The Rule of Twenty

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The Rule of Twenty

twentyI was fortunate enough last summer to speak with Bruce Coville at an SCBWI event in Orlando. (He’s an amazing speaker—truly amazing—and if you catch word that he is speaking somewhere, by all means go and see him.) Bruce mentioned something he called “The Rule of Twenty.” He doesn’t recall where he picked it up—a business article? a self-help book? a primer on original thinking?—but wherever it came from, I have since relied on it and relied on it often.

What is it? Put most simply, it is this: It is only when one reaches the twentieth or so idea that one starts entering the realm of the truly original idea.

The first five or ten? Those are the obvious ones that the brain goes to along its well-traveled paths. Most people’s heads will go that way and think of that thing. (Are you disappointed when you can see the plotline of a movie from a mile away? That’s thanks to the filmmakers working the shallows of the Rule of Twenty.) In the teens, you are starting to bushwhack into uncharted territory, where most people’s brains rarely go (because they are not as focused on craft as, say, a writer is). But by the time you hit twenty, you’ve likely discarded all the obvious and nearly obvious, and now you are working in a territory that is peculiarly yours. Those ideas you’ve worked toward will have the snap of the real and a complexity that speaks volumes.

Bruce was talking about the naming of things—characters, realms, books, what-have-you. Names are hugely important in fiction, of course, and our most beloved writers are masters of naming. But naming is about much more than simply giving a place or a character a telling handle, it is also the way the writer establishes his or her authority, where the writer becomes the author, if you will. Is the name too simple? Too easy? Too telling? Does it have hidden qualities?

Can you imagine Dickens without Magwitch or Havisham or Pecksniff? Rowling without Hogwarts or the Weasleys or Snape or her latinate spell names? Dahl without Trunchbull or Augustus Gloop? Pullman without the aletheiometer or Iorek Brynison or places like Bolvangar? The naming here does important work—so much so that a lot of exposition can be left out. Thanks to etymology, we know that “panserbørne” in The Golden Compass means more than simply “armored bear” (the Danish translation)—we hear echoes of Rommel’s panzer division, and there is an instant military air to the term. (That children won’t necessarily hear that, but that’s okay—the name is dark and rich and has extra dimensions folded within it.)

But naming is only one part of it: The Rule of Twenty can and should be used to consider plot twists and any other part of writing a story when you suspect you may have taken a too-easy route. Chances are that you have. So push yourself, reach that twentieth idea that is yours and yours alone, and see what you end up with.

Are there other rules that you use to ensure you’re being as original and creative as you can be? What are they? I’m going to try and add regular posts here under the rubric “The Rules” that collect some of the most useful ideas, and we can all use the help!

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Whenever I begin a new project, I make lists, knowing that I have to work my way through a lot of really bad ideas before the gems begin to surface. Not until I find the relationships between my separate piles of ideas does a story really take off. Love that someone has given this process a name.

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  2. I have a friend who shares reading/critiquing with me. He’s just starting a novel for the 6th time and switching the personalities of his older and younger sisters (the MCs.) I can attest to the 20-Rule quality. His energies are high and he is making discoveries about the characters, their motivations, and their relationships with their whole cast which he’d never even considered. Looks like listening to a long-time writer, a successful writer, and a dead-serious writer (Mr. C) is worth doing! Thank you for posting this article.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this Michael. Mr. Coville is coming to the Rocky Moutain SCBWI conference in Septemeber. I wish he’d come a year sooner – would have been quite a treat to see you present together!

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  4. I’ll never forget Star Wars when Darth Vadar said, “Luke, I am your father”. I was so blown away. My favourite movies and books are those that work beyond #20 for sure.

    My family always enjoys brain storming for ideas and solutions. The challenge is to not toss out anything while in the creative thinking process. The parts about what will or won’t work can come later.

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  5. I try to stay original by not planning. If a character is in a bad spot I have no idea in advance how to get them out. (I didn’t know they were going to be getting into trouble in the first place.) I have to figure out the solution the same way the character would.

    Sometimes I’ll sort of state an open-ended question like, “What do I need?” And then I go about my day and look for the answer in various events around me. The last book I wrote I happened to be a little late driving my daughter to school. I was cut off by a train. The answer turned out to be: train. Who knew?

