Rules? Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Rules
There’s a strong tendency in critique groups, whether online or in person, or in writing guides, or even just in casual conversation between writers, to talk about The Rules of Writing. They’re often talked about as if they are immutable, as if ignoring them will make you fail.
This is false.
One can say there are guidelines. I can say there are things that help me write that might also help you write. (Hopefully, my earlier columns on Setting and Characterization are taken in that vein.) One can suggest, in a critique, that if you are trying to do X, perhaps you could consider Y. All of these are fine. It’s only when these suggestions are taken as law that problems arise.
A lot of simpler rules fall under Writing 101. These are often considered rules for writers who are just starting out, and struggling. They want rules and structure in the hopes of writing better. Rather than going through the rigorous process of determining character arcs, the psychologies of fictional people, proper worldbuilding, pacing, subtext, word choice, thematics, and so on, they want simple answers.
A lot of the advice in this area seems to stem from the ideal of lean, muscular prose. Stephen King complained famously about adverbs (and he’s far from the only one) and thus ‘omit all adverbs’ became a staple of writing advice. Never mind that almost all books use adverbs. (As proof, I just opened the nearest book to me—Sam Sykes’ The Skybound Sea—to a random page, and found “dismissively.” I then did the same to John Le Carre, Mary Shelley, and Scott Lynch.) Adverbs aren’t a problem. Adverbs used poorly are a problem, but the same issue exists with all words.
I’ve read similar advice with dialogue tags, show don’t tell, passive voice, and more. It’s not that it’s bad advice—it’s that it’s too often the only advice given, and each of those can be used well in certain circumstances.
Constraints don’t need to be problems. In fact, a constraint can be inspirational. You are told, “You cannot do this in your story.” Your faster-than-light starship is breaking the laws of physics. Even point of view can be a constraint. You immediately try to find ways to push against that, often resulting in a stronger story.
Even on a prose level, there are constraints. Stephen King drops adverbs. Elmore Leonard only uses ‘said’ in his dialogue tags. The difference is that King and Leonard are choosing what to leave out of their own work, rather than letting people tell them what to do.
Write Like Everyone Else Or Else
Who are we writing for? We might say, “I am writing for a broad audience.” However, if we end up writing like everyone else, what separates us from all of them?
I could write a story that appeals to a broad base of people, but it would likely be somewhat similar to numerous other books on the market. Alternately, I could write a book that was unique and might have a smaller audience, but a more dedicated one, because they can’t find anything else quite like it.
The simple fact is, different people look for different kinds of books. Even in fantasy, we have people who want romance, or humour, or action, or the thrill of experiencing a new world. And these aren’t static, either: a reader can want a romance and then a comedy, a book with dream-logic followed by a magic system more regulated than physics.
There’s room on the shelves for a well-done traditional story and more experimental work. House of Leaves can sit next to A Study in Scarlet. These options don’t need to crowd out the other; it’s not a zero-sum game.
Pushing The Boundaries
Many of the Big Names, in genre and out, have found new ways of telling tales. When you read a book by Kurt Vonnegut or Douglas Adams, you can tell their style immediately.
In fact, the further we push these boundaries, the further we can see that there are no rules whatsoever. Freytag’s Triangle, and its predecessor, Aristotle’s Three-Act Structure, are often considered basic elements of storytelling. Yet much of Poe’s work, including two of his most famous pieces, The Pit and the Pendulum and A Cask of Amontillado, start in the third act. We are often told to make protagonists who are interesting or relatable. Yet Kafka’s Josef K from The Trial isn’t interesting: what’s interesting is the bizarre situation he’s been put into. James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake throws basic coherence out the window, and yet is studied and analyzed and has been for decades.
You need to write your story. No one else will do it for you, so why let them tell you how to do it? The rules are meaningless in the hands of a good writer. The only real rule is to find out what works for you, and write.