If you are wanting to write speculative fiction and you happen to be researching advice on the best ways to go about doing it, you will start to notice a trend in much of the instruction you are consuming. You will hear a large group of people tell you that there are rules that must be followed and your work must contain certain structures, character arcs, and thematic elements. You will also hear people tell you to just follow your heart and write whatever you feel is best and that the story will come on its own without it needing to be on rails. Some folks may even tell you that rules were made to be broken. Others will tell you to never, ever, break the rules.
Here is something I have not heard anybody mention yet and I think it is a pretty crucial piece of the puzzle. Everything they are saying is correct but it is not always correct because it is not universally applicable. The mistake we make as writers who are wanting to learn is assuming that all of the people teaching us are talking about the same delicious story cake, when in truth half of them are talking about tasty story pie. If you have ever tried to make a cake using a pie recipe you quickly learned that they are not really interchangeable. You end up with a mess.
You can avoid a whole bunch of trouble and shenanigans by deciding what you are trying to do before you start drafting your work. What I mean by that, is a full commitment to one of the two camps and making creative decisions based on that knowledge. This realization I think would have saved many authors from failing in their goals.
“But I don’t know which one I’m doing? How can a story not be a story? What nonsense are you speaking?”
You may be asking yourself these very questions right now, and fear not because I’m going to dive right in and answer them help you make sense of it.
First off, lets address an elephant in the room. That would be the notion that a technical exercise is not valid as a story or is in some way inferior to a traditional story. This is not true at all. A well done technical exercise can be amazing and some of the most interesting pieces of media (books, films, shows, games, etc) fall into this category. Technical exercises have the power of breaking existing rules and in some cases can become so well known that they become an accepted style. They can come full circle to become a rule.
How do you know if you are looking at a technical exercise or not? The answer is simple, especially if you like the product. Make up a friend and describe it to them right now (or if you have a real friend you can try that as well). What is the hook? What are the selling points that you would use to convince your imaginary (or real) friend to check out said media? That is your answer.
Lets look at the movie “The Sixth Sense” which is a great example of a technical exercise. When most people talk about this movie they are discussing the twist ending. They may talk about how when the re-watched the movie it changed the experience for them as they now saw events with the knowledge of the twist.
You know what they don’t talk about as much? Character arcs. Themes. You don’t hear about the level of empathy they felt for the protagonist. Everything cool about the story comes from the execution of the twist. Standard story elements had to be discarded if they would compromise the goal and betray the twist. When the creator had to make a creative choice it was to serve the ending over a traditional narrative.
I have had a previous career in music and love music. You can see the same sort of thing happen there as well. Lets look at a couple of my favorite artists and see this concept from another view. I am a huge Joe Satriani fan. I am also a massive Dream Theater fan. These are very, very different artists. Both have exceptional talent on their instruments, but they approach their creations in different ways. When I listen to Satriani, I am looking for a strong melody and an easy to catch groove that I can just vibe with in the background. Almost anyone can listen to his music without it being too abrasive. When I listen to Dream Theater, it feels more like an athletic event. When the ending of Metropolis Pt. 1 comes on I am still amazed that five human beings were able to pull it off together. Sometimes they hit a great melody and a cool groove, but that is not why I put on Dream Theater. The times they do hit those things its like a bonus. If I want to chill, I’m probably not going to jam a twenty minute Dream Theater track. I have to be in the right mood for that. Dream Theater is the musical version of a technical exercise. They are not any less valid than Satriani, they just provide a different experience.
If I were to explain the music to a friend I would be telling them how “If I Could Fly” by Satriani makes me feel hopeful and happy. I would tell them how “The Dance of Eternity” by Dream Theater is so insane that they won’t believe how many meter changes are involved. See (hear?) the difference.
