First off, while many people would say that there's no "supposed to" in writing, I would say that it depends. Sometimes there is indeed a way a story should be written. Such times include:
- Writing in a recognized format: an editorial, essay, or poem.
- Writing to a specific genre: mystery, romance, bildungs roman.
- Writing for a specific audience: children, specialized groups.
In these cases, clear expectations for the form exist. A story meant for these purposes most likely needs to conform to those expectations in order to achieve the success the author likely hopes for.
But most of us are writing for our families. What then? Why do so many of us labor on "supposed to"?
In my mind, the answer to that question revolves around a few basic ideas, all of which focus on our own expectations:
- We have an expectation of what our audience (family, friends, etc.) can handle. We often try to keep back information not only out of fear of hurting someone but also out of fear of coloring their perceptions of the imperfect people that we commonly have known.
- PRO: Yes, you can't take it back once it's out, so a little caution here can prevent a lot of heartache.
- CON: The struggles of the past often validate and instruct those with similar experiences. Not sharing or whitewashing may, on the lower end of consequence, merely appear like white lies, while at the higher level of consequence, may seem to invalidate those who struggled with the same situation or person.
- We have expectations of how a story should go.
- PRO: Looking at other successful works can greatly enhance the readability and understandability of your story. We are programmed to recognize tropes, and fitting your story to a trope makes it more accessible to others. Similarly, looking at the style of others may help you tell your story in a more entrancing way. Using other works as a guide can help you develop a depth and skill in your writing to which little else can compare.
- CON: We miss the possibilities of our own stories and underestimate their value. We have a tendency to push a story into one trope instead of considering how it might be others. Does the grappling with your faith make a tragedy as faith is lost or an unsolved mystery that still continues? Is the story of your marriage a happily ever after romance that ends at the wedding or an adventure that continues into unknown territory? Pigeonholing your story deprives you of the richness of evaluating your real experiences for the depth and complexity they may have.
- We have expectations for how our life should work.
- PRO: We have goals, and that keeps us pushing forward in life. We often write our stories in light of these goals, which often provide the conflict and the impetus for action.
- CON: We tend to ignore parts of the story that we didn't see coming, that we feel didn't turn out as well as could be, or that we don't think should have happened. As I love to say in science, the most telling data is that data that doesn't come out as expected. How else would we have come to understand gravity, super conductors, plastics, or antibiotics? All of these things existed before (or the laws that create them existed), but none of them were harnessed until someone paid attention to something that seemingly made no sense. Those ways that life twists in unexpected directions may make the most interesting and most telling life stories.