Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

reading, books, types of stories

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

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.

All of them.

Teachers and professors, authors and instructors and writing gurus of all stripes.

You’ve been done wrong, bamboozled, hornswoggled 

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.

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. Not stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.

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

George Polti made things far 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 if you watch THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, 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–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 novel or movie 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 dragons, trolls or elves with lightsabers and it’s still the same story in a different setting and context.

Because in the end, story is about structure–how you put the pieces together. Is the ending up, down or mixed? What are the setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations?

They don’t really teach us structure or storytelling

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 all three classic movies are the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house. Either you kill it or it kills you.

Period. End of story.

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 have silly titles and a cover with a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He’s not pompous, 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.

If you write, and care about your craft, go buy his book. DO IT NOW. Then come back here to talk smack about structure, the real secret to writing of all sorts.

48 thoughts on “Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

  1. 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. 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…

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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…

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.)

  12. 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.

    1. Nina,

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

  13. HAH!!!
    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.
    Always.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

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

  17. 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!

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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. http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon

    (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.

    1. 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?

      Thanks!

      1. Blake the Snyder has two books:

        SAVE THE CAT

        and

        SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES

        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.

      2. 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*

Leave a Reply