Ask Jami: Why Isn’t There One Right Way to Write?

by Jami Gold on December 15, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Pen on a notebook with text: Why Isn't There a Right Way to Write?

When we’re young, the world feels like it’s made up of wrong answers and right answers. If we put the wrong answer on a test, our teacher is able to point to a specific reason—a fact—for why that answer is wrong. If we give the right answer, we get instant gratification with a gold star sticker or a higher grade.

So it’s understandable why we continue trying to figure out the right answer in the rest of our life when we get older. If we can figure out the “right” thing to say in an interview or a business meeting, we might get the job or the raise we want.

If we manage to say the “right” thing to a friend who needs help, we might get them past their difficulty or at least strengthen our friendship. Or if we find the “right” words to make a complaint, we might get a refund on a faulty service or a discount for next time.

We expect there to be “right” answers for many things we strive for, and even when we know that not to be the case, we still wish for it because it seems easier. More straightforward. More of a shortcut than learning the nuances behind all the ifs, thens, and maybes.

Yet we all know real life doesn’t work that way. We can say or do the right thing and still not get the adult equivalent of a gold star sticker.

I know. It sucks, right? *hands out virtual gold star stickers to everyone—we deserve them for effort anyway*

Writing Has No “Right” Answer

Not surprisingly, writing is one of those areas of our life where “one right way” doesn’t apply. There are countless ways to end up from a blank screen to a finished book, and none of those methods are wrong.

That doesn’t stop many of us from wishing for an easier way to learn the process. Wishing for a shortcut. A guarantee.

As Nathan stated in the comments last time:

“I want a one-right-way answer to plot a story … and get it finished. … I would buy into a do-this-and-not- that at this-time-and-not-that guide in a New York second if I thought it would help my desire to finish a novel.”

I get emails and blog comments from people asking which beat sheet they should use, which craft book they should buy, which workshop they should attend. And it would be great if there were a nagic wand to prevent failure, mistakes, and missteps, but that magic wand doesn’t exist. Again, bummer, right?

I understand. It would be so much easier to learn how to write if there was an easy do X, Y, and Z never-fail set of steps that always worked for us and always produced the best book possible.

But that lack of easy instructions isn’t because the universe is trying to spite us. Really. *smile* There are several reasons why there’s no definitive “right” way to write a book.

Reason #1: Our Strengths and Weaknesses Are Unique

The reason I can’t give a definitive answer to those asking is because we’re all different. We have different experiences, different instincts, and different understandings.

Everyone is different as far as what they need (and every story might be different). Some need to plan characters and can work out the plot events by the seat of their pants. Some need a strong outline for the plot and can pants the characters. Or any combination of neither or both with those.

It won’t do any good for me to point to a plot-focused beat sheet and tell someone that it’s perfect for them if they actually need more help getting in touch with their characters. Or vice versa.

Also, because of the way our brains process information, the way one blog post or craft book explains an issue or gives tips for a technique might resonate with us, while another source on the same topic might not. Another writer could think the opposite.

And sometimes when we first come across a concept, it doesn’t quite stick. Maybe we don’t yet have the background knowledge to fully understand or apply it, and once we learn more, we’ll see where those tips fit into the puzzle of good storytelling.

Or maybe we need to hear the same message several times for it to sink in. (Just think of how many times we might need to hear someone’s name to remember it.)

That’s why I tweet links to blog posts even if the subject has been talked about before. The different wordings, the new experiences and knowledge we’ve acquired, and the repeated messages might all help us dig into the concept.

Whatever the cause, there’s a reason why my (or anyone else’s) favorite sources or methods might not work for others. So what can we do?

We can learn about our options. We can experiment. And we can use what works for us this time (and be prepared to try something else next time).

Reason #2: Many Paths Lead to the Same Destination

As we talked about last time, both plotting our stories in advance or writing by the seat of our pants can get us to that finish line of “The End.” In the case of writing, the journey is irrelevant. As far as our readers are concerned, a finished book is the only destination that matters.

Similarly, even if we know how our story is going to end, there are countless plot events we could use to reach that point. The plot can zig or zag and still fulfill the same function to accomplish the same goal.

The obstacle the characters are facing could be a kidnapper with a gun or a car accident causing injuries. Either one would make them vulnerable.

To decide which way to go, we can weigh several factors. We might ask ourselves which option will better:

  • reveal a character’s backstory wound and false belief,
  • add characterization or feel more in character,
  • fit with the characters’ goals,
  • reveal or strengthen a character’s motivation,
  • advance the story to the next plot point,
  • flow from the previous plot point,
  • raise the stakes or increase the tension,
  • add conflicts and obstacles,
  • reveal a theme or foreshadow events,
  • fit the story’s mood or tone, or
  • create the desired impression or emotions in readers, etc.

