Anders Ericsson and meaningful instruction

Factors to consider with a learner’s resistance to change. From here

My mother and I saw eye-to-eye on practically nothing. She was a version of me who always had twenty-five more years of experience than I did. I was the version of her who was anti-authoritarian before I was verbal.

But she told me it was twenty years to overnight success. Ira Glass talks about taking the longest of all his creative friends to figure out how saying something signficant works. I probably have him beat. I probably put in over ten thousand hours of practice before I realized the method I had been practicing couldn’t possibly work for a writer with my talent.

The writer I was in my early thirties didn’t just have a lack of developed skills. As a learner, I had a lack of ability to see how learning those skills could have helped me if I wanted them to. When I first got Copper, Youtube was a generation away. The books in the library talked about training a horse that could be ridden or breaking a horse that couldn’t.

There was no information on training a horse that could be ridden but didn’t want to be. I didn’t automatically go with “just keep asking him politely to move forward once he’s tired himself out.” I only tried making him do what I wanted once. But the fuel it added to the existing fire showed me the difference between Copper not wanting to do something and Copper when he was furious.

But letting him exhaust himself and then asking him nicely to move forward if he felt like it sometimes — not always, but sometimes — got him moving in the direction I asked him to. When we first started together, it usually just triggered another tantrum until he got tired of that one, too.

And then one day, he never refused to leave the paddock — even alone — again. It took over a year, but he did it.

I’ve never balked at a challenge. But even I considered just how much work it would take to get where I knew I wanted to be. But to accept I needed to invest that time and energy into my work, I had to put aside my absolutely rock-solid belief I’d had since being a teenager that I just needed to be discovered.

It seemed devastating to be standing on the precipice of realization that everything I could do well wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t that I will always need a line editor. It was that I couldn’t create characters whose journeys were worth being line edited yet.

Anders Ericsson, one of the co-creators of the ten thousand-hour rule talks about how “I have made it a hobby to investigate the stories of such prodigies, and I can report with confidence that I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.”

Ten thousand hours is 3-4 hours of practice every day across ten years. But Ericsson specifically says it requires “deliberate practice.” I had written at least a book a year between the ages of eleven and thirty-two. Some years, I managed to write two books in the same calendar year. But none of that was deliberate practice. Until I was twenty-four, I wrote as a genuine hobby. After twenty-four, I wrote with the assumption that there were no rules.

I didn’t start writing with the deliberate intention of learning how to write bigger, more emotionally engaging stories until 2005. I started to see the disconnect between professionals sharing what they really did to succeed vs. what writers heard was the secret to their success.

I keep going back to On Writing, but it’s a perfect example of this. When most writers only talk about King’s quota, they speak as though it is the reason for his success. The true secret to King’s success is when the nail couldn’t hold his rejection slips anymore, he went and got a bigger spike to hold even more of them in the future.

Without meaningful instruction, meaningful practice can’t happen. Writing is a complex system that has multiple moving parts, all of which must work together to produce something larger in the reader than the sum of its parts.

Instructor-taught learners still have to learn through almost as much practice as the self-taught learner went through in their trials and errors. No theoretical knowledge — however it is obtained — becomes a muscle memory that can be used without hours and hours and hours of applied practice.

I was on a panel just at the start of my pivot with a writer who had just joined a writing group. I had just learned about the theory of mastery and its 10,000 hours. When I mentioned it, he said that he joined a critique group so that he wouldn’t have to put all those hours in.

I can’t remember if I told him or not, but I realized at that moment that trying to learn a skill without being dedicated to its learning doesn’t work for most learners. To absorb knowledge to create the ability to do something new as an adult learner is more of an active skill than teaching is.

And none of that meaningful practice can even start unless the writer sees through the dissonance their own brain throws up to keep them wrapped up in their identity of being a ‘no rules’ writer who just needs to be discovered without having to put the effort into learning how to write.

