Novels Aren’t Coloring Books

Novels Aren't Coloring BooksSome time ago, I read a book series. I think I was already reading a third or fourth book in the series, when I some point I fell the pace slowing down and losing my attention. I checked what page I was at, and I immediately thought: “Oh, it’s page X. It means that there will be the big reveal or the main battle in about ten pages.” That gave me a stumbling pause, killing all my reading pleasure as I realized all the author’s books are exactly the same in their structure, and therefore very predictable regardless of the story that author is telling. In the end, reading the series became boring and lost most of its appeal.

This made me remember of an article I’ve read some years ago, Save the Movie!, about how a single book on screenwriting ruined originality and pressed the majority of the movies being made into the tight frames of a specific structure. As much as I can understand such resource being helpful for people to learn about the structure when they begin their adventure with stories, I do think it’s bad when it becomes a crutch or is revered as “THE WAY”.

Sadly, from what I’ve seen on Twitter and in writing groups, lessons on analyzing story structure often become “the one and only way to write books”, killing creativity and diversity of stories. Sure, every book has a beginning, a middle, and an end, with some plot twists along the way, but that should be all they have in common. Instead, I often see questions like “my first plot point is at the 13% point of the book instead of 25%, and I don’t know how to fix it” or “My novel doesn’t really have a mentor to explain the world to the main character – help!” which tells me how much writers stick to what were supposed to be guidelines or sample cases.

Novels Aren't Coloring Books

When I was starting to write, back in Poland in late 90’s, there weren’t any books on craft available. An aspiring writer had to read a lot of fiction and analyze it. Learn the structure by looking at the actual story, figure out what works and what doesn’t, study their own “reader response” to certain scenes and try to understand how they achieved it. When my English got good enough to explore the whole English-speaking writing world, I discovered a lot of new things (some of them helpful), and of course came across things like Campbell’s Hero’s Journey or the Three-Act Structure. I read about them with curiosity and then… I moved on, never looking back. To me they seemed like basics I’ve already covered, and a way of saying “look, a story has a structure, here’s an example”, so later I was somewhat surprised to discover people actually might treat them as anything more than a curiosity, or a learning stage.

In a way, it reminds me of coloring pictures back when we were kids. When we were in the kindergarten or primary school, the teacher would tell us to try to stay within lines: this was the beginner’s stage, and we learned how to control our hand and how to make an appealing picture. But after that stage, we’d move on. We’d take out a blank piece of paper and draw our own picture, draw our own lines to stay in—or ignore the lines where they didn’t seem to fit in with our creative idea.

Yet is seems that many authors nowadays treat novels like coloring books: here are “the only lines you can use”, and all you’re allowed to do is to pick your colors.

As a writer, I refuse to stop at that stage. I want to draw my own pictures, to learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to structure or the story. And as a reader, I want to oppose it too: I want to be surprised, awed, and amazed by the stories I read, not to be able to guess the plot progress from the number of the page I’m at. So please, dear writers, don’t treat your novels like coloring books. Draw your own pictures, write your own stories, in the way that they work the best, not in the way someone said you should.

6 thoughts on “Novels Aren’t Coloring Books”

  1. Very well said, Joanna! And the point is, we may all start out using those guidelines – but we should then strike out from the training aids and add our own vision of what makes a good story. Because all those best-sellers that kicked off a new genre, or provided a completely different way of looking at an established convention certainly did.

    1. Agreed. There’s nothing wrong in using guidelines or studying the craft – including the story structure, but so many writers bind themselves to those “rules”, it’s worrying.

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