    Finally I trust the writer-brain buried somewhere beneath the other parts of my brain (Craving-donuts-brain, yelling-at-kids-brain, flipping-people-off-on-freeway brain,) to be able to bring everything together at the end.

    So for me it’s not working through ideas, it’s keeping things ad hoc, embracing randomness and of course an inflated sense of my own cleverness.

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  6. See, Michael, I know about the writer brain (it works for me, too, keeping track of things I didn’t know it was keeping track of until I need something and boom! it tells me that X happened on page two and can be bent back into the story), but I think that is, in large part, training. Basically, those early days when you struggled (and even you struggled once upon a time; don’t tell me you didn’t), you trained your head to do this very thing.

    Anyway. Am reading LIES at last. Damn, but it is ugly. But fun. Like so many ugly things.

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  7. Oooh, I like “bent back into” as a phrase. It’s now mine.

    You are totally screwing with the myth of my immaculate conception as a writer: high school drop-out, half a year of college, 20 years of smoking weed and f—ing off, and boom, moderately big-deal writer!

    I really prefer not to mention the years of apprenticeship writing Sweet Valley Twins and Barf-O-Rama and Little Mermaid and Christy.

    So let me make this clear: I was born in a manger, there was a burning bush, and behold! I could write. On tablets of stone, bitches!

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  8. Michael, thanks for the post. It makes so much sense. I’ve been saying this all day, it’s getting tiring even for me.

    The Rule of Twenty would be great if you’re creating a twist within a twist within a twist. Add another twist to it for good measure.

    After watching ‘Shuttle Island’ I was pretty disappointed. I had figured the plot twist within 10 mins but I still watched hoping it would twist again. See they needed the Rule of Twenty.

    I agree with Michael Grant in that I work like him. Though I would fight him to nail (or to the death) for I am the one borm of manager fodder. Sometimes it’s cool to have 20 options but it’s so much more fun when you discover the option with the character when they’re discovering it for themselves. The problem is if they’re meant to be highly intelligent and a little more than odd, more so than you, the Rule of Twenty may have to turn to Rule of Fifty. Hands up for Rule of Fifty? That would be a long day. Alcohol might help. Anyone want to join me?

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  9. 20th idea- sounds about right, although I can go up to 100, but ye,s originality tends to emerge after going through a sieve

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  10. This is an amazing idea. And it reminded me of an exercise out of a book I once read.

    It’s from the book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb. It’s an exercise called 100 Questions, in which you write out 100 guestions that are deemed significant to you. By the time you get to 80 or so (depending), you start really asking questions that are important, that help you self reflect and probe deeper into figuring out who you really are.

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  11. There’s no such thing as an original idea and this is potentially dangerous rule. Just because it doesn’t make your writing contrived (I don’t know if that’s true or not since I’ve never read writing) doesn’t mean it won’t work that way for someone else.It’s my experience that not all ideas are created equal. When you get an actually good idea when you thought of it has no bearing. I realize people want this sound bite bs, but a rule it is not. It’s a guideline at best and a stupid one at that.

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    • Patty, clearly the word “Rule” has got you up in arms, but yes, all such “rules” are guidelines and tools.

      As for whether or not it’s “potentially dangerous” (?) or “stupid,” I’d say that depends upon whether a person uses it to push through the obvious and to something that is, as I wrote above, more particular to that person’s writing and less generic and common.

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  12. This is _great_, thank you. Working on character names right now and like having this perspective.

    And just have to add… Trunchbull *shudder*. She is scary.

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  13. I got to see Bruce Coville at an SBCWI event last fall. He was amazing. What energy and insight. He’s amazing.

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  14. […] agent Michael Stearns: It’ll probably take you 20 ideas to come up with your first truly original one.  Generally, I think this is true, but I wonder what I could come up with that would be […]

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  15. This rule and variations of it can also be applied towards illustrators and illustrators who write. You don’t really come into your own until you’ve bought that second portfolio. Then you get really attentive and critical, and mind set.

    Great thread!

