On Writing #2: The “RULES” (Friends or Foes?)

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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 ever after do whatever you want.
3. A true artist never pays any attention to rules.

Each of these is, in is own way, wrong. In writing, as in any other art or creative endeavor, there is only one rule that is really a rule rather than a guideline. To quote Tim Gunn: Make it work. If it doesn’t work, you must do whatever is necessary to remedy that. If it does work, you can safely shove all of the other rules to the back of your mind . . . right up to the time when something doesn’t work.

This, in the end, is what agents and editors care about. They don’t go through a manuscript keeping a tally of adverbs, adjectives, saidbookisms, passive verbs, head-hopping, or any of the other things you will be told by other writers that you should never use or do. If the writing grabs an agent or an editor (or indeed anyone), if it hauls them in and doesn’t let them go until the end, none of these things will matter. What publishers are looking for are engrossing stories with compelling characters, written in such a captivating and persuasive manner that they will grip readers from the first word to the last.

All the rest is about how you can make it happen.

The most important purpose of the so-called rules (which for purposes of brevity shall from this point on be simply referred to as the rules, even though they are more in the nature of guidelines) is that when you have that uneasy sensation that something isn’t working, the rules can help you identify the reason why. This is where learning about passive verbs, saidbookisms, head-hopping, and the rest will come in handy. Not that these things are anathema or anything close to it (as very eager new writers who have just been cautioned about using them are liable to insist) but that they are to be employed sparingly and above all mindfully, because it is so easy to overuse them, or to use them badly. The rules are merely a list of things that usually make your writing more effective and things that usually make it less so. Once you have identified that your problem does, in fact, involve a rule that you have broken, you have two options. You can change what you have already written to conform to that rule, or figure out what you can do to compensate for what you botched when you broke it.

Many people, especially relatively new writers who are still looking for guidance themselves and who will believe almost anything they are told, will pass on rules that they have garbled out of recognition, or turn something that is meant to be merely a caution into an outright prohibition. These misconceptions will be passed around from one writer to another until newer writers, hearing the same thing from more than one source, consider it absolutely trustworthy advice. This is why it is important to listen to your instincts. Does what you have written feel right? Does it accomplish what you want it to accomplish? Then don’t get flustered because you have apparently violated some prohibition that you just learned about today. But perhaps you’ve already been sensing that what you are writing has been pulling you deeper and deeper into difficulties? (Be honest with yourself.) If so, you need to take a hard look at what you have and ask yourself why those difficulties are proliferating.

So the rules are really just guideposts that can point you in the right direction to improve your writing. They will also help to pinpoint the problem if you find that your writing is bland, awkward, boring, too obscure, overwritten, etc. But what exactly happens when you break a rule or two or several? You may still write a good book, it is possible you may even write a great book, but you have begun to raise obstacles in your path, obstacles you may or may not be ingenious enough or persistant enough to overcome—obstacles that might lead you, in the end, to decide that it is simply not worth all the extra work compared to what you thought you might gain by breaking those rules.

Breaking the rules most often leads to quite obvious consequences, and it is by those consequences, and only those consequences, that you should judge whether or not you are committing writerly felonies and misdemeanors. Break a rule, and a problem generally appears, if not immediately then somewhere before you reach the end of the story. Break a rule, and something that would have made your story more readable, more engaging, is sacrificed. However, changing course to follow that rule may not be the only or the best way to deal with the situation, because sometimes breaking that specific rule makes that specific story so much better that it really is worth the extra work to find a way to compensate. 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 if the rules are going to do you any good at all it is more important to understand them 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 difficulties that may arise when you don’t? 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. If you have decided not to follow a rule and if you run into difficulties, if the result is not what you hoped it would be, understanding the rules will 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 anyway, and/or c) backtrack, identify where things began to go wrong, and steer a better course from there.

