The Importance of Story

in writing •  last year

So you want to write a story.

You sit staring at the screen, faced with the task of getting the words in your head down to your fingers and onto the page. The ideas are there, and you’ve put in some time reading help articles and how-tos. You’ve learned about show versus tell, point of view, pacing, and hooks. But what are you actually going to write?

If you ask authors and critics across the industry, almost invariably, you will hear them call for “story.” After all, the story is the reason we read fiction. We don’t pick up a novel expecting to slog through 100,000 words of a character’s internal thought, or descriptions of Paris in spring, or the entire history of Daenerys Targaryen’s family all the way back to the Stone Age. No. Readers need for something to happen. They need a conflict in search of resolution. They need a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and some sense of satisfaction when they turn the last page.

Pimp your story.

Today I was enjoying my usual weekly “Ramble” with @shadowspub and PYPT (Pimp Your Post Thursday,) when another participant spoke up and said, “I have written a few short stories but never shared them with anyone.” @princessmewmew went on to ask where to start if one is a beginning writer. This led to a conversation about … you guessed it! Story.

I can’t stress this enough. Without a story, fiction isn’t fiction. It’s something else—an essay, maybe? A bunch of words on a page?

A good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has an inciting incident that kicks off the plot, conflict as the main character is thwarted in his or her attempt to reach a definable goal, a climactic scene in which everything the character has been striving for is finally either realized or lost, and a solid, conclusive ending. In all of this, the reader seeks to understand what it is the character wants, what’s stopping them from getting it, how they manage to get it, and how getting it changes the character. A writer should never make their readers work overly hard to discover those things. Furthermore, if you take away any of those components, your reader is going to feel that something is missing, and even if they can’t articulate it, this feeling is going to affect their opinion of your work.

Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules

I should caution you about backstory and description. While both are necessary, both are best delivered in drips and drabs. New York literary agent Andy Ross had this to say about backstory:

Editors believe how you handle or mishandle “backstory” is a marker for your ability as a writer. Back in the 19th century when people had more time, you could get away with spending the first 50 pages, say, setting up the story. If you don’t believe me, check out Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. Jean Valjean doesn’t even come on stage until page 55. You can’t do that today. Backstory needs to be insinuated into the narrative, obliquely, as it unfolds. And it’s devilishly hard to do. Prologues are the lazy man’s way of getting all the crap out and onto the page, so that the you can proceed to roll out the plot without any messy explanatory back tracking. Book editors call this an “info dump”.

Whether you are an experienced writer of fiction or someone sitting down for the first time with an idea and a laptop, you should read this article by Andy Ross. It’s about Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules For Writing.” Leonard, arguably one of the most successful American writers of our lifetime, crafted one of the most frequently and persistently quoted manifestos in the modern fiction industry. I’ll share the bare bones outline of it here, but I strongly encourage you to click the link to the Andy Ross article for better understanding. If you intend to write for a commercial audience, you’re doing yourself no favors by ignoring Leonard’s advice.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. –Elmore Leonard

This is a lot to digest, especially for writers who already feel intimidated by the prospect of sharing their words with the world. So, I’ll leave you with this: write what you like to read. But write it in a way the everyone else will want to read it, too.





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Ernest Hemmingway wrote the best short story in American fiction history. A man went to fish. Nothing major happened.

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Ah, but something did. That work can be outlined. I've done it. Now, I don't hold with the opinion that it's the "best short story in American fiction history," but it does have a literary plot.

I doubt it would amount to much in today's market, though. For better or worse, it probably wouldn't make it out of the slush pile. I suspect we lose a lot of great literary work in today's publishing process, and can't help feeling horrified sometimes by all the stories we'll never get to read.

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Exactly. Most of the greatest fiction of the las century wouldn't even get published today. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, kapoot!

Thank you so much, @rhondak! This is so kind of you, and so so helpful.

I wish there was a favourites bar for steemit, a reading list of sorts. I would add this to that list.

I appreciate this so much

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:-) the mew pops up here, mentioned in a great post! Just dropping this note to let you know I found it. thank you @princessmewmew

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it's a great post! @rhondak is an amazing and kind Steemian

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You are so welcome! I'm very glad we had the chance to talk today during PYPT. :-)

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Gosh is it still today where you are? That was yesterday for me! Anyway, majorly appreciated xx

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That is a really great idea, @princessmewmew. But maybe on The Writers Block. What do you think, @rhondak? A place for links to great articles on fiction writing techniques, do's and don'ts, etc?

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Oh, we already have it? You’re way ahead of me! Thank you and I will check it out. (And maybe someday my own posts will enjoy some visibility there! 😃)

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I think there is a recommended reading list. I was having look the other day.

I’d love a bookmark bar for steemit - often I find recipes, or book reviews or steemit/crypto tips and if I want to read them again, I have to search for them.

Hi :)

Very helpful advice again! There's something though, I've read Leonard's rules before and while I don't take them exactly as 'rules' but more as... heavily advised tips; there are two I still can't get my head around: 3 and 4. I don't understand why is it so bad to use a word other than 'said' or why is it wrong to add an adverb to give some emphasis. I've seen it on several works and it hasn't necessarily seem out of place...? Maybe those writers just got lucky, or maybe is because I write in Spanish where that kind of modification to the text is not as frowned upon... or maybe I've just been doing it the wrong way all along hahaha.

I don't know. What are your thoughts in the matter?

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Yes! A thousand times yes!

I like those Leonard rules. So many variations of the same ones... and for a good reason: following them while editing will elevate a draft. (A personal favourite is avoiding those nasty -ly adverbs.)

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We've all moved over to the Writers' Block now, and would love to have you drop in. You are always most welcome!

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On Discord?

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Yes. Here's an invite link:
https://discord.gg/kAb4KKa

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Thanks for this.

I have a number of pieces which I have written some notes and skeletons for, but feel that fear is what is stopping me sitting down and actually writing.

Blogging and posting is one thing.

Writing is another thing altogether.

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Gosh, yes. It is. I hope this helps in some way. :-)

And Elmore Leonard could write a story (and sell books too), so he seems to know a thing or two. I have read this list before, but I am glad to see it again. It is always advantageous for the new or amateur writer to review such advice regularly, I think.

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@naquoya! I'm so glad to see you! It's been a while.

Yes, Leonard did not reach the point he did by having no talent. So I tend to agree with your assessment. ;-)

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Thank you. Yes, I've been mostly absent for some time. Working at being around these parts more often now.

Thanks for the article (and others I am making my way through).

"It was a dark and stormy night...." she whispered creepily....

Thank you so much, @rhondak! This is so kind of you, and so so helpful. thank you again

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You are so welcome! :-)

Hi, thank you for that. I think I might take Elmore up on one or two of those rules,.
Upvoted, followed, resteemed.
Nick

Happy New Year @rhondak
This post has been deemed resteem & upvote worthy by your friendly @eastcoaststeem ran by @chelsea88 (not a bot)

These are such great rules and guidelines! I love the guidelines about never starting a story with the weather. It's so tempting to do. ("It was a dark and stormy night.") But it's so over done, and it's passive.

I also love the image. I used this one too in one of my fiction workshop posts too.

Truly: The Importance of Story

This is very helpful. Now I can go and read all those rules. Thank you.