The Red Pen of Doom

Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

Let it be known: Romance authors have a good point when they say, “Romance is NOT a type of story.”

It is not a plot. There are all sorts of different romance stories.

Which brings me to a deep, dark truth that needs to be said: They’ve done us wrong.

I have come to believe that everything they have taught us in creative writing,  and in college, is boneheaded nonsense.

Except for the whole “earth is round” thing, plus the science and the math. That stuff is solid.

My secret lair includes a turret that is a library, full of Every Book on Writing, Rhetoric and Journalism Known to Man, and those books are 99 percent useless claptrap about either (a) the correct placement of semi-colons, which I believe should simply be shot, or (b) finding your happy place while you write at the same time every day.

These books are only good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

Aristotle was full of falafel when he told his eager little fanboys that there are only two stories: tragedies and comedies.

Your corduroy-clad creative writing teacher was wrong to say there are only three kinds of stories: man vs. self, man vs. man and man vs. society. Those are three types of conflict. They aren’t stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.

George Polti — also European, and just as dead, but not Greek — was making things too complicated when he gave us 36 Dramatic Situations, when what he really did was list 36 complications and conflicts, and if you want to drive down that twisty path, hell, I can write you a list of 532 Dramatic Situations before noon.

If you gave me a pot of coffee, by 5 p.m. we’d get to 3,982 Dramatic Situations.

(Yes, Mr. Internet Smarty Pants, you a genius for using the google to find a Wikepedia thing explaining that Polti was merely following in the footsteps of that literary giant Carlo Guzzi, but hear me know and believe me later in the week: Carlo Guzzi was also an overcomplicated doofus.)

Also: just as there is no romance story type, there is no such thing as a Western, though Clint Eastwood is a manly man, and a studly director these days of impressive subtly and power for an actor who used to specialize in grunting and shooting people, though there was nobody better at doing both with style.

There is no finer Man Movie than THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, where you are required by law to take a swig of decent tequila whenever Clint shoots a man and down two shots if he actually speaks a line of dialogue.

For you D & D and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings dorks — and I say that lovingly, though I want you to put down the Cheetos and the Playstation controller to go out in the world to kiss a girl, though please make sure she wants to be kissed first, and does not Mace you — there is also no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy story.

You can set a story a dusty Arizona mining town in 1875, or put the guts of that same story into a space station orbiting the second moon of Zenon or whatever. Either way, it’s the same story.

You can add elves and dragons and trolls. It’s still the same story.

Blake Snyder cut through all this tradition and nonsense with his SAVE THE CAT books.

Blake points out that it’s patently stupid to call FATAL ATTRACTION a domestic drama and ALIEN a sci-fi movie and JAWS a horror flick, because they are all the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house.

I will not summarize Blake’s book here by giving away all his other evil secrets. He’s boiled things down to ten primal stories, and yes, you can insert as many Dramatic Situations as you want into those ten  stories.

Blake has done all writers a great service with his two books, which do have silly titles and a cover that always features a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He is not pompous. He is not arrogant or overly complicated. Blake was  simply a freaking genius when it comes to storytelling, and the world is a poorer place now that he died young.

Go buy his book. DO IT NOW.


This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

About Guy Bergstrom

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot.

76 comments on “Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

  1. LC Aisling
    October 6, 2015

    I. Love. You.

    I also have quite a number of kindling for the zombie apocalypse. There is only 4 that I can actually relate to as important and only 2 of them is about writing. And not even really about the whole process, but the ones I have constant trouble with.

    And true what you say about romances – it really is nothing more than a type of conflict that is companion to almost every other conflict you can think of. It’s just the emphases on what the seller thinks sells, although in half of the times it seems being categorized under romance is like death sentence, for to be found in that myriad is like finding a needle in a haystack.


  2. notewords
    October 6, 2015

    Reblogged this on notewords and commented:

    Read and learn…


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  12. sjhigbee
    May 14, 2014

    Reblogged this on Brainfluff and commented:
    Guy always has something interesting and intelligent to say about writing – I don’t always agree with his view, but he is worth reading… Catch up with him on his blog at The Red Pen of Doom…


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  24. Bill Davis
    January 19, 2013

    From the Honey Boo Boo post to Squint Eastwood in your side bar (which caught my eye since we watched The Good, The Bad And The Ugly last night.) All of which led me to this post… again. Here I was reminded that it was you who turned me on to Blake Snyder and his ‘Save The Cat’ books. Since then we have bought books 1 & 3 and find them full of fantastic perspective on creating story, good story with compelling structure. We’re thinking the principles through in regards to our works-in-progress (first novels for each), but it’s even got us thinking about screenplays. Thanks again!


  25. Pam Uphoff
    September 13, 2012

    About the time I untangle the story from the plot and the genre, someone comes and asks me about sub plots, and I break down and cry.


