Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Writing Rules

“These are my rules. I make 'em up.”—George Carlin.

Nothing beats good writing. If you write something and it works, it works. End of discussion. Doesn't matter whose rules you break along the way. And there are plenty of dumb rules writers regularly kick down like rotting fences in the path of their creative wanderings.

Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Clearly hyperbolic. But start too many this way, and the reader will wonder if you forgot there was any such thing as a comma. Do not write sentence fragments, use exclamation points, or modify dialogue with adverbs. “Ha! As if!” he whispered contemptuously, scrawling his seditions with a broken pen.

Some writers in their early development cannot see the arbitrary nature of these barricades and go through all the painful contortions of avoiding them at every turn. Rest assured, no one owns these rules, and you will not be fined for breaking them. In fact, break down the right ones in the right way, and you might be celebrated for your originality. Then again, some of these obstructions are more like guardrails along a cliff. Indiscriminately leap over every one, and you can find yourself falling a long way.

I admit these grammatic examples seem trifling, or at least they should. More substantive rules have become so ingrained we hardly think about them. We consider them conventions. If you spend the first third of your book following a specific character, the reader assumes the story will follow them for its duration. Hitchcock famously breaks this rule in Psycho, killing Janet Leigh's character off soon after the movie's plot seems to have been established. From there the film jolts in an unpredictable and fascinating direction. But then no one remembers that cinematic flop.

Intrepid writers in search of some structure on which to hang their story frequently seek out new rules, however arbitrary or absurd, and add them to their sacrosanct vault. They don't just pick them up as they stumble along; they mine for them. Each clanging of the pick and scraping of the shovel sounds out the same. “What's the right . . . ” clang. “What's the best . . .” scrape. Book length, chapter length, narrative perspective, balance between narration and dialogue, number of characters? Can I divide a book in two? What about three? Should the sections be the same length? If I have a prologue, do I also have to have an epilogue?

The labor grinds right along. Back breaking, anxious effort that avoids the only rule that ever mattered: the story only exists if you write it. No answer ever satisfied like the thing itself. What is right and best is a matter of the story at your fingertips, not what everyone else has done. Many books may be eighty-thousand words, but that doesn't mean yours has to be—or even can be. Their hearts are in the right place though. They simply want to get it right, and not do anything that might rule them out of the running for publication.

There is no one right way for a story to be. You have to decide. Good writing is undeniable, whether it charts an unheard of course or tracks along a premise that has been stamped into the ground. Don't let your work be clubbed into dank submission.

Write well enough, and you make your own rules.

1 comment:

  1. "There is no one right way for a story to be," sums it up nicely.