Friday, February 12, 2010

How to Break The Rules

This post is on behalf of the San Francisco Writers Conference, where I'm giving a talk about The Rules of Writing, and how to break them. The conference suggested this post as an alternative to showing up with 100 photocopied handouts, which would have meant not having enough space for all those little 3oz bottles and an extra pair of shoes (thank you internet!). If you attend the conference and don't receive a handout, this is for you. And for all you other rebel writers out there.

Before we can break any rules, we must first establish some. I think it's important to be mindful of when you are doing something unconventional, and do it with good reason and style. Let's start with Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules of Writing:*

1) Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that they will not feel the time was wasted.
2) Give the reader at least one character they can root for.
3) Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4) Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the plot.
5) Start as close to the end as possible.
6) Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7) Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8) Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I find most of Kurt Vonnegut's rules hard to argue with. Sure, you can cast an antihero as your main character, like American Psycho's Pat Bateman, or pretty much everyone in a Chuck Palaniuk novel, or even Amir from The Kite Runner, but if the reader doesn't find some reason to root for them they will probably stop turning the pages.

Here are Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing:

1) Never open a book with the weather.
2) Avoid prologs.
3) Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialog.
4) Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"
5) Keep your exclamation points under control.
6) Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose"
7) Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8) Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9) Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10) Try to leave out the parts the readers tend to skip.

Elmore Leonard's rules are much more particular. Most of these rules are easy to break and are broken regularly.

And to fill in any that Kurt and Elmore missed, here's my own list which includes rules we've all heard before:

Show, don't tell
You can't have nothing happening / bring characters on with action
Don't lecture
No dreams
Don't describe scenery
Don't bog down your opening with backstory
The protagonists shouldn't keep secrets from the reader
Write what you know

These are all wonderful rules. Writing a book is challenging enough, and most writers will find these rules instructive instead of restrictive. Following them can help you tell your story in the most entertaining and accessible way possible. But some of you people are just ornery, or chafe against any restraints, and believe that rules were made to be broken. Fair enough. You think the best way to start your novel is by describing the weather? Have a hankering for prologs? Want to keep key elements of your story a secret until the very end? Prefer to open your novel with a discourse on morality? You can do it, but you'll want to tread carefully. And you'll want to study the authors who have broken these Rules, and figure out how they got away with it.

Rule #1: Show, Don't Tell
Rule Breaker: Carolyn Parkhurst, Dogs of Babel - first page

The first paragraph of this novel breaks one of the most well-known rules of writing, the ubiquitous Show, Don't Tell. The narrator tells us very plainly that one afternoon his wife climbed an apple tree in their backyard and fell to her death. He states the date and gives his wife's full name, as if issuing a report. This opening is most assuredly Told, Not Shown. Yet somehow it is full of emotion. And I'm guessing that most of you, after reading it, want to read more.

How did she successfully break the most basic rule of writing? First, she chose to flatly narrate, or "tell" a very intriguing bit of information. The wouldn't have worked if she was "telling" about the character brushing his teeth or driving to work. Also, this is a scene that most writers would sensationalize, and her unconventional choice calls attention to itself. If you read carefully I think you can pick up on how the narrator is using this removed style in order to distance himself from the reality of his wife's bizarre death.

Rule #2: No Prologs
Rule Breaker: Donna Tartt, The Secret History - prologue

This rule is broken often and well. I chose this example, but there are hundreds of others that come to mind, particularly in the mystery and thriller genres. Prologs don't tend to work so well when they feature a character who isn't the main character, or a point in time deep in the novel's (or the universe's) past. This particular prolog works beautifully. The opening line is: "The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation." This prolog is narrated from the novel's future, after the story has ended. In a different novel, Bunny's death would be quite the spoiler, since he doesn't die until at least half way through the story. But here, knowing that Bunny will die, and knowing that the narrator will have something to do with it adds a lot of tension and suspense, and allows the author to take a lot of time developing characters and atmosphere and to linger over details that might make the book drag if you didn't know one of the main characters was going to eventually be killed by the other main characters.

Rule #3: Don't Lecture
Rule Breaker: Jed Rubenfeld, The Interpretation of Murder - first page

The opening of this novel suggests that man must chose between happiness and meaning. Live for the present moment and be happy, or live in your past to find meaning. It should be real buzz kill of an opening, but somehow it's not. How does he get away with this, and how can you? First, he keeps it short. Second, he ties it in directly to what's happening to him at that specific moment, instead of tying it to some vague impending life crisis he's been on the verge of having. The key is that he makes the lecture immediately relevant, and travels very quickly from the abstract to the specific, and to the here and now. The narrator has always chose meaning over happiness. Which is how he found himself waiting for the arrival of the "steamship George Washington, bound from Bremen, carrying to our shores the one man in the world I wanted most to meet." The author has tied the hypothetical to something important happening now.