    • Edward
      January 14, 2013

      I liked Avatar the first time I saw it when it was called; “Dances with Wolves.”


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  27. Nikki Barnabee/@GargoylePhan
    September 9, 2012

    I think the same thoughts whenever I come across 1981’s Outland, starring Sean Connery. It’s really 1952’s Gary Cooper classic western (oops, there’s no such thing!) High Noon, set in outerspace. I love them both.


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  29. genevievedewey
    August 21, 2012

    Reblogged this on The Original Genevieve Dewey and commented:
    So as my trials and tribulations continue in my desperate campaign to get Apple to categorize the book in the right Genre (which I RESENT having to further distinguish beyond Contemporary Fiction, but let’s at least get it out of the Plays and Poetry section … foresooth…)
    Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yeah, remembered this exceptionally funny piece by Guy at the Red Pen of Doom. Take a gander.


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  31. Elly Zupko
    July 19, 2012

    YES. If I were the hyperbolic sort I would say this book is my bible. Best book on plot and character arcs I’ve ever read. Every storyteller should own it.


  32. luckhawkins
    July 12, 2012

    Django… that’s so hot.


  33. Annika Howells
    June 29, 2012

    I tried to study creative writing at university, but the whole thing was utterly lacking in creativity. The books I had to read were dull and uninspiring, and all they planned on teaching any of us was how to write dull and uninspiring novels. I prefer to pick and choose my lessons. There are too many silly rules out there that get in the way of a good story.


    • Guy
      June 29, 2012

      I had a good creative writing professor, but even then … the pretentious books, they killed me.


  34. I like it and thoroughly agree, although I found going to college helped me a lot with my spelling and grammar. But I wasn’t one for school: I read a lot and I wasn’t bothered what it was, and still ain’t.
    It’s the story telling that matters to me, that and the way it’s done, the way the writer twists and turns meaning out of words, the way they fold the story up and make you forget about yourself until the book is alive within your head. Or something…


  35. authorguy
    June 16, 2012

    Complete agreement. Stories are characters in motion, the setting is just the setting. I’ve often considered how to rewrite my own stories to completely remove the fantasy elements. I often describe them as ‘making lemonade with fantasy lemons.’ It’s the lemonade-making that matters.

    And you’re funny. I will get this man’s books.


  36. You make me laugh.
    That is all.


    • Guy
      May 18, 2012

      Then my work here is done.


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  41. Kate Warren
    April 19, 2012

    Another great post! Here’s my take on ‘How to Write’ books. They cannot tell you how to write your stories. They can only tell you how the author writers his or her own stories. Take what you need from them and ignore the rest.


  42. Jack Durish
    April 19, 2012

    Not all stories set in the west are westerns, and the true western was a distinct type of story – a morality play – sharing little with romances and scifi. Interestingly, some scifi stories are westerns even though set far from the west. They too are morality plays with all the elements of a good western except maybe for the horse manure.

    Now, before anyone accuses me of defending schools, let me warn you that I agree with Twain: Schools only serve to teach children to imitate genius.


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  47. Larry of the Palouse
    October 4, 2010

    As always, you speak The Truth. Let semi-colons die and good stories live.

    And a hearty second (or third…too much tequila, not enough brain cells left) on the High Plains Drifter comment. Best. Clint Eastwood. Movie. Ever.

    I will go purchase Save the Cat write away. (oops…”right.” Enough with the tequila.)


    • Lynne
      August 22, 2012

      High Plains Drifter was the best not Eastwood movie, though Eastwood was in it. Kill semi-colons with abandon. Clint would!


  48. Nina Pierce
    October 2, 2010

    A scientist by both love and education, I have come at writing from a totally different headspace. I never did understand my college english classes. Neither undergraduate nor later for conitnuing education to help with my fiction writing. All I can say is … God bless my editors who have a clue about this semi-colon monster and comma placement (which I seem to use randomly like a pepper shaker over my manuscripts).

    All I know is I write what I like to read and it usually involves a kick-ass heroine and a guy who falls in love with her.


    • epicblackcar
      October 3, 2010


      The way they teach writing makes no sense. It is all dinky details when what’s truly hard is structure.


  49. Jen
    October 2, 2010

    You know what? I hate hate hate craft books. Sure, I’ve read “On Writing” and Anne Lamott, but I still don’t get all the detail stuff.
    Semi colons make me break out in hives.
    So, let me say this.
    Trying to define, delineate or explain any genre is a waste of time. There will always be one (or fifty) who disagree.
    Story trumps. Not WHICH story, but the voice with which the story is told. I could extol the underpinning social commentary of “Frankenstein” but the truth is Mary Shelley was a damn good story teller.
    And I could have lengthy discussions on the pros and cons of Shakespeare’s plot devices but the reality is the man knew how to get a reader/theater patron to care about his character.
    Frankly, all the other stuff is “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
    Story trumps.


