Lincoln Michel always delights me with his thoughtful posts about writing. He occupies an interesting position as one of those rare authors who is deep into both literary and genre fiction. In this post, he continues his grand quest to convince Writing Twitter that there is no one true way to write a story.
In response to the question, “Do all stories have conflicts?” he takes us on a journey through Aristotle and Freytag, kishōtenketsu, Vonnegut’s “character fortunes,” and other ways to think about and model a story.
The point here is these are all different metaphors, different models, to think about stories. None of them are “right” or “wrong.” None of them are universally applicable to all types of text that one might call “a story.” At the same time, these models are frequently overlapping and a single story can be mapped onto a dozen different models.
I posted a couple months back about my experience with NaNoWriMo, and how it works well for some writers, and pretty terribly for others. In his post, Lincoln identifies a key problem with the popular (Twitter) discourse around writing that goes hand-in-hand with NaNoWriMo: the tendency to obsess over quantity of output instead of the end result.
This is a problem we see in business all the time: when useful metrics are hard to find or hard to measure, managers will often try to measure bad metrics, and workers will optimize to excel at those metrics rather than trying to get the best results.
But the general attitude is one I see all the time. Writers are often less comfortable talking about aesthetics than productivity. They’ll brag about the years they worked on something or the number of drafts they’ve done. It’s as if they aren’t making art but operating a plastic pellet factory. “Check out this optimized output!” And I get it. Art is hard to talk about.
It wasn’t that long ago that serials seemed like a bygone format — something that worked for Dickens and Dumas, but not really a viable option for the modern author. Now, it seems like serialized fiction is a growing new segment, with big companies making big bets all over the place. There are exciting news announcements around serial fiction every few months.
This spring, we got news of Korean media conglomerate Kakao Entertainment gobbling up both Radish and Tapas. Then, as summer was rolling around, Amazon announced the release of their own serial platform, Kindle Vella. These companies are banking on the growth of stories that cater to short attention spans with reading material that comes in bite-sized pieces. They’re also farming content, optioning the most popular stories for traditional publication or adaptation to streaming services, TV and movies.
Last month, well-known traditionally-published author Salmon Rushdie announced that he’ll be serializing his fiction via Substack.
Lincoln Michel weighs in on his own Substack, Counter Craft:
The success of Substack and similar services have shown writers what most artists in other mediums already knew: there’s a lot of money in fans. Hardcore fans are willing to pay extra to support the artists they love. For extras, yes, but even just to support. And fans seem to like knowing exactly who they’re supporting, meaning that there is a not insignificant number of readers who are willing to, say, pay 5 bucks a month for an individual NYT journalist’s Substack who won’t pay 5 bucks a months for a full NYT subscription.
So…can that translate to fiction?
We’ve talked in the past about engines that power story: types of conflict and creating and resolving tension. Today, I want to point you to Lincoln Michel’s great article about the false dichotomy between character-driven and plot-driven fiction. Lincoln argues that there are an almost infinite number of engines that can drive a story, and that any single one is rarely enough to power even a short story on its own.
The hard thing about writing—or one of the hard things in the endless series of hard things about writing—is that there’s no one way to do it. Instead, there are infinite paths in the dark woods of fiction leading to infinite types of stories. It’s hard, a little scary, yet ultimately thrilling.
Despite this, there are countless articles that insist there are in fact only two methods of storytelling: plot-driven and character-driven. It’s understandable that writing guides and craft classes are reductive. Who would pay for a writing guide that said “lol who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” followed by 200 blank pages? Still, the plot-driven vs. character-driven binary has always made me wonder why those two aspects of fiction are the only ones allowed in the driver’s seat. Couldn’t a story be driven by voice? Couldn’t setting have a turn at the wheel?
Read the rest over at Lit Hub…
I’m always excited to see someone make a well-considered, articulate argument against the traditional “rules of writing.” Lincoln Michel does exactly that, when he suggests that maybe characters don’t need to change over the course of a story.
Can a good story contain static characters, and instead change their circumstances, change how the reader views them, or just make that static viewpoint incredibly compelling?