Different options will likely accomplish different story goals. Plot event A might advance the plot and add conflict, but plot event B might create a desired emotion in readers by revealing a character’s backstory wound.

So which option is the “right” way to go?

There’s no answer to that question. Either way could work because as long as all the options accomplish something for the story, they’re not wrong.

We might decide that this part of the story needs more of an emotional hit, or we might decide it needs a faster pace. It all depends on the story we want to write.

Just because someone else might make a different choice doesn’t make our decision wrong. These choices are part of what makes our story ours and no one else’s.

For example, the second movie in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is vastly different from the book, plot-wise, especially in the second half. The movie changes plot events, character actions, settings, obstacles, etc. from the book, but they both end up in the same place—the message that leads to Allegiant, the next book.

In other words, they take radically different paths to reach the same conclusion. They are different stories, and I’m sure some fans have proclaimed one version “better” than the other, but objectively they do both work. (Personally, I prefer the movie plot for being stronger and more coherent, but I can understand why book fans would feel cheated.)

How Can We Keep Uncertainty from Holding Us Back?

My point with that example above is that neither way is wrong. When we’re writing, we might have lots of ideas for what direction the story should take and want an answer for which way would lead to a “better” story.

Honestly, we shouldn’t stress over the choice too much because there’s not necessarily a better or worse or a right or wrong choice. They’re just different.

So our decisions all come down to which choice we think will better accomplish what we want for the story overall or for what we want at that point in the story.

If we can answer yes, we will eventually reach “The End” for our story. And then we get to obsess about our choices again during revisions and edits. (Just kidding. Sort of…)

The important thing is that with a finished book, we’ll be able to compare the story we have with the story we want. Sometimes we’ll be close and sometimes we won’t. But like the sayings go, “we can’t edit a blank page” and “we won’t know until we try.” *smile*

Also at that point, we can figure out what parts of our process worked for us and what parts didn’t. We can adjust and tweak for next time.

If we finish a story, whatever process we came up with wasn’t wrong. It might be inefficient, or it might have caused too much stress for us. But it wasn’t wrong.

I get it though—the learning curve can be frustrating. A few straightforward answers like “Do this” or “Don’t do that” can feel more like progress.

But trust me, being flexible with our processes so we can adjust when our usual way doesn’t work is much better for our long-term success. And speaking of success… *hands out more gold star stickers*

Have you ever wished for a no-fail set of instructions for how to write a book? Have you seen evidence for how we might have different needs from other writers? Do you struggle with knowing which story choices would be “better”? (Do you have any other tips to share?) Do you have examples from books, movies, or your own work with how our choices aren’t good or bad but just different?

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33 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Tonya December 15, 2015 at 8:44 am

You make some great points in this… But miss one big one: The best way for us to learn so it sticks is to make mistakes–and even fail–every so often.
😉
It wouldn’t be nearly so satisfying to get to RIGHT without having learned what doesn’t work for us. It’s part of our growth as humans and individuals to find what does work for us. Within our own patterns, then, we can compare and contrast other people’s learning to see whether it can apply to our path–and learn more.
🙂

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Jami Gold December 15, 2015 at 8:50 am

Hi Tonya,

Great point! In fact, I’ve written about the value of trying and failing before. LOL!

When we’re in the thick of the sometimes frustrating learning process, we want the shortcuts, but you’re right that when we emerge on the other side, we find far more satisfaction with the full learning experience. 😀 Thanks for pointing that out!

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Tamara LeBlanc December 15, 2015 at 9:00 am

Good God, yes! I’ve always wished for a “This is EXACTLY how you write and award winning novel correctly,” pamphlet. That would be amazing! But, alas, as you say and as is true, there is no right or wrong way to pen a story. You have to work hard, put in the time and effort and hope it appeals to more people than not. Subjective.
I am also a huge doubter when it comes to my work. Am I turning left in the plot when I should have turned right? Am I cutting this sentence when I should expand on it? Am I doing my characters justice? It’s very nerve wracking.
But reading posts like yours help with that doubt. Your wisdom lures me off the cliff. 🙂
I finished and review your book on Amazon. Soooo loved it and looking forward to reading the others!!
Have a great week,
Tamara

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Jami Gold December 15, 2015 at 10:02 am

Hi Tamara,

Yay! for walking people back from the ledge. 😀

Yes, there are so many times when I’m writing and I wonder if the story should zig or zag. I just want some sign of which way would be “better.” LOL! But as you said, that’s so subjective, we can’t really answer that. Instead, sometimes when faced with two (or more) good options, all we can do is decide which one feels more like the story we’re trying to write. 🙂

Thanks for the comment, and thank you so much for the kind words! *blush*

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Nathan December 15, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Jami, another great post, which is why I keep reading them. I appreciate, also in our email correspondence, your clear interest in helping other progress with their writing.

