Breaking the “Rules” Part 5 by Lin Robinson

Author Lin Robinson

[This article is part of a series by author Lin Robinson on the subject of so-called “rules” of writing. You can find the other articles here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.]

In this series I have mostly dealt with negative “rules” — adjurations to avoid the use of various parts of English speech that are perfectly useful.

In this final article I’d like to switch to debunking several “positive” kinds of “rules”: concepts which are urged, even pressed onto writers as necessary, but which I’d suggest you drop not just from you tool kit, but from your vocabulary.

The Myth Of “The Protagonist” — One of the most repeated and most utterly useless concepts for writers is “protagonist”. It’s a word that does absolutely nothing for you, and can mess you up. Perhaps you’ve seen newbies wailing, “Can I have more than one protagonist?” (And in screenplay circles, sometimes get answers like “OK, if it’s a ‘buddy movie'”, or “OK if it’s an ‘ensemble’ movie”, otherwise no. How about love stories. Do you really have to make one of the pair the main show and the other one subsidiary? How about a story of two rivals? But they’ll tell you that you have to because that’s the way it is and who are you to argue with Aristotle?

Well, first of all, Greek drama (and the whole “protagonist” thing is a dramatic, not fiction concept) was pretty simple and narrow with its chorus and all that. Not quite like current films of the “Babel”, “Crash”, “Go”, “Pulp Fiction” mold. Do you really want to chain your creativity down that much?

But here’s something much more important for writers to understand when things like this raise their pointed heads. These are CRITICAL structures, not CREATIVE structures. They are taxonomy that critics–like Aristotle–came up with to describe what the writers were doing. It’s extremely important not to internalize critical concepts and confuse them with generative structure–which is so often something of your own invention to cope with the story you are trying to tell. There is just no advantage in labeling a protagonist or antagonist for your story.

Three Act Structure — This plagues drama writers more than fiction writers, but it crops up. It’s probably the single stupidest critical concept of all time, and certainly when applied to generating, rather than discussing, stories. If you say it’s bunk, though, people will say, “Everything has a beginning, middle, and end.” Well, then, if you can’t not have it any other way, why worry about it? But what if you see you your story divided into five movements like the symphony that inspired it? Or a cycle of twelve houses? Or a six step recovery program? This whole idea is just clutter for a writer: forget it.

Theme — This is another totally useless term for a writer. Without going into the whole song and dance on why that’s so, let me just offer this. If you have any doubt that “theme” is meaningless for writing, take any given piece of writing and ask ten people what the theme is. If you two say the same thing, it’ll be uncommon. You have to have seen this in discussions of literature. A dozen critics with a dozen different ideas of what the theme of “Moby Dick” or “All The King’s Men” is. If it’s that projective, why bother trying to construct it? Furthermore, let’s say you decide you want to write something on a theme of “Love conquers all” (“themes” are almost always totally simple-minded bumperstickers like that): what do you do about it? How does that tell you what and how to write? Themes are something that emerge from a work, they don’t generate it. Nobody ever says, “I think I’ll write a book about the bonds of brotherhood challenged by duty.” They write a story and maybe that’s what somebody says it’s about.

And this: what’s the theme of “Harry Potter”? Of “Twilight”? Of “The Kite Runner”? I think if you try to answer, you’re going to start coming to the thought that it just doesn’t matter. Certainly not to the writer.

Character Arc — This is another outgrowth of protagonist-think. The idea is not totally bad: that the hero or whoever has to be changed and improved by the dramatic action, to emerge as a different person, perhaps with flaws remedied and scars healed.

Fine, if that’s what you want to do. Trouble is, they’ll tell you that you have to do it that way. And you don’t.

It’s a fairly recent obsession, particularly in film. In many modern films you learn to spot the complaints early on, knowing that in the end the hero will have learned to throw away his cell phone and pay attention to his family, or whatever. Many times you can see the stitches where the “character growth” is grafted on.

But it wasn’t always so. John Wayne and Gary Cooper rode into town and cleaned it up. They didn’t clean themselves up…they were heroes. It’s actually consistent with the classical, mythical model that heroes and protagonists act upon the situation, not vice versa. Here’s another way of looking at that: did James Bond have arcs of character growth? Did Mike Hammer? Perseus? Achilles? MacBeth? Jason Bourne?