Unpublished writers could at least look at their lack of professional sales and think that maybe the system doesn’t work because it didn’t work for them. “There are no rules” could not be more of a perfect Skinner box for underpublished writers who are good enough to sell the work that emerged on the page in a near-perfect state.

The path of how it came to be that most writers view the rules of writing as anti-authoritarians view authority can be traced through critiques over the past twenty years. But the reality is, a lot of learners arrive in learning spaces today armed with the knowledge that any time spent wasted on learning skills is an hour taken away from their publishing goals.

The older I got, though, the more I realized I wasn’t actually anti-authoritarian. I discovered I’m actually an anarchist. Anarchists believe in respecting wisdom and knowledge, but not authority for authority’s sake. We need to convince learners that they’re not against the foundational structures of learning. They were learning in a methodology that didn’t know how to help them if they didn’t already know how to practice meaningfully.

lateral story movement = moving chess pieces around

I know stating emphatically that at least 80% of the work should progress the story will get a lot of pearls clutched to nervous dispositions. Fiction is this magical thing where every part of the journey and the destination create a gestalt that is larger than the sum of it. There is no room for anything that isn’t building to something bigger than what is currently happening to the characters.

But If tension is the breath of the piece, then the reader must be allowed to breathe out at some points. Even those moments can be used to escalate different sources of tension within the story. Writing speculative romance was extremely easy for this. Between the interpersonal narrative, the big bad of the book, and the continual power struggle that the world takes place in, something always went worse in one sphere of the character’s life even if something goes right in the other two.

Driving the tension is a lot like shifting up through the gears of a motorcycle or a manual car. The clutch is the relief of the tension, but the intention of using it isn’t to lower the rpm of the story. Writers should learn how to let off the tension to let it accelerate again.

To do so, however, they have to realize the difference between something they have learned themselves and something they have been taught. Something a learner has learned themselves is ironclad and true. If their method creates reproducible results they can trust, they know what they know.

But a learner who has been taught something has to practice it over and over again until they can use it to produce reproducible results as well. Until they’re able to use what they know, they only know the concept of it.

In every creative field, it doesn’t matter if the learner has learned colour theory themselves by realizing certain colours outside of their colour family can either look really good or really bad together or it was something they were taught. As long as the learner sees for themselves that each time, every time, some colour combinations draw the eye while others repel it, they can use it to create bigger things than colour swatches on paper.

Theoretical knowledge cannot produce reproducible results unless it is tested enough to be trusted by the user. But in creative writing, the average learner has been taught that to “know the rules before you break them” means: “be able to quote the title of the rule and foundational structures aren’t necessary, so don’t even bother learning how to use them.”

Every time an underpublished writer sells a work under this ideology, it convinces them even more that their methodology works. All the work that fails to move readers is unable to convince them otherwise.

Knowing how to use rules and knowing how to quote them are different, non-sequential steps in Bloom’s Taxonomy. But without teaching learners to even recognize errors in other people’s work, learners learn like clockwork there is nothing to learn. When “conflict is important” is taught as one of those breakable rules, writers will eventually agree that conflict is important but not enough to use.

It may sound harsh to say that every part of the work needs to move the story forward when art can exist without rules. But the point of a chess game isn’t to make the pieces move around the board through beautiful, legal chess moves. The goal of commercial fiction as a chess game is to capture the reader’s attention and leave them with a (positive) impression of your work that they will never forget, or at least forget last.

With that as the objective, each move has a purpose, tension, and cost. It is not how the knight moves that matters; it’s how it can challenge a bishop and a queen at the same time. The fact that the opponent can only save one is the drama of the move.

Moments of relaxation or release in work are not lateral movements to the progression. A character able to regroup and rest is far more awake, aware, and dangerous after surviving a great deal of tension while sleep-deprived. A lateral movement would be after a good night’s rest and a calm morning of doing nothing, the protagonists go have a relaxing day at the mall instead of realizing the sun has gone black and a face is emerging from it.

