Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Good Writers Understand The Rules, Before They Break Them

There is no faster way to start a fight on a writer's forum than to talk about the rules of writing. Whether it was stuff we learned when we were kids in school (never start a sentence with "and" or "but" for example), or it's a little more complex (questions of whether the three-act structure is superior, or if Chekhov's Gun is ironclad, or simply a matter of opinion), there are few things writers love to argue about more than someone else supposedly telling them how to write their books.

"And ANOTHER reason why you're wrong and write bad books," said both sides.
This week, I wanted to take a position that shouldn't be controversial (but probably will be). Because yes, it is your book, and you may choose to follow the conventional wisdom of writing rules, or tear them up and throw them out the window. Books have been successful either way.

However, if you're going to throw out all of the very sound advice folks have about what you should and shouldn't do when writing a book, it's important that you understand why you're doing so. Breaking the rules just for the sake of breaking them isn't going to make your story any better.

We All Had Training Wheels, Once Upon A Time

In his book The View From The Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman talks about the intoxicating feeling that every writer has had when they first started writing stories. That sensation of power that you are the master of an entire universe, and that you can make your will manifest, can often leave you drunk with power. A feeling that can lead to you thinking you're so talented that you don't need all those rules; your work will be all the more special for ignoring that hogwash.

You get drunk with other things later on in your career, most of the time.
The important thing to remember, or so the more famous Neil said, was to understand the rules of storytelling before you discarded them out of hand. To grasp their whys, and hows, and wherefores so that you could see the logic that made them work, and to understand what it would mean if you ignored them for your particular story. They are, in a very real way, like the load-bearing beams that hold up your story's house. Are they functional? Sure. Can you get rid of them? Of course you can... but you'll need to replace them with something that serves to hold your story up so that your narrative doesn't fall apart on you.

Shit... what was that one there for, again?
The common sense rules of writing (which you can pretty much read as anything you'll find in a book about writing, and most of the advice from people who do this as a living) all have their place. They are the stepping stones that you need to cross, and the knowledge you need to understand. They're the safety net below the trapeze. And if you're going to try a new, high-flying act that defies all the established rules, it's important that you have plenty of practice under your belt so that you know every possible thing that could go wrong.

Or, as my father said regarding carpentry projects, "You need to learn the correct way to do something, before you find the right way to do it." Because they aren't always the same way, but you should have the knowledge and experience to know when the "correct" method isn't the one your project needs.

Most importantly, understanding all the existing rules lets you know which ones are going to really work for your style, your story, and your audience, and which ones you can ignore without worrying about structural integrity. Because while you can ignore any rules you want to when it comes to your story, you still need to understand why you would ignore them, and the kind of problems you might have to deal with in the absence of that particular rule.

Gaining that kind of understanding takes practice, and a lot of experimentation. But trust me when I say this; riding without a helmet just because you can is no guarantee that your story will be better... if anything, it means the crash might be a whole lot messier if you aren't sure exactly what you're doing.

That's all for this Craft of Writing installment. Remember, write responsibly, and take all criticism you get with a grain or two of salt. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife.

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1 comment:

  1. Oh yes! And I see writers talking about eliminating "said" from their work. Sorry guys, sometimes you have to let the reader know who's talking and no other word will do!! Not every bit of dialogue has to be dynamic, it just needs to be there....