Great Escapism: The Secret of the Story and its Power Upon Us

By Joseph Sparke

brown book page
Photo by Wendy van Zyl on

Humans have been telling stories for a very, very long time. Some would argue that the capacity to tell, to understand and to pass on stories, is the defining characteristic of humanity and what separates us from apes: we are frequently known as ‘the storytelling chimp’, and it’s not for nothing. Fiction and stories have the power to captivate and enrapture us. For this reason, reading is one of the greatest pleasures.
Or it should be, anyway. Nowadays, reading seems to have fallen by the wayside. Young people do not seem to be as interested in books anymore as they were in the past. I watch with horror as many of my classmates proclaim that they ‘don’t read’ or ‘hate reading’. As someone who grew up reading a couple of years ahead of myself, it deeply disappoints me.


That’s not a boast, by the way. Really picking up reading from a young age opens up a wealth of opportunities in double quick time. It’s not unusual for young readers to be able to tackle books intended for people many years older than them. As a writer of my own fiction, I keep in my mind that if I’m writing a book about fifteen-year-olds my primary audience is going to be eleven to thirteen.
Of course I probably do not need to be telling you this. You’ve taken time out of your day to read an article about writing, so clearly you’re not a poor reader. No doubt you’ve read around a little, you know what fiction you like and what you don’t like. In which case, I’d like to interest you in a proposition: how would you like to write some?
I can’t claim to be an expert. Well, that’s a lie. I can. I will. I was being modest earlier. I have experience writing fiction, by which I mean I have written it in the past, and in all honesty that’s all you need to be an expert. Half of my time as a writer is spent praying that other people don’t realise that I don’t really have any talent. The thing is, there’s no such thing as talent. You just have to write again and again and again until you’re really good at it. I haven’t quite reached that stage yet, maybe I never will, but I’m at least some way along the path, so let me tell you about it.
Briefly, I’d like to lay out my ten rules for writing fiction. If you abide by these rules, I’d like to think that you can capture some of the power that stories have always held over humanity.
1) Make your own rules.
Sounds like cheating, I know. A cop out tip because I could really only think of nine. It’s not though. You should remember that you are in command of what you write and as such can write in whatever way you want to, regardless of the advice or rules of others. Every writer has a unique style, and that is part of what makes every story so enjoyable –it’s unlike anything else that’s ever been written. Now, I’d like you to helpfully forget that rule so I can tell you all my other ones. On second thoughts, perhaps I should have put it last.
2) Break your own rules.
Don’t break my rules. My rules are sacrosanct. Remember that writing should challenge the reader and the best way to challenge them is to challenge yourself. Write outside all of the safe conventions that you’ve grown used to. Breaking rules allows you to explore boundaries. I pretty much always write fantasy but everyone’s always telling me that my writing in other genres is the best. Be prepared to do stuff you wouldn’t normally do, in the name of art.


3) Character is everything.
Absolutely everything. If I could underline this rule twice, I would. Characters drive your story; the relationships between your characters make your story interesting and the fates of your characters are the only things your readers care about. If your characters are rubbish, there’s not much that can be done for your story, even if the description is beautiful or the action scenes intense. You want the readers to click with your characters immediately and for them to hold your interest.
4) Never write something if you’re finding it boring.
If you don’t like writing a certain section of your novel, there’s a chance it’s because it’s not very important. For example, don’t think you have to churn out paragraph upon paragraph of description for every single microscopic detail of every single room that one of your characters momentarily walks into – often that’s not what people are reading your book for. Your distinct style is tied to the part of the story that you write well, so the stuff you find hard probably isn’t what your readers are interested in.
5) Always write something if you’re finding it boring.
So many contradictions! I know, I know. Please don’t be angry. This is actually a strictly different point from the previous one. What I mean by this is that if you’re finding writing in general boring, you should keep doing it anyway. Even if you spend an hour writing nothing but drivel, it’s still writing, and as I said before, practising will only improve you. The best way to get through writer’s block is to work through it, and remember that nothing you write is set in stone, so you can always go back and edit it later.
6) Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit some more.
On the subject of editing, here’s the next rule. You have to edit. No matter how great you think your story is, it still needs editing. I don’t care how much you hate editing; you must do it. Must, must, must. If it’s any consolation, I also hate editing. Nevertheless, I know that without it my story would never improve.
7) Get someone else to read it.
When you’re finished editing, get someone else to edit it! Preferably not someone related to you, who might be inclined to cut you a little slack (the golden, unspoken rule of writing is ‘you’re never as funny as your mum thinks you are’). If you remember nothing else from this article, remember that. A fresh pair of unbiased eyes can spot flaws that you’ve missed and correct weird passages that made perfect sense to you at the time. Allow people to be honest and brutal with your work.
8) Know where things are going.
A vague understanding of how long your story is going to be and where approximately it’s going to end up is good. This is the most flexible of all the rules. It’s OK if things change along the way and aren’t quite how you envisaged them by the end. It’s not OK, however, if you don’t know how things are going to end so you just keep on writing and the story stretches out into infinity and very little of it makes sense. Furthermore, don’t bolt on pointless bits to the story because you feel that it needs to be longer than it is. It’s probably the perfect length.
9) Understand the consequences of your actions.
Don’t change the story dramatically on a whim, and don’t kill off characters because you feel like it or give the storyline a pointless twist just for the sake of excitement. This will confuse your readers and generally make things worse. This is really more of a smaller group of rules all jammed into one larger rule. You can call them ‘rules rules’. They exist to stop writers from doing stupid things. Every occurrence in the story should make sense, or it begins to feel arbitrary.
10) Read.
Back to the start of this article and the most important rule of them all. Reading is so critical for developing a good vocabulary, gaining ideas and getting an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. I’ve already talked about it a lot, so I feel like I don’t need to repeat myself. Just read, you fools!
So, there we go. Through these ten, very easy rules you can improve your writing and begin the journey to becoming an expert. I hope you beat me to it.