All I’m saying is, it doesn’t have to be a factor if you don’t want it to be. If you feel like it deepens your character and story, fine. If you have to strain to fit it in, is it really worth it?

Author: Lin Robinson

Linton Robinson was born in occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and is now a 20 year resident of Latin America. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and noted photographer, with credits in top markets. His syndicated columns were cult favorites in the nineties. Learn more at his blog and his Amazon author page.

38 thoughts on “Breaking the “Rules” Part 5 by Lin Robinson

  1. Wheeee. I'm free!

    Great for the rebel in me. And maybe for the fact that I didn't even know all these 'rules' to start with. I have said, and I repeat, I learned to write by reading and writing, not by taking 'creative writing' classes. More and more, I feel no need to justify that.

    1. "I learned to write by reading and writing, not by taking ‘creative writing’ classes." Me too, Yvonne! I have read many articles which state that we need to take those classes in order to write well. I may not be the world's best writer (who is, anyway?), but I don't think I'm at the bottom of the pile either. People who read my manuscripts enjoy them, so isn't that what counts? It's like any art. Some of the old masters painted beautiful works, but not everyone likes them. Some more modern artists paint what I would call "junk", yet they are famous and their works go for big money. It's just that I personally don't like them. If our readers like what we write, what more can we ask? If they don't care about the rules, why should we?

      1. Writing theory has it's weirdnesses, Diane. And there are certainly some stinkers out there raking it in.

        But at least we've been spared abstracts. You can blindfold yourself and toss paint at the wall and nobody can really be sure it's not a great painting. But you can't just slam down random keys or words and sell it as a story.

        Poetry may be a different matter.

        1. And here I always thought that I was failing because I kept running into these concepts–usually, actually, by having my English teachers order me to 'fix' my writing because it didn't stand up under them! I feel freed as well! …Now to find publishers that agree with the whole 'throw these stupid Rules out the window' approach… But I must say that, Lin, you're absolutely right–these idiotic structural concepts limit what we are striving for–*the freedom to open minds*. And to do so, we must know that we are also free to write what will do so.

          My works never fit any of the Rules. I'm so grateful to hear someone else say 'to hell with you and your Rules'. I always thought they were stupidly limiting anyway.

  2. See what you were spared?

    Much of this stuff is almost impossible to avoid in any discussion of scripts and plays, but has filtered over to fiction forums and books.

  3. Oh hooray I have words for it now, 'seeing the stitches' it happens whenever I think, "I bet you did a creative writing class," and then feel mean. It's ok to be a rule-shattering maverick then? I will just go and tell someone where to place their story arc. 🙂

  4. Brilliant series, Lin.

    Now tell us … if we were invited to give a writing workshop or talk, what WOULD we talk to the avid listeners about? … apart from the fact that there are myths and perceptions that needn't be cast-iron clad.

  5. hang on a see – let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some writers would benefit greatly from thinking about a story arc and character development in their work. One woman in my writing group has a tendency to produce the art equivalent of a framed section of wallpaper. Her stories have nice design, pretty colours, and are hung straight – but there's no actual story. They are a section of time in which things happen, but there's no purpose or resolution. A few arcs here and there would really help!

    1. Hold on.

      I never said anything about character development of story arc.

      I specifically mentioned some very specific concepts that are useless and over-preached.

  6. I've been enjoying this series, Lin. Somehow until tonight I missed Part 4. Don't know where I was when you did that one. But now I'm caught up. I'm going to send the link for this series to the members of my writer's group. One member teaches a writing course at a local college, so it will be interesting to hear her reaction.

  7. I think I could reconcile myself to creative writing classes if they were run by all my favourite authors – Frank Herbert [RIP], Tad Williams, C.J.Cherryh, Ursula Le Guin – because that would save me having to read good writing to see what works and what doesn't. Oh but wait… I enjoyed reading those books. Must be something wrong with me.

  8. I thought it odd that so many mentioned creative writing classes.

    I have mostly addressed onine advice throughout this series because that's where I see the BS being ladeled out.

    I took creative writing in college (easiest way to get GI Bill) and dont remember running into this stuff.

    I graduated in 1980 (after seven years and an undergrad) so what I'm thinking is that a lot of this stuff has cropped up, or become hotkeys or been imported over from film school or something since the internet.

    But maybe it's not filtering back into academics.

