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Pixar's 22 Rules of Good Storytelling

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There are some good rules and some bad rules on that list. As with anything to do with writing, take what's useful from the rules you agree with and throw the rest away or keep them around for reference as to what you don't want to do.

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Some of those are really good, some of those are really bad. #4 really stands out as a bad one for me.

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Some of those are really good, some of those are really bad. #4 really stands out as a bad one for me.

I'm wondering whether you're really seeing number 4 for what it really is. It's says you need to introduce the setting and characters. You need to establish what their every day lives are like. Once we've established everything, explain the main point of the story that sets things into motion and makes things interesting. The events of the story happen in order, each event leading up to the next. There's some sort of ending to the story at the end.

That's pretty solid general generic advice for story telling. There are definitely points you could contest it on, but I'm not sure if that's what you had in mind or you just jumped at the simple cliche sounding sentence structure.

I think you could argue that they're suggesting that a story be told in a certain order which doesn't allow room for in medias res or Memento style nonsense. I think you could argue that a story could be constructed out of events that have no obvious relation to each other. I think you could argue that it might be better to not explicitly establish the characters or setting or their daily lives, or reject the notion that any part of a person's life is "daily life" and everything is interesting, or maybe nothing interesting and special happens in the story.

If you were getting at any of those things you have a point, but number 4 is a pretty good description of any story that's told in chronological order where you want the audience to have a good understanding of what's going on in the beginning and interesting out of the ordinary things happen to the characters.

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well its not "Pixars 22 Rules" at all is it, its one of their story people who compiled some reminders and tips. misnomer.

thanks for the link!

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#4 is explained far better on the toy story 3 dvd.

Pretty much they start by introducing the main character and showing a particular interest he or she has, they're completely on top of the world and everything is honky dorey.

Then something happens that causes a sudden change to the main characters situation or environment and takes away the one thing they cared about.

This forces them to set out on some type of adventure in order to get back to some form of normal or even better than before/deeper meaning found.

For example Take Toy Story

You're introduced to Woody, he's the top brass and favorite toy of Andy's. Everyone trusts him and relies on him.

Then suddenly Andy gets Buzz. Everyone takes notice of Buzz and even Andy treats Woody now as Second Tier or forgotten for awhile. Literally Andy is taken away from Woody and him being the best toy.

Cue the rest of the adventure where Woody tries to become the best toy again and inevitably learns to like Buzz and share the spotlight with him.

Or The Incredibles.

You are introduced to Bob/Mr. Incredible. He's saving the world and is pretty good at it. He meets Elastigirl. Cue later wedding scene etc.

Due to spoilers, suing him. This causes a chain reaction that takes away his ability to do superhero stuff normally and we see him now drained in a daytime office.

Meets the contact Mirage and attempts to get back to doing regular super hero work again.

Thats pretty much the basic gist of rule 4. They just didn't word it good there.

But yeah some of these rules.... ehhhhh... But most of these are really great.

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I didn't mind number four, for in medias res, just rearrange the elements, that is all.

Number five on the other hand seemed to me to apply mostly to film writing, where you only have two hours to introduce all your characters and tell the story. Books, and to lesser extent games and comics, are for the long haul and you have plenty of time to introduce dozens of characters. Similarly number twenty-two, while still valuable for all writers, seems most valuable to movie writers. Personally, I enjoy Stephenson-esque digressions.

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well its not "Pixars 22 Rules" at all is it, its one of their story people who compiled some reminders and tips. misnomer.

thanks for the link!

Correct! It's framing the list wrong to use the word "rules". It's more like "22 things writers at Pixar have learned that help them to write good stories". There are no *rules* for art, but there is wisdom from experience and helpful suggestions.

Re: #4

I like this one. I think it would be a bad suggestion if they were providing it as a formula you couldn't stray from, but I think #4 is really communicating that there is a certain pattern that almost all classic/beloved stories tend to follow.

