by J.D. Rhoades
When you’re a beginning writer (and for a long long time thereafter) it’s enlightening, and often comforting, to read books and articles on the craft, especially by writers you already admire. And when those nuggets of advice are distilled into nice tidy lists of numbered or bullet-pointed rules, you begin to get a sense that maybe you can actually get a handle on this thing. I for one, still pull out and read Elmore Leonard’s New York Times essay entitled “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially Hooptedoodle” at least once a year. After all, who the hell am I to argue with Elmore Leonard, especially when he’s offering advice like “try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip”?
I’m also quite fond of Kurt Vonnegut’s “8 Rules for Writing Fiction“, which contains gems such as “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for,” and “Start as close to the end as possible.”
Most recently, I’ve gotten a kick from Joe Konrath’s cranky and hilarious list “How Not to Write a Story,” a cri de coeur which sprang from Joe’s experiences wading through the dross of a short story contest he was judging.
But here’s the thing. Once you internalize these rules, you begin to notice more and more writers–good writers, mind you–who break them and get away clean. For instance, both Leonard and Konrath say you should “Never open a story with weather.” And yet, Orwell’s 1984 opens with just that: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Chandler’s short story Red Wind begins with a description of said wind:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Leonard and Konrath warn against starting stories with prologues. Prologues would also seem to violate Vonnegut’s dictum “start as near to the end as possible.” However, two books I’ve read recently which I absolutely loved (Neil Gaiman’s NEVERWHERE and John Connolly’s THE UNQUIET) both have brilliant prologues. So do Lehane’s A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR and Michael Connelly’s ECHO PARK, to name just a couple randomly plucked from my nearby bookshelf.
Vonnegut tells us “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.” But Tom Wolfe’s THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES is full of characters I found myself wishing heartily would all die in a fire. Even so, I couldn’t put it down.
Konrath warns against the narrator directly addressing the reader, and both Konrath and Leonard warn against lengthy character descriptions, especially at the beginning. But Twain’s THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN begins and ends with Huck addressing the reader directly: You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. THE MALTESE FALCON begins with a memorable description of Samuel Spade (who can forget the image of Spade as a “blonde Satan”?) and Megan Abbot’s QUEENPIN begins with the narrator addressing the reader with a lengthy description of the title character, particularly her legs.
All that said, the “rules” are there for a reason. While some people are prone to chafe at the idea of rules for writing in general, the fact remains that many works of fiction that flout them do, in fact, suck. They suck with great vigour. Lest we forget, “It was a dark and stormy night” (opening with weather) has become an archetype of the lame opening.
So what are we to do? Are there no signposts to guide us on our way? Are there rules or aren’t there?
Over the years, I’ve developed an attitude towards “The Rules” much like that of Captain Barbossa in the movie PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN. You may remember the scene where the plucky Elizabeth Swann tries to talk her way off the pirate ship and back to shore by rule-lawyering the Pirate Code, which she apparently knows only from books. Barbossa just smirks and tells her, “The Code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl.”
Most of the time, though. the pirates DO follow the Code. Because it makes sense. Except when it doesn’t, and then they don’t.
So look at it this way. Go ahead and learn the rules as set down by more experienced writers. But when you come across a situation in which you want to break a rule, think once. Then think twice. Then think again. If after three thinks, you still believe it’s a good idea, then go ahead. It’s your story, after all.
You should still leave out the parts that readers tend to skip, though.
So here’s today’s exercise: tell us a rule you’ve read, either at the linked lists or elsewhere. Tell us about a work you’ve enjoyed that breaks that rule succesfully and tell us why the story still works. Writers, tell us about a rule you’ve consciously broken and why.
And for more discussion on this subject, check out the quite spirited debate at Steve Mosby’s The Left Room, which was the inspiration for this post.
Doesn’t Snow Falling on Cedars also begin with weather? If I could find my copy I’d know for sure, but I believe it does. And it sets the tone for an entire book in which the weather–and the consequences thereof–is practically another character. I would say that breaks a rule. But it works because everything that happens does so because of the weather, or more precisely, some form of precipitation, including fog. It’s a ripping good story, too.
The Crimespace online community occasionally erupts into spirited discussions about "rules." Everyone involved would do well to take a deep breath, read this post, and invoke the Barbossa Principle. The rules hold true 95+% of the time, but if there’s a real need to break one, or if you’re good enough to pull it off, then they’re "more like guidelines."
