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The Joy and Tragedy of Writer’s Rules

Now what?
Now what?

The past three years in my scant spare time I’ve rediscovered the joys of writing. Of course, I’ve rediscovered the grief and frustration that typically goes hand-in-hand with writing too. Does it have to be that way? I am sure there is an unwritten rule. It is part of the inherent nature of writing and writers.

What I’ve learned most thoroughly is that there are rules to writing, and that those rules are also meant to be broken. You should heed them, but you shouldn’t build a shrine to them. In fact, sometimes breaking a writing rule might help your work transcend the ordinary and connect with your readers in a new and exciting way. But don’t count on it.

The three most oft-harped upon rules are “show, don’t tell”, “include beats” (mannerisms and action which individualize the character), and “create conflict” (or tension) in each scene.

All of these are important, and valuable. Wherever you use these rules in your stories, you will likely improve the scene. Being an iconoclast though (I’ve been called worse), I usually resist the call to “one size fits all”.

For example, in semi-serious Science Fiction (my favorite), there are often chunks of science for the reader to digest. Sometimes these may be divulged by having characters discuss the ins and outs, but this can become lengthy. So the question is how is this information important to the reader.  Is how your character learns of this science important? If so, then the reader will expect to be shown how. Is this science mainly part of the back-story – part of your world building – then your reader only needs to be aware of it. “Telling” this piece of the world’s backstory is okay.

I have read award-winning SciFi novels, where the author expounded upon – told, didn’t show – the story’s science for several straight pages without eliciting boredom. The key is in how interesting and accessible the author makes the science. Such world-building can be done this way in any genre, provided it also contributes to the reader’s understanding of the main story.

I confess that “beats” was a new term to me just three years ago. I learned about beats almost immediately from all three writers groups I joined. Many of my original characters (alas!) were stillborn or born with arrhythmia. To remedy this I had to imagine mannerisms, speech patterns, and stray gestures to differentiate them from each other, and to assuage the sensibilities of the esthetically dependent.

Unfortunately, being “beat challenged” , I required sensitivity training. Considering I now call myself a writer, I tend to overlook such detail. I’m the one who complements my wife on the new painting she’s hung up, to find out it’s been there for over a year. I’ve always thought writers to be exceptionally observant. That’s not true, or I’m the exception.

Now, all good stories thrive on conflict and tension. The more amped up the author can make the narrative, the longer their readers will keep turning the pages. The advice frequently offered in writer’s critique groups is to include some form of tension in each scene or chapter. This is a good rule of thumb. But as you must know…it is not good to be all thumbs.

Some scenes needed to nudge your plot along are naturally passive scenes. That may break the rule, but won’t necessarily do harm unless you drag them on. If the scene creates a long and dull lull to the action, the reader will stop turning pages, go to bed, and maybe forget to pick up the story again. So the rule to this exception to the rule is keep such scenes short. They should never be more than a small speed bump that the reader notes in passing.

What else? Again, I’d go back to SciFi novels. Those same chapters where I said you can sneak in scientific tech talk, are the chapters where you’ll be forgiven for skipping away from action and conflict. Nevertheless, these chapters still need to be interesting and compelling to your readers. The information you (essentially) dump must still hold their imagination and either contribute to the reader’s knowledge of the world you’ve created, or contribute toward a plot point that will be important later in the story.

The final take-away is that there are rules – as Jack Sparrow well explained “The Pirate’s Code” – that are really kind of guidelines.

(Utmost apologies to any grammar sticklers. This post humbly submitted unedited -jh)