If you know the rules you can find a workaround more quickly and more surely. But it is also true that you can figure out a solution by the simple process of trial-and-error. There is much to be said for learning things the hard way—you may, for instance, better assimilate what you have learned—but it can be a lengthy and difficult process. It’s where so many writers grow discouraged and give up, either because they lose confidence in their abilities (sometimes prematurely), or because they refuse to recognize that what they have written isn’t perfect, and they grow frustrated and paranoid because other people don’t offer them the praise they think they deserve. Yet it can also be how a writer comes up with the most creative solutions.

How you figure out what you need to do in order to compensate for whatever difficulties you created for yourself is up to you. There will always be more than one way to work things out. (And sometimes the something that compensates for a habit of rule-breaking may be sheer bloody genius, but it’s as well not to count on that being the case in your own instance. If you are a genius, someone will tell you. It may escape the attention of those who know you best, but someone will recognize it and let you in on it. If they don’t, your only alternative is to learn how to actually write.)

But how might one go about this business of breaking a rule and finding something that works just as well in its place? I’ll use a book that most fantasy writers will be familiar with as an example.

One of the rules you are most likely to hear repeated again and again is that over the course of a novel-length work major characters must show some growth, they must each of them change in some significant way or they will be so flat they might as well be made out of cardboard. Or, if it is a tragedy, their inability to change may be the thing that destroys them. It has been noted (usually by those who don’t like the book for other reasons entirely) 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 change at all. 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 the impression is not that of a static character. The reason is that while Aragorn himself 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, which for most readers makes him just as compelling as if he did go through some great revolution in his thinking or his personality.

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 revisions 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 experimenting until he found what worked—through years and years laboring away at the manuscript—or because he knew what he was doing when he broke the rule and what he must do to compensate for it, the important thing is that he stuck with the story 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 popular with readers, and even among those who are very much aware of its faults many say that they still 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 or your vanity.) 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. 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. There is nothing easier. And 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 brilliant, others may praise it, but if the result is an unfortunate one, others will criticize it. If you want to be daring and break all the rules, you must do whatever is necessary to make it work, no matter how much extra thought and effort it takes—otherwise it’s just posturing. True artists are not content to stop with the job half done.

On the other hand, it is a mistake to adhere to the rules too rigidly. There must always be enough freedom to allow for creativity, or the writing will only ever be competent. Yet those who say that the story is all that really matters, that how a story is written is hardly important, do have a point. It is not nearly so strong a point as some of them like to think*, but it is not completely without merit. There are writers who have made millions writing mediocre** prose because they have the gift or good fortune to offer exactly the sort of story that the public is looking for, at exactly the point when the most readers will be receptive to it. Writers also become successful by doing two or three things exceptionally well (see what I said about The Da Vinci Code above), but this may depend on passing trends and fads in writing, and those same skills that recommend themselves to readers now may seem dated, silly, or boring to a later generation, who will shake their heads at the questionable tastes of their parents or grandparents. Take, for instance, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who was popular in his own day, yet in the twentieth century his name became a byword for tortured prose.

But of course sometimes it goes the other way: a book that received a great deal of criticism when it first came out may grow in stature over the years until eventually it is hailed as a classic. It is too soon to predict whether any popular book written in the last twenty or thirty years will fall into one of these categories . . . or, for that matter, whether it will simply and gracefully lapse into obscurity.

Neither can we predict the eventual fate of our own books. All we can do is concentrate on producing the best work of which we are capable. And understanding the rules—whether we choose to follow them or not—can be a great help in achieving that.

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*What weakens their argument is that they obviously can’t know whether they would have liked whatever story they are giving as an example even more had the writing been better. Also, the people who make this argument tend to equate the words “good writing” with what they imagine other people mean by good writing—flowery and boring—when good writing is, of course, writing that is effective and draws readers into the story.

**I say mediocre prose rather than bad or clumsy, because even though people rail against certain books that are hugely successful, I believe that in many cases those very same books, had they enjoyed only a modest success, would have been viewed more charitably. Not admired, certainly, but not harshly criticized either. Most likely, instead of receiving loud condemnation they would merely have been damned with faint praise.

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