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Terry Bisson's Rules for Writing SFF short stories

Discussion in 'Writing Resources' started by AnneL, Apr 18, 2014.

  1. AnneL

    AnneL Closed Account

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    I just ran across these, which are excellent. I was lucky enough to have dinner with Terry last week, and let me tell you, he's a smart guy.

    Rules for Writers
     
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  2. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    That was the most random list of rules I've ever seen. I can't even call it a good list or a bad list because it's such a grab bag of unexpected assertions.

    (Though I disagree strongly on "The main character should be a little stupid." If your reader doesn't identify with the MC, she'll get frustrated, and if she does identify with him, she'll be insulted. And I'm quite proud to have lit rule 44 on fire and stomped on it.)
     
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  3. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Interesting list, Anne.

    Whenever I see a rule written by anyone who is in any way competent as a writer, my first thought is that it is a starting point for understanding an important principle to writing. When I read something I don't understand, it prompts me to learn more about the opinion.

    Given that context, it worries me that people's first response is something to the effect that they're proud to ignore one of them.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.

    Brian
     
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I disagree with the basic premise set forth at the outset:

    "A genre (SF or fantasy) short story is about an idea. The fictional elements (character, plot, setting, etc) are only there to dramatize the idea. "

    This is true of some stories, certainly, but it isn't necessarily true of genre short stories.

    The rule against present tense is empirically false, given the growing prevalence of present tense.

    There are some good ones here and a number of others I think are bollocks. Of course, in reading Bisson's last two "rules" I think it is clear the author understands the problem of rules and isn't seriously setting these forth as absolutes. The last two rules say:


    "59. Ignore these rules at your peril.


    60. Peril is the SF short story writer's accomplice, adversary, and friend."




    Can I have just a little bit of peril?

     
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  5. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

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    Overall, I'd have to say these are good rules, though far from a comprehensive set (if such a thing is possible). Nor will any set of rules, however long–especially if it's long–apply universally to any given sort of writing.

    I'm not sure I agree or disagree with Bisson's basic premise. I think that at a minimum, it's a good one to keep in mind… given that it's expressed in relation to short genre writing. In fact, it's a good rule to keep in mind even for longer pieces, though with those, the elements increase in importance. For short stories, it is certainly one which is ignored at the author's peril, since the author is obliged to do so much else in a limited space. If the idea does not take center stage, it may be difficult to tell the story apart from a non-genre one.

    That having been said, the elements should not be given short shrift: "strong characterization," in particular, is the single most cited desideratum I've seen in writing market listings. Bisson's point, I believe, is that if one forgets the "idea" one is trying to express/exemplify through the story, it's likely the story will not accomplish its goal in the space allowed.

    Some of the rules involve genre stereotypes, and should be read more broadly, e.g. "no magic carpets": of course one can write a short story involving a magic carpet, but unless it's handled with considerable originality, it will leave the readers cold. A lengthy list of fantasy/SF tropes could be appended here: djinni in lamps, magic mirrors, portals to other worlds… you get the point. This rule also requires a bit of unstated interpretation, I believe, which is that such elements should not be your "idea." If such an element is your idea (e.g. it's a story about someone who finds a magic carpet), then, yeah, probably a non-starter for most readers.

    Remember that these rules are expressed specifically relative to writing short stories. Which, as far as I can tell, is becoming something of a lost art. The stereotyped tropes, for example, could appear in longer works with much less damage. Magic carpets feature significantly in Glen Cook's Black Company series… but take on far different roles than in the "fable"-type stories Bisson is warning against; Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos uses one as well… very well indeed. Readers are far more tolerant of fight descriptions when they take up a comparatively small percentage of the whole; even then they run the risk of being boring. I won't even get into how boring I find sex to read about–regardless of format. Some people may like it. I don't. (Sorry, Feo… just the way it is. :p )

