The Pareto Principle, Form Follows Function, and Story

There are a thousand things to “remember” when writing story. New writers who make lists of these things soon begin to drown in them. But I’ve come to realize that many of these “rules” don’t matter.

They don’t matter because many ignore the function of story. And so you can’t know how and when to apply them, or if they’re even something you should apply in the first place. Furthermore, a good number that do tie back to function often have little impact.

The more I develop and write, the more I begin to see that the key is to focus on a liminted number of fundamentals. To focus on the things that matter most.

So what really matters when you’re writing a story?

I’m going to be speaking for an hour at the Book Academy tomorrow. It’s at Utah Valley University. The week after I’ll be presenting all day at the American Fork Arts Council’s autumn writer’s conference. I will probably write up all my thoughts and post them to my site at some time.  But for right now this is where you can hear them.  

I truly believe the Pareto Principle applies to writing. But you can’t go searching for those vital few factors until you know the effects they’re supposed to produce. Form follows function. And the function is something that happens in the reader.

Here’s a nibble. This quote from David Howard is an example of what I’m talking about.

“As we’ve seen, what the audience hopes for and what the characters hope for need not be the same thing. The same is true of our fears versus their fears. But how do hope and fear fit into the scheme of storytelling? Hope and fear are about the future. They derive from uncertaintly about future events in the story, future decisions the characters might make, future discoveries or revelations that might be unearthed, future outside forces and how they will influence the journey of the characters. When we discuss hope verusus fear in dramaturgical terms, this uncertainty is a function solely of the audience and its experience [my emphasis]. This is dramatic tension. We hope the man with the cobra in the shoe box won’t open the box; we fear he might and get himself or someone else bitten. We don’t know what will happen, but we know what might happen and therefore feel tension about those possibilities” (How to Build a Great Screenplay, 52).

Readers buy novels because novels provide a service. They provide something to the reader. They DO something to the reader.  That’s why readers pay good money for them, and stay up late at night (well past smart bedtimes) with them, and spend hours of their lives reading them.  

What do stories do? What are the key factors that have to be present in the stories for them to be able to do these things? How do you help readers hope and fear for what might happen?

I’m no story guru, but I do hope to share some of the vital few factors I see in the presentations I’ll be giving this week and next.

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