John Hodgman once said that almost all the classic, immortal stories begin the same way: "...and then one day a stranger came to town."

I think #4 is communicating the same thing. It's not a requirement in a story, but the general idea of it is like the gluten of storytelling: it's in almost everything in some form.

Re: #5 and #22

I think those two are mostly about pacing and structure. It doesn't matter whether you're writing a book, writing a screenplay, or writing a research paper for an undergraduate psychology class, pacing and structure are just plain good writing and one should not ignore them except for when doing so consciously in order to achieve a specific effect.

You CAN ignore pacing and structure if you really want to. The writing police are not going to kick your door down and drag you away to writer's jail. But if your pacing is too fast, too slow, or too inconsistent, your readers will probably be unhappy about it; and if your story isn't structured well and it kinda reads like it's just meandering aimlessly through the woods, readers tend to not like that either.

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Of course, pacing matters. I never said it didn't. I said pacing for books is different for movies is different for games is different for comics is different for periodicals. The way these tips were written were with movie pacing in mind. I wouldn't want to see a movie with more than four or five main characters (LotR barely pulled it off, Ocean's 11 etc didn't), but to read a book with only two or three well rounded characters seems like cheating to me, and it'd better be a short book or I'll quickly grow bored with them. That isn't to say that novelists can go wild with their characters - twenty protagonists are clearly too many - it's just not nearly as important to collapse them to movie-levels.

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There are some good rules and some bad rules on that list. As with anything to do with writing, take what's useful from the rules you agree with and throw the rest away or keep them around for reference as to what you don't want to do.

+1

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Of course, pacing matters. I never said it didn't. I said pacing for books is different for movies is different for games is different for comics is different for periodicals. The way these tips were written were with movie pacing in mind. I wouldn't want to see a movie with more than four or five main characters (LotR barely pulled it off, Ocean's 11 etc didn't), but to read a book with only two or three well rounded characters seems like cheating to me, and it'd better be a short book or I'll quickly grow bored with them. That isn't to say that novelists can go wild with their characters - twenty protagonists are clearly too many - it's just not nearly as important to collapse them to movie-levels.

They just said collapse and be economical, though. They didn't give a number. I don't think what they mean is that you should only have 2 or 3 characters or any other specific range of numbers. I think all they mean is that you should not use more characters/scenes/subplots/etc than is necessary. Maybe that means your story has 9 of one of those things and you can tell the story more economically with 5, but maybe it means your story has 83 of one of those things and you can tell it more economically with just 49.

Kafka's Metamorphosis was basically a one-character story and it was great. But then you also have a book like War And Peace, which literally has over 580 characters, and it's a celebrated classic.

So it's not so much about having the smallest number possible as much as it is about being judicious in determining the size of your cast.

Just as writers are often advised to not say with ten words what they can say with two, the same principle at a larger scale gives us "don't say with ten characters what you can say with two".

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Personally I'm not too keen on "#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself."

I've found that it can actually be more productive to do the opposite. In fact I think most of us have been trained to think a lot about our ideas and naturally reject our initial impulses out of a fear of being too 'obvious' or not clever enough or perhaps revealing something about ourselves that we'd rather have kept secret. So the approach I like is to BE obvious to the point that I'm completely non-judgemental about what comes to mind. Because my obvious isn't the same as someone else's, and someone else's obvious can seem like genius to me.

"#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front." I'm not sure about that. That's certainly one approach that has worked for me, yet it seems to be my experience that stories shake out in different ways, but as someone who does some improvisation, I have seen some tremendously effective techniques for finding an ending.

(Improv exercise time! Anyone can do this, either by speaking aloud or doing something like Tim's free writing.

1) get someone to think of 5 unrelated images for you - an image can be something like 'A boy walking alone on a beach in the sunset' or 'a cup of water left abandoned on the table'. Or think of them yourself, but be careful not to try to think of a story in advance.

