Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 15, 2023

The Rules of the Story You Write

by Lynette M. Burrows

Image is of glowing lights in green and pink and purple and dark grass-like fronds surrounding an open book, it's pages about to turn.

When you ask a writer what they do, the answer is often “I write” or “I write stories.” But that’s not entirely true. Writers create and solve problems, we create characters, a time, a place, a mood, and more. All of those things are parts of a story, yes. And they come together as a story, but the story in your head, the words you put on paper (electronic or otherwise), only sets up the rules of the story. Your reader accepts those rules and interprets the story in her own way. 

What are the Rules?

There are rules about how to construct a story. Rules about when to introduce characters and who comes first. There are rules about genre and pacing and all the other parts of the story, but those aren’t the rules of your story.

The rules we’re talking about aren’t about how the story is constructed. The rules of your story are in the words you put on the page. Words that describe character, tone, theme, time and place, conflicts, strengths and weaknesses. Your reader picks up on the rules as she reads. How your reader interprets your words tells her what these rules are. 

 Be warned, if you don’t follow those rules, you will lose your reader. 

Writing is Not the Reverse of Reading

Much of what a reader experiences when she reads a book is not on the page. Read that sentence again. 

It has been scientifically proven that when a person reads fiction, it causes changes in the left temporal cortex of the brain. The left temporal cortex is an area of the brain associated with responsiveness to language and the primary area of nerves that involve both sensory and motor functions. 

These changes caused by reading fiction are called embodied cognition. More simply, the neurons in the brain trick the mind into thinking it’s actually experiencing the story. 

That mind-over-matter trick our brains play when we read changes the words you’ve written into a story the reader experiences with details supplied by her memories and associated feelings. The words you’ve written trigger those memories and feelings, but they are not the same as the memories and feelings you experienced or thought of as you wrote the words. Nor are they the same as any other reader reading those same words

Set the Reader Up

What is a writer to do when the reader makes the rules? You  prime the pump, set the stage so to speak. In my post “Create a Compelling Plot with What-But-Therefore” I take use the story Rumpelstiltskin as an example. It’s a good example for reader’s rules as well. 

Example Set the Stage

The first lines of Rumpelstiltskin by the Grimm Brothers:

By the side of a wood, in a country a long way off, ran a fine stream of water, and upon the stream there stood a mill. 

How do you see that in your mind’s eye?

Collage image of photographs of a windmill, an aged water mill building, and a wind mill on a farm.

Does the “wood” surround the mill, stand beside it, behind it? A country a long way off may mean somewhere in Europe to someone in the US. But if you’re in Europe, do you see Great Britain or China or the US? What about if you’re in Australia?

A fine stream of water can be narrow or wide, deep or shallow. The word mill could mean a water-powered mill, a wind-powered mill, or a mule-powered mill. Where is the stream in relation to the mill? 

Now you may be thinking, how vague that is. But it’s a fairy tale that has lasted through the ages because it allows the reader to fill in the details around a timeless story. You’re probably thinking I’m writing something else. How vague do I need to be?

Write your first draft as something you enjoy reading. If you like a lot of descriptive details, include a lot of description. Prefer more action? Put in more action. 

Your second draft is where you want to be selective with you reader in mind. Don’t beat her over the head with an image you see. Select a few things that are important to the action or cause a deeper resonance with the theme or the character or the situation. Remove any details that don’t add something to your story.  

Example Set the Theme, Characters, and Problem

The miller’s house was close by, and the miller, you must know, had a very beautiful daughter. She was, moreover, very shrewd and clever; and the miller was so proud of her, that he one day told the king of the land, who used to come and hunt in the wood, that his daughter could spin gold out of straw. 

The author of this tale, as the Brothers Grimm set it down, is sparse in the details he gives. Yet, by the third sentence, we know or infer a lot about this world, the time period, the relationships between the king, the miller, and his daughter. And we have a strong hint of what the story problem is. There are no extraneous details. The reader is left to imagine what the characters look like. She infers that the miller loves his daughter. She muses that the miller has some kind of relationship with the king because he told the king about his daughter.  Suspicions swirl in her head that the miller’s pride in his daughter will get someone in trouble. Finally, because the tone and the words in a country a long way off, the reader expects this to be a folktale or fable.

Example Set the Tone

Every word you use in your story, helps set the tone. In Rumpelstiltskin, we’re told the king is greedy and he sends for the daughter and says if she values her life, she’ll spin a pile of straw into gold 

It was in vain that the poor maiden said that it was only a silly boast of her father, for that she could do no such thing as spin straw into gold: the chamber door was locked and she was left alone. 

The reader takes those words and envisions the beautiful, shrewd and clever daughter begging the king to understand. The reader can feel how distraught the daughter is when she sits down in one corner of the room and bewails her hard fate.  

Note the word choices, in vain, silly boast, chamber door, locked, and left alone. They all convey tone that builds the tension in this story. There are no extra words to fill in the details. Yet, the reader sees this story in her mind’s eye. If she’s hooked into the story, she experiences embodied cognition and lives the story.

Trust Your Reader's Interpretation

The modern-day reader is typically more sophisticated than the original Rumpelstiltskin audiences. They may or may not be hooked enough in the Brothers Grimm version of the story. But the lesson this tale gives is that the writer must trust the reader to pick up on the set up you’ve penned. The original author of this tale set up the action and the conclusion of this story in such a way that their readers are willing participants and satisfied readers.