I’m currently reading Will Thomas’s THE BLACK HAND, which starts with a graphic prologue. I wondered what it was doing there, but now that I’m halfway in, I see the book takes its time building momentum. The prologue appears to let the reader know action is on the way. 9For those who go to the bookstore, read the first page, and decide whether to read the book based solely on that.)
Declan Hughes’s THE WRONG KIND OF BLOOD also begins with a prologue that sets the mood and psyche of Ed Loy into the reader’s mind right away. Very effective.
The opening of RED WIND is one of my favorite Chandler openings. If a writer can describe things like he could, leaving out the detailed descriptions would substantially weaken the work.
Leonard’s oh so famous ""try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip" includes an unnecessary "that."
Damn, Dust, this is one of the best posts I’ve ever read. I want to study it and all the links all week long. I’m actually going to e:mail it to myself so I won’t forget to do just that.
I quote the "guidelines" reference all the time, too.
I feel that, once an author is at the top of his craft he/she can do anything. At that point it’s truly art and I trust that the author knows what he/she is doing. Jim Thompson breaks many of the conventions of what might be considered "good writing," but he’s Jim Thompson and he has a handle on his craft and I’ll read every single word he lays down. James Joyce certainly breaks the rule "try to leave out the stuff the readers tend to skip"–would we have Finnegans Wake otherwise?
The best guidelines for me come from Joseph Campbell’s "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." The platform for great storytelling exists there and, when I use that as a template I know I’m on the right track.
I break the weather rule all the time. I love weather. I grew up in So Cal. We don’t have it there.
I’m reading a master right now, Daniel Silva, and what struck me was his uncanny ability to shift from omniscient narrator to close third POV seamlessly. It’s not an easy shift, at least to me, and he does it so beautifully. I’ve actually been rereading as I go, marveling at the beauty of it.
This is the perfect description of rule breaking. Stephen King so famously said Know the rules so you know when to break them. Don’t be afraid to take a chance. Just be original when you do it…
Excellent post, J.D. I know I’ve broken most of those rules at one time or another, mostly out of ignorance, not hubris. But I’m still working hard on eliminating "the part readers skip." That’s why my final revision is probably 60% the size of the first draft.
I went back to read the posts by Steve and Joe and if I were to pick a side, I’d be on Steve’s.
I’ve been studying the craft of writing for nearly ten years. I didn’t even start writing until I felt comfortable knowing I wasn’t "breaking the rules". After penning two books I realized I was stifling myself by following them to the letter. It wasn’t until I started "bending" them that my writing actually improved.
My current WIP opens with a dream sequence. It’s only a paragraph and the heroine is jarred awake. I’ve rewritten that opening, literally, twenty times because of the rule "don’t open with a dream or the protag waking up." But everytime I change it, I change it back. Why? Because it’s essential to the plot and the character. It’s also backstory and foreshadowing. And it works. (even my former agent thought so)
I think, if you’re very new to the writing game, you need to follow the rules until you’re comfortable knowing you can bend them.
It’s a good and fair post, J.D. Personally (he says, wondering idly about the correct use of periods after the abbreviation of a name), Leonard’s rule is the most honest and – consequently – least useful rule of writing there is.
What interests me far more than rules – which are generally rubbish, because it’s easy to counter them with false-positives and false-negatives – is this weird need writers feel to make rules at all. Why do we do that? "Don’t start your story with the weather!" Centuries of writing behind us; who knows how many ahead. I’m just not confident enough to start sticking flags in the land.
The so-called "Rules" came about because one editor told one author not to do something, and suddenly, it’s a "rule." I didn’t realize this was an issue outside of the romance community, who seem to have a constant battle over the rules.
Just last week I had a guest blog called "There Is No Spoon" (which I referenced on Sunday) which talks about breaking rules. Conclusion? Honestly, it’s all in the execution.
I have rules that I follow because they work FOR ME. I would never impose them on anyone else. It’s like religion and politics. I’d LIKE everyone to agree with me and follow my rules, but I respect their right to disagree with me (even if they are wrong, LOL) and to do things their way.
If everyone wrote following the exact same guidelines, readers would all be bored.
I write with prologues. Love them. I switch POV in the middle of a scene. Love doing it. In sex scenes I switch multiple times 🙂 . . .
I write with flashbacks, which Stephen King–my mentor–says is a no-no. Well, I agree with much of his book ON WRITING, but I personally love flashbacks–when they work. One of my books I didn’t blend them in as well as I should have, and I didn’t notice. Someone made a comment about it (that I had more flashbacks than usual) and I looked–it actually had FEWER than my previous books, but I noted that my transitions were choppier.
