The RULES — Can you afford to ignore them?
The following was written essentially to let off steam after various discussions, and is not to be taken as an attempt to bring others around to share my opinions — excellent and worthy as those opinions may be.
THE RULES — Love them? Or leave them?
When it comes to the rules of good writing, there are three different ideas that are likely to trip up the inexperienced writer.
1. You must learn the rules and religiously adhere to them.
2. Once you learn the rules you can throw them away and do whatever you want.
3. A true artist never pays any attention to rules.
Each of these is wrong. The first rule, the only rule that is truly a rule rather than a guideline, the only one you can never afford to ignore is, “Does it work? If not, you must do whatever is necessary to make it work.” If it does work, you can safely push all of the other rules to the back of your mind, right up to the time when something doesn’t.
This, in the end, is what agents and editors care about. They don’t go through a manuscript looking for excessive use of adverbs, adjectives, saidbookisms, passive verbs, head-hopping. If the writing grabs them, pulls them in, doesn’t let them go until the end, none of these things will matter.
Please bear with me, those of you who know what I am going to say next (because I’ve said it so many times before): The purpose of the guidelines that are sometimes known as rules is that when something doesn’t work they can help you identify the reason why. This is where passive verbs, saidbookisms, head-hopping, and the rest may come in. Once you have identified the problem, you have two options. You can change what you have already written to conform to the rules, or figure out what you can do to compensate for what you’ve lost by breaking them. This is why it is not enough to memorize the rules and be able to parrot them back. I would even venture to say that it is more important to understand the rules than to follow them.
The truth is, they are not much use even as guidelines unless you first comprehend the reasoning behind them. What is it that you are supposed to accomplish by following a particular rule? What are the problems that may arise when you don’t, and how can you compensate for them? This is what will free you from a too rigid adherence to the rules. It will also, if you have already elected not to follow one or more of them and it is not working out quite as you expected, help you to figure out what you need to do next to a) restore whatever it is you have sacrificed*, b) get creative and find alternative ways to make it all work, and/or c) drag yourself out of whatever mess you have created for yourself.
As an example I am going to use a book we have already been discussing, and I bet you can guess which one. There is a “rule” that major characters must change and grow. It has been noted (usually by those who don’t like the book) that in The Lord of the Rings — one of the most influential and highly regarded books of the twentieth century — some of the most important characters don’t do this. Aragorn is the one usually singled out. And it is is true that Aragorn is very much the same at the end of the book as he is at the beginning, yet he doesn’t come across as a static character. The reason is that while the character doesn’t change, our knowledge of him does. Throughout the book there is a gradual revelation of his identity, his character, his destiny, and his abilities. Tolkien did not follow this often quoted guideline, but the result is much the same as if he had.
Did Tolkien figure this out and do it exactly that way on purpose? Probably not. He never regarded himself as a professional writer. But the story went through numerous drafts and the character of Aragorn emerged through draft after draft, as Tolkien was constantly making changes to the characters and the story. Whether he hit on the right combination by constant experimentation, or because he had the rule in mind and figured out a way around it, doesn’t matter. The important thing is that he stayed with it until he made it work.
As another example, I’ll mention a book that is not so highly regarded: The Da Vinci Code. Plot holes abound; characterization is poor; the prose is uninspired. Yet the book is wildly popular, and even among those who are aware of its faults many say that they found it entertaining. So what did Dan Brown do to make up for these flaws? He played to his strengths, which is something every writer should do. (Only make sure that they really are your strengths, rather than your inclinations.) After a relatively slow beginning, the pace is relentless and the tension is high. Most readers race through the book eager to find out what happens next — they are at the end before they even have time to notice its faults. I know many people who dislike the book, but I have never heard anyone say that they didn’t finish reading it. Even I, who rarely read a book all the way to the end if I don’t like it, read this one to the last word.
Again, whether this was all done by design or whether the writer stumbled onto a winning formula, the fact is that he found it and made use of it.
Of course there are those who have no wish to be successful. They wish to create “high art” and to win accolades for doing so. Despite what some people like to think, it is neither clever nor creative simply to break the rules. Anyone can do that. If a writer does so, it is absurd to expect to get credit merely for trying something risky. That’s where the risk part comes in. If the result is an unfortunate one, others will criticize it. They will say that the work looks amateurish. And they will be right. If you want to be daring and break all the rules, you must do whatever you have to do to make it work, otherwise it’s just posturing. True artists are not content to stop with the job half done.
There remains the question of how to acquire an intimate understanding of the rules. Instinct and experience may carry you a long way. It is possible to teach oneself the rules by trial and error, and internalize them to the point where you know something is wrong without being able to cite the exact rule, though if called on to explain what is wrong and why it’s not working you would have no trouble doing so. But once you know the rules — however it was that you learned them, whether you are entirely self-taught or have honed your skills through participation in many workshops and writers groups — you ignore the rules at your peril. There is a difference between ignoring a rule out of inexperience or a mistaken idea of one’s own genius and deciding not to follow it in order to achieve a particular effect.
Yet those who follow the rules too closely are mistaken, too. There must be room for that spark of creativity, or your writing will only ever be competent. You can get by being merely competent if you have ideas that have wide appeal — there are writers who have made millions writing mediocre prose because they have the gift or good fortune to come up with ideas that are exactly what the public is looking for at the moment — but you will never do those ideas full justice. You may also become successful by doing two or three things exceptionally well (see The Da Vinci Code above), but this can also depend on passing trends and fads in writing, because those things you do so well may be seen as dated and quaint to a later generation. (Think of all the reasons that a writer like Bulwer-Lytton was popular in his own day, yet in the twentieth century his name became a byword for tortured prose.) In both of these cases, the appeal may be relatively short-lived — which may not matter in the least if the writer’s primary goal is transitory fame and a permanently healthy bank account. Twenty years, thirty years down the line, the books may be largely forgotten, or remembered only so that people may shake their heads at the questionable taste of their parents or grandparents.
But if you can join talent to a clear understanding of what you are doing — why, how, and when to do it, and when and how you can get away with not doing it — then mix in a good portion of creativity, you may, just possibly, write something for the ages.
*A good question to ask yourself at this time is, “Was it worth it?”
TERESA EDGERTON is a freelance developmental editor, providing critiques and evaluations of unpublished manuscripts, and helping new writers to expand and develop their writing skills. If you would like to learn more about the services she provides, you may send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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