The rules of writing are a contentious concept. On the one hand, there is no definitive set of rules. On the other, there’s an enormous volume of advice and guidance that is often presented as canonical. There is a great deal to be learned from what is presented as rules, but trying to follow all at once will put your writing in a strait-jacket.
I use the word ‘rules’ with my tongue in my cheek, knowing that most writers regard themselves as rule breakers and subversives. It might be more accurate to call them ‘guidelines’, but where’s the fun in breaching the guidelines? It sounds like a circular from the Human Resources department. There is, however, one definitive rule to apply to everything presented as a rule. That rule is to understand the rules, and where and how to apply them.
I find it helpful to apply a three step process to using the rules:
1/ Know what the rules are and follow them.
2/ Understand the rules and why they add value to the writing.
3/ Recognise where the rules can be broken constructively.
There is a big difference between following these three steps and being unaware of what the rules are, or believing there’s no reason to followthem. Breaking a rule for a reason is very different to simply ignoring it.
What are the rules anyway?
Talking about the rules of writing is very different to talking about the rules of football, whatever shape of ball that brings to mind, because there is no definitive list. If you’ve been following this blog, you probably have a pretty good idea of what my ideas are, though I don’t pretend to be laying down anything as definitive as rules.
Many magazine guidelines have sections on advice to their writers, which are usually either vague of negative. By vague, I mean things like ‘give us characters that engage us’ or ‘we want compelling prose’. Don’t we all, but what does that actually mean in practice, and how do we writers go about providing it?
The negative advice tends to be more specific, listing what they don’t want to see. Sometimes it comes across as positively plaintive. You can almost hear the slush readers begging ‘please, no more sexy vampires!’ The best set of ‘please don’ts’ I know of are published by Strange Horizons, though the Turkey City Lexicon is worth a look as well. It’s certainly worth knowing what the publishers don’t want to see, but it’s possible to avoid doing any of these things and still end up with a deadly dull story.
Certain sets of rules get quoted so often that knowing them is essential, such as the lists by Mark Twain and Elmore Leonard, though neither add up to an infallible formula for the perfect story. Lester Dent came up with a formula for writing stories for the pulp era, which is a structure that still has its uses.
Understanding the rules
I’ve already linked to enough rules to be thoroughly bewildering, and trying to slavishly follow all of them is not a recipe for writing a good story. If William Gibson’s Neuromancer could become a classic with an opening line like, ‘the sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel’, it questions Elmore Leonard’s rule to never start a book with the weather.
The dissonance moves us from the first step of knowing the rules to the much more interesting second step of asking ourselves why Leonard thought it was a good rule in the first place. Lee Child thinks it’s because Leonard himself has never thought of a way to start a book with the weather. I’m sure Child knows Leonard better than I do (ie, at all) so it’s with some trepidation that I suggest an alternative explanation: Starting with the weather is something that’s often done badly. I’ve critiqued a lot of stories that open with a couple of hundred words of describing rain on a window pane or the sunset sinking below the clouds without giving me any idea of who is watching the weather, why it matters or why I should care. That’s very different to opening a story with the protagonist trying to get somewhere through a hurricane.
I may be right or I may be wrong about Leonard’s reasoning, but considering the rule is what helps me to refine my own writing process. Being aware of that rule has ensured that I will never start a story with the weather without being aware that I am breaking a rule, and moving on to stage 3 above. I will make sure I have a clear idea in my own mind as to why it will enhance the story to break it in that particular instance.
The moonshine rule
I can’t conclude a discussion of the ‘rules’ without mentioning the most often quoted rule of writing, the infamous ‘show don’t tell’. It’s informative not only because of its ubiquity, but because of what it tells us about how a rule becomes canonical.
It’s generally acknowledged that the rule originated from a letter Anton Chekov wrote to his brother containing a great deal of advice on how to write, in which he said, ‘don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass’. It may be that this was either apocryphal or a laboured translation, but I’ll leave that to the literary historians. The point is that it started as advice on how to convey description though detail, not a generic rule on how to write.
Somehow, Chekov’s advice has been refined to ‘show, don’t tell’, which is often quoted as though it’s the single defining rule of writing. That’s not to say it’s invariably bad advice. The difference between showing and telling is well trodden ground that I won’t ad my bootprints to, not least as Patricia Wrede explains it better than I could. The point to take away is neither that the rule of ‘show don’t tell’ should always be followed or that it should be ignored completely. The point is to understand the rule, where it comes from and when to follow it and when to break it.
There is the essence of constructive and creative use of the rules, and breaking them when they need breaking.