When I went through my program, my instructors believed the words “not necessarily” were a complete sentence that didn’t need explaining. It did. The biggest pushback to “this story needs an obstacle in the character’s path they can act against” was “not all stories need to follow Western conventions.”
No storytelling culture in the world doesn’t have its own conventions. And no storytelling culture in the world doesn’t have storytellers who use their conventions to tell unconventional stories. And there is no storytelling culture in the world that — given enough time — doesn’t make unconventional storytelling eventually conventional.
But I wasn’t telling a Peruvian author writing Magic Realism their work wasn’t conventional enough. I was telling authors writing speculative YA dystopian novels that their work needed the character to interact with the dystopia. Instead, learners were taught that writing in the fading tail of a once super popular subgenre in the most competitive field in publishing today didn’t need conventional storytelling to do it.
I could hold the instructors accountable for teaching plot, conflict, tension, pacing, stakes, point-of-view, voice, and character development are so optional that it doesn’t matter if a conventional work meant for a conventional subgenre’s market didn’t use any of them. But that’s a mentality I see in the writing groups I attend. My instructors were only representatives of the culture they came from.
Unconventional work deliberately doesn’t use the tools of conventional storytelling — whichever culture the author writes from — and still produces a work that tells a remarkable story. Conventional storytelling — in any culture — is difficult. Unconventional storytelling — in any culture — is even more difficult.
Not using conventions in conventional work does not make it unconventional. It makes it conventionless. Not putting obstacles in the character’s path they must act against to accomplish their goals is a good choice if the work still grips the reader. That is the actual meaning behind “there are no rules.” Great work doesn’t have to follow the rules.
Writers do not write for other writers to appreciate how well-written their prose is.
Writers write for readers who want to engage with the work.
The ideal length of a novel for a first-time novelist is at or around 100k. It is cheaper to edit, print, store, and ship. The bookseller doesn’t have to waste shelf space on extra thick books. Exceptions are always made for exceptional work — but the production cost between a 100k novel and a 140k novel is not insignificant.
But even in a 100k novel, there is no word count to spare from the character that starts the work to the character that finishes it. The best thing a learner can do is examine their belief that well-written prose doesn’t have to serve the work. The modern understanding of “there are no rules” assures the writer that whatever they intend to write is fine.
But readers’ attention is fickle, and their lives are filled with distractions and the next shiny thing. A work that doesn’t pull the reader back to it gets put down. If it gets put down for a long enough time, it can get put in a pile full of books the reader may return to…eventually. Any book abandoned by the reader makes it less likely that they will purchase the next book by the same author.
The author shouldn’t try to please readers as a whole, but they should care deeply about their ideal reader’s experience. When the author writes to please the hypothetical reader who only appreciates well-written prose without a story they can engage with, they are competing with the average underpublished writer, all trying to sell to a market that does not commercially exist.