A lot of LTUE was spent explaining certain story concepts or story structures. I learned a lot of great rules, always with an accompanying caveat. After LTUE, I started visiting more writing blogs, wherein I've found more of the same: close analysis of different story elements, with rules about their correct application.
This is our craft—-of course we break it down and study its parts, like an engineer would study an engine. Clint Johnson, at an LTUE past, once said that there are great writers and great storytellers, but seldom are you both; and just as you can improve your craft as a writer, you can learn to be a great storyteller. It's important and useful to study your craft.
But another comment at this year's LTUE really sat me up straight, because it cut through a lot of fluff and got to one of storytelling's greatest secrets. At the panel on suspense, James Dashner eventually said (paraphrasing from memory), “Look, I don't really know how I make my books suspenseful. I think, 'Would this make it more suspenseful?' And if it does, I do it. Don't worry about all these rules. You've read books and seen movies, and you know what makes a good story.”
We know what makes for a good story, intuitively. Storytelling is something we do all the time, every day, from when our boss asks “How was your night?” to when your wife asks “How was your day?” It's an ancient art that's as old as language itself. It's part of what it means to be human.
And yet we have all these workshops and blogs about the Hollywood Formula or the Hero's Journey. Did you know that people told stories to each other before Hollywood? And that not every story has every one of the 510 steps of the Hero's Journey?
There's a website out there called TV Tropes, which names and categorizes every story tool ever used in the history of stories. People say they can get lost in there for hours, simply reading about all the tropes. I've never really found it useful. It feels like they're inventing an entirely new language for story discourse, and through the translation we end up with microwavable meals.
I don't think that we should define good storytelling with hard and fast rules, like some kind of Moneyball approach. I think we need to trust ourselves as natural storytellers instead of looking for a formula or rule set for everything we write.
So if you find yourself stressing over all the rules, advice, and story structures, just sit back, take a breath, and write what you like.