember which. It says that buildup tends to happen in a pattern of threes: You set up an expectation (setup), you reinforce it (bring it back in a similar way), then pay it off (payoff). For example, in a romance story, this might look like a meet cute (setup), followed by a first date (reinforcment), followed by either a blowup or some kind of commitment, or something else that changes the situation (payoff).

Here are a few assumptions I often make that I contradicted in the process of writing this post and the last:

  1. Good storytelling, for a conventional story, is mostly the same across different media: Short stories, novels, serials, web serials, comic books, cartoons, live action TV, film, and video games.
  2. Good episode-level TV writing is mechanically pretty similar to short story writing—again, if you're writing a conventional story.
  3. Good film writing for a conventional story is mechanically pretty similar to long short story writing or to novelette writing.
  4. Good franchise, season- and show-level TV writing is pretty similar to good novel writing, especially serials, especially web serials.

The common element here is focusing on what's in common and forgetting the differences. I still think it's true these have a lot in common. These different media have to convey a lot of the same information for a lot of the same reasons. Understanding that seems useful.

The issue is forgetting that the medium-specific details matter a lot for actually planning and writing the story. You can get away with a vaguer sequence of events in writing than in a script because you don't have to orchestrate all the specific details. You can even spend paragraphs directly inside a character's head. If you're writing a script, you generally have to externalize that information somehow. You can flash back pretty cheaply, although it's still a bad idea to do too much of it.

Remembering the specific details is useful in two ways. First, if you're writing a script, now you know you have to get specific. Second, if you're like me and writing prose fiction, now you know you have permission to leave some bits of your story vague and ethereal! Phew.

In prose fiction, you can have action outside of scenes, and that has consequences. This fact means that if I give an event a whole scene, that event has to be important and meaningful on its own rather than as part of an ongoing pattern of similar events—because if it wasn't important on its own, I could have brought in that event outside of a particular scene. It could have been a sentence or five instead.

Because in prose fiction I can show action outside scenes, I should. If I want to show a change without a big dramatic event, or to build up to a dramatic event, include some action outside scenes. If I want to show a pattern without implying that any individual event is bad, include some action outside scenes. I don't have to lump 3 different bad things into the same scene to diffuse their individual importance. Instead, I can just give each one a few sentences outside of any scene and move on.

Writing this has been a useful exercise. I've already found a few questionable assumptions and learned something from questioning them. By making the rest explicit, they're now up for debate as well. I wonder what I'll learn about those in the future.