The Cockburn Rules


Arielle Nadel (CC / Flickr)

Having pontificated about breaking rules last week, it’s only fair that I follow up by offering some rules to break.

Searching for the positive

When I started thinking about getting my stories published, I spent a lot of time poring over market guidelines. I reasoned that I was producing a product so I should pay attention to what the market wanted. Many submissions and a few publications later, I’m far less likely to sweat over guidelines beyond what they have to say about story content. There’s no point in sending space opera to a sword and sorcery magazine. Beyond that, I’ve found if I produce a good story and keep submitting it, someone will publish it sooner or later.

As I said in my last post, many of the guidelines include some statement of what they want but I soon found they were mostly too vague to be helpful or phrased in the negative. In the former category, anyone with any interest in storytelling knows we’re supposed to grip the reader with our narrative and make them engage with our characters, so telling us isn’t very helpful without some idea of how.

Finding the negative

The negative advice can be helpful, which is why I keep linking to Strange Horizon’s list of overused storylines and the Turkey City Lexicon. After reading a few lists of ‘don’ts’, I found myself imagining the editorial meetings that produced these instructions. I visualised senior editors longing for the sensations they felt when they read Heinlein, Tolkein, Clarke or whoever their favourites were when they were twelve years old. As they’ve matured into the cynicism of adulthood, they protected and  nurtured the dream of finding the writer who can take them back to those wonderful worlds. I visualised over-caffeinated slush readers chewing on yesterday’s rejected manuscripts and pleading ‘no more sexy vampires!’ and ‘Punctuation! My red pen collection for proper punctuation!’ I realised that while these fantasy meetings were making a noble effort to state what they do and don’t want, nobody in there was actually thinking like a writer.


Dick Vos (CC/ Flickr)

Lists of what not to do only go so far. We can avoid every pitfall writers are advised to avoid without coming up with a good story. As I gained experience, I started developing my own list of rules, phrased in terms of what to do rather than what not to do. Gradually they evolved from a list of ‘do’s’, intended as a direct counter to all the lists of ‘don’t’s’, into a list of elements that would go at least some way to making a story work. They underpin the theory of story development I laid out in previous posts, but here is the pared down version. Or rather, the pared down version according to my thinking at the moment. This time next year, I plan to keep learning, so I expect to have a different version by this time next year.

The elements come with a couple of caveats. First, my aim is to write narrative-driven short stories and these rules are born of that particular goal. They may not translate very well to a more literary aesthetic. Second at least some of them clearly do not apply to novels.

To put it another way, I’m probably wrong about some and possibly all of them. So with an invitation to any and all opinions, here they are:


Elements of a narrative short story: essentials

Tension in the first sentence: The role of the first sentence is to catch the reader’s attention. There are various methods for achieving that including a striking image, an unanswered question or introducing some sort of conflict directly, even if it’s only a semantic conflict.

Introduction of the protagonist, setting and at least one plot problem within the first hundred words: I find this a good guideline to get started, but I never achieve it within the first draft. It’s one reason why self-editing is an essential part of the writing process.


Novelty: It’s probably impossible to come up with an element for a story that hasn’t been used before, so it’s the combination of elements that gives rise to originality. A story stands on the tripod of character, plot problem and setting. It’s always possible to offer a reader something they haven’t read before, but the first thoughts on a new idea tend to follow a well-worn path in the subconscious and lead to cliché. That’s why the cliché detector is such a critical tool for a writer.

An engaging protagonist: It’s hard to define what makes a character engaging, but it’s safe to say that it has as much to do with a character’s flaws and weaknesses as their virtues and strengths. A reader is far more likely to be engaged by understanding of why a character makes the choices they make than by what the choices actually are.

A single viewpoint character: It’s rarely possible to switch viewpoints within the constraints of a short story.

No more than three characters: There isn’t space for developing more than one protagonist and two supporting characters in a short story. There is no limit to the number of spear-bearers, who can come and go as required.


antony turner (CC / Flickr)

A clearly defined setting: The importance of the setting varies from one story to another, but the reader needs an idea of where the story is taking place and how that will affect the characters. How much description is necessary depends on the story. The reader is likely to know what a suburb of a modern city looks like so it needs less description than mediaeval Paris or a space station at a Lagrange point. That said, even the most familiar setting will need some description otherwise the reader will feel they are in a white-walled room. Identifying a few points that make a setting distinctive is always worthwhile, unless of course the setting is a white-walled room.

Clear premises and constraints: This is most important where there is a strong speculative element, in which it needs to be clear what can and can’t be done with technology and/or magic. However, the characters of any story will be constrained extent by factors such as societal, psychological, legal or environmental. If any tension can be derived from what the protagonist can or can’t do, the reader needs to know what those constraints are and the consequences of breaching them.

The genre element: If the genre element could be disposed of without affecting the story, it isn’t a genre story.

Conflict at the centre of the story: The protagonist must be focused on the plot problems throughout the narrative as described. If they have to pay bills, phone their mother or stop for coffee, they need to do it between the narrative sections unless it directly relates to the plot problems.

Reduction of the narrative into the shortest possible chronological time: If the relevant events are strung out over a prolonged period, it’s often better to start later and describe earlier events in flashback than to put them in order. Selection of the best narrative structure is key to this element.

Clear explanations: If something needs to be spelled out, it should be stated once and treated as a given from then on. Some readers may pick up an oblique explanation, but there will always be many who don’t. You won’t lose readers who feel something was spelled out when they’d already picked it up, but you will lose readers who did need it spelled out if you leave them to work it out from allusions.

Theme: Whatever the content of the story, there needs to be something at the heart of it that the reader can relate to. It doesn’t need to be particularly original, and often the more outlandish stories are often the ones that lend themselves to the simplest themes. For example, a story with outlandish subject matter, such as a cro-magnon tribe encountering Neanderthals, might be more accessible with a familiar theme such as the corruption of power at its core. More complex themes are probably best explored using more familiar settings.

Two plot problems: One based in the character’s psyche, one in the external world of the story. The more they play into one another, the stronger the resolution is likely to be.

A resolution to at least one of the plot problems: However well the story is written, the reader is likely to feel unfulfilled if both plot problems are left hanging. Sometimes a story lends itself to resolving both the problems, but sometimes it works better to leave one unresolved.

A resolution that follows directly from what has come before: Logic in the plot structure is indispensable. Ideally, the logic is only clear in retrospect but that isn’t always achievable.


Elements of a narrative short story: desirables

Surprise in the resolution: The best resolution is the one the reader didn’tsee coming, but it’s not always possible to find that resolution without deviating from the logic of the story. The ideal is both consistency and surprise but if forced to choose between them, consistency is paramount.


Annechira Shivakumar (CC / Flickr)

A message beyond the tale: The best stories are the ones that make the reader think about something in a way they never have before, but the message will be lost if it is at the expense of good storytelling. As the meaning of the story is in the mind of the reader, not the author, it may not be possible to plan the effect.

Now go ahead and break ’em!

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Posted in Wednesday Pontification, Writing

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