This is a repost of an article I wrote over at Killer Moose.
We at Killer Moose HQ love stories. We write them, and we talk about them. A lot. And this month we all sat down to explore our very own personal storytelling tendencies. You can read Bradley’s list here.
In my case, I readily confess that this started as my fellow Moose teasing me for my various predilections. Then I decided to turn introspective on it. I do that.
So. Without further ado, here are my Rules of Storytelling:
1. Rage at something done poorly makes an excellent start to a story.
This is how it all begins. I’m not sure if it needs a lot of explanation. It explains itself pretty well (and even rhymes!)
Basically: almost every story I’ve started has been triggered by me being angry at something. It makes me angry → I write my version of how I think it needs to be instead.
2. ‘I don’t worldbuild’… but let me tell you about this cheese…
It’s true! I don’t consider myself a ‘wordbuilder.’ This is a repeated statement from me in our Moose writer group, and I am usually mocked for it. Thus, I shall address this / defend myself a little.
Listen — I do worldbuild; but my approach to it and how I think about it seems to drastically deviate from how I’ve heard most ‘worldbuilding writers’ discuss their approach.
What I mean is: there are a number of writers who genuinely enjoy inventing worlds. Even within our own Moose circle this breed exists (which reminds me: stay tuned for Cole’s rules next week!) But me? I don’t enjoy inventing worlds. No — I get bored. as. fuck. inventing worlds. When I say ‘I don’t worldbuild,’ it has more to do with my personal process going backwards from that idea.
Or to put it another way: I don’t start with a world / world-state in mind and then populate it with characters… I start with a handful of characters whom I meet in nebulous space, and as I go along I steadily fill in their world around them.
Creating fantasy maps? Nope. The closest I get to that is when I reach the point where I am absolutely required to draw a large lumpy blob in which smaller lumpy blobs have but the vaguest approximate sense of direction and relation to one another. HOWEVER! That being said, I will inevitably wind up with multiple pages of notes on how the political relations between all those damn lumpy blobs work. And once you confine me to a particular space (i.e. something like city) then I have been known to plot out every damn building within a couple blocks.
Weaving together rich tapestries of culture comprised of languages and religions? Ha-ha. No. 1) Languages are cool, but I am not exactly enamored by the idea of working with them; and 2) I purposefully carve religion entirely out of my stories. HOWEVER! I will work out exactly how specific characters drink (thus what forms of wine/liquor/beer/coffee/tea exist), and I will know what specific characters enjoy/dislike eating (cheese is usually involved in some form). There is also almost always a focus on how everyone in a given book appreciates The Arts. For example: are there operas? theatre? ballet? film? music? art galleries? In any given story I will wind up with lists of fake actors/musicians/artists/writers as well as the fake titles of plays/films/stage shows.
And then are the unguents (as Hanna would say). Mostly because there was that one time I spent all day researching the history of sex lubes. Still haven’t lived that one down.
3. Sex is a thing that happens.
And it is not evil.
Quick, very important note with this: asexuality is a different matter! If writing an asexual character / spectrum asexual character, then write that character. A purposeful acknowledgment of an asexual spectrum is not what I’m talking about when I talk about this. My particular frustrations are with stories sidestepping/dodging acknowledgments/explorations of healthy female sexuality and same-sex sexuality.
1) All too often ‘sexuality’ is used to denote immoral or “bad” women.
2) All too often same-sex characters are either completely sexless (specifically as way to render them ‘non-threatening’) or are overly-sexed to the point of fetishization.
So… aside from particular exceptions, most characters (protagonist and antagonist alike) in my various stories have sex, and discuss sex openly. And sex as a concept is never culturally demonized.
4. Incompetency is the greatest sin.
This was a rather recent realization. If there is a character in a tv show/book/movie that will instantly drive me to bonkers frustration, it is an incompetent one. This may seem obvious or common because oftentimes it has more to do with lazy writing… But my frustration goes beyond that. Because even in good writing this character can exist, and I still don’t usually like them! For example: this can be the ‘person who isn’t as good at things and yet overcomes because heart and feels! Yes, I have been known to be the heartless bastard who roots against many underdogs (and certain hero characters) for this exact reason. I get frustrated when a character who feels or believes! trumps competence, intelligence, or experience. And don’t even get me started on chaos element characters that disrupt someone else’s smart and well-put-together plans by merely being chaotic…
So it’s not really a surprise that this seeps into my stories in interesting ways. I’ve noticed that routinely the “bad people” (whom are meant to be disliked) are all those displaying levels of incompetence. And note: I’m not saying ‘villains,’ or even ‘antagonists.’ That is actually because it seems to be that my major conflicts rarely lie in having villains at all. I am stacked to the ceiling with various antagonists, sure, but my narratives don’t operate in grand-scale conflicts.
Which brings me to my last and greatest rule…
5. There is nothing better than people talking in rooms.
Do you know how there are the stories that constantly skim over what I call the ‘in-between’ time? The sitting and traveling… the dinners and lunches and breakfasts… the conversations at bars… ? These are commonly footnotes or fragments of conversation before the narrative gets on with the important action. Yeah I don’t do that. If anything, I utterly reverse that. My stories tend to live entirely in the ‘in-between’ times, and what I skip over as footnote or fragment is the action.
Seriously — ask Bradley some time about my ‘heist book’ in which no actual heists really take place, and is instead comprised of all the talking before and after the heists.
If I’m thinking about it, this may explain the primary draw of Quentin Tarantino for me / why I am usually intrigued by his work at the very least. Opinions about all of his other choices as a filmmaker aside, Tarantino does these ‘in-between times’ very well. When characters sit down to a meal or a drink, they have an actual conversation over the natural time of said meal or drink — as opposed to many times where characters sit down to something, exchange a couple of lines, and then suddenly are moving again.
Some of my favorite movies in general are those that involve lots of conversation between people in a concentrated spaces. It’s why I enjoy things like Rope or 12 Angry Men or Weekend or even something like Bug (to name a few).
I genuinely enjoy fixating on a small handful of people talking about things. I love the detailed minutia of it. Thus in my own writing, my conflicts tend to go smaller as well — my ultimate conflicts often center around self-realizations, or around found homes and found families.
And those are my rules, folks! As I mentioned above, you should stay tuned next week! Cheers!