    • Lex Valentine
      October 12, 2010

      I’m not a fan of craft books either. Except to put me to sleep when I have insomnia. I do own a dog earred copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style though. My copy of Sartre’s No Exit is more dog earred though. And I do own a copy of Josh Lanyon’s book about writing gay romances for money. I haven’t cracked it open yet though. Too busy writing my own stuff and reading Josh’s.

      And regardless of the craft, I have to write otherwise the characters and stories in my brain will make my head explode like a melon shot by Epic’s 9mm. BTW…is it a Glock? The hero of my real life story has a Glock. The other hero in my real life story (best friend) has a Beretta. Beretta owner has a gun safe. Glock owner says the gun’s safer mere inches from his hand at all times… I feel safe pretty much all the time. HEH.


      • Lex Valentine
        October 12, 2010

        Excuse my “thoughs.” Apparently, I’ve had too little sleep. Damned husband found the bed the last two night instead of sleeping on the couch where he is usually ensconced.


  50. Mary Corrales
    September 30, 2010

    I never could understand semi-colons and colons. I usually just ignore them in favor of commas. Oh, I love putting commas everywhere in my sentences. Drives editors nuts. Lol

    As for Clint Eastwood movies, I like most of them, but I loved Two Mules for Sister Sara. Yeah, so the heroine’s a prostitute…it works for him.


  51. Clancy Metzger
    September 30, 2010

    Epic laughing occurring again. Buying the book – thank you. Having a degree in English, I am not going to argue one point you made…because creative writing can and should break all those rules. They’re great for academic, technical and business writing, but in creative writing, they should be understood and then ignored fairly often. A personal pet peeve for me colons and semi-colons in fiction – hate seeing them there no matter grammatically correct they may be. Keep up the good fight against the trivial, irrrelevant and comically inane.


  52. jodi
    September 30, 2010

    lol, semi-colons. My favorite topic, the evolution of grammar. Always good for a shooting–I mean, “shouting” match. :)


  53. Sharon Hamilton
    September 29, 2010

    Hey Epic,
    There are these two little rules in romance (and the rest is a free-for-all) and without them it is something else, but not a romance:

    1. The woman always wins.
    2. There’s always a happily ever after.

    Having said that, it can happen on a horse, in a spaceship, on an alien planet, in a burning building or in a grave.

    Keep up the great job. We who are about to turn in our final revisions salute you!


    • epicblackcar
      September 30, 2010

      You are full of Truthiness, and I salute your post.


    • Rebecca
      September 30, 2010

      A romance story has to be focused on a romance that is developing between the main characters with all other plot devices secondary and there’s always a happliy-ever-after. As far as “the woman always wins”, not every plot has that type of conflict. A stoy that happenes to have romance but isn’t focused on it isn’t technically a romance.


    • Lex Valentine
      October 12, 2010

      While it’s true that the woman always “wins” in a romance, the man does too because for men there one true thing that they will always want and in a romance…they get it. In. Spades. Oh, baby.


  54. Ernur Anik
    September 29, 2010

    If ‘everything they taught us about writing is wrong’, it’s a good thing I wasn’t listening any way. You know your post is only going to encourage my rebellious nature.


    • epicblackcar
      September 29, 2010

      Ah, good to hear. We need to stir up some literary rebellions.


  55. Elise Logan
    September 29, 2010

    While I will definitely be putting Blake on my “go get it” list, I have to disagree with you on some key points.

    (1) There is nothing inherently wrong with semicolons; they serve a purpose. The Oatmeal has a great post on them involving all kinds of WIN illustrations.

    (2) I humbly submit that High Plains Drifter trumps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly if for no other reason than painting the town red. That’s EPIC.

    But thank you for the Blake pointer. I will now go exercise my consumerism.


    • Elise Logan
      September 30, 2010

      I meant to ask – when buying one of these, which should we non-screenwriters buy first? Is there a preferred order or is one less screen-writey than others?



      • epicblackcar
        September 30, 2010

        Blake the Snyder has two books:

        SAVE THE CAT



        Neither one is screen-writery. It is all storytelling and structure, which is the tough part anyway, whether you’re writing novels, speeches or narrative non-fiction whatever.
        Does it work for poems? No. Hashish, LSD and incomprehensible navel-gazing works for poets.


      • Elise Logan
        September 30, 2010

        I found a third: Save the Cat Strikes Back, fyi. I’m getting all three.

        I can do poetry. Haiku counts as poetry, right? And limericks? Those are poetry. *nods sagely*


  56. Daisy Harris
    September 29, 2010

    I’m so glad I didn’t take a single English class in college. (Opted out w/ an AP credit from HS.) Never took creative writing. I got into technical writing, academic editing, then decided to try to write books. So I got to learn it from a totally non-academic perspective.


    • epicblackcar
      September 30, 2010

      You are wise, and I should read these things called Books that you have written.


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