I’ll add a bit to my quote that you included above: As I mentioned before, the story I’m working on is good but complex and not specific to a single genre (in my view), so I’m tempted to develop more genre-specific stories that lend themselves to being a series. It’s in that light that I would so go for a set structure that would hit the key conventions and not leave me feeling wondering so much.

I agree that most of life (and art) is shades of gray rather than black or white.

With gratitude,
Nathan

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Jami Gold December 15, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Hi Nathan,

It’s the pathological helpfulness in me. 😉

Actually, I have a note to myself to try to come up with a post about how to translate the beats to different types of stories or genres. So I am still trying to see if I can come up with some guidelines that might help. We’ll see if I can come up with something… LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Melanie December 15, 2015 at 12:14 pm

I actually believe the question being asked is the most interesting part of this discussion.

It is the journey–not the “answer”–that matters. So write, right? 🙂

(Not to get all metaphysical on you here, but sometimes I want to say, “Come on, folks — your way is The Way For You. Period Now, go write!”

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Jami Gold December 15, 2015 at 12:18 pm

Hi Melanie,

LOL! Yep, I understand. Whatever works? Use that. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

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Anne R. Allen December 15, 2015 at 12:51 pm

This is much-needed good advice, Jami. As Somerset Maugham wrote “There are three rules of writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”

Another thing to take into account is genre. What it de rigeur for Romance would be laughed at in a class for literary writers. And minimalist literary stuff gets trashed by genre readers who want things spelled out in an easily skimmable way. There is no one set of rules.

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Jami Gold December 15, 2015 at 1:05 pm

Hi Anne,

Love that quote. 😀 And that’s a great point about genre. The right choice for whether to zig or zag might differ depending on the genre and its expectations. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Karen McFarland December 15, 2015 at 2:37 pm

Learning the craft of writing has been one of the most frustrating moments of my life. But, then again, English and all its grammatical rules has always put me off a wee bit. If it wasn’t for my affection for telling a story, I would never be able to press through the technical stuff. Yet, you can break the rules, only you must know how to break them correctly. It can drive you nutty! Of course, it’s all subjective. Meaning not everyone will like the same thing. It’s like trying to explain something to someone and their not quite getting what you’re saying. It’s not coming across like you’d like. It’s sad because you really want them to get it. But we’re all different. So we’re not going to love the same things. Ah Jami, it’s crazy. Yet, that’s what makes the world go round. 🙂

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Jami Gold December 15, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Hi Karen,

I understand! Writing a story is like trying to make someone read your mind with just sticks and stones as tools. LOL!

It’s so hard to get the balance right as far as story elements (and that balance needed changes from story to story and genre to genre) and express ourselves in such a way that we’ll create the impression we want within readers and accept that subjectivity means we’ll never get it completely right anyway. *sigh*

I’m so glad we’re in this together. 😀 Thanks for stopping by!

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Christina Hawthorne December 15, 2015 at 4:38 pm

Great post, Jami, and I couldn’t agree more. I curse the “panster vs. plotter” debate because it’s led many to believe it’s a choice between one or the other. Not true. I rarely blog on writing, but I did twice last month in an effort to make people realize the “right way” is to mix-and-match the elements on a spectrum and create their own approach. Too often I hear people who believe there’s something wrong with them because they can’t master one approach or the other. NO! I use elements of both and I’m quite happy with my mix, a mix I’m always tweaking and adapting depending on the project.

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Jami Gold December 16, 2015 at 3:26 pm

Hi Christina,

Exactly! It’s a spectrum, not an either/or. 🙂

As you said, the tweaks and adjustments we make are going to often simply come down to where on the spectrum we fall for any specific story. Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Serena Yung December 16, 2015 at 7:15 pm

Oh on the pantser vs. plotter debate, I worry sometimes that my disclaimers aren’t clear enough and people still think I’m asserting that one method is better than the other. When I say going completely pantser (zero plotting) works very well for me, I mean it works very well for ME. Not at all implying that pantsing is superior to plotting, let alone that everybody should become a pure pantser like me, lol.

