Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Rule of Six

RWR, the official magazine of Romance Writers of America, has a regular article series called "Your Writing Coach," by Shirley Jump. In the April 2021 issue (alas, planned as the final print issue, with the publication switching to digital-only) Jump explains the "rule of six," a term originally derived from the advertising business. Since RWR articles aren't available to non-members, I want to summarize this thought-provoking concept here. According to research on human memory, the most items we can easily remember at one time equal five. Therefore, in the realm of consumer goods, when we think of popular brands of commonly used items, four or five spring to mind immediately. It's harder to think of a sixth or higher-numbered item in a category. The purpose of advertising is to implant certain products in the audience's "top of mind" awareness, so that if we're looking to buy a new refrigerator (for example) the client's appliance brand will pop up in the customer's consciousness first.

Jump connects this principle with the craft of writing by applying it to brainstorming story elements such as characters, plots, and motivations. The themes, tropes, and scenarios we think of first will be those we've encountered over and over in our recreational reading and viewing. To come up with something fresh, we have to push ourselves beyond "top of mind" responses. The article urges writers to consciously attempt to think of at least six answers to each brainstorming question. When we reach the point where it's hard to dig up an idea that's not a variation on one of the others, we're getting somewhere. The author says if those fifth and sixth ideas flow too easily, we aren't doing it right. As she puts it, "you really have to reach deep into your imagination to come up with something truly unique." Now, I read that comment with reservations, since I doubt any "truly unique" plot twists, character types, or motivations exist. Just browse with your "unique" concept as a search term, and you'll probably discover it isn't "something that hasn't been done before." In my opinion, Jump is more on target when she recommends trying for "a really cool spin."

So, to invent a fresh answer to the "what's next" question in plotting, you'd list the ideas that come to you most readily and dig deeper for those fourth, fifth, and sixth possibilities. Jump demonstrates with a scenario of a sexy guy driving a minivan. What's he doing there? She moves from the obvious (dropping off children at school, his own or a relative's) to the progressively unusual (e.g., "he stole the minivan to go after his kidnapped best friend"). She suggests exploring six external and six internal goals, motivations, and conflicts for each major character. Done thoroughly, this exercise in itself should generate a wealth of plot ideas. She mentions flipping gender roles as one way to freshen up a familiar scenario or character type. Long ago, I read a Western romance with a twist on the often-seen plot premise of freeing a criminal from prison to perform a task or participate in a vital mission. The title was something like "The Virgin and the Outlaw." The virgin was a bachelor needing help on his ranch; the outlaw was a woman from out of town incarcerated in the local jail.

Suppose I want to conceive of an entertaining, conflict-generating "cute meet" for my hero and heroine? Their children or pets get them together. (Been done a million times.) They clash as strangers, maybe literally bumping into each other on foot or in cars, or arguing in a store or other neutral venue, then walk into a business or political meeting or a job interview to run into each other again. (Been done in a multitude of variations.) One of them hits the other with a car. (I included versions of that in one of my vampire romances and in a shapeshifter novel, and I've seen similar incidents in other paranormal romances.) A volunteer in an animal shelter encounters a werewolf mistaken for a dog. (Not my idea but the premise of a novella I once read, and I wish I'd thought of it first.)

If you search the phrase "meet cute" on TV Tropes, you'll find several dozens of these kinds of scenarios. And, as TV Tropes reminds us, tropes are not bad. "Tropes are just tools. Writers understand tropes and use them to control audience expectations either by using them straight or by subverting them, to convey things to the audience quickly without saying them." Because "human beings are natural pattern seekers," the existence of tropes is inevitable. To return to the RWR article about the rule of six, the trick is to put your own "cool spin" on the familiar patterns by refusing to settle for the first plot twist, goal, motivation, or character type generated by the "top of mind" phenomenon. While the outcome probably won't be "something that hasn't been done before," it will display your unique touch as an individual creator.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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