2) Start telling a story, and as much as humanly possible, try to stick with those 5 images only. Find ways of linking them together and whenever you are tempted to introduce something new into the story to explain a plot point, instead go back to one of the 5 images and find some way of tying it in. Don't stop. Keep writing/talking.

What you'll find is using that method you WILL find an ending. The reason is that generally the start of the story is the part where elements are introduced. Then from about the middle onwards a good story will tend to stop introducing stuff and just juggle around whatever is there and tying it together. Take, say, Back to the Future:

Set up: Marty is a good guitarist, his parents are cramping his style, there's a description of how they met, he knows this guy called Doc Brown, he built a time machine. Biff is a big bully to his father.

Crisis: Marty accidentally gets stuck back in time while Doc gets murdered, at around the time when his parents met (here, ideas are already starting to be reincorporated), he accidentally interferes with their meeting, causing a threat to his own existence, but there's a lightning strike on the clock tower he knows about (again, reincorporated from earlier) which enables a plan for getting home.

End: Pretty much all playing with that stuff. He hatches a plan to get his parents back together, but it backfires, and young Biff ends up nearly ruining everything until George comes through. There is another problem with the band which enables him to use his guitar skills to bring this plan into fruition, linking all those elements together, and with that problem sorted he is able to carry on existing and go home, and solve the other problem of Doc's murder.

See how the back half of that film is just chucking the ideas of the first half of the film at each other until they are linked together? And how much worse it would have been if, say, suddenly during the dance, Marty revealed he could play guitar, or if Biff was just some random bully rather than an established problem in Marty's life? The only new thing is the VERY end when Doc returns from the future with a new crisis, and that was originally intended as a 'joke' cliffhanger.

And you can sort of run that process backwards to make endings happen: if you stop creating stuff and concentrate on linking together what you already have, that naturally creates endings.) brackets ever>

Oh, and I do like most of the other 'rules' :)

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That was an interesting read. I am certainly not qualified to criticize that but even if I was, when someone successful and experienced offers advise related to his work then the most beneficial thing to do is not to criticize but to pay attention.

I do think making some observation and posting my thoughts is fair though. It is worth noticing where this advise comes from and in this case it comes from one of the most mainstream storytellers of our time. Regardless of what one thinks of the quality of their work, it makes sense that if they wish to maintain their status they should be following rules intended to minimize risk and maximize their popularity. The people who want to create something new, something that will challenge their audience's way of seeing things, would probably find less use in a numbered list of rules than those that have as a priority to make a story that everybody likes (if you present something new you can't possibly predict how people will react, you might end being as popular as the Beatles or as unpopular as Van Gogh was in his time). I also find #12 most interesting - it seems to reject spontaneity because its results are obvious. I wouldn't think that an inspired creator's first 5(!) ideas would be the most obvious ones, so that's one more reason think that such rules are not meant for those wish to create inspired work.

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Re: #12

I like this one as a tool, but I don't think it is meant to yield the *best* answer to your story problem the more you put off the immediate answers and look for new ones. You might come up with the best answer on your first try, but you should never ACCEPT that the first answer is your best answer. You always want to make sure there isn't a better one.

It reminds me of how Louis CK (i.e., the awesome comedian) once said that one way he has improved at writing better and better jokes for his shows is that he would go out on stage and immediately use all of his best jokes first. In that way, he was giving up all of his secret weapons right out of the gate and couldn't rely on them anymore. He put himself into a situation where he HAD to think of something better. He was forced to surpass his current best material if he wanted to stay afloat.

I think it's kinda the same thing. Maybe the first thing you think of will be the best answer, but trying to come up with an even BETTER answer is always a good exercise.

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Personally I'm not too keen on "#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself."

I've found that it can actually be more productive to do the opposite.

This piece of advice struck me as being open to abuse, too. It can be great for coming up with interesting characters, premises, or plot twists, but I can see how it could lead to strained, far-fetched situations.

