5 frustrating workshop rules that made me a better writer

Throughout the 15 workshops I joined in college and grad school, I encountered two types of writing rules.

First, there were the best-practice guidelines we’ve all heard, like “show don’t tell.” And then there were workshop rules, which the professor put in place not because they’re universal, but because they help you grow within the context of the workshop.

During the fiction segment of my college’s intro writing workshop, we had 5 such rules:

  1. No fantasy, supernatural, or sci-fi elements.
  2. No guns.
  3. No characters can cry.
  4. No conflict resolution through deus ex machina.
  5. No deaths.

When I first saw the rules, I was baffled. They felt weirdly specific, and a bit unfair. But when our professor explained their purpose and assured us he only wanted the rules in place for this one workshop’s fiction segment (which included a short story and some exercises), and not the other workshops to come, I opened myself up to what I could learn from them.

1. No fantasy, supernatural, or sci-fi elements.

Writers need to be able to craft round characters, with clear arcs. While you can hone those skills writing any type of story (no matter the genre), it can be harder for a beginner writer while they’re also juggling fantastical elements, because it’s easy to get caught up in the world, or the magic, or the technology, and to make that the focus instead of the characters. So our professor asked us to temporarily exclude such elements, to keep us fully focused on developing strong, dynamic characters.

2. No guns.

Weapons have a place in many stories, but when writers include a gun, it’s often tempting to escalate the plot outside the realm of personal experience and into what our professor called “Hollywood experience.” He wanted us to learn how to draw from our own observations and perceptions of life, rather than just the action, violence, and drama we’d seen in movies, so he made this rule to help keep our writing connected to our experiences.

3. No characters can cry.

When depicting sadness, writers often default to making characters cry. While there’s nothing wrong with that (in fact, it can be a great way to challenge cultural views on crying), tears are just one way to show grief, and they aren’t always the most emotionally resonant approach. That’s why our professor challenged us to find other ways to convey sadness — through little gestures, strained words, fragile interactions, and more. It was difficult, but opened us up to depicting new gradients of grief and pain.

4. No conflict resolution through deus ex machina.

This is the only one of the rules I’d say is generally universal. Meaning “God from the machine,” deus ex machina is a plot device where a character’s seemingly insurmountable problem is abruptly resolved by an outside force, rather than their own efforts. These endings are weak for various reasons, but our professor discouraged them because he wanted us to understand how important it was for our characters to confront their struggle and its consequences.

5. No deaths.

Death is inherently dramatic and can be used to good effect, but many writers use it as a crutch to create drama and impact. Writers should be able to craft engaging, meaningful stories, even without killing off their characters, so this rule challenged us to find other methods of giving weight to our stories (such as through internal conflict).

How these rules helped me grow as a writer.

First things first, I’ll say it again: apart from #4 (deus ex machina), these rules were never meant to be universally applied. Instead, their purpose was to create temporary barriers and challenges to help us develop key skills and write in new, unfamiliar ways.

For me, the experience was invaluable. I liked the way the rules challenged and stretched my abilities, driving me to write in ways I’d have never otherwise attempted. They made me more flexible as a writer, and while that intro workshop is now eight years in the past (and I’m DEFINITELY writing fantasy), I’m still thankful for how its rules shaped my writing.

My recommendation to you?

Give some of these rules a shot! Follow them temporarily while writing 2-3 short stories — but remember to always keep their purpose in mind, because the rules themselves will only help if you understand what they’re trying to achieve.

Write with purpose, and you’ll always be growing.

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