If you have bothered reading me at all you will read that title and consider me mad. (Or just irritatingly inconsistent, if not given to histrionics.)
First I say there are three rules of story – remember that post? There may be a quiz.
Then I contradict myself and say I don’t believe in rules, as a general rule.
Now I’m saying there is only one rule of consequence. I can’t blame you for thinking, pick a side and get the psychiatric nurse to tie you down there…
I stand by all three statements.
Please don’t leave…
I don’t believe in rules for the simple reason that the word implies something which must be followed without question. Conversely it is for this very reason that I also use it. It is a very convenient shorthand term to emphasize what I consider important in story and writing in general. I do not, however, think you should simply follow something just because someone somewhere, regardless whether they are Stephen King, George Orwell or your high school English teacher, told you to. Nothing is so truly absolute that you should consider it above questioning. Except the one I am about to tell you about, of course..
The one rule every writer should live by? Know the effect.
Recently, I encountered a writer asking if they needed to cut the number of ‘to be’ verbs in their prose. Some actually replied yes, without reading one damn (I restrained myself there) word the writer had written. Shortly after that I encountered another writer giving the quality advice to all who might pass, watch how often you repeat words like ‘that’.
The problem here is not that a person might remove a ‘that’ or a ‘was’ too many. There are unlikely to un ‘to be’ themselves out of existence. The problem is that whatever they are doing, they have no idea why they are doing it. They’re just following the rules.
Repetitious sentence structure and repetition of words are both issues that arise fairly often, usually at the very early stages of writing, emphasis on early. Both create a certain rhythm and stunt flow, which can be advantageous if that’s the effect you are going for, but otherwise, if just littered through the text, can be grating. But if you know this is the effect they create you can, and will, naturally compensate and correct.
Show don’t tell, is another favourite maxim. I have seen this one cited too many times to recount. I have seen single sentences savaged for ‘telling’, without any notion of what the rest of the text might offer. As if any words that might tell us anything must be wrong…
‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition’
No, Miss Austen. Show us that she is handsome, show us that she is clever.. well she does, or at least she shows us that in her own mind Emma is all of the above. What this sentence does is set the scene, a quaintly formal little corner of England and introduce us to our quite smug heroine. Tone, voice and invitation…
This is one of the easiest ‘rules’ to confuse. It is the best way to condense it down however the interpretations I have seen are often bewildering; heaps of extraneous detail all singularly failing to do what that exemplary piece of tell, above, did. If they had felt the effects before judging the syntax..
But isn’t show don’t tell is one of the three rules of story I cited? Tis true. Show don’t tell, suspension of disbelief and likeable characters are what I consider the Unbreakables. The easiest way to explain the Unbreakables is that when applied rigorously they will almost always result in a better story. I say almost because I haven’t read every possible version of every possible story.
However the Unbreakables aren’t rules, nor are they techniques. They are effects. Hannibal Lector can be a likeable character, so can Mother Theresa. How you achieve that is down to you, but the effect is to engage the reader, make them have to know what happens. Reading reviews can be illuminating, especially the number of one star poundings which list unlikeable characters as the problem.
There are still the rules of grammar though, right? Well, no.. I mean most of us have a good enough grasp of grammar, even if we have to look up what the word gerund means. I did. Apparently I learnt it in school and then at university.. oddly the structure I am familiar with, the word, not so much. Grammar exists to help us communicate clearly. Language is really incredibly complex, perhaps the English language more than any other. Yet by the age of five, having had no education in grammar, pretty much all of us can make ourselves understood in full sentences. I wrote a book – Bobby and the dinosaur egg, might be the best book I ever wrote. He ended up in jail.. Anyway, the point is, again, understand the effect. Very particular grammar can often be stilted, formal.. if you want an autistic narrator or a university professor, go for it. If you are setting your world in the gangs of east London, even with a third person pov, is your reader really going to feel immersed in that world? Know how your words, whichever ones you chose, will act on the reader.
So how do you know the effect? Simple. Read. Read everything, read anything. Read across genres, read long, read short, read. Everything plays into the effect, everything can be a tool. Everything can be done well and equally be used to the ruination of your story. Read your own story too. Read it til you can almost recite it.
You can’t get inside someone else’s head. To try and do so would be much the same as blindly following rules. Yet the interesting thing I found when I started talking with other writers was that many of my likes and dislikes were the same as other people’s, many were now being cited as ‘rules’.
So that’s the rule I live by. I believe that reading is an emotional journey. Its why we read. Its why I write. Its why I won’t ever count my ‘was’s’, but I may still remove some.