Both are important and valid. But they are not the same. All of this talk was just to help you realize that there is nothing wrong in breaking rules, as long as you realize that you are now playing a different game. I would have a hard time getting a pop or country fan seriously interested in Dream Theater, and it is not because of the genre difference. It is because they are wanting something out of music that is harder to find in a technical exercise. They will probably appreciate the talent involved but they most likely won’t become a major fan.
Lets keep the music example going just a tad longer (yeah,yeah, I know you want to write. Trust me this will come full circle). Lets look at a traditional song structure. Like a country waltz. This style of music is done in 3/4 or 6/8 and it has to be so that the people at the country bar can dance to it. I know this for a fact because one time on a country gig I had to play Silver Wings for thirty minutes. It sucked. But the old folks danced and I got paid so whatever. Could you imagine how upset those people would have been if we added a beat and played it in 7/8? What about just good ol’ common 4/4 time. It would not work and it would be a mess. If I want to write a waltz I must make it in the proper feel or it will not be a waltz anymore. It might be cool but it won’t be right and people that want to dance a waltz will notice right away and not be pleased.
The same goes for writing stories. You can tell what you have cooking by what excites you about the story. Is it your cool main character, the world, or the magic system? Or is it how you have planned to completely subvert an expectation on an existing trope? Is it the deep theme you have a personal connection with? Or is it the surprise ending that no one will see coming? You need to know before you start or you are going to make a mess.
You might be thinking that you can do both, and maybe you can as long as you never have to choose. If you come to a point in the story where you must go one way or the other you will be forced to double down. Breaking standard storytelling rules insures that you are probably going to be strolling down to that fork in the road sooner or later. If you have not decided beforehand which way you are going you and the project are going to end up lost.
If you want to write a traditional story, there are rules that you absolutely should not break. If you come to a crossroads where you have to pick between doing something that you think is super cool and creative or keeping the narrative crisp and flowing you must chose the story first or things will be worse for it.
On the other hand, with a technical exercise you must always choose the “hook” even if it is over the story. You can’t have it both ways or you will have a sucky story and a sucky technical exercise. You have to commit.
What would a fiction technical exercise be like? What if you wanted to write an entire book but never use the word “the.” I would buy this right now just to see how you pulled it off. Even if the story and characters were just phoned in. Because the characters and the story would be secondary to the technique. I’m reading this to see how you got around using the word “the” not to find out if Bob-a-Louie the hero gets the Golden McGuffin. Can you imagine how tough that would be? You would have to do a lot of wordy workarounds. It’s interesting. Now, if you could do that AND have a killer story too. Well, that is the sort of thing that make careers. (NOTE: I have no plans to do this. Feel free to write a story without using the word “the” and tell me about it in the comments.)
Being able to do a technical exercise is tough because you need to have a good grasp of the rules of traditional story telling so that you can break one of them in an interesting way. If that is your goal, I would recommend cutting your teeth on a standard story first and then moving on to your dream project. But you do you.
If you are wanting to tell a standard story then I would recommend you not stray far off the rules for best results. Those things are there for a reason, and if you are not actively trying to break them you probably should pay attention to them.
Now some of you are probably thinking that following the rules limits your creative powers. To this I say hogwash. I will have post in the future where I discuss the powers of creating within parameters and how I feel that it unlocks more creative potential than just an empty space of freedom. But I will leave you with a last musical example to drive the point home. Lets look at that waltz again.
What if I wanted to write a waltz. But a crazy waltz. I can do this. I can use heavy distorted guitars and throw in a death metal drummer. I can hire Dani Filth from Cradle of Filth to sing (err..screech) the vocals. I could get a banjo player and then have a distorted clarinet in the band also. (This is a crazy example but I kinda want to hear this. Do you? Tell me in the comments). As long as I put the meter in 3/4 or 6/8 it will still be a waltz. Is it cookie cutter cut and paste. Not hardly. Is it fresh and creative? Yeah. Would anybody buy this? Probably not.
But I could still do it and it would still be a waltz.
So what are you guys working on? Traditional story or Technical Exercise? Let me know in the comments.