Snowflakes and Heroes
by Lars Emmerich
Fifteen years ago, during my first career as an F-16 pilot, I worked with a guy who had one of the worst jobs in the world. He was in charge of an extremely limited resource, and his desk was constantly surrounded by swarms of angry people who wanted, needed, deserved exclusive access to that scarce commodity. The poor man’s life was nothing but one surly, entitled, unsatisfied customer after another.
Taped to his desk was a sign that I will never forget:
“You are a unique and beautiful snowflake . . .
Just like everyone else.”
As authors, we all really want to be unique and beautiful snowflakes. We want our work to stand out from the trillions of titles published every minute. We want our narrative voice to pop, our characters to “leap from the page,” our story to be full of delightful twists.
We want to be unconventional.
I’m a lifelong iconoclast and a dedicated non-conformist, and those traits are a huge part of who I am as an author. And if you’re anything like me, the last thing you want to be is a slave to story structure and genre convention.
But I’ve learned something the hard way: when it comes to story structure, bucking the rules just doesn’t pay.
Here’s the thing: story conventions exist because humans want their stories to be told a certain way. It’s how we’re wired.
No successful restaurateur stands out from the crowd by serving twigs and bark. It would be silly. Humans don’t consume twigs and bark. It’s not how we’re wired.
No successful musician stands out from the crowd by playing out of tune and off the beat. It would be silly. Humans like rhythm and harmony. Our wiring again.
And no matter how clever our marketing efforts might be, it is exceedingly difficult to build a large fan base if our stories don’t resonate.
What’s digital got to do with it?
Wait. Is this a blog post about . . . craft? At this moment, during the Great Digital Awakening, when all that matters are engagement and reach and voice and authenticity, a time of universal genuflection before the Social Media Deities and tender, hopeful kisses planted on the Mystical Ring of Reasonably High Clickthrough Rates, and I’m wasting time talking about storycraft?
Anathema, I know. But even in this brave new digital world of ours, craft is still king.
Because you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still not going to win the pageant.
Which is another way of saying that the best marketing in the world can’t make a reader finish a bad book, or buy the next book in the series when the ending to the first one was thoroughly meh.
“But wait,” rebel writers often say, and I often used to say in the days before my Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment regarding craft. “Stephen King is famous for meandering stories with strangely unsatisfying endings, yet he sells a billion books a week.”
Point taken. But you and I are not Stephen King. His magic clearly lies elsewhere, and in the absence of a treasure map to Stephen King’s Bookselling Amulet of Power, we mortals are left with a different kind of map: The Hero’s Journey.
The Rules Will Set You Free
The art of storytelling has been around as long as language, and its current form—what story nerds call structure—is not an accident. It works. It resonates. It strikes all the right chords deep inside the lizard part of our brains.
We don’t enjoy stories that don’t scratch our ancient story itch for the same reason we don’t eat twigs and bark or listen to music that sounds like a catfight in a dumpster.
It’s unavoidable: good stories follow rules.
That was absolutely terrible news for me. I hate rules. I hate following them. Even good ones, meant for my safety and happiness and prosperity. The last thing I wanted as an author was to be fettered to convention.
Because I wanted—and still want—to be a snowflake, unique and beautiful.
But more than that, I finally realized as the blinding light of the heavens knocked me from my donkey, I actually want people to buy my books, read them, enjoy them, and then buy more of them.
Which means that my stories have to satisfy. Which means that they have to follow our prehistoric and hard-wired appetite for stories told a certain way.
109 Degrees of Freedom
Right. Storycraft. Follow the formula. Got it.
But what about the snowflakes? Every one of them is different than all the rest.
Yes, but it turns out that they all follow the same rules. They are made up of water molecules, which have the interesting property of being shaped like a Mickey Mouse head, with a big oxygen atom for a face and two little hydrogen atoms for ears.
When water molecules form ice, the angle between neighboring oxygen atoms is 109 degrees. Always and forever. Even in the most rebellious and iconoclastic and non-conformist ice crystals. Even the ones who yearn for bigger things and deeper self-actualization. 109 degrees. Eight days a week.
Yet from this rigid sameness—this unbending, uncaring, unimaginative convention of nature—comes infinite possibility, infinite variation.
Just like story structure. Adhering to our audience’s expectations about how a compelling story should unfold doesn’t mean there’s no freedom to innovate, no room to stand out, no latitude to let our uniqueness shine through.
It’s quite the opposite, really. So let’s raise our glasses to the rules of story. May we follow them happily, content in the knowledge that they are the path to true storytelling freedom.
Lars Emmerich is an entrepreneur, investor, musician, retired fighter pilot, and bestselling author of the Sam Jameson conspiracy thriller series. His latest Amazon #1 Bestseller, Burn, will be available worldwide very soon. Say hi at www.larsemmerichbooks.com.