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The Second Golden Rule of Writing

“I had been forever altered by our brush with catastrophe….My instrument had changed. And I now understood that it would continue to change. That there would be more befores and afters ahead. Fighting it was futile, impossible. Accepting, even embracing this, was the true work, not only of being a writer, but of being alive.” – Dani Shapiro, Still Writing


Last week, I wrote about the first golden rule: Treat readers to the mystery and romance and wonder you’d like to be treated with, and respect their intelligence by leaving out what they can infer and discover themselves. They will bless you for it.


This week I want to talk about the possibly lesser known, but just as critical for storytellers, Second Golden Rule.

When I edit, I always try to remember what readers need. To treat them as I want to be treated, it’s critical to ensure each chapter, each paragraph, even each sentence does 2 of these 3 things: 1) reveal character, 2) advance plot, and/or 3) describe setting or context. I’ve called this the “2-of-3-things” rule, but I’m hereby changing that and declaring it the Second Golden Rule of Writing a Story (which conveys its importance better, but you can keep calling it the “2 of 3 things” rule to help you remember it if you want).

Whether they realize it or not, readers want to have 2 of those 3 happening at any given spot. Three examples: Instead of “He was sad,” say “The sight of her crushed him, reflecting his absent contentment and replacing it with a cold inner rain.” Maybe a bit over-the-top, but you’ve got a couple characters there and some evocative setting detail–it also feels sad without saying it. Or you could say, “As she turned toward him, her face reflected his own despondency, reminding him of the day he’d spent waiting, alone in his empty apartment, rearranging his books.” There you’ve got character, some setting, and even a little backstory plot. Or you could describe his feelings through a description of the current scene: “The stone fountain reflected the gray clouds saturating the sunless sky.” 

IMG_6709There are myriad other ways. If you wanted to get some plot in there, you could mention how he wonders if she got his letter or whether it’s the right time to tell her X. But practice with the Second Golden Rule and you’ll start to discover how fun story-writing can be.

The way to make stories interesting is to get inside the characters.

That’s the how of writing excellent stories.

But now we also need to be very clear about the what to write.

As followers of Christ, we come from a strong storytelling tradition. Each of us started out by bearing witness to our experience of the events and details that formed and shaped our hearts for God. We learned to share our stories not just for ourselves but for those around us, to influence and edify, to build up and help others identify. None of that was conscious, likely, and yet as we have shared, we’ve learned to tell the story in ways that confirm our brotherhood and sisterhood with other witnesses, sharing our testimonies and memories as a way to invite others into the experience and to preserve the truth we know.

IMG_6704Witnessing this way is not merely what it means to be a Christian; it’s what it means to be human. We are a storytelling species. The Word has made us that. And each of us has an experience with catastrophe and revelation.

A story captures that journey. From the big books with colorful pictures our parents read to us, to the ones we first saw ourselves in as the heroes, stories have become a part of us, preparing us, however unworthy, but still making us the chosen ones all the same. And each of us is able to feel that unlikeliest sensation of hope and use it to bring help and rescue through the power we’ve been given.

For most writers, once you’ve finally decided to share your truth, the work is how. And you have to Get Your Story Straight and then remember your First and Second Golden Rules. Imagine it from the reader’s perspective and think about your characters, the plot, and the settings. How will you advance the story, reveal the characters and describe their world? Next week we’ll talk about where you choose to start and how you can begin to practice regularly to refine your skill in this most fundamental of human arts: storytelling.

Soon, you’ll be able to do 2 of those 3 things at once. And that will take you into the heart of the storyteller’s art.

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours… it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.” – Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets

For the Higher Purpose,


5 Responses to “The Second Golden Rule of Writing”

  1. Jenelle. M says:

    Oh man. Oh man, oh man, oh man. 2/3 is so hard to nail! I believe with practice it can be learned and become easier, more natural, but ugh. I don’t even know where to start! A paragraph maybe? Then work at getting each sentence?

    I giggled when I read this because I have been doing writing exercises lately and need new ones. Fantastic timing. I see how this could make story telling fun, it’s just getting that confidence to get there… so much work! I am determined though. This morning I finished reading a YA fantasy and found myself inspired by the authors flare for successfully doing the 2/3. I was touched by the emotion in her story. It’s been a long time where I wanted to do the same thing. Evoke strong emotion in a reader. My work continues….

    • Mick says:

      Inspiring! Go get ’em! All it takes is a little time and imagination! Now I sound like Peter Pan teaching the kids how to fly…

  2. Jenelle. M says:

    Just to clarify. Are you saying this 2/3 occurs in the editing phase? Or should we try and apply it in the beginning drafts? Thank you!

    • Mick says:

      Ideally, once it becomes second nature, you’ll be doing it when you write. But if you have to start by editing what you’ve got, that’s fine. And don’t be a slave to it! It still needs to flow and nothing should ever be overdone. Just have fun!

  3. Jenelle. M says:

    Wise words I understand and can apply. Thanks again!

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