Lateral movements add nothing to the story because they aren’t written to. By learning draftwork, the writer can make lateral movements story progression and story progression more meaningful.

only murders in the building : hogwarts

as stories about podcasters are to magical schools.

I just about died watching Steve Martin finally giving the audience what they wanted — Steve Martin being Steve Martin as only Mr. Steve Martin could possibly. I couldn’t breathe watching the elevator scene. Nine episodes of Steve Martin being restrained Steve Martin was worth every second of build-up at the first body flop.

Hogwarts cooled off the magic school genre for the longest time. It didn’t invent it, but for almost a decade, we watched it be perfected and then tainted forever, but let’s not get into our broken hearts about it. Any new magic school story had to do something different or better than Hogwarts. It became the Kleenex of magical schools before the CEO of it decided human rights could be measured out because of the way other people are made to feel about a subject matter.

I’ve read so much work from other writers where the story is: character has relationship with past famous murder that ranged from tenuous at best to the accused. And then they hunt down the real killer while their view count grows, despite it not being 2008 anymore.

I give OMitB a pass on this because they didn’t start blogging around a cold case. The bodies keep dropping in front of them. They don’t have immediate problem of what the podcaster is going to do once these characters solve the cold case yet.

People think that youtube success can come down to when you started. It’s the belief that if they were the only X youtuber talking about (blank) in 2008, they could be (famous youtuber) too. But Youtubers put in their ten thousand hours of meaningful practice that everyone is so quick to not-necessarily.

If, as it’s been suggested, the Beatles can tie their success to the hours and hours of playing in Dive Bars to their ability to write songs that can impact people on a philsophical level a decade later, then Youtubers that started in 2008 just didn’t let the fact they weren’t good at this thing they wanted to learn how to do stop them. Not one of them were thinking go pro or bust.

I watched Veritasium’s videos about his process probably with more interest than his science videos. He posted his first video about freezing water and critiqued it vs. what he knows now, but the fact he posted it at all led to the video of rewatching his old video being interesting.

He was focusing on the best way he knew how to present the information. He didn’t have to do so in a way that had to compare against everyone else’s best on constant display.

Today, would he have looked at the quality of what can be produced with even a dedicated one-person science channel and think that subject even needed to be discussed? So many writers want to know how to start writing their first book with an unsympathetic, unempathetic, unlikeable anti-hero and yet wonder why they got stuck on chapter two.

The first story I gave up on was the first story I wrote at age eleven. I realized it was too hard to tell an adventure story with a domesticated animal as a protagonist. I knew it could be done but I knew it couldn’t be done by me. I would look at that list of un- un- un- anti- and not know if what could be done in chapter two to move the reader to continue.

And yet the simple question of “how many likeable protagonists have you written?” is met with cold stony silence as though no one can fathom what that question has to do with anything. The assumption that everyone rolled their eyes at is: a likeable character is too easy.


Because I laughed so hard when our On Spec Ben the Intern came back from his homework. He was shocked, shocked, I tell you, at how difficult it was to start the story with a scene that is designed to surprise the reader’s expectations.

I wasn’t laughing at him. I was laughing with him. Because man. When I realized, oh, here’s my problem: I tell when I want to show. If I want to show how the characters could understand that, all I need to do is

And then there was silence. If I’d known how to show that the protagonist just realized nope, no question. I have to do this. I would have written that instead. If the point at which he has to plan to kill his brother to save them all matters, I had to show the character doing all he can to do anything but that, first.

It was the first time since realizing that the ghost POV is the most difficult POV to tell a ghost story in that I realized, nope. I cannot do that yet. Because I couldn’t show that if I tried. And I had.

The secret to success isn’t cameras or critique groups or sponsorship deals. It’s doing the thing you do over and over again. Eventually, what you do with that knowledge will produce work that will make people want to engage with it.

And if that seems like too much work — and believe me, I’m exhausted — take meaningful instruction wherever it is. I get how it feels to know 100% of whatever piece of advice doesn’t need to be followed 100% of the time. But if you can’t figure out how it applies 70% of the time, keep asking questions until you do.

