1. There Are Things Important to a Story besides the Story
This notion is wrong on every conceivable level. Continuity, canon, originality are all irrelevant to telling a good story, and more often than not compromise and hamstring good storytelling. This all got started when someone with too much time on their hands noticed that Spider-Man was in New York and Alaska apparently at the same time, or something, in two issues of Marvel Comics issued during the same month. Before, no one would have cared, but Marvel fans started writing in and questioning things of this nature. The Marvel writers and editors of the 60’s, being the creative geniuses they were, sent back “No Prizes”, that is, empty envelopes which were a polite way of saying “your question is dumb, go away”.
Once upon a time, even in shared world serialized fiction, no one cared about “continuity”, that is, keeping multiple stories straight. When Walter B. Gibson wrote a new Shadow novel every month, he didn’t tack a bunch of notes to a corkboard to make sure that the were no minor glitches in location or the timing of particular events or where a character was at any given time, he wrote a good story and let those details work themselves out. Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are written wildly out of order, and when Howard changed the world of Hyboria, he didn’t construct a painful and annoying way of explaining it to the reader, he just did it. Pirates from the Golden Age of Sail, American Indians and eldritch creatures from the outer darkness all share a world in Howard’s stories and he gave precious little of his attention to building some sort of discrete chronology for his works; in a given story Conan does something, and he goes from there.
2. Characters Are the Least Important Part of the Story
Nerds like to launch into elaborate flights of fancy, often called world-building. World building plays a huge role in a lot of the fiction that nerds consume ,and fiction in general, since building a believable and rich environment for the characters is the cornerstone of the willing suspension of disbelief. However, nerds tend to put the cart before the horse- the world exists for the characters, not the other way around.
Howard’s sorcerers exist for Conan to chop their head off; their elaborate methods and the history of the Stygian empire exist only to facilitate a story problem, a plot, that culminates in Conan chopping the sorcerer’s head off. In H.P. Lovecraft’s horror, the wild and complex mythology of the Great Old Ones and the Necronomicon exists only to facilitate the sense of dread and existential fear in the main character, who is usually a paper thin and often unnamed stand-in for Lovecraft himself, taking us along for his fears. Whether Shub-Niggurath would be Cthulhu in a fight is irrelevant.
If Character A can beat Character B in a fight, it’s not relevant unless there’s a reason to be fighting and the reader has an investment in the outcome. If a starship drive works a certain way, it’s not important unless a function or malfunction of its workings presents a problem to the characters.
Mentioning these things isn’t bad storytelling, but developing all of these first and then trying to figure out what the characters are doing in the setting is an astonishingly bad idea, and trying to follow this process leads a lot of work to the slush pile.
3. Originality is Vital
Many nerds sitting down to write don’t understand the basic process of coming up with a plot and characters. Not everything has to be totally original, and because it bears a vague resemblance to some other fiction doesn’t mean it’s bad. Tolkien’s Ents originated from his dissatisfaction with the coming of Burnham Wood to High Dunsinane Hill. We extrapolate from other ideas, comment on them, develop them, speak to them, and through them communicate with the shared human experience.
4. Fiction is a Formula; Put the Parts Together and Watch it Go
On the other side of the coin is the idea that fiction is a series of clichés or tropes strung together. Any story can be strip-mined and turned into a list of its constituent parts, those parts catalogued under a grand list somewhere, and new fictions created by reassembling them. Make the categories vague enough and you can break down humanity has ever written into a wiki, or even further into a list of Basic Plots or the sort of cookie cutter dreck you’ll discover in How to Write Fantasy Fiction books.
Books about writing speculative fiction are the only ones that do this- a book on how to write mysteries or police procedurals will talk about plot first, even though the common elements of those stories are very important in defining what they are and how they work.
This sort of reductionism is flawed on multiple levels. For one thing, it ignores the presentation- the quality of prose, the profoundity of imagery, or in other mediums shot composition, color choice, editing, are all ignored in favor of “shove this trope in front of the audience”.
Fiction can’t be quantified. Trying to work backwards from some sort of idea system is inherently flawed. If you ask yourself “what do I want to say?” and can’t find an answer, you need to devise one before picking the type of hat your protagonist is going to wear off of a list.
5. Grimness is Maturity, Darkness is Grown Up, Violence and Sex are Sophisticated
Many aspiring writers labor under the assumption that they must write something mature. Science fiction, fantasy, and video game fans all have a chip on their shoulder because stuffy literature critics consider them and their beloved works a joke, and bookstores peg genre fiction as something separate from the Literature section where they keep Langston Hughes, up at the front of the store. This irrational longing to be labeled General Fiction has led to a profusion of grim darkness, in imitation of widely hailed works.
Watchmen is not praised because it is dark, it is praised because it is different, and because rather than telling a story about superheroes, it tells a story about the human condition using superheroes as a means. All plot problems come down to some kind of a commentary on the human condition, even a fantastic one, like the question of how we might respond to first contact with aliens.
If you think Dune is about martial arts and sandworms, you’re wrong; it’s about politics and economics. If you think Watchmen is about superheroes, you’re wrong, it’s about the Cold War and the feeling people in the 1980s had that they had lived in the end of history too long, and the end was coming down the corner.
To get into why grimness sometimes works, go back and watch the old Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. The stories presented in these speculative fiction anthology series are usually pretty clear in their morals and allegorical meaning, and provide an excellent illustration of where darkness is appropriate, and where it isn’t. It also proves my point- both shows are thought of as horror anthologies about monsters and twist endings, but many of the episodes end on a bittersweet or even upbeat note. Those that don’t are saying something about the darkness inside ourselves, not masturbating over how fucked up they can make their plots.
The point of the classic To Serve Man isn’t to feel disgust or surprise about the final revelations about the titular book; those feelings hammer the point home, but they’re not the point. The point is to make us think about how humans have treated each other in similar situations, and one happened to friendly natives who believed it when explorers offered them guns and whisky and blankets, free of charge.
The point of all this is, say something. Don’t let the tools become the end product.