A V.I.P. List for Writers (Very Important Principles)

Writers tend to despise rules. They quickly reject that which smacks of them (a sort of carpet bombing of anything that seems to dictate what they should and shouldn’t do in a story), and on some occasions, proceed to drift to the dark fringe of their genre in an attempt to reinvent the form.

The last writer to successfully reinvent a genre is buried next to Machiavelli in a cathedral in Florence.

Rejecting what we perceive to be a rule is a choice. But it may not be the choice the writer believes it to be.

Because what they’re messing with may not be a rule at all.

What it is, more likely, is a principle.

Semantics? Perhaps. But when it comes to our beliefs and boundaries about writing, semantics count. So let’s agree that, in writing, there are no rules.

But there are principles. And they don’t care what we believe. They just are. The principles of storytelling are like gravity: they are forces of nature that govern the effectiveness of what we do.

Rules, principles, tropes… whatever, pick what allows you to write with confidence with a maverick sense of creative individualism, if that’s what you require. But know this: when you mess with gravity — which doesn’t care what you call it — it can kill you.

As I write this I’m in a hotel room prepping my Powerpoint for a seven hour “master class” workshop at the annual Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, OR, where I’ve taught for seven of the last eight years. While it may be curious to some why they keep asking me back, I believe it is because of my advocacy and analogy-saturated focus on storytelling principles, some of which are less obvious than others (the principles, not the analogies).

Here, then, are a few of my favorites, some of which I suggest you consider pasting onto your monitor. Preferably not on the screen itself.

That, too, is not a rule, but yet one more principle that will serve you every time.

Successful stories are never primarily “about” something in terms of primary focus (a character, a theme, a location, etc). Rather, they are about something happening.

The best way to illuminate character is to give them something interesting to do.

Conflict is the most important word in fiction, trumping a list of other very important words. Conflict fuels fear and risk and threat and danger, which are the tropes of nearly all modern fiction. Mostly, though, it manifests as confrontation and a collision of agendas, leading to dramatic tension. If your story doesn’t have dramatic tension as the primary engine the narrative, chances are your story won’t work.

Character is the collision of backstory (which creates inner landscape) with opportunities that require decision and action in the presence of stakes.

Concept and Premise are not the same thing. Concept is to premise what sugar and spice are to baked goods. What salt is to popcorn. Concept fuels premise with something conceptual.

Break in — and break through — novels almost always have something highly conceptual driving the premise.

Plot is not a dirty word, no matter what your MFA program would have you believe. In commercial fiction, plot is your ticket in.

When you hear or read someone referring to their book (usually the one they hope to write one day) as a “fiction novel,” disregard all that comes out of their mouth from that point forward.

Your experience as a reader is only a minor and inadequate preparation for your experience as a writer.

It takes most of us ten or more hours to read a novel. It takes two hours to watch a movie. Screenwriters learn on Day One of their journey what it can take some novelists years to assimilate. Watch and learn.

There are twelve categories of skills and essences you must master before you can write effective fiction. Your pretty sentences and paragraphs are just one of them.

Passion for a particular theme can crash your story. Story is a window into theme, not a pulpit for it. Passion is an intoxicant, best used in moderation.

Nothing exposes a rookie quicker than dialogue that sounds like it came from an elementary school play. Check that — there is one thing that outs you even quicker: the mishandling of dialogue punctuation and attribution.

Once exposed to the principles of writing effective fiction — this is especially true relative to structure — the best way to cement that knowledge is to watch it in play in the novels you read and the movies you watch.

Exceptions are out there, but those authors are also buried in that Cathedral in Florence, so make your choices accordingly.


Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with two bestselling books out on the subject, and his third book – Story Fix: Transform Your Novel From Broken to Brilliant – (with a Foreword by Michael Hague, and generously blurbed by several of the authors here on Kill Zone) releases in October from Writers Digest Books.


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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

15 thoughts on “A V.I.P. List for Writers (Very Important Principles)

  1. The saying goes, “Rules were made to be broken” – not principles…

    Transcribing to Post-Its before noon.



  2. I like to call the rules ‘tools.’ We should learn to use them just as a carpenter learns which tool to use for the job.

    I don’t know where I read it (maybe here), but someone labeled writers (usually novices) who reject the rules out of hand “Rebels Without a Clue.” Love it! Hate their writing, however.

    I went to the Willamette conference years ago… one of the better ones I’ve attended. I’m jealous.

  3. I can hardly wait for Story Fix. Squee! If it’s anything like Story Engineering and Story Physics, I’ll be a happy little writer.

    BTW, Darkness Bound has kept me up more nights…flip, flip, flip. I just read the climax in the early morning hours. Wow. I did NOT see that coming. Incredible! I only have one left to read, Serpent’s Dance. In between teaching, coaching, writing and editing craft books, and blogging on two sites, can’t you churn out another before I’m done? Pretty please, with an autographed baseball on top? *praying hands held high*

  4. Rules, tools, guidelines…. In any case, not inherently bad, unless you’re a new writer who joins a crit group where they squash the life out of your story by strangling it with rules as if there is absolutely no other way. That results in a lot of agony for the newbie writer.