Most writers can’t write a story in which protagonists have no stakes in the outcome. And the writers who probably could probably know that the amount of work that would take to pull off wouldn’t be worth the payoff. And the writers who know automatically how they could naturally pull off a work without stakes, the letter J, and any reference to who is speaking shouldn’t assume the rest of humanity is so lucky.

Waiting for all the story pieces

I’m working on a short story by doing anything but right now. I have the tone, the setting, the characters, and the problem. Five years ago, I would have thought i had all the pieces necessary to start writing the story.

But I’m still missing the story’s heartbeat. I don’t do outlines in my process. I’d rather be able to switch the entire second act because while I was brushing my teeth, two random pieces of existing prose fit together in a completely new and exciting way. I have no loyalty to what will happen or what has happened. Both are completely flexible to fit a more engaging story.

I haven’t found the thematic question yet. The plot is: character in terrible situation gets out of terrible situation through their own courage and their new associate. Those bones are as familiar as dirt. But the character starts willing to accept the terrible situation because no option that is better has appeared yet in their life.

The story will give them that better option. But what they have to change in their way of thinking to take it is still a vague notion. I need to stare at more walls and talk about writing stuff until it clicks. The one thing going for this story is the particular setting I’ve chosen and the non-human protagonist/world that exists in it. I could write it on the power of the unique voice and world alone.

But this market is a themed anthology. It means even the specific bones of my story might exist in another piece. Themed anthologies are a gamble any writer takes — a great story that didn’t gel with the table of contents might find another home but all the other stories rejected from the same theme are flooding the market, too.

It can be frustrating waiting for the final piece of what the story can say about being human even if the protagonist is not. I wouldn’t submit to a themed anthology unless I had that aspect nailed down in the story. Themed anthologies get more than enough very good stories that explore the theme of the call extremely well.

But the number of stories that can do that and still say something important are a very small minority in any slushpile. Of course, even if the work does that beautifully, there’s still a chance that it still won’t gel with the rest of the stories selected.

Themed anthologies are great practice for writing with one particular purpose. I think it’s one of the best examples of the immortal line from Masked Wolf’s Astronaut in Space: “Even if I don’t get paid for progression, I’ma get it.”

Even if the story doesn’t get accepted, the practice of writing to a theme is practicing meaningful storytelling at its finest.

Samwise Gamgee and meaningful character development

Someone was wrong on the internet, and Samwise Gamgee is the minimum bar readers expect if the character has no change at all. He’s the atypical hero — the hero who made it back home again and could just pick things up where things had been left off. His journey affected him, but it didn’t affect his happily ever after.

He hadn’t changed as a character. He was a good man and a loyal friend before he left and he was a good man and a loyal friend on his return.

Frodo is the hero who can’t go home again. Even if it hasn’t changed at all, he’s changed too much. He’s the war veteran who returns permanently changed by his experiences. Frodo didn’t have to travel to a new world but he had to leave his old world behind. He was the same body, but a different person inside.

Sam never needed to change fundamentally who he was. He adapted to the road by worrying about what he would have worried about back home. Sam, Merry and Pippins return home again, but Merry and Pippins weren’t given the same road to travel or so much to carry. It wasn’t Sam’s burden to carry the ring to the mountain, but he carries it and his friend on his back at the end.

The reason why Sam doesn’t have to change is that the person he was before taking a step on the journey was all the person he needed to be to swing Rosie around when he got back to her. Merry and Pippins didn’t change because they were really asked to. They were treated more as children than travelling companions by their companions, and acted even less responsibly when even a child would know what “no fires” meant.

His story is the opposite of the upper-middle-class kid who works hard and practices lots with excellent instruction until they get accepted into Julliard. Whether Frodo succeeded or the letter starts “We’re pleased–” is outside of both of their control and neither needed to do anything more than to continue to try to accomplish their goal as hard as they could.