A lot of bad puzzle design seems like it's taken this advice to heart. The first five (reasonably logical) solutions are tossed out, and what remains is something that's guaranteed to stump everyone. I just started an adventure where I had to wake up a sleeping character by splashing water on her. The solution? Use hairspray and matches to make a blowtorch, which set the room on fire and set off the automatic sprinkler system. Voila, she's awake! I'd rather have had the writer's first or second thought on this one.

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Re: #12I think it's kinda the same thing. Maybe the first thing you think of will be the best answer, but trying to come up with an even BETTER answer is always a good exercise.

So maybe it was just a pretty odd way to say 'you should brainstorm'? - or like what Tim did to think of Grim Fandango's title - which does sound to me as great advice. Maybe they were just worried that people non familiar with creative proceces that might be reading wouldn't understand the lingo, which is fair enough.

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Re: #12I think it's kinda the same thing. Maybe the first thing you think of will be the best answer, but trying to come up with an even BETTER answer is always a good exercise.

So maybe it was just a pretty odd way to say 'you should brainstorm'? - or like what Tim did to think of Grim Fandango's title - which does sound to me as great advice. Maybe they were just worried that people non familiar with creative proceces that might be reading wouldn't understand the lingo, which is fair enough.

It's less like brainstorming and more like brainstorming PLUS.

Brainstorming means sitting down and coming up with a bunch of different ideas and then saying, "I like this one the best." And conventional wisdom might say that is where the brainstorming ends. It has served its purpose.

But what Pixar is saying here is not just "don't trust the first idea"; they are saying "Don't trust the first BEST idea". When you think you've got the best possible answer to meet a particular need of your narrative, assume that you don't and try to make it better.

In other words, never assume that the whole story or any one part of it is "done". I feel like good writers are never done revising. They would revise into infinity if deadlines didn't yank the pages away from them. No matter how good it looks, good writers always want it to be even better. Better still. Still room from improvement. Ad infinitum.

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Re: #12I think it's kinda the same thing. Maybe the first thing you think of will be the best answer, but trying to come up with an even BETTER answer is always a good exercise.

So maybe it was just a pretty odd way to say 'you should brainstorm'? - or like what Tim did to think of Grim Fandango's title - which does sound to me as great advice. Maybe they were just worried that people non familiar with creative proceces that might be reading wouldn't understand the lingo, which is fair enough.

It's less like brainstorming and more like brainstorming PLUS.

Brainstorming means sitting down and coming up with a bunch of different ideas and then saying, "I like this one the best." And conventional wisdom might say that is where the brainstorming ends. It has served its purpose.

But what Pixar is saying here is not just "don't trust the first idea"; they are saying "Don't trust the first BEST idea". When you think you've got the best possible answer to meet a particular need of your narrative, assume that you don't and try to make it better.

In other words, never assume that the whole story or any one part of it is "done". I feel like good writers are never done revising. They would revise into infinity if deadlines didn't yank the pages away from them. No matter how good it looks, good writers always want it to be even better. Better still. Still room from improvement. Ad infinitum.

If that is indeed what Pixar is trying to say, they could have said it a whole lot better then what they said. The way it reads now is just ignore the first idea that comes to your head, which is something no writer or anyone for the matter should do.

It's also impossible to know what the best idea is unless you experiment with different ideas that you like. Which would invalidate the rule that they're trying to set forward.

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Interesting, but having great scripts isn't something I would have credited any Pixar movie with. I know it's personal preference, and I did enjoy a few of their films quite a lot...sadly even my favourite ones had moments that just made me want to hurl or bang my head on my desk. So, with that in mind, I'm not sure how much attention I should pay to writing advice from them! :)

Edit: actually most of it seems pretty useful. Except rule 14. *sets fire to rule 14* Huh, rule 19 is a theory I came up with myself...20 years ago or so. Neat! I remember explaining the idea to my Mother. She wasn't convinced!

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But what Pixar is saying here is not just "don't trust the first idea"; they are saying "Don't trust the first BEST idea". When you think you've got the best possible answer to meet a particular need of your narrative, assume that you don't and try to make it better.

