I’ve mentioned story patterns before – back in On Patterns and Story we dove deep into the topic. Today I’d like to take another look at the subject and talk about when and why you should throw the patterns away.

Learning the Ropes
Many of us have an idea how stories work when we start out, but we really don’t think about why we’re doing things. At least I didn’t. Things just felt right.

Sometimes we’re lucky and we pay attention in literature class. We cover the basics of how a story is set up and what the elements are. Then we move on, explore story deeper by reading books and taking classes – and all of this reinforces the story patterns around us.

Patterns Are A Good Thing…
There’s no way around this: creative writing falls into genres, and genres have expectations. Read that statement a few times. Let it sink in. Think about if for a bit.

The audience expects certain things in the genre you’re working in. Why is this the case? One of my theater professors summed it up beautifully – audiences like conventions because it makes them feel superior. Knowing what’s going to happen is comforting.

…Most of the Time
OK, now here comes the rub. The danger with the widely established convention is if you’re not careful, it can become cliche. The problem is you’re writing the pattern, lots of other people are as well, and there’s a lot out there that readers figure out this it’s formulaic. That’s not good.

Small Changes -> Big Changes
If you’re just starting to dip your toe into the water as far as playing with patterns, start out small. I’ve offered these suggestions before, but they’re worth reiterating. For you new writers it’ll surely help: you advanced people who find yourselves blocked may be able to break through with some of these recommendations:

  • Change the gender of the protagonist/villain
  • Change a name
  • Move the story/scene to a new location
  • Change a character’s political views
  • Switch the character’s dominant hand

The list can go on, but you get the point…

Mastering the Art
Hopefully at some point if you’re taking your writing seriously and you know you want to advance artistically, you’re going to want to mess with the patterns. For some – and I know I went through this – it’s scary to think of this. Here you are, all these years you’ve been doing it this way, this way works, you like this way…but something is calling to you, asking you to do something new.

This is artistic growth. It’s a good thing. Yes, the first few times you start taking a new approach to your art it’s scary as hell, because the first thought (that hit me anyway) was is this going to even work?

To be honest, no, it’s not always going to work. We take chances in art, the calculated risks to push ourselves Outside the Comfort Zone. Some of these risks won’t pan out, some will fail. A few will fail miserably. But even in failure, we can learn things and there can be important lessons that contribute to our growth artistically.