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I'm just an amateur writer. One thing that's strange to me is that there seem to be "rules" about writing. The story should consist of five parts, etc. To my untrained writing brain this seems to stifle creativity, and enforce a science-like structure in what I thought was an art.

I'm thinking of breaking one of the rules. At the end of my story, my hero just isn't strong enough to kill the villain. He gets away unscathed, but others are in peril due to his weakness.

Should I absolutely not do this? Must I adhere to the formula? What are the consequences, if I don't?

marked as duplicate by Lauren Ipsum, user16226, Sara Costa, Neil Fein Apr 20 '17 at 17:06

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    Possible duplicate of Creating a story in which the hero(es) lose – Lauren Ipsum Apr 14 '17 at 15:10
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    Think of the rules as guidelines rather than inviolable laws. It helps. – Pat J Apr 14 '17 at 15:35
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    There are no rules. There are conventions, and the conventions are there for a reason. They approximate to story shapes that have well-established emotional appeal. But they are only approximations. You can depart from the conventions, but if you don't produce a story with emotional appeal, no one will read it. – user16226 Apr 14 '17 at 17:42
  • @Mark Baker Precisely. Well said. – Thomas Myron Apr 17 '17 at 22:05
  • Where did you find those rules? I've never heard about five parts, and there are plenty of stories with no traditional hero and no traditional winning. Keep in mind that, even if your "hero" is "defeated," he or she can experience an inner change, either a win or loss. – Ken Mohnkern Apr 18 '17 at 13:49
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You don't have to adhere to a formula. You don't have to follow a set of rules. You do have to create something other people want to read (assuming that is your goal).

Guidelines for writing are aimed at achieving the last of these. They are not set in stone. They are broken often. They can be very helpful for a beginner.

I don't know what you are referring to when you say a story should have five parts. People often talk about 'rules' I don't know or don't use. However, there are guidelines I try to instill in students. For example, no one should ever wake up from a dream at the end of a story, a first person past tense narrative can't end with you dying, etc. Some things just ruin a story.

Rules about the hero winning, etc. can be broken if you can still make the reader care. I recently read a story where the hero's woman is killed right at the end. I was shaken, and not particularly happy about it.

As an analogy, think about basic tactics in soccer: if you are a defender, keep yourself between the attacker and the goal; etc. Writing rules are like tactics in soccer: learn what they are and break them only if you are good enough to do so and produce a positive result.

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I wrote a lot on topic of rules, and breaking them. Just see the examples.

Show, don't tell

Make time shifts gradual

Don't write dull dialogue

Protagonist must have flaws

Don't use passive voice

Use proper grammar

Don't write cliche dialogues

Make a proper theme and end with a conclusion

Break the rules!

What happens if the hero doesn't win? You tell me! Make an awesome story where the hero loses, and show us why this is the right outcome. This is how you go about breaking the rules - you don't break them "just because". You break them, if they stand in the way of making your story great.

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Many people have declared a set "rules" for writing. But it's not like these are laws, that you'll be arrested by the Writing Police if you break them. They are guidelines that some people think generally make for better stories. One authority's set of rules often contradict another's.

When a great author says "here are the rules I follow in writing my best-selling novels", I'd pay attention. Or if a scholar says "I've studied hundreds of stories that are generally acknowledged to be great fiction and I find they all have such and such in common", again, worth paying attention. But that doesn't mean you have to slavish follow them. Writing is a creative process. (Duh.) Don't ignore well-established rules. Don't break well-established rules just to prove you're a rebel or something. But don't be afraid to break them when you have a good reason.

I'm a software developer by profession -- writing is just a tiny side hobby for me. At my job, I once wrote up a list of rules for other programmers to follow. And at the end of the list of rules, I said, "If you think you have a good reason for breaking any of these rules, go ahead and break the rule, but you must write down your reason and save it with the program." As I explained to the staff: If you can give a good reason for breaking the rule, than by all means break the rule. If you can't put your reason into words, if it's just "the rule is too much trouble" or "I don't feel like it", then follow the rule. I never, ever challenged anyone's reason for breaking a rule. I suspect there were cases where someone tried to put their reason into words and couldn't come up with anything that sounded reasonable, and gave up.

I think the same thing applies to writing fiction. In general, you should use correct grammar. But if you're writing in first person and the narrator is supposed to be uneducated, then you can convey this by using poor grammar. In general, the hero should win in the end. But if the point of your story is that good does NOT always triumph, then it makes sense for the good guy to lose sometimes. Etc etc etc.

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Other answers deal with the "rules" of writing quite well. I'm not going to address that, I'm going to address the main part of your question:

What if the hero doesn't win?

Absolutely write this. This is the type of emotional hook, that when done well, will leave a lasting impression on your readers and keep them coming back for more.

There are four main types that, I believe, are the most powerful (warning - these are TV Tropes links and, as such, you may got lost for hours. It happens) - and while they are separate here, they are often interlinked.

1) Bittersweet Ending 2) The Bad Guy Wins. 3) Phyrric Victory 4) Downer Ending

The Bttersweet and Phyrric Victories work quite well together, and can be a very powerful tool. They make the cost of victory too high and can be a very emotional read.

Perhaps the hero manages to thwart the villain at the last possible moment, but in the process loses their friends/family/the world is destroyed.

Perhaps the hero fails at the end, his courage falters, and others pay the price. He is wracked by guilt.

Conversely, the villain triumphs and, against all reason, turns out to do a great deal of good. The hero, still opposing the villain, becomes the very thing he was trying to stop?

There are many, many examples, and the best part is because it isn't really the norm, that's the type of story that, done well, will live with you forever.

In terms of literary examples, my favourite is the death of Anomander Rake from Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series. His death, his purpose, the actions of not only himself, but those around him make it powerful. It grips the reader and doesn't let go. More than Anomander's actions and death, the real hero in that scene is Spinnock Durav. He fought an impossible fight, he lost it but delayed the unkillable villain long enough. He lost his individual fight, but through his actions the greater one was won. And it cost him everything - his people lost their leader, the greatest member of their race. But in doing so, hope for the future was also reborn. I remember it fondly, because I read the entire book (Toll the Hounds) in one sitting. I couldn't put it down. I had tears streaming down my face as I reached that scene (admittedly it was also about 4am at this stage). If you can get your hands on them, then I thoroughly suggest reading them.

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