The miller’s daughter becomes queen and the droll-looking little man who spun the straw into gold for a price returns and demands her first born child. She shrewdly makes a deal, if she guesses the little man’s name within three days she shall keep the child.

She sends out messengers to find names. The first day guesses all the names she could remember. The second day she guesses comical names. Finally, a messenger returns with a story and a name. 

The reader knows the queen has won the bet and keeps reading for the victory.

If the originator of this tale had the daughter convince the king that the straw into gold was a boast, or she didn’t become queen, or as queen she gave up her child, or if she had the king’s men kill the little man, the rules of the story would be broken. This tale would not have survived as a spoken tale and never made it to the written tale we know. 

Never Break the Rules of the Story

The rules of a story have to do with reader expectations, genre tropes, and reader interpretation.  

The reader expects a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. She expects the miller’s daughter to be shrewd and clever, expects to feel a growing threat, and expects a shrewd and clever queen to win the day.

Your reader picks up your story because something about it intrigued her, made her believe that this book could transport her to a place and in a way that will entertain her. She absorbs the rules of the world, character, the problem. 

Your job as a writer is to never break those rules. An out of place detail, a poorly chosen word can jolt your reader out of the story. Don’t make your characters act in uncharacteristic ways (without a compelling reason). Don’t have a story solution appear when your main character hasn’t won a hard-fought battle, or lost something, or learned something. 

Edit for the Reader

The first draft is yours. It can be all the things you want it to be.

Your second draft is for the reader. The story is no longer yours (unless you never intend to publish it). Take off your my-story-my-baby “writer” hat and put on a more objective, best-version-of-the-story “editor” hat. 

Edit away any of your first draft hesitations. If you think a particular line or scene is very clever, re-examine it. Does it add value beyond cleverness? If not, cut it. Cut ruthlessly. Add judiciously. And always keep the rules of your story and your reader in mind.

Mold your story into a version that allows your reader to experience the story her way. 

How Does the Writer Know the Reader’s Rules?

A good writer’s group that critiques in a constructive way can help you figure out when something doesn’t ring true. The group may identify a specific thing as wrong but it’s important for you the writer to look at how that fits with the bigger picture. 

It’s also important to get feedback on more than a few pages at a time. First readers willing to read the complete manuscript and give you feedback can be invaluable in helping you see where you’ve bent or broken the rules of your story. Value the questions they have. Evaluate the places they say are slow, difficult, or unbelievable. 

Photo looking up, surrounded whisps of clouds and by bookshelves full of books reaching upward to birds soaring in a cloudy sky with a hazy yellow sun.

Honor the reader. Honor the story.  Remember that whatever you show in the beginning of the story establishes the rules of the world and the characters of that story. Create rules that invite your readers to immerse themselves in the story.

Your story should be a gateway, a road map, not a catalogue of details. Set the stage with the right rules and sensory detail and your story will set your reader’s neuron’s alight and she’ll experience your story in the best possible way. 

Have you read a story where the author broke the story’s rules? Did you finish that story? 

How do you ensure your story’s rules are never broken? 

* * * * * *

About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows

Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, creativity advocate, and Yorkie wrangler. She survived moving seventeen times between kindergarten and her high school graduation. This alone makes her uniquely qualified to write an adventure or two.

Her Fellowship series takes place in 1961 Fellowship America where autogyros fly and following the rules isn’t optional. It’s a “chillingly realistic” alternate history and a story of unimagined heroism. Books one and two, My Soul to Keep, and  If I Should Die, are available everywhere books are sold online. Book three, And When I Wake, is scheduled to be published in 2024.

Lynette lives in the land of OZ. She is a certifiable chocoholic and coffee lover. When she’s not blogging or writing or researching her next book, she avoids housework and plays with her two Yorkshire terriers. You can find Lynette online on Facebook, or Twitter @LynetteMBurrows or on her website.

Image Credits

First image by Yuri from Pixabay

Middle collage by Lynette M. Burrows with photos by Enrique, Daniel. and Alfred from  Pixabay

Final image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

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17 comments on “The Rules of the Story You Write”

  1. Great article with sound advice. I have written scenes where a friend/reader will say "you just described my grandmother's house perfectly." Well, I will have seen their grandmother's and it is nothing at all like what I had in my mind. But really this is the best outcome because they've been given a place they are familiar and comfortable because I didn't force them to only see what I saw. I'm sharing this post with my writing group!

  2. The story has its own life, and we have to respect that, just as we listen to and respect a new acquaintance who might turn into a good friend. As the story develops, what is it telling me, not what do I want it to say?

    I like your elucidation of the rules, and the gateway and road map are wonderfully evocative and useful images to keep in mind while writing. Thanks, Lynette.

  3. I am fascinated to learn how reading changes the brain. Now I have a better understanding of why I feel part of the story!

    Truly, I don't know what I'd do without others' eyes on my work. That makes an enormous difference.

    Great post. Thank you, Lynette!

  4. I absolutely love this post, Lynette! I love that you state unequivocally that the second draft and beyond is for your reader. And I really enjoyed this from the top of the post: "Writers create and solve problems, we create characters, a time, a place, a mood.."

    I am a problem solver, and it is one of my very favorite things about writing. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Jenny. This was a lesson I learned long ago but was reminded of recently. And I know what you mean about problem-solving being a favorite thing about writing. I absolutely love this writing life!

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