It can't be that, the rule clearly says "Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind". It doesn't take the quality of the idea into account at all.

In other words, never assume that the whole story or any one part of it is "done". I feel like good writers are never done revising. They would revise into infinity if deadlines didn't yank the pages away from them. No matter how good it looks, good writers always want it to be even better. Better still. Still room from improvement. Ad infinitum.

I agree that that happens but they don't advise sticking with it - see #8: "Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect."

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Any attempt to universalize rules for plot\story itself is dangerously close to suggesting that there is only one kind of story worth writing. These are good suggestions and food for thought for writers, but I wouldn't exactly call them rules. Some have too many obvious exceptions to be universal, and most are just general tips for writing anyway. Personally the only approach to writing which fuels me creatively is to look for unique ways to tell unique stories, and break away from my habits as much as possible, rather than trying to hone in on a repeatable formula (there's a reason the word 'formulaic' is most often used as a criticism), although naturally that makes sense if you actually are writing for a company like Pixar or Disney with very specific branding, heritage and required commerciality.

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But what Pixar is saying here is not just "don't trust the first idea"; they are saying "Don't trust the first BEST idea". When you think you've got the best possible answer to meet a particular need of your narrative, assume that you don't and try to make it better.

It can't be that, the rule clearly says "Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind". It doesn't take the quality of the idea into account at all.

But in the very next sentence they say "get the obvious out of the way", which indicates they are talking about quality with that statement.

In other words, never assume that the whole story or any one part of it is "done". I feel like good writers are never done revising. They would revise into infinity if deadlines didn't yank the pages away from them. No matter how good it looks, good writers always want it to be even better. Better still. Still room from improvement. Ad infinitum.

I agree that that happens but they don't advise sticking with it - see #8: "Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect."

I don't advise sticking with it either. Deadlines mean you CAN'T stick with it. Number 8 is true, but you should be constantly revising/refining all the way up to that point.

It's like the distinction John Cleese made in the video on creativity someone posted a while back. There is an "open mode" and a "closed mode" during the creation process. During open mode, you are open to all possibilities and suggestions. In this mode you say YES to everything. You never say NO. This is the "imagination mode" in a way. But then "closed mode" is sort of the "business mode". This is the point at which you know that this work has to actually be finished at some point. So there is a deadline. Even if the work isn't finished by the time you hit that deadline, it will be declared finished anyway, whether you like it or not. So you have to get as much work done before then as you can, but if you are stuck exploring infinite possibilities, you'll have revision paralysis or analysis paralysis and it will slow you waaaaay down. So at some point you just have to say, "I'm committing to X" and then carry that commitment to the deadline.

You COULD stay in open mode the whole time and try out all kinds of different things and then reach the deadline with only 20% of the work done. You have to have the good sense and self control to switch between those two modes, I'd say.

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But what Pixar is saying here is not just "don't trust the first idea"; they are saying "Don't trust the first BEST idea". When you think you've got the best possible answer to meet a particular need of your narrative, assume that you don't and try to make it better.

It can't be that, the rule clearly says "Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind". It doesn't take the quality of the idea into account at all.

But in the very next sentence they say "get the obvious out of the way", which indicates they are talking about quality with that statement

Again you never know what the obvious is unless your willing to try all of the ideas which would go against their rule as it is written. I also don't understand what they have against the obvious. People shouldn't rely on the obvious but the use of it can be very effective in the right circumstances.

At the very least I think the rule needs to be rewritten for it to be of any help to writers out there.

There is also the very fun saying, rules are meant to be broken, how that isn't on their list is somewhat surprising.

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Very cool list- thanks for sharing!

I've also seen a video from Pixar showing something like 10 lessons to storywriting showing a quick animation which was really well done as well.

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Again you never know what the obvious is unless your willing to try all of the ideas which would go against their rule as it is written. I also don't understand what they have against the obvious. People shouldn't rely on the obvious but the use of it can be very effective in the right circumstances.