I also write in multiple POVs–usually 10-12 per book. Steve Berry, who I greatly admire, said you shouldn’t have more than 5. I like lots of viewpoints. I think again that’s my Stephen King reading–he always brought in interesting characters and introduced them in fascinating ways. But when I turned in THE HUNT, my editor commented that she felt I had too many POVs–more than THE PREY. I counted them up. I had 3 fewer POVs, but I saw her point–I’d put in POVs that didn’t need to be there, so it felt wrong. I ended up cutting three POV characters, but added two different POV characters, smoothed out the transitions, rewrote a couple scenes from another character’s POV, and ended up with one less POV than originally, and she loved it.
I think it’s not that a story opens with the weather, it’s whether the opening is a banal description of the dark and stormy night, or a brilliantly ominous foreshadowing of what’s to come. And the problem is that everyone thinks their description is brilliant. I read a lot of books, but I don’t read a lot of manuscripts, so I don’t see the scads of writers who think THEY can get away with the dream sequence/weather/wake-up opening, but can’t. So I’m going to side with the people who do have to wade through the slush and try to show them something different.
That being said, I broke two of the rules in my debut novel, Freezer Burn. I was told to make my protagonist’s name easy to pronounce, but I gave her a name (Minneopa) that could be mutilated in a thousand ways, as a running joke. Also, I included a prologue. It actually started as Chapter One, and I love it because it gives the reader a puzzle at the get-go, but everyone thought 82 words was too short for a chapter. So it became a prologue. So sue me.
I love the Barbossa Principle. Great post, Dusty!
Somerset Maugham once said, "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." And he also said, "The great American novel has not only already been written, it has already been rejected."
The only real rule I have is to be able to answer yes to the question of, "Does it work?" If you break a rule (and do it badly), it’s going to be obvious and the fact that anyone notices probably means they’re not immersed in the story. If you break a rule and do it well, people are going to be so immersed in the story, they will either not notice at all, or else marvel over how you just got away with the rule breaking.
There for a while in Hwd, no one wanted a script with flashbacks. If you had a flashback, you were dead in the water, because development execs just had a general sort of knee-jerk rule and swore they didn’t make exceptions. And also? You couldn’t have a bad guy as the protagonist. Then along came Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects in ’94, and suddenly, you could have flashbacks and/or bad guys as protagonists.
Trick is, of course, to do it so well that it becomes the new standard.
Trick is, of course, to do it so well that it becomes the new standard.
Or, as my son informs me, there is only one rule: The Rule of Cool.
I’m having a hard time keeping up with you all. Still pondering, days later, what Allison had to say about voice. [BTW, excellent post about rules over at Romance University.]
I’ve been thinking about this today, wondering why it is I’m constantly striving to break the rules. Like doing so is an obligation or a quest. I think it’s partly because my dad was, among other things, an English teacher and debate coach. It didn’t matter what stance you took, he’d take the opposing side
just to piss you offto make you think about and defend your position. So I grew up expecting dissention and challenge, learning to look at things from different angles. Not to mention building a solid defense before issuing an opinion. 😉
Dad used to tell a story about how he once took a switchblade from a kid in the hall at school. Read him the riot act and all that, until the kid was almost in tears from remorse. The way he told it, this was a good kid just showing off, exercising bad judgment but not dangerous. Of course, then dad had to take the knife to the principal’s office and report the incident. So he did. Principal demanded to know the name of the "bad kid." Dad refused. Principal insisted and threatened dire consequences. Dad unfolded the knife and threw it, hard, so it was stuck straight up in the principal’s (wood) desk. And said, "I handled it. This is not a problem." Then turned and walked out.
With a role model like that, it’s almost impossible not to break the rules. [And with a storyteller like that, it’s equally impossible not to appreciate the power of POV.]
I really like what Bob Mayer says about the three rules of rule breaking. As applied to my dad in that case: He knew the rule. He had a good reason for breaking the rule. He took responsibility for breaking it. Of course, he also did it with style and attitude.
I’m at the stage right now of learning all the so-called rules of writing. So when I break them I can do a thorough job of it.
The Rule: Stick to one Point of View per scene.
The Breaker: Nora Roberts, in everything she’s ever written.
I was gone all day yesterday.
I loved this post. Broken rules? Yeah, I’ve got a few. But I don’t have examples right now because my brain is fried from the trip.
I had a dream to begin my own business, nevertheless I did not earn enough of money to do it. Thank heaven my dude advised to take the loans. Thence I took the secured loan and realized my dream.