Yes, I know that making so many disclaimers can be annoying to others, but I really hate being misunderstood or accused of saying something that I didn’t mean! Sometimes I think I might have an obsession with clarity, haha.

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Jami Gold December 17, 2015 at 11:17 am

Hi Serena,

I understand. I try to be very clear with disclaimers too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Christina Hawthorne December 17, 2015 at 12:44 pm

I know exactly what you mean, Serena. I do the same. The irony is that I was born a pantser and have learned to adopt plotter techniques where needed. My reward? People implying I’m pushing plotting on them. No. I’ve simply learned to find strategies that prop-up my weaknesses. Thus, I talk about my flexible outlines and outlines I update daily because I veer off them. My point isn’t to do what I do. My point is that we should open our minds to adapting techniques that, in a sense, make it easier to utilize our natural approach.

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Jami Gold December 17, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Hi Christina,

Love that!

“I’ve simply learned to find strategies that prop-up my weaknesses. … we should open our minds to adapting techniques that, in a sense, make it easier to utilize our natural approach.”

Thanks for sharing that insight! 😀

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Serena Yung December 17, 2015 at 9:32 pm

I’m glad you understand, Christina! For me, I started off plotting everything, because I never even knew pantsing existed, haha. But later I learned about it and tried it more and more; I slipped deeper and deeper into pantsing and now I pants completely, haha. So for me personally, though maybe not for some others, pantsing makes me feel most emotionally connected to my story and characters.

Also, plotting is fine and dandy, but eh, when I write my story, I pretty much trash everything I planned, so that all those “foreseen events” are either wishful dreams or just nightmares. So why should I bother spending hours plotting if 90% of those plot event predictions/plans don’t come true and are often entirely off the mark? I’m not saying that other people’s plotted scenes aren’t true, but just for me, my plotted scenes nearly always turn out to be fake, so I finally figured that I should just completely pants it, and it worked for me and helped me finish an entire long series, haha.

By “fake” predicted scenes, I mean something like “I predict that the hero will have to face a cruel decision, in whether to give up his six-year-old son, or his long-lost mother to the evil organization”. Yet when I pantsed the story, nothing as nasty as that happened! It was just a nightmare that was not real. Thank goodness!

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Jami Gold December 19, 2015 at 12:01 pm

Hi Serena,

So true about why spend time plotting something out that isn’t going to be followed! 🙂 To refer to your example, the most I plan now would be “The hero will have to face a cruel decision.” I won’t know what the decision is until I get there though. LOL! Thanks for sharing your process!

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Serena Yung December 19, 2015 at 6:33 pm

It’s fun to think about examples. 😀 Nowadays all I “plan” would be something like the hero and heroine will become lovers because this is the romantic comedy kind of story I want to write… Haha. Of course I can still guess events in my head (though not spending hours writing them down), and some turn true and some don’t.

Anne December 17, 2015 at 1:24 am

Jami, this post came at just the right moment for me. I was wearing myself out with all the decisions! I’m currently ‘findiing’ my process, so it’s two steps forward and sometimes only one step back, other times it’ more.

Then, again, I was always the one with the Lego set instructions, trying to make the one on the box.

Thank you for some much-needed encouragement at exactly the right time.

Anne.

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Jami Gold December 17, 2015 at 11:18 am

Hi Anne,

I’m happy to help! 🙂 And yes that steep learning curve can be a bit chaotic, as we try to learn everything at once. LOL! Good luck, and thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold December 19, 2015 at 10:03 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Yep, I don’t write anything down. 🙂

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Serena Yung December 22, 2015 at 12:23 pm

Yay! Glad to hear I’m not the only one with this “thought about it in my head but not writing them down” approach!

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Jami Gold December 23, 2015 at 8:57 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Yep. Pantsers might “waste” time in revision, but plotters might “waste” time by writing down their outlines that get tossed away mid-story too. 😉

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Serena Yung December 24, 2015 at 3:12 pm

^^ Good way to think of it! And if I plotted, I would probably waste just as much time during revision compared to if I was just pantsing, haha. Or maybe it’s just me, lol! But reading your posts gives me so many ideas on what to do during my edits, and the revision stage will be very long no matter what! But it’s a rewarding and satisfying process at the same time, since you get to see your work improve AND you learn a lot about story writing as you edit. I find it makes me learn my limits and become more aware of things I still don’t know how to deal with too, lol.

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Jami Gold December 24, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Hi Serena,

Exactly! 😀 (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. 😉 ) Good luck with those revisions!

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Serena Yung December 25, 2015 at 1:22 pm

Thank you! 😀 And have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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