    The real tough one–and probably the most important one–is #57. To paraphrase: if it's a short story, it must be short–first. Which is the reason behind several of the other rules, such as those involving flashbacks, dreams, multiple PoVs, and so on: there simply isn't space enough for them to be used properly, and if they can't be used properly, they shouldn't be used at all. Forget "about 4000 words": it's astounding how many markets ask for 3k words or fewer; many state a limit of 2k or even 1.5k. I invite anyone, as an exercise (and a very good one it is, too), to take an already-finished story of greater length and try to get it down within those limits; or, for a story which already falls below one, try to get it down to the next one. You will learn an immense amount about your writing, and about writing in general, in the process.

    -

    For another good set of rules, there's always this one:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3172/3172-h/3172-h.htm

    Yes, it's a "contrived" list, created to make a point. However, I find it hard to argue with most of them. In fact, apart from one requiring generalization (#8, similar to Bisson's #36), I'd have to say that these are all utterly vital to any piece of good fiction writing, of any length. And the way they're expressed, in context, is priceless. :cool:
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  6. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    No offense to anyone here, but this has got to be one of the stupidest advice lists for writing anything I've ever seen. Yes, yes, I know he's a published author known for his short stories. I'm glad it works for him. But it sounds like I'd absolutely hate all of his work.

    I've seen a bunch of quotes lately where writers try to narrowly define what a short story is. Maybe I'm the stupid one, but as a reader there is one thing and one thing only I expect from a short story. And that is that it doesn't take particularly long to read. Other than that, I want it to be just like any other story. I don't think short stories are special. I think they're stories that don't take very long to tell.

    I hated all the short stories I was forced to read throughout English classes in school. They were all narrow and pretentious and disappointing. They almost always didn't have satisfying endings. After school the only short stories I read were Sherlock Holmes and other similar short mystery stories. They were the only ones that were satisfying to read. Like a story that was short. Then eventually I made myself sit down and read some of the old pulp style fantasy stories by the likes of Howard and Leiber and Lovecraft and such. Imagine my shock when I realized that these were just stories that didn't take particularly long to tell.

    That is what died out as an art. The ability to tell a story in a short space that didn't have to leave out a good ending or pretentiously act more ambiguous than it should because, I don't know, ambiguity is smarter than clarity? (No, it isn't.) But this art is coming back with the rise of the self-published author. Thank God. That's the kind of short story I intend to write. Just like any other story, but shorter. What an amazing concept.
     
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  7. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I think Mythopoet takes a completely different route to learning writing than I do. When I read advice from someone who is successful at something at which I'm not, my first thought is, "What can I learn from this person?"

    Mythopoet seems to take the tact of, "What can I find to disagree with here?"

    I just read an article by James Patterson on how to create an unputdownable book. Truthfully, I loathe Patterson's writing, but, you know what, I really want to create unputdownable books. I took from the article what I could and stored the rest away for possible future use. I didn't say, "I hate James Patterson. Therefore, I'm not going to agree with anything he says."

    I guess my main point is: I haven't read very many authors on this site who have mastered the craft of writing. I think it's more productive to take what information we can from where we can than to be so dismissive.

    Thanks.

    Brian
     
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  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I've read quite a bit of literary fiction, and only come across a small number of stories that I felt were pretentious. It's a common, but ultimately throw-away, criticism of literary fiction by people who don't like it. It is the same as the criticisms of the like of R.E. Howard or Fritz Leiber from those who do like literary fiction and consider these other authors shallow, simplistic, juvenile, or what have you. In the end, they're just different kinds of stories. I like both. Some people prefer one or the other. There's nothing wrong with either. What always amuses me to some degree is that you have people in both camps who can't simply say something isn't for them, but feel the need to try to place some objective fault on what they don't like (simplistic, pretentious, etc.). In reality, they just don't grok that kind of story.

