There’s a lot of signal-to-noise ratio when it comes to what the pros say about story structure and what the amateur hears them say. Allow this system to remain unchallenged long enough and MFAs start teaching the noise and not the structure.
Show don’t tell for example is the prime directive of writing, but it’s just the title of the directive. Show don’t tell *means* show the reader what they need to understand about the world, character and plot developments.
In contrast, telling is a quick tool to finesse moving quickly from something that doesn’t matter to something that does. There could be times in any work when telling will be the most effective, most meaningful moment in the book but that comes well after the reader knows the world, the character and the plot. “The King is dead.” has a lot more resonance in Chapter 31 than it would in Chapter 1 when the reader is still thinking “Who he?”
So yes. There are no rules. But no, there are no shortcuts either. Structural functions of storytelling all maximize the chances that when your reader needs to care about what happens next, they will. That has absolutely no guarantee of happening because a character is just moving through a fictional world. The character has to move through the world and that movement has to matter to the reader.
And yet, go to any current critique circle and there’s a very good chance what’s being taught is “It’s okay to tell if you tell very well.”
In my MFA, there wasn’t a falsehood I believed as a writer who still needed to learn how to control the narrative in my fiction that wasn’t confirmed by the program. I, too, believed conflict was, at best optional when I couldn’t manipulate events to get in the way of my character getting what they wanted. If it didn’t naturally occur in the first draft, it somehow was never, ever needed. I believed this no matter how many times I was told that if I learned to manipulate the conflict, I’d always have a much stronger story for it.
There will always be fantastic work that is the exception to any rule. But just naming the exception is not teaching the author how to break that rule successfully themselves. For that learning to happen, one would have to break down *by the beat* how the exception pulled off the rule-breaking. Then, the learner would have to understand how that one exception manipulated the story structure to overcome the lack of it. How they’d learn to bend the same structure is up to them with that knowledge.
World War Z is a brilliant example of a told story through a pseudo-epistolary structure. The quick cuts back and forth between human beings forced to live through a global event through the lens of their country’s different responses to the zom-demic is brilliantly done. Epistolary novels suffer from the emotionally distancing fact that if the character is writing about the events, they survived them. World War Z establishes a world where surviving could have been the worst of all evils.
Does that mean every epistolary novel can overcome the challenges of the emotional distance between the events, the protagonist and the reader? Hell no. World War Z should be treated as the bar that needs to be beaten not the key that unlocks a lock.
Beware of anyone who tells you that if **brilliant example** can do it, you can, too. If they can’t teach you how to do it yourself, they’re not teaching you anything.