Cookie Cutter Writing Courses

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They’re All Starting to Look the Same

I’ve previewed several writing courses and there was one thing that they all had in common, that really bothered me.

What is the One Thing All Writing Courses Teach

(You Have to Have This or Your Story is Dull)

Conflict.

Every course I previewed taught that every story should present:

•character

•setting

• conflict

Not only is this suggested as the way to write every story, but these elements should be presented right away, if possible, within the first ten pages if you’re writing a book. Otherwise, (we’re told) you stand a chance of losing your audience because you didn’t engage them quickly enough.

A good example of this kind of story telling is a movie that opens with a gruesome battle scene, or chase scene, or something spectacular. Talk about overkill. I can think of a few that had opening scenes that turned out to not be that essential to the plot, and were obviously written just as a hook to ensure that I wasn’t going to go anywhere. While I can appreciate the use of this tactic (say for instance, the battle scene in Gladiator), I think it’s a mistake to say that ALL stories need to contain conflict.

Not Every Good Story Starts with Conflict

Or Has to Contain Conflict or Even Has a Hero

Here’s a small coincidence story to prove my point.

For his birthday, my brother Sam was given a book by our father. Dad signed the inside cover and dated it. Sam kept it for a few years, but somehow it ended up in a box destined for the second-hand store, when he and his wife were moving into a new home.

Sam searched and searched for the book, not knowing it had been donated, and eventually gave up his search, and ordered another copy off CheapBooks.com. The book was shipped, from somewhere on the east coast, to Sam on the west coast. When it arrived Sam opened it up, and there on the inside cover was our father’s birthday inscription. It was Sam’s original book!

A few months later, Sam took it to a seminar, where the author of the book was speaking. Now, Sam not only had his book back, but he got to meet the author, and got his autograph right next to our father’s birthday inscription.

Not only is that a true story, but it’s a great story, right?

•So, where is the conflict?

•Who is the hero?

If hard pressed, I guess you could say that the conflict was the missing book, but this wouldn’t qualify as the kind of conflict that today’s writing courses tell us we need to create. And who is the hero? There isn’t one. Additionally, if I made this story up someone might say it’s a bad story, because it’s too unbelievable, but it happened.

Make No Mistake, the Formula Works

And It Sells

I think what we’re talking about, regarding what I call ‘formula writing’, is the mass production of written material, and mass consumption by a culture that follows trends and doesn’t mind watching the same kind of movies over and over, or reading the same kind of books, over and over. But, I get it. I really do. I love the Star Trek and James Bond stories. I’ll watch every single movie that comes out. They open with an action scene, a conflict, a hero, and finally resolution. Lather, rinse, repeat. We can predict that it will have a happy ending and our hero will win. Every. Single. Time.

But, what about stories that don’t follow the formula? Are we going to automatically hate them because of our desire to order a perfect world and/or be entertained quickly? Have we really become so impatient that if something big doesn’t happen in the first few sentences, we drift off?

Curse of the Golden Flower

Talk about breaking the formula. This is a case where a story has nothing but conflict. There’s a pathetic hero or two, and no happy ending, but I loved the tragedy of the movie. Why? Because of the historicity of it. Because of the magnificent stunning visual beauty of it. Because of the human tragedy of it, but I know a lot of people who hated the movie because there was no hero who achieved a happy ending by resolving their conflict. It ended badly, and I thought it was a fabulous story. I felt pain. I felt pity. I got a glimpse into their world, and I felt glad to not be those people. I appreciated my life more.

Authors Who Say You Don’t Have to Have Conflict

I listened to a podcast yesterday, on iTunes, by Ursula K. Le Guin about her book, Steering the Craft. She’s 86, and I believe she said she has been writing for sixty years. She’s got a long list of published works, and a long list of awards which is great, but what I really appreciated was when the Between the Covers host asked Le Guin to address how “the modernists’ writing manuals often conflate story with conflict”.

If your plot is based on conflict, then you’re limiting your view of the world very severely. ~ Le Guin

I think we can assume that if you’ve been writing for 60 years, your perspective is larger and not just focused on the short term experience. While I appreciate all the 20-30 some years olds that are producing How To Write material, I think there’s a lot more to learn from somebody who has been practicing the craft for three times longer than they have.

Here’s someone else who questions the “every story has to have conflict” mandate. Shawn Callahan, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world’s leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone.

Shawn writes,

Whenever I hear something like this I immediately think of the exception, which for me is the coincidence story. I’ve talked about this before but at the risk of repeating myself too much a coincidence story is just when something happens that’s remarkable; it’s unlikely. People love coincidence stories.

Think Outside the Box

I just broke another rule by blogging that cliche, but it applies. In summary, there is no denying that formula, cookie-cutter writing sells, but it is important to remember that as soon as a one, two, three, approach is applied to any craft, creativity will be minimized and new ideas will be silenced in favor of following the rules, and when it comes to rules most genuinely creative, artistic types…well…..you know what they think about rules. And who doesn’t want to be the next wonderfully innovative story teller who broke them?

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