    That's my view of the literary v. genre fiction conflict in general. Not saying that's the case here, since I don't know what stories Mythopoet has read, and they may very well have been pretentious. But as a fan of both literary and genre fiction, I feel the need to defend one or the other whenever I see labels like "pretentious" or "simplistic" thrown around.
     
  9. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Yes, that's probably true, but since you don't know me you've put words in my mouth that I would never say and which I do not think.

    I try to learn writing by reading good stories, plain and simple. I think writers learn their craft by absorbing as many good stories into their imagination as they can. But then I strongly value "storytelling" above "writing" always and I don't think that's something you can learn from a list of rules or books of advice.

    Obviously I didn't apply those adjectives to any "genre" in general but only to the stories I was made to read in public school. I would not attempt to characterize any genre which I do not read and am not familiar with. The stories I read in school were enough to make me avoid "literary" fiction for the rest of my life. I'm sure there's good literary fiction out there, but I've never encountered any and life is simply to short for me to waste my time trying to search it out. All the literary fiction that I have been presented with tends to be about subject matter that I find boring, that's all I'll say about it and that is purely my personal opinion.

    I am not objecting to "literary" short stories existing. Obviously they are well liked by many readers and that is enough to justify them. I simply object to the many authors who seem to think that short stories must meet some narrow, "artistic" criteria. That's all very well for the people who like that sort of thing. But it tends to leave the people who don't, like me, in the dust. I object to any view of fiction that focuses on one particular type of story that serves a particular group of readers and rejects all other types of story and thus, by extension, all other groups of readers.
     
  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yeah, I know. I was trying to make a broader point and your post was just a segue. It was at the front of my mind because I just had this discussion with someone about a week ago. I agree that the narrow definition of what a short story has to be is a problem, and where it is really a problem is with editors at some of the higher-paying markets, where a "plain old adventure story," as they'd likely characterize it, isn't likely to be accepted no matter how well done. Those editors seems to think that you need a certain "literary" quality to the story before they'll buy it for their market. I'd like to see a healthy short story market for straight-forward stories in the vein of Leiber, Howard, and so on. When the establishment tends to limit itself to one type of story to the exclusion of others, I don't think it is healthy for the genre. But I think some of those editors are worried they'll be looked upon as less serious markets if they take those stories.
     
  11. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    There was a very specific point when I stopped caring about rules lists like this. I was reading Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, keeping track of the various rules it describes for how a comic should be written. With each new rule, I realized "Hey, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac breaks this!" Once he got to the part about how comics should have simple art and simple dialogue*, I started trying to imagine what JtHM would actually be like if it followed all those rules, and I realized it would be a mess.

    Scott McCloud is a very successful artist. He is successful because he has found, and follows, a set of rules that work for the kinds of stories he wants to tell. Zot! is a great comic that has deservedly acquired a large following. But that doesn't mean all his rules necessarily work for Jhonen Vasquez, or for Alison Bechdel, or even for Tarol Hunt.

    I have read some of Terry Bisson's work, and I've liked more than I disliked. But he doesn't seem to care about character and emotion the same way I do, and I would find it boring and tedious to write stories that read like his stories. That doesn't mean I can't learn from the techniques he uses, but "these rules would not work for me" is a perfectly valid response.

    *Boiling it down a LOT, but that's the rough gist of it.
     
  12. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Just going by the way your posts come across. If that's not your intent, perhaps you should try to clarify your actual point.

    I have learned a lot from such lists. I've also learned a lot from reading stories.

    I guess the main difference between us is that I try to stay open to learning from all sources.
     
  13. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Perhaps you should stop trying to read more into a post than it is meant to convey. Or perhaps you should just stop grinding your axe at me.
     
  14. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Feo,

    My approach would be completely different. In a similar situation, I would:

    Consider what Scott McCloud's rules achieve
    Consider how JtHM is able to achieve interest by breaking those rules
    Try to take what I could from the difference and apply it to my writing

    I wouldn't say, "Well, this one guy here breaks all these rules and is pretty good, so I guess all rules are pointless."
     
