Writing Patterns

The corners of the Internet that I frequent are thick with writing advice, and I recently came across a few really good “what not to do” posts. It sent me trolling through my old bookmarks for posts in a similar vein, and when I started thinking about putting a set of links together for a post on Wetmachine, it occurred to me that (keeping in mind one of the purported themes of this blog, the intersection between writing prose and developing software) one of the reasons they are so appealing is that they are in a sense, a set of anti-patterns for fiction.

Design Patterns is of course the seminal work by the so-called “Gang of Four” that described a small set of elegant solutions to common software problems. It’s somewhere between a box of assorted legos and one of those kits that comes with exact instructions for how to make some complicated model — or perhaps more accurately, it’s a set of base folds for software origami. Anyway, it created a vocabulary for certain useful software designs and has not only provided fodder for more than a decade of entry-level interviews but also spawned the idea of the anti-pattern — the designs that are just as commonly used in the wild, but shouldn’t be.

I’ve always believed that in order to be a good writer, you must read widely and attentively. But it isn’t always easy to take a brilliant work, figure out why it’s great, and duplicate the greatness without being derivative. Every good story is good because it has or does something unique, and even if you could isolate that essence you can’t stir it in to your own story like a drop of bottled hot sauce to spice up the stew. It’s honestly hard to describe how to tell a good story: there are patterns, of course, like the three-act structure, but they’re open-ended and malleable. In fact, we almost demand that stories play with the form, or at least disguise it, or else we’re too easily bored by going through the motions of inciting incident, complication, resolution. (There’s no drama in the weekly medical mystery of House because we know that the team’s first three diagnoses are going to make things worse, not better. The drama, if it exists, is in the relationships between the characters and their reactions to the events.)

So there are patterns in prose as there are in software — TV Tropes is full of them — but their effectiveness depends entirely on the implementation (and to some extent on the audience). Some of these devices persist because they are good and useful building blocks with which to construct a story; some of them are popular but really shouldn’t be; and some of them work fine until you’ve seen them too many times.

Still, though there are varied and infinite ways to tell a story well, there are even more ways to do it badly. The counter-examples are usually easier to recognize, but it’s harder for the average writer to find them. That’s because the only work that most people have access to that isn’t their own has been published, and therefore been through some kind of filtering and editorial process. (That’s changing, of course, in the era of self-publishing, and if you make a point to read self-published work, then kudos to you — most of it gets even more lost in the sea of books than the ones with a publisher’s imprimatur.) The perennial complaint that plenty of trash gets published each year is true, but there’s really nothing like reading slush for seeing the kinds of stories people are trying to tell and to what extent they succeed.

So, herewith a selection of observations by people who have read a lot of stories in various stages of polish:

From the brilliant ex-agent Nathan Bransford: Do You Suffer From One of These Writing Maladies? Part I and Part II.

From the writing workshop world, probably the most famous enumeration of bad (science fiction) writing techniques: the Turkey City Lexicon.

Editor Pat Holt’s Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do) covers some basics.

For the more adventurous, David Louis Edelman runs down a list of 10 Writing Tricks to Avoid.

I’ve always been fascinated by Strange Horizons’ Stories We’ve Seen Too Often page. They’re careful to note that the list is not a value judgment on the viability of any of these ideas, but some of them are really non-starters, and others can only work if they’re not the point of the story.

And finally, here’s a list that applies to published books as well as manuscripts: 25 Reasons Readers Will Quit Reading Your Story by Chuck Wendig.

As much as writers may bristle in defense or cringe in recognition at these lists (and I’ve committed a few of these sins myself), I believe it’s helpful to have a vocabulary for these things so that it’s easier to get a handle on them, to recognize and fix them. Over at AE we’ve been building up a taxonomy of stories that don’t work and I’ve tried to examine a few of those species (and their more successful cousins) in the “Over the Transom” series. I don’t ever want to see a day when we’ve got narrative “best practices” all worked out and I always like seeing rules broken in creative and effective ways, but I think storytelling is an area where anti-patterns will always dominate the patterns.

About Helen

Helen spent ten years in the trenches of book publishing, where she wrote things longhand, wrestled with fax machines, and learned the true meaning of "cut and paste." As a writer, editor, and all-around person-who-builds-things-with-words, she now works at a small software company in Cambridge, Mass. with one foot in the future and the other stuck in a peat bog of legacy content, technology, and methodology. Which is not to say anything against peat bogs.

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