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.