  15. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    This is an internet forum where we all express our opinions. If you put something out there that I disagree with, I'm going to state my opposition. Otherwise, what's the point of the forum?
     
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  16. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    That is an old and tired argument. Forums do not exist for people to communicate any opinion they have. (That's why you can get banned for breaking the rules and "but that was my opinion" is not a valid excuse. Believe me, I know.)

    Furthermore, your "opinion" was to take a statement I made about one particular author's article and assume that I would have the same reaction to any author's advice. You then went even further to transform that particular opinion into what you imagine is apparently my entire worldview when it comes to learning from those with experience.

    To state it plainly, your opinion is uninformed, illogical and wrong.
     
  17. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Actually, the forum, to the best of my knowledge, does exist to communicate opinions as long as those opinions are stated thoughtfully and not take the form of personal attacks.

    I don't feel that's what I did at all.

    Here's my view of what happened:

    One of our forum members took the time to post a list that she found helpful. I read the list and found it helpful.

    Others, yourself included, posted negative comments about the list.

    I created a post expressing my disdain for your attitude in expressing such negativity.

    After making the post, you have done nothing to argue against my position other than to say that I'm wrong in my interpretation. Personally, I think this forum works best when the members exchange ideas something like this:

    Person A expresses an opinion
    Person B expresses disagreement
    Person A expresses why Person B is wrong as opposed to just saying, "You're wrong!"
     
  18. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

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    My quibble, to the extent I have one, and to the extent that it tends away from what anyone else has said, is this: it's not what a short story has to be that's at issue–it's what the story has to do. And that is to tell a complete story in a very limited space. This is the motivating factor behind many of Bisson's "rules." And this, I suspect, is why so few people write short fiction: it's hard.

    It becomes all the more difficult when you set that story in a world which differs from the familiar, since you're also obliged to create a reasonably clear image of that setting at the same time you're doing everything else which makes a story worth reading. This problem, as far as I know, is unique to fantasy/SF–other genres, such as western, historical, romance, etc. (let alone "non-genre" literary) can simply draw upon our familiarity with our own world. Yes, even horror, unless you've displaced the action to some other setting; in fact, part of the efficacy of horror is to have it occur within an otherwise "normal" setting, one the reader might plausibly be located in. (Imagine how different Poe or Kafka would be if they'd set their works in fantasy settings.) This factor motivates several of Bisson's other "rules."

    It's clear Bisson was not trying to provide a well-ordered list of categorical statements. My guess is he sat down and info-dumped one day, then simply added new ones in whenever he thought of them… probably whenever he ran across a story which exemplified a particular problem. As I mentioned previously, a comprehensive set of "rules" is probably not possible, for any length or genre. However… one can look at any writer's personal "rules" set and find value in it; at a minimum, one should consider each rule and ask the question "why is this here?" There will always be a reason–and you may well find yourself agreeing with the reason, whether you agree with the rule as stated or not. Discerning those reasons, then honestly asking of your own writing whether or not it "violates" a given reason, and if so whether or not your violation is appropriate, or if your story mightn't be better if you address or remove that violation… that's the value of lists like this.

    Mythopoet is ultimately correct in saying that short stories are, in essence, "just stories that didn't take particularly long to tell." They certainly ought to be. What the majority of Bisson's list focuses on, and what can be most usefully taken away from it, is what you should do, or avoid doing, if this is your goal.

    I'd disagree, however, that short story writing is an art which is coming back with self-publishing. The reason I disagree is that, with self-publishing, there's no reason to exercise the discipline necessary to fit a story within the "short" category: if you're publishing it yourself, you can make it any length you want. If anything, I suspect that the art of writing short stories is being further demolished by self-pub. I would rarely write a "short" story if I weren't facing some length constraint: the novelette is the form I find most natural (most of my stuff comes in at around 7-8k words… I'm sure that comes as a shock to y'all :p ). There's nothing wrong with writing novelettes… but they aren't short stories. And the discipline involved in writing a complete story in 3k words or fewer is invaluable. It will make your longer works all the stronger for having the intensive practice in removing that which is not necessary… a lesson every aspiring author needs to learn, regardless of format or length.
     