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  16. Kate’s rules:
    A) Never ever grown up completely. See the world like a child who hasn’t yet learned there are rules.
    B) When you catch your self walking on a linear path which is worn and rutted, take on step off, turn 90% and walk laterally. ,
    C) If that doesn’t work, jump into the air and fly and see the world in 3 dimensions. It’s called thinking spherically…a lot more fun than walking a linear line.
    D) Take a leap of faith in your creativity…jump off the cliff of the mundane and build wings on the way down.
    E) Sometimes a little deadline is a good thing.
    F) When the demons of self doubt crawl into your brain don’t let them pay rent.
    G) Remember that nothing is as good or as bad as you think it might be.
    H) Create something new everyday even if it’s just a word, a doodle, a plot or a small change in a recipe
    J) You do not have to accept or reject criticism, just consider it

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  17. […] is an article about idea generation which talks about the rule of 20, the idea that you have to have 20 ideas before you have an […]

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  18. Thanks for the post, Michael. Bruce will be at our conference in Colorado next fall. I can’t wait.

    I think the rule of twenty is applied by successful creative types whether they realize it or not. And it’s called brainstorming. It’s the difference between he who looks for the “right” answer and stops as soon as he finds it and he who explores and lists and dreams about the world of possibilities – often more than twenty – to find the best answer. It’s my favorite part of the process.

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  19. I was at that Orlando SCBWI event last summer. (Even sat in the front row). It was the best SCBWI workshop ever. I wish Michael and Bruce would come back and do another one.

    I also had the pleasure of hearing Michael Grant speak at the January SCBWI conference in Miami. His PowerPoint presentation was quite entertaining, especially when he included that photo of Michael Stearns.

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  20. This has really helped me.

    From the very beginning, I’ve created my own names (of planets, humans, and other objects). I then began researching the meanings of known names. Take the male name Aaron for example; it means “light-bringer”. If you can tie the name of your character and his/her personality, you’ll have a character of your own.

    “Newbies” in the world of creative writing, as I was when I completed my first novel, sometimes pick random names and personalities, throwing both together to see if anything comes out. In the beginning, you don’t know if your book is going to be your first success or failure. I’ve encouraged myself as a creative writer to finish a novel or short story, wait a few weeks/months/years, and go back to it for revision. Look at what you have written in the past with a “new eye”. You’ll be able to see mistakes you didn’t notice before, and you’ll be able to see a new side to the story.

    Also, if you have a friend that knows you can write, ask him/her to be your personal editor. Let him/her sit beside you through the process, give you ideas while you’re writing, and edit the work you have written that day or after a chapter is complete. My best friend is doing this for me; it has improved my writing greatly. It’s better when there are two people looking at the same part of your story; you then have two perspectives to see from: yours and your friend’s.

    Always take constructive criticism into consideration. That does not mean you’re going to accept it or decline it; it simply means you’re going to think about it.

    I hope these tips help you with your writing in the future. I read these tips from somewhere, but I can’t really remember where, unfortunately.

    —Brandi

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  21. I always get scared when I read rules like this one, because the first ideas I come up with are usually unique (it’s because I was dropped on my head as a baby, I swear, though my mum rolls her eyes when I tell her that). However, it has taken me the 20th fully formulated idea to come up with a story I know I can sell. So, I suppose it still applies in a round-a-bout manner.

    Thanks for the post and keeping me thinking :)

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  22. No book is held sacred from the markings of the margins; even our earliest and best manuscripts of the New Testament often contain commentary or suggested rewrites in the margins!

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  23. […] issues sometimes came up. While we were on point six—The Plot Is Too Shallow—someone brought up The Rule of Twenty. This is a brainstorming technique to solve the problem of shallow plots: come up with twenty […]

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  24. […] led me to a blog post about Bruce Coville’s Rule of Twenty, about how you have to come up with, on average, twenty ideas before you land on the one that is […]

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  25. I love lists. Now I can just start looking for the really great ideas from Item 20 and following. Cool!

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  26. As far as the Rule of 20, it’s generally attributed to the late Earl Nightengale, a motivational speaker. Don’t know how old it is but I know Earl has been dead since 1989.

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