    There was no such thing as "head-hopping" in the Seventies. Maybe if I went back the U. of Washington today they'd be teaching it.

    1. Actually, this stuff, all of it, popped up in my romance writer's groups back in the late 1980s. There, they said all these rules and they must be adhered to if you want to be published by a traditional publisher. Though in my first book I self-pubbed (contemporary romance I wrote in late 1980s) I tried to follow some of the rules; but the others I'm working on now, think I will throw out the rules with said bath water, lol.

  9. Like one of my grad students (in design, not creative writing), I find myself raising my hand with a first word already formed: "but." I'll resist.

    The "positive rules" you take on here are mostly matters of architecture, the larger scale patterns that give structure and organization and coherence to stories. I would agree that formulaic prescriptions of character arc, scene structure, act progression and the like are more useful for critical classification than for creative construction. But. (It finally leaked out.) Architecture is still important to story-telling, especially for full-length fiction, which I would say encompasses everything from the novella on up through the trilogy and beyond.

    Not all good writers are always fully conscious of their architectural decisions. Some may just push through the story and let the structure emerge, but the scaffolding and framework are still there, holding the story together, giving it form and strength. But (there it is again), most of the good contemporary writers I know and have talked with are well aware of where and why they are devising the architecture of their works. They plan in advance the order of events; they have an ending in mind; they know that there are so many parts to the narrative; and they have in mind at least the central characters and the process through which these will go.

    So, I would say that new writers and a new generation of writers need not simply stick to the shop-worn templates of three-act structure, climax and denouement, and character arc. Still, writing is more than just spraying words on the page, and giving careful thought to the large-scale structure of what we write, as well as attending to details, is an essential part of writing.

    All "buts" aside, this is a great series, filled with intelligence and meat for mental mastication and inspired discussion. I think it is serving as a convincing counterweight to the prescriptive simplism that has crept into modern exegesis on writing, whether online, in books, or in creative writing courses.

    Taking exception to some earlier posts, I think there is value in knowing "the rules." The value lies in raising to awareness when we say "but" and proceed in a different direction, in writing with studied deliberateness rather than by sloppy default, in making conscious choices because they serve the story or our personal style rather than because we either do not know any better or because we are following a formula.

    As a novelist, I break the rules frequently–and follow them as well. It is the story and the story-telling as well as my agenda for the particular work that inform these choices. The non-linear structure of my first novel, Bashert, did not come from not knowing about sequence and story arc, but from seeking the best way to tell a complicated story.

    1. Thanks Larry.

      One thing I'd point out here, though. NONE of the tropes or fails or whatever I mentioned here has anything to do with the architecture of a story.

      1. You're welcome. But I'm not sure which blog post you were reading. The one I was referring to by Lin Robinson made reference to three-act structure, character arc, beginning-middle-end, theme, plural protagonists, and the like–ALL of which are architectural issues. Perhaps the difference in our perspectives is merely a matter of definitions. Then again, maybe you were just messing with our minds. In any case, you have put together a great series.

        1. Actually, they aren't.

          "Protagonist" has nothing what soever to do with the architecture of the story. Unless you assume that by using the word it's necessary to create a one-dimensional story.

          Why I suggest forgetting the term entirely.

          Three act structure, as I point out, it not a plan either. It'a like saying architect should plan a building to have a bottom, middle and top. The "duh factor".

          Theme has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the plot whatsoever, nothing to do with anything really. As, again, I point out.

          The very fact that people are telling writers that these are useful phrases that help generate stories is, well awful really, but is exactly the reason I undertook to expose them for what they are.

          Useless terms that can't help you do anything, but if you buy into them, can harm you.

          1. I don't want to get into a useless and distracting debate over semantics or the value of terms, particularly when we are in such vehement agreement. As I use the term, architecture refers to the overarching shape and large-scale structure of a thing, as well as the underlying framework that gives form to that thing. The term is used roughly in this way in design, in composition, and among some of us writers.

            Whether the terms and concepts you so effectively skewer have value to the writer is another matter. I would say that outright and categorical rejection risks becoming another kind of straightjacket, so I would probably take a more nuanced stance. Even if all the concepts are thrown out as useless or even, as you assert, harmful, large-scale and over-arching matters are part of the design the writer imposes on or elicits from their story-telling. All I would argue for is mindfulness. I think that thinking about such matters and how they inform one's writing is helpful, but then others may disagree. I'm not doctrinaire about any of this, one way or the other. I long ago learned that there is more than one path, and the path that leads to good and successful writing for one may not work for another.