But Sam personally or the Fellowship could have failed at any time. The easiest thing any of them could have done was give up. Tolkien establishes that the Shire would be affected last if Sauron wins. Sam could have gone back home and put his head in the sand the longest.

But even that would have been a significant moment of change for him. If the Julliard kid had abandoned their quest to get into the best school in the world, they haven’t even given up on their aspirations yet.

Character development is a necessary part of fiction unless the lack of character change is meaningful. Show the journey of a simple man pitted against the armies of Mordor and show he still can be happy to sit down at the same table every night for almost the rest of his life and that character never needed to change in the first place.

But it’s a pretty high bar.

the problem of teaching from the summit

“You’re almost there!”

Over my degree, I started to realize that the advice we gave writers tends not to be about what the writer is most likely struggling with. There is no point in Brandon Sanderson teaching how to make the setting a source of conflict when some of the audience can’t even give their setting a sense of place. Only writers who can already give their setting a sense of character over the sense of place it has can use setting to create deliberate meaningful conflict.

Otherwise, setting conflict is translated as need thing to survive –> get thing to survive. As critique-group-based instructors, we have no idea where on the mountain the learner really is or how they understood the advice when we stop talking about it.

In the above example, the instructor on the top is only talking to one group of writers, even though every other writer on the mountain is listening. The writer to the left of him is facing a sheer rock wall the instructor can’t see because their back is turned to it. A learner that is taught they are almost there — they just have to do something both new and impossible first — is less motivated than they were before the instructor spoke.

But the learner has no ability to judge the advice they heard as to whether or not it applies to them. If that learner keeps doing what they did to get to that point, it won’t help them. Even climbing a really steep hill isn’t the same as climbing a rockwall.

Some writers hear “you’re almost there” and will call where they are the summit. They understand writing engaging prose is ideal, but they are happy to write for an audience they assume exists who only want to engage with a commercial genre based on its description. But readers who enjoy description the most have their pick of existing beautifully written prose that is wrapped around emotionally engaging stories.

The writer doesn’t get to pick where they spawn in relation to the peak of their abilities. Some really do need to be told they’re almost there. Some need to walk five hundred miles to get to the mouth of the valley that the mountain looms over in the distance. Some have a different path up the mountain than the instructor took and some don’t need paths at all.

But every writer is different. Every writer needs to figure out how to climb the next section of their journey before most of them ever need advice meant for those already close to their summit. There is a point in professional mountain climbing where having a realistic policy on when to start eating travel companions is necessary. But if the instructor tells the entire mountain, “Only eat your friends when you’re starving,” some writers on the mountain could interpret that as not letting themselves feel peckish.

And if an instructor isn’t there to verify the knowledge understood by the learner against the knowledge assumed to have been taught to check to see if the learner learned the right lesson, misunderstandings can be both painful and permanent.

the benefit of professional speculative groups

This last weekend was When Words Collide, which reminds me of the 1998 con where I met my aunt for the first time. After knowing her my whole life, of course. I had been up all night on a Greyhound bus, going from a two-week summer camp hosted by one of my very best uni friends and I was up there teaching Japanese and the next morning I was let out at Downtown Calgary, where I walked into my first speculative Con.

And realized I was just a lost swan because I had found my writer people who got my weirdness and encouraged it in every way. But even more, I regained an aunt I didn’t know I had. My aunt had always been Ann the Aunt, who sometimes showed up for Christmas and summers but we weren’t exceptionally close.

But I saw this short little, red-headed lady and despite not seeing Ann for more than a decade I caught her attention and told her she might be my mom’s sister.

She assured me she was.

And I found my family inside my community. I was home. Writing groups attract professional writers because writing is a pay-it-forward economy. I can’t thank all the people who told me I was wrong when I was the know-it-all kid. I can’t thank them for all the time they spent trying to explain why I was wrong.

Rob Sawyer has always been a friend of IFWA, and he’s always been a friend to me. Not every writer can turn to Rob and ask if a major change has to be made in the history of the events that have already happened to make the current story better, should the change should always be made? It seems like an obvious question but the idea of it still hurt somehow. He told me he’d had trouble changing what was for what could be, too.