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  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I agree with the idea stated by Ravana of telling a complete story within a limited space. I suppose people may argue about what is a complete story, and perhaps that underscores some of the tension between adherents of literary fiction versus genre fiction.

    A complete story may be very obvious:

    1. Dragon attacks village.
    2. Heroes learn of the dragon attack.
    3. Heroes defeat the dragon and save the village.

    That's a complete story, and a very basic one. But a story doesn't have to follow such a clear path to be complete. For instance, I read a story a while back (literary fiction) that centered on a shy, unmarried girl who was afraid to put herself 'out there' in social situations. There is no 'overt' action in the story. There is a social gathering coming up, and she resolves that she will finally get out there in the world and try to meet people. It doesn't go well, though again nothing overly dramatic happens. She isn't raped, beaten, or anything like that. The end of the story is reached over a very short period of time, where not much has transpired in the way of external events.

    But it is a complete story because of what happens to the character. It is clear at the beginning of the story that while she is shy and withdrawn, she still has to the potential to go the other way - to meet someone, to marry, etc. It is equally clear by the end of the story that she no longer has that potential. The social gathering was her one chance, and having passed she has lost that opportunity. The character has irrevocably changed in that she can no longer go back to the person who had the potential to move outside of where she was when the story started.

    That's a complete story.

    I feel like a lot of writing "rules" are really meant to push heavily plot-based stories with an overt conflict (which usually takes the form of violent conflict in SF/F). There is a lot more to the world of short stories than that.
     
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2014
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  20. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

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    Yep. And if anything, Bisson agrees with you. Forget plot, forget action: focus on the story's core.

    To extend his thoughts to your example: the "idea" in this story is whether or not the girl overcomes her shyness and enters broader society. This is, of course, not necessarily what Bisson's mention of "idea" might invoke to some–i.e. the way he expresses it, the "idea" seems to be more about a fantasy or futuristic element around which a story might revolve. And it can be, and if it's such an idea you want to focus on, then focus on it: all else is there in order to exemplify and discuss it.

    However, an "idea" could as easily be… well, what you cite in this story, albeit with whatever level of transformation is required to move it into a genre.

    - Example of how it might work: the shy, unmarried girl is facing a similar situation, except that here she's obliged interact socially with members of a different species if she ever wants to enter society at all.

    - Example of how it would not work: telling exactly the same story as the original, except that it takes place in a magical castle or space station.

    This is what Bisson was after in differentiating genre stories from non-genre ones. You can tell the same story, word for word, apart from altering the window dressing… and it would fail utterly, because the window dressing does not make it a genre story. If the fantasy/SF setting does not change the story in a meaningful way, does not import some "idea" without which the story would not be the same, you have not written a genre story: you've written a mainstream one which will bore genre readers and never be read by mainstream readers.

    I recall a piece of advice a friend received from a writing teacher, oh, ages ago. She'd written a story in which the main character rode a unicorn. The teacher asked her why there was a unicorn in the story. Well, the easy answer is that she wanted it to be a unicorn. All well and good. But the teacher's point was that the story would have been identical in every way if it had been a horse. In other words, having a unicorn in the story made no difference whatsoever. So if you want to add a rule to Bisson's list: "If it makes no difference whether it's a unicorn or a horse, use a horse." This is, of course, a narrow statement of a far more general principle, in fact of two principles: first, if there's no reason to use the unfamiliar, opt for the familiar (similar in some ways to Bisson's #10); second, if an element does not perform a function within the story, it does not belong in the story.
     
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