The Rules of Writing

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A Curious Man
The Rules of Writing

I’m not a professional writer. I’m not a professor of English or similar, I don’t even possess a college degree. (Though, hopefully, given a couple more years, I will!) So keep in mind that, like with any article written with the intent to give advice, that your mileage may vary. I’m sharing what I’ve seen to be tried and tested truths to writing which have consistently worked for me.

This is also something of a proto-guide. Guide 00—something that’s coming before any of my other guides, so I can get used to the way Storytellerscircle does things. Like formatting, for example. Other guides will likely have more specific purposes in mind, whereas this is fairly generalized knowledge across a broad variety of subject matter.

Over the years that I’ve been writing stories, I’ve come to compose a personal list of rules I attempt to abide by. Exceptions always exist for every rule, but nonetheless, I try to keep to them. I’ve tried out many different rules, and these are the ones that, through trial and error over the years, have survived. These rules cover a large variety of subjects, from character design to world building, but are all unified under the same premise—they’re rules about my writing. Rules I use as guide posts to try and ensure my content achieves three objectives.
  1. It provokes an emotion.
  2. It’s informative, or at the very least, it’s thought provoking.
  3. I enjoy writing it, and can learn from it to keep improving my own writing over time.

Take these rules however you wish. If they help you, I’m glad. If they don’t, I’m sorry I couldn’t be of any help for you. I also welcome discussions about them, and I’ll answer any questions people may have about them.

#1: Every action, and inaction, must have some form of a consequence on my characters—major or minor, upon themselves, others around them, or the world in which they live.

#2: Every character I write, must at some point, die. At the very least, I need to have some idea of when and how they will die—and accept this as a simple, inevitable fact.
Characters by their very nature are entities that writers will grow emotionally attached to as they create them, expand upon them, develop relationships with them, et cetera. That emotional attachment can result in causing a writer to protect a character against their own errors, thus slowly but surely sapping away narrative tension. When you create every character knowing that they will die, and having accepted that as a simple fact—you can start to remove some of the bias from your own writing in protecting them.

Besides that, immortal characters who never die are not interesting as main protagonists. Old characters have to die after a certain point to allow new characters the ability to take their place and do things differently.

Then, of course, there’s the simple fact that death is a normal part of life. It is a fascinating and highly emotional subject matter to touch upon and explore, whether through shock and horror, or sombre sorrow, or hate filled revenge. There are a lot of scenes and emotions and ethical questions that cannot be asked without the spectre of death looming over a storyline, and the characters who exist within it.

#3: My stories need to have beginnings, middles, and endings. The universe may go on in perpetuity, but a story without an ending is not satisfying.
A character, in western fiction, needs to have some sort of reason for committing to the actions that they do. These are called motivations. A motivation only makes sense if a character has some sort of desire to achieve something which is not immediately achievable, and which requires some measure of hard work and potential conflict with others—be that man versus nature, man versus man, man versus self, et cetera. Western character arcs are, by no shock or surprise to most people, directly mirrored to the arc of a plot. The rising action correlates to a character’s journey, the lowest point of a character correlates to the darkest moment in a story, and the pinnacle success or failure of a character correlates to the climax of a plot line.

Therefore, a premise without some discernible end in sight, is a character journey without any discernible direction. Like hitting the gas with the parking break on, I would just be burning the rubber off my tires.

My stories need to have some discernible beginning (“why did my character decide to change their life?”) some discernible middle (“what does my character have to do in order to achieve that change in their life?”) and some discernible end (“what would happen if my character succeeded or failed at achieving their desired change?”) so that I can then properly orient my character’s motivation—and the subsequent actions inspired by that motivation—toward a consistent, logical journey. Without this, the character is pointless.

#4: Originality is impossible, and uniqueness should be a byproduct of the creative process—not the ultimate goal of it.
A fundamental aspect of life is that you cannot create something from nothing. (At least, we simple humans cannot do so.) Therefore, every thought you’ve ever had has been a reaction to outside stimuli, and every character you’ve created, every story you’ve written, is a remixed assortment of information your brain has assimilated over the course of your existence. Something which is totally original would be, by its very nature, totally and utterly alien. In order for something to be relate-able, people have to be able to understand it. For people to understand it, it has to be something that they already know in some fashion—like an emotion, or a popular idea.

One of the most unique stories of our times, Star Wars, is essentially a dozen or so classical fantasy tropes recycled in space. You have a space knight rescuing a space princess from a space castle, complete with space swords, space magic, and so on. Uniqueness is a byproduct of an interesting and memorable world—not necessarily entirely original ideas.

Plus, the two goals of stories are to entertain and inform. How unique a story is, or “original” as some might prefer, is ultimately not necessary. You should not sacrifice something that is interesting and fun just to try and be unique. We make fun of those kinds of people—they’re called hipsters.

#5: Diversity is a nice—but altogether secondary—objective, when creating a good story. Diversity is also not strictly constrained to a character’s physical characteristics, but also extends to their beliefs, skill sets, personalities, and backgrounds.
The main purpose of a story is to entertain and to inform. I reduce that to compelling an emotion out of someone, or being thought provoking. A story can be both emotive and thought provoking with a single factory-default mass market protagonist, if it’s well written enough. What diversity does is bring additional viewpoints and skill sets into the picture that may not have otherwise existed without them. That, or it’s simply more inclusive—which is usually not a bad thing. That being said, diversity should not come at the cost of a good story. Good story comes first, diversity—if possible—is achieved as a secondary creative objective.

If I have to force my world to be diverse to be interesting, then I’ve failed at world design, and should go back to the drawing board.

#6: Keep things as simple as possible, without sacrificing depth or meaning. Complexity will come as a result of developing a story and its characters along. It’s the natural byproduct—not the objective marker.