But the first time my entire writing group had given me nothing but the same piece of advice, I could turn to Rob and ask him what he thought. The more I learned how to make the mystery of the plot more a part of the plot itself, the more I was starting to be told I needed to tell more information so the reader would understand more.

And I could not be more sure the opposite was true. I was open to the idea I hadn’t learned how to keep the suspense of what the reveal will be yet, but the writing I wanted to do was in the opposite direction.

I wanted to hold even more back, so the reader would keep reading. So I asked Rob again, when do you know you haven’t explained enough. If he said the end of the book, and I believed him. But the more I wanted to talk about how writing can work as a deliberate act, the more I kept hearing people teaching if you meant to do it it’s fine.

I think I started this blog as the person I could talk to about writing at the level I wanted to discuss it at. Within a few years of starting this blog, ‘there are no rules’ had completed its hostile takeover across critique tables everywhere.

As early as 2014, the idea that conflict might be something important to have in works of commercial fiction was decried as an outdated, non-workable pedagogical approach. But even still, the social benefits of a good writing group outweigh the cons just for the community you have at the ready.

some of the worst writing advice: Quotas

I always remember the great writing advice I’ve received and I mention them as often as I can. James Alan Gardner (by way of Susan Forest) described Point-Of-View (POV) as “there is no description, there is only POV.” It made me realize there was nothing *but* POV. Everything the character sees, says or does has been done through the operation system of the protagonist’s personality and their emotional state at the time.

But I’ve heard some really bad advice too. Despite On Writing being called a Memoir of Craft and the first half of the book being dedicated to the use of craft and its importance, the only piece of advice I usually hear being quoted from it is the writing quota King gives himself. He does all his writing before noon and he writes every day.

If there’s one piece of advice that can do the most amount of damage to underpublished writers, it is writing two thousand words a day is the ideal. It’s the ideal of writers who can produce 2300 words worth of plot into those 2000 words day in, day out, day in. The advice is like asking the average engineer a question. They will answer it, but it won’t be the solution. That many words a day times five days a week produces a 100k in approximately twelve weeks, allowing for two full weeks off in the process.

But if the writer doesn’t know how to plot as fast as they can type, though, those 100k could have the plot that a novella-length work would tell the best version of it.

From the slushpile on, that work will be competing with professionals who took their time to do it the best way they could before sending the work on submission. How long a novel took to write is only a question writers who sell novels to a large enough audience are asked.

Without the plot necessary to carry a 100k novel, all of that effort and dedication the writer invests most often creates a 30/70 novel. These are novels that have 30% progression and 70% what I’m now calling lateral story movement. I used to call it filler, but that was the wrong word. Work that describes what a character does without having what they are doing impacting the plot is a lateral movement to its progression. All work requires progression or the meaningful lack of it.

And there’s still nothing wrong with a 30/70 first draft novel if the author is committed to making it a 70/30 novel in the second draft and a 80/20 split in the final. Every first draft is perfect. Every second draft is worth the effort to improve it.

Do quotas work for some writers even when they’re starting out?

Absolutely. No writing is bad writing as long as it isn’t stressful to the writer. Writing 2000 words for a specific purpose is difficult when it’s done daily. Writing 1000 words because you have to write 1000 words today is so much harder.

Do I think writers shouldn’t just put their butts in seats and bang words out?

John Green says first drafts are the purified clay to make the thing. Any way the first draft goes from a work-in-progress to a work-in-revision is fine. The only thing you can’t fix in a rewrite is not having anything to rewrite.

Writers — quota or not but especially quota writers — should be aware in the rewrite stage of how much of the story is filled with characters doing mundane tasks while discussing the story-building aspects of the tale. This is the kind of writing only ever asks the reader to picture characters talking and remember what they said because some of it might be important. The reader isn’t asked to witness something independent of the character’s understanding at the moment and attach their own significance to it.