    Loved the “fiction novel” bit. That put a smile on my face despite the arrival of another tedious Monday morning.

  5. I want to comment on the statement above about novelists learning from screenwriters and screenwriting. (Here he goes again with the stories.)

    After I graduated from college, my mother gave me a trip to the summer writer’s conference at the University of Oklahoma, in the days of Foster-Harris, Dwight Swain, and Jack Bickham. (All of them blessed saints of writing, all of them now gone.)

    I so fell in love with the OU writer’s program that I decided to somehow move to Norman and take coursework, even if it had to be on a audit basis. It took me three years, but I got there, found a job with the University and enrolled in three courses, one of them introduction to screnwriting.

    Without taking credit from the associate professor teaching the course for his accomplishments in Hollywood, he didn’t know anything. (William Goldman told us that, right?) What I mean is this. The professor had been a television writer back when Lucy did a lot of ‘splainin’ to Ricky. He had worked on various series in television’s Golden Age. He spent a lot of time regaling us with stories, gossip, and plain-ole character assassination. He told us a story about how he had been invited and flown from Norman by a well-known movie producer to his house in Malibu for lunch and the discussion of a first draft of a screenplay based on the professor’s best-selling novel. We screamed, some standing on our desks acting like fools, when the professor told us that he turned the producer down because the producer didn’t offer enough money for the first draft. One should not be telling such stories to a classroom full of hungry–literally hungry–writers.

    But what the professor didn’t tell us was, anything about screenwriting. Because, as Mr. Goldman had said, he didn’t know anything. I took the class before Syd Fields wrote his famous book on screenwriting. His book, I think, was the first on screenplay structure. (Mr. Fields himself tells the story in his book about how he broke into the field, being mentored by a screenwriter. The best the veteran screenwriter had to tell Mr. Fields was that “something happens about page 60.”

    We now know that that SOMETHING is the mid-point of the script. Then, over the years, Mr. Goldman was able to figure out a structure of screenplays based on his reading of Euripides, and other playwrights and reading many scripts and writing scripts.

    So in my class in screenwriting, I learned nothing, which was the great sum and substance of the best Hollywood could teach us at that point.

    Since the last day of my screenwriting class (in which class we never wrote anything, never saw a movie, never talked character, or–everyone?–learned anything, and after Mr. Field’s book, a plethora of books, courses, and lectures on structure, character-building, and other facets of the screenwriting trade, have hit the fan–and the streets.

    SO much has been produced and given to prospective screenwriters that everyone I know wants to write a screenplay.

    But that’s good, I think. Because I am now able myself to have an opinion that the advice given in today’s post about novelists learning quickly from screenplays (and presumably screenwriters) is absolutely spot-on. I find Robert McKee’s book Story (a book on screenwriting) a go-to guide for character building and even structural principles. (I can’t afford that book. I have to sneak into our nearest Barnes & Nobel and read it a few dozen pages at a time. Alas, a misspent youth with a cute wife has now produced us 10 grandchildren. Grandpa is broke buying birthday and Christmas gifts. He has no money for expensive books.)

    So, in these days, I have to acknowledge that the writing professor who knew and taught me nothing, taught me a lot about how much I didn’t know. So I found out, not in the classroom, but at the movies.

    And in books about the movies.

    It could be that your next novel, or even the one you’re working on now, can be helped by an afternoon in your local movie theater or in front of your TV screen.

    Sorry, Foster, Mr Swain, and Mr. Bickham, but you three taught us to tell the truth, even if it is fiction. And the truth is, movies have taught me a lot about writing novels.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response today. We have to be careful about filtering the “conventional wisdom” from the mouths of writing teachers (I’m one of them, so this is an insider warning about insiders), some of whom are bestselling authors who should stick to fiction rather than teaching.

      Send me your email (use the Contact form on my website) and I’ll send you a copy of my book, “Story Engineering.” You may find it compatible yet different than McKee’s book, it’s always good to get multiple takes on the fundamentals. Thanks for your comment today. Larry

  6. I remember an early on-line critique group where the leader told me not to have anything else bad happen to Sarah. Lucky for me, I’d been to a writing conference where the focus of the workshop was “only trouble is interesting.” I left that critique group.

  7. I found the principles post very informative. I intend to share them with the Tuesday night writers group this week. Thank you, Larry.

  8. Good post. I loved this line: “When you hear or read someone referring to their book (usually the one they hope to write one day) as a “fiction novel,” disregard all that comes out of their mouth from that point forward.” When my agent gets a query letter that begins, “I have written a fictional novel,” it gets an automatic trip to the circular file.

  9. Hi Larry,
    Just wanted to take a moment to let you know how much I am learning from your book “Story Engineering”. As a newb, I have struggled with the story structure for a while now. It is all finally beginning to click. I really love your “buckets” 😉 Thanks again! 🙂


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