#5onFri: Busting Five Writing Myths That Might Be Holding You Back

by Lisa Cron
published in Writing

Writing is hard enough. You do it all by your lonesome, forever battling that cranky voice in your head that snipes at every word you write, and when that doesn’t stop you, switches tactics and suggests you have a snack. Or a nap. Or look, a squirrel!

But you have the grit to keep writing anyway. So the last thing you need to fall prey to is a gaggle of writing myths that will do more damage to your novel than that voice could ever dream of.  I’m talking about oft beloved myths that somehow became part of the writing canon, so ubiquitous that they masquerade as reality. They are not. Let’s expose five of them.

1) Myth: Withholding information up front for a Big Reveal later is what hooks readers.

Reality: You end up withholding the very information that would lure readers in.

Imagine if Shakespeare had decided to withhold that fact that the Capulets and the Montagues are mortal enemies until near the end, all the while hinting that there is a Really Big Reason Romeo and Juliet keep meeting in secret. Boring! It’s the very fact that there is a longstanding family feud that gives context, meaning, urgency and heartrending conflict to their tale of woe. It’s what makes us care about them, and lets us know where the story is going.

And yet that’s the kind of info that writers often hold back, thinking it will stoke our curiosity. It won’t.  Holding things back doesn’t lure us in, it locks us out and flattens the story. The irony is that writers end up inadvertently holding back the very things what would make us care about the protagonist, and so spur us to read forward.

The takeaway is: Tell us where we’re going. Give it all away!

2) Myth: Give backstory sparingly, and then only when necessary

Reality: Backstory is the most fundamental layer of any story, and it’s laced into every page.

Make no mistake: backstory – whether your protagonist’s or your own – is where all meaning comes from. And yet writers are often told to avoid it whenever possible, giving it only when it’s something the reader needs to know. Worst advice ever!

Backstory is never given for the reader’s sake, rather it’s what the protagonist turns to in every scene as she tries to figure out what to do. Here’s the key: the story isn’t about what the protagonist does, it’s about why she does it – that’s what hooks the reader. And the reason any of us do anything ever stems from one thing only: what our past experience has taught us the right thing to do is. Which is why we always look to the past to make sense of the present.

Same with your protagonist. She turns to her past not to ramble down memory lane, or to “let the reader know” what happened, but because something is happening in the moment, forcing her to make a hard decision, and she’s using the past to glean insight.

Want to see it for yourself? Take a highlighter to the novel you’re reading now, and highlight anything that’s backstory, flashback or a snippet of memory, as the protagonist struggles with what to do. Chances are you’ll find you’ve highlighted half the book.

The takeaway is: Without backstory, nothing can have meaning to your protagonist, or to your reader. As Faulkner so aptly said: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

3) Myth: Sensory details bring a story to life.

Reality: Sensory details, without a story purpose, are irrelevant and distracting.

Writers are often told that it’s sensory details that bring a story to life. So who could blame them when they pile on so damn many sensory details that they clog their story’s arteries and nearly choke the thing to death?

Here’s the skinny: The real goal of sensory details isn’t simply to let us know what something looked like or how it felt, physically. The goal is to choose sensory details to give us insight into the story itself, so we experience them emotionally. This means sensory details must have story relevance, rather than plunking them in “just because.” For instance, a sensory detail might: 

  • Have a literal consequence.
  • Give us strategic insight into the character.
  • Remind the character of something relevant to what she’s struggling with in the moment.
  • Provide logistic info that helps us envision and understand the world the story unfolds in.

The takeaway is: Sensory details, just like everything else in your novel, must add story-specific meaning. Otherwise, rather than bring it to life, they’re smothering it.

4) Myth: ‘Show Don’t Tell’ refers to external action

Reality: ‘Show Don’t Tell’ means ‘Show me why what’s happening externally matters internally.’

This seemingly simple maxim is almost always deeply misunderstood. It’s usually taken to mean “Don’t tell me what happened, show it happening.” And yes, showing us what happened, externally, is important, but that’s only the first, and completely surface, layer. By itself, external action is empty. After all, we don’t come to story to watch people do things. We come to find out why.

What ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ really means is: ‘Show me how what’s happening up there on the surface is affecting the protagonist, internally, as she struggles with the hard decision that each and every scene will force her to make.’ In other words: what subjective meaning is she reading into these events? Show us how it’s affecting her reasoning, given her agenda.

The takeaway is: Don’t lock us out! Show us your protagonist’s internal struggle so we can experience it along right with her. That’s what allows us to feel what she’s feeling.

5) Myth: Beautiful writing trumps all

Reality: Story trumps beautiful writing every time.

This is one of the most damaging writing myths out there – and the one that fuels that cranky voice in your head. Here’s a happy truth: when that voice chastises you for not writing well, it’s very, very wrong, for two important reasons.  First, until you get to your final draft the last thing you should think about is polishing your prose. The notion of writing beautifully out of the starting gate is patently absurd. And debilitating. After all, your first goal is to capture the essence of your story. You can’t polish something you haven’t created yet. It takes several drafts to get there.

What’s more, it turns out that the brain is far less picky about pretty prose than we’ve been led to believe. We’re wired for story. In fact, it’s the story that gives beautiful writing meaning and urgency.

The takeaway is: The story polishes the prose, not the other way around.

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her video course, Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius can be found at CreativeLive.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference. Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and she is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Visual Narrative in New York City. In her work as a private story coach, Lisa helps writers of all ilk wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. For a library of her free myth-busting writing tips, and information on how to work with her one-on-one, you can find her at: wiredforstory.com.


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