Neil Gaiman says only amateur writers wait for inspiration, so checkmate.

Most underpublished writers are amateurs. A writer who waits to feel inspired at least knows what inspired writing feels like. The goal of a professional writer is to make their daily output feel inspired even it was carefully constructed.

But inspiration isn’t something that can only be hunted and gathered. A writer who learns how to capture lightning in a bottle can learn to automate the process. A writer who learned to write without feeling inspiration has a harder time trying to learn how to capture lightning in a bottle as DLC.

So what’s the solution?

First drafts get you to the final draft. How the writer writes that first draft is entirely up to them. Draftwork is an intentional, analytical process that requires even more creativity than writing the first draft.

For the average writer in general, no work should be one, done and polish unless it is truly inspired work. Moving to a more intentional mindset does not mean fully formed stories stop emerging from their author’s skull.

It just means all the rest of the stories the writer produces can still fool readers into believing they had emerged from the writer’s skull as a complete form, too.

It’s the I can’t believe it’s not inspired!” method of learning how to write.

The skill of learning to pace a novel is far more useful than writing for quotas. Knowing what needs to happen next in the story is far more motivating than aiming to write a specific number of words, though both may produce 2000 words a day.

Lawrence Block says in “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” a chapter is as long as it takes for something to change overall, but this book was published in 1994. I think in 2022, the expectation should be every scene must change something or the lack of change must be meaningful. If written to that expectation, there’s no room for lateral movement.

well-written lateral story movement vs storytelling

There are two levels of writing learners need to master when they’re telling a deliberate, meaningful prose. What the characters are doing on the page and how what the characters are doing on the page builds the linear progression of the story are two different levels of storytelling.

The events of the story should drive the tension and the reader forward. Every time the reader puts the book down and comes back to it, they make an active choice to invest their attention capital in finishing more of the work.

This is why the reader doesn’t have time to invest their attention in stories full of well-written lateral movement. On the surface of this kind of prose, things continue to happen to the character but none of it progresses the need for more character development. Think of the example of the young person trying to get into Julliard where they only have conflict once they are not accepted.

All that practicing and working, once it establishes that the character is willing to work hard to accomplish their goals are lateral movement to the established story. They can practice harder and work harder, but unless something stops them from doing either, the story (and the character) can’t progress until the rejection.

Which — at that point — is just one of two established binary options. And a character working hard and getting in is practically no story at all. Even very good writers would struggle with saying something unique that can engage its ideal reader with those story bones.

We talk about the ideal reader a lot, but we never talk about the ideal reader’s ideal story. The ideal story is the perfect work without tension, character development, conflict, or all three and more and still creates a meaningful experience that leaves the reader with lasting, positive impressions of their time invested.

The ideal reader has shelves of existing internationally award-winning authors that avoided foundational structure work entirely and still move nations to tears. But a lot of those authors have only managed to capture lightning in a bottle once.

A story without tension because the author began the story without the intention of creating a source of conflict on the character’s path is not the same thing as a work where the lack of tension engages the reader.

I cannot tell you how many times in the past decade I have been told the lack of conflict or tension was intentional. This was always said in tones that ranged from “frosty” to “I’m just so sorry you can’t understand my authorial intention.”

Their intention to not use conflict to create tension to create meaningful change in the protagonist is obvious in a work.

But no matter how I phrase “the lack of tension and conflict does not serve the story in any meaningful way while their absence detracts from the work enormously. If the intention was to build an engaging reader’s experience, this draft of that effort did not accomplish that goal” could not be heard.

Exceptions do not prove structures are not necessary to tell a meaningful story.

A single indication that telling was just as good as showing would not have stunted my growth as an artist forever. But multiple assurances of it would have convinced me the method could still work much longer than it did. I’d probably still have realized, eventually, that a method that only produces meaningful work randomly from most writers isn’t a good method to practice.

But I’d be years behind my growth because I would have known — and wanted — to believe otherwise.