            I hope that helps.

          2. Oh I know what "architecture" means, Larry.

            That's why I say this stuff has nothing to do with it.

            If you can show how use of the term "theme" affects the architecture of any piece of writing, I'm sure we'd all appreciate the enlightenment.

            In fact, these things have nothing to do with plotting or construction, cannot be used to help write.

            People have been told they do, or inferred it. But can't tell you why.

            That's why forgetting all about them, other than in critical discusssions (where they are also pretty useless, in fact) is not a "strait jacket", but a liberation from error.

            As I say, any specific example of how they can help generate story would be of interest. But in years of being on forums with fiction and script writers of levels all the way from newbie to "household word" I've never seen it done.

            They are basically faith-based concepts that people cite, but aren't really sure why.

            And my saying to forget them isn't like saying, "Forget about God", more like, "Forget about Baal."

  10. Funny, everything you said that is not always necessary in fiction writing is BIBLE in screenwriting: theme, character arc, protagonist, three act structure– all of it! You MUST have these elements in order to get your script looked at. To me, I think Hollywood needs to lighten up and start making movies again; not remakes of remakes of remakes. Let the talent out of the box and we may surprise you.

    Great article. The novelist side of me is happy. Although I tend to break the rules rather often.

  11. I agree that all of these are critical, analytical structures, so I guess I'm glad I never subjected my writing to such analysis. I can't quite imagine how a mechanical structure like this could ever spawn a flowing, living, breathing story. I agree with K. that Hollywood uses the timeworn formulas waaaaaay too often, so much so that the entire arc of the story is often telegraphed within the first 20 minutes. How much better to have a story that goes off in unpredictable directions and morphs into something you never saw coming? (Think Pulp Fiction, Pleasantville) I'm happy–and grateful–that I never got hung up on "the rules!"

  12. I'm so glad you got to this one, Lin. I wrote a story about a single dad raising a teenage daughter, titled "Growing Up." The theme was that they were both growing up together in their own ways. Neither was the protagonist. I think it was an excellent story, but I could not get any literary mags to publish it. Those who commented said that the problem was no protagonist. "Who is this story about?" asked one. Crap!!!!!

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  13. My God! To be able to throw off the shackles of this rule and that rule is exhilarating. Being self-taught I have tried over the years to get a feel for the norm and then fit into the mold. I have used protagonist in my blog, but have always hated the term because it sounds so…so… pretentious. Thanks for giving me a few less rules to worry about. I find I break a lot of them because I didn't know what they were to begin with.

  14. It's important to note that (unless I've read him wrong) Lin is not saying completely ignore these things, just don't let them straitjacket your fiction. Don't go into it with a theme, in other words, but be open to a theme developing later. People can do what they want with your work once it's out in the world. They can say Moby Dick is about a popsicle and there's not a damn thing Melville can do about it.

    1. Actually, I'm saying to completely ignore them. Delete them from your vocabulary. They just mess people up and don't help anybody create anything.

  15. I was taught back in the 70s by a creative writing teacher, that it was important to learn the rules so you would be able to understand why you were tossing them out and violating them.

    1. Please see my early columns, where I comment acidly on the entire comment that you have to learn non-existent rules in order not to obsess over them.
      Thousands of the greatest writers ever never heard of this crap.

  16. Nice series Lin. It occurs to me that much of the vocabulary you decry is jargon for critics, rejection letters and academics… terms that give students something to write down and memorize for exams, an argot of intimidation. No wonder students don't want to write. Looking forward to more. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Mort.

      That's a really interesting perspective on this. A language of intimidation.

      I think a lot of jargon does that, or at least sets up a two-tier situation.

  17. There is little doubt that as I read this group of replies to your post, I find myself deeply engulfed in the fact that some writers may be overly concerned with rules of the road they have been taught and frequently mislead by, and consequently less concerned with the story they are attempting to write.

    Being a great writer takes talent, abmition, and the ability to get up after being knocked down several times. Listening to the concerns of those who don't write can be a sad state of affairs and I recall in the beginning, also at a writing group meeting, the word protagonist was used excessively…

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