#7: Romance is a natural byproduct of two characters demonstrating a mutual and significant respect for each other, combined with actions of self-sacrifice and a desire to share one’s happiness with another. In other words: Don’t force romance, and don’t mistake obsession or lust for romance either. Not every pairing has to end up in a romance, either—close friendships exist too.

#8: Motivations are the most integral aspect of character design. A character without a motivation is a car without an engine. Design everything else around the motivation of a character—their history, their personality, their skill sets.

#9: Characters are nowhere near as complex as real people, nor ever can be. They’re a convincing enough facade that we can emotionally invest ourselves into, but which are otherwise tools to service a narrative purpose... Never forget this.

#10: Learn to say more with less. The most profound things ever said were rarely more than a single line of dialogue—sometimes, even just one word.

#11: Interesting worlds leave many mysteries to discover. Therefore, outside of describing what is necessary to understand a world, don’t go into too much detail about most of it. Let people discover things for themselves by asking questions about it themselves—out of character, or in character. Don’t answer every out of character question—force them to discover some of it through in character encounters. Mystery is one of the easiest and most potent drivers of narrative tension.

#12: One of the most satisfying feelings readers (and by extension, players in role plays) can experience is in unraveling a mystery for themselves. My job as a storyteller is to ask questions, present situations based around those questions, and then allow people to come to whatever conclusion they see fit about it. I should never shove my own morals and beliefs down a role player’s throat as any sort of absolute. I will know that I have succeeded in creating something complex and wonderful if two people can argue about an ethical dilemma I’ve created, and both be right.

#13: Show, don’t tell. I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this, at all, but it’s true. Don’t tell people that you have an evil villain—show them by having that villain do something evil. Don’t tell people that your character is compassionate—show them doing something compassionate, like tending to a person’s wounds, or expressing empathy at someone’s plight. If I have to tell someone a quality of my character because I can’t demonstrate it properly within the story, then I have failed at effective characterization, and I need to go back to the drawing board and try again.

#14: Strong, independent characters who “don’t need nobody else” are, by their very nature, uninteresting cardboard cutouts. Characters need human flaws that cause them to make mistakes, or which force them to grow in some way both in personality and in skills, strength, and so on.
Basically: The archetype of a strong independent character who needs nobody else, is by definition, a character which—outside of perhaps personality defects—has nowhere to go, nowhere to grow. The most interesting and fascinating characters are dependent on other people, or have physical weaknesses that must be overcome through creative ways. Characters need to be flawed in order to be human, and they need to have weaknesses in order to have setbacks and failures that force them to grow as people.

The most important part of a character is their journey as a person from start to finish, whether they succeed, or fail. Making a character strong, independent, and needing nobody else right off the bat, destroys 90% of all the material you could use to put them through interesting development scenes.

You could make a powerful NPC/side character that operates like this, and it would probably be fine... So long as they never solve the party’s problems for free. It should always cost them something.

#15: Pacing is my lord and savior, I shall worship it like God. Omnis sermo sacer est. If a scene has no purpose, cut it. If a conversation goes nowhere, cut it. Every action has to be in the pursuit of an objective in some rudimentary form or fashion—otherwise, it is a waste of time. That objective can be something simple, like developing a relationship between two characters. It can also be complex, like advancing the main premise of the story. Either way, every scene must have a purpose—or else it’s a waste of time. This extends to what I write too—every sentence should, ideally, service a purpose. (In practice this rarely ends up as reality, but it’s a nice virtue to aspire toward.)
Addendum: Note, that when I say "an objective" that objective can be pretty much anything to do with characterization. Characters talking or acting in ways which don't necessarily contribute to the main premise of the story, but which demonstrate their nature as characters, are fine. A simple conversation about root beer between two protagonists is fine, it doesn't have to result in a convoluted explanation for the secrets of the universe--it can just be a conversation about root beer, so long as it shows the characters doing something and demonstrating a facet of who they are. This rule is mainly to cut down on, say, spending 3-4 paragraphs describing how a bush moves in the wind, and then... Never going back to that bush again.

This rule is also more of an ideal than anything else--nobody is ever 100% on point. That might not even be an interesting story, because everything would be played straight. So mess with this rule however you see fit, just remember the ideal--try to ensure things build up to something. It doesn't have to always be profound, or advance the main premise--it could simply just add on something simple, like "this character likes to whistle."

#16: A character’s personality should not conflict so strongly with the main plot line that they derail it. Conflict is good, but not at the price of a stable storyline.

#17: Loner archetypes only work if they have a core, overpowering motivation to the story that forces them to interact with others. Otherwise, they are simply a pointless drain on the story, distracting from the more important themes and conflicts in the world.

#18: Every story must possess a conflict of some description. It doesn’t necessarily have to be violent, but it has to create obstacles that characters must overcome in some way. A story without some central conflict is pointless, and I’ll likely avoid joining it.

#19: If I write a post that has no character committing to some action in it, or which at the very least sets up other characters to act in it (ex: setting a scene), I’ve wasted everyone’s time. Pure introspection cannot be interacted with by other players.

#20: I’m not some sort of “pro” or “elite” level writer. I have been learning since the day I started, and I will be learning until the day I die. There is something I can learn from pretty much anyone I write with, if given enough time. It may not even have anything to do with writing, it could be life advice, or a different way of perceiving the world that I had never considered before. Therefore, my egotism should always be tempered with a deeply rooted desire to learn and grow, constantly.

There you go. There’s a bunch of my personal rules I try to abide by when writing. I hope this helps in some fashion. :)
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New Member
It's an interesting list. While I think I've mastered most of these points. I do find the information to be well put together. I'll actually bookmark this thing so I can revisit it later.

You deserve an all expenses trip paid to the moon. 10/10
Well done. Bravo.