Maybe it's me and I'm just interpreting their advice too losely or putting words in their mouth, but I feel like you guys are getting hung up on the wording and giving too strict an interpretation to some of this stuff.

I'd apply your own rule to this one. You said:

As with anything to do with writing, take what's useful from the rules you agree with and throw the rest away or keep them around for reference as to what you don't want to do.

Look at what they're saying and discount the interpretations that sound dumb. The interpretations of their statement that sound like great tips, assume that's what they mean and use it as you see fit. =]

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Again you never know what the obvious is unless your willing to try all of the ideas which would go against their rule as it is written. I also don't understand what they have against the obvious. People shouldn't rely on the obvious but the use of it can be very effective in the right circumstances.

Maybe it's me and I'm just interpreting their advice too losely or putting words in their mouth, but I feel like you guys are getting hung up on the wording and giving too strict an interpretation to some of this stuff.

I'd apply your own rule to this one. You said:

As with anything to do with writing, take what's useful from the rules you agree with and throw the rest away or keep them around for reference as to what you don't want to do.

Look at what they're saying and discount the interpretations that sound dumb. The interpretations of their statement that sound like great tips, assume that's what they mean and use it as you see fit. =]

I know what you're saying however when I read rules they are supposed to be straight forward and not open to interpretations.

In my opinion it would have been a lot more effective if they said something along the lines of: While a first idea is good, don't discount other ideas that you have and don't be afraid to explore those ideas.

That to me is more effective then telling people who may or may not read what they will into the so called rule that Pixar is putting forward for storytelling.

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Look at what they're saying and discount the interpretations that sound dumb. The interpretations of their statement that sound like great tips, assume that's what they mean and use it as you see fit. =]

Considering that as you have stated before "you can interpret anything to mean anything if you really want" does that mean that I should literally decide what these rules mean for myself based on assumptions?

If yes then what is the point of having rules at all?

(Would I be justified to assume that this quoted piece of advice of yours means that I should be always blindly following every rule to the letter?)

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Look at what they're saying and discount the interpretations that sound dumb. The interpretations of their statement that sound like great tips, assume that's what they mean and use it as you see fit. =]

Considering that as you have stated before "you can interpret anything to mean anything if you really want" does that mean that I should literally decide what these rules mean for myself based on assumptions?

If yes then what is the point of having rules at all?

(Would I be justified to assume that this quoted piece of advice of yours means that I should be always blindly following every rule to the letter?)

Haha, words words words! You're too caught up with words!

This is one of those, "It's more of a guideline than a rule" situations. There are no "rules" to writing. We all agree on this. There are no Laws Of Writing that people must obey the same way they obey traffic lights.

But there are other kinds of "rules" that are more like "rules of thumb". As a rule, you generally shouldn't drink before noon. But does that preclude drinking before noon always and forever? Pfft. No.

Try telling this guy not to drink before noon.

biglebowski08b.jpg

As a rule, you don't go out to an authentic Mexican restaurant and order a burger with fries. But you never know: maybe one of the people in your group has allergies or something. These aren't absolutes. These are just bits of wisdom that most of the time will probably serve you well.

On a similar note, as a "rule of thumb", you should generally not settle for your first idea and always try for a second, third, fourth, etc, just in case you have something better in your head that you just didn't know was there until you got to your sixth idea! Maybe that won't happen and your first idea will be the best, but it's a good idea to rule out the possibility that you're not overlooking something that would greatly improve the story.

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Considering that as you have stated before "you can interpret anything to mean anything if you really want" does that mean that I should literally decide what these rules mean for myself based on assumptions?

If yes then what is the point of having rules at all?

The point of having lists of "rules" is to make you think of what you might be doing wrong and finding things which work for you. There are no real rules for writing. You can break any of the "rules" and still get something good. It's just much better that you do it knowingly, see what alternatives there are, and have something to fall on when you fail at some aspect of writing.

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