Rule #4: Don't Open with Backstory
Rule Breaker: Dennis Lehane, Mystic River - first three pages

Dennis Lehane opens his breakout book, Mystic River, with what can only be described as backstory. The three main characters are kids, and we hear about what their fathers did for a living, get a description of the neighborhood, where they go to school. It should be boring, but it isn't. Why? He's accomplishing a lot with this backstory. Where another writer might be content to simply set the scene and give us some character background Lehane takes this opportunity to set up a dichotomy that is critical to both his plot and character development. These paragraphs are doing double duty for him. And he does the job quickly, in sweeping strokes: "So while Sean went to Saint Mike's Parochial in black pants, black tie, and blue shirt, Jimmy and Dave went to Lewis M. Dewey School on Blaxston. Kids at the Looey & Dooey got to wear street clothes, which was cool, but they usually wore the same ones three out of five days, which wasn't." In just two sentences you have a clear idea of the differences between these characters, and the shape their conflicts will take.

Rule #5: Don't Describe Scenery / Can't have nothing happening
Rule Breaker: Jim Butcher, Dead Beat - first three pages

I'm pretty sure Jim Butcher breaks a couple of rules with the opening of this 7th book in the Dresden Files. He spends the first two pages pondering the story of Cain and Abel and describing his apartment. It shouldn't be compelling, but it is. His apartment is a complete wreck, and he uses the bible story to talk about his urge to kill his half brother. So there's a conflict sewn into the description, which makes it much more interesting to read. What he's done is made the description immediately relevant, and it's serving two purposes - 1) we getting a visual of where Dresden lives, and 2) with each item he tells is out of place or destroyed, we better understand his murderous frustration with his brother/roommate. Butcher also uses humor to keep us engaged. The lesson here is that description works best when it is not limited to merely describing something physical, like a house or a town or the weather, but when it uses these features to introduce a character conflict or some problem that the character is having. On the surface, nothing much is happening here, but after these three pages of description we know enough about these two characters and their issues to want to read more.

Lets now talk more generally about one of the rules, without any more drawn out examples. Vonnegut's last rule is (to paraphrase): Give your readers as much information as possible upfront so they have a complete understanding of what is going on. This is a rule that most writers of speculative fiction will break. If it's not broken well, the result can be a very frustrating reading experience. But many writers break this rule well, and hold back key elements of their world-building until late in the story. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union and Richard Morgan's books come to mind. Had these authors explained the ins and outs of their worlds up front it would have created a huge infodump that may have had readers skimming. Instead, they waited to reveal the details of how their worlds work, or are different from ours, until it became absolutely necessary to the story that the reader (or the characters) have this information. It's a fine line between making sure readers don't feel lost and dumping a ton of information on them all at once.

To generalize, all these rule breakers break the rules as a way to springboard readers more effectively into their stories. If it's backstory or description or even a lecture they are giving, they make it necessary information for you to understand or more fully appreciate the conflict facing the main character.

I would love to hear your feedback. Which of your favorite authors are expert rule breakers? Or maybe the question should be, do any authors actually manage to follow all of these rules?

*Kurt Vonnegut's rules were written for short story writers, though I think that they can be easily apllied to novels (with the possible exception of the 8th rule). Vonnegut also qualifies his list of rules by saying that Flannery O'Connor broke all them except the first one.


Jason Myers said...

Man, you need to tell Don to quit with the teaching you start. This is covered in awesome-sauce. Good stuff! Rarely are all the rules put into one place and with such good perspective.

Anonymous said...

Umberto Eco and Tom Robbins come to mind when I think of the rule that "every sentence must advance the plot."
They both have a habit of taking sentances and certain ideas for a long walk before moving on with the story.
It can be tedious to read, but most of the time it is precisely their ability to dance around with concepts that makes them such great authors.

Great to see you back, btw.

-Colin Hill

Alex Adams said...

I typically abhor dreams in books--more so if a book opens that way. And yet Jeanine Frost's Destined For An Early Grave managed to make a dream opening work.

sbjames said...

Dorothy Dunnett keeps us guessing about her MCs in House of Niccolo and Chronicles of Lymond. Her readers are constantly surprised and we love it. Makes for great book discussions and rereads. By the end of the series you feel so connected to the characters like your the only one who truly understands them.

She is the standard by which I hold all books and I get quite bored with the recent popularity of first person and knowing too much about an MCs inner thoughts.

Meghan said...

Hi Cameron,

Thanks for providing this on your site. I really enjoyed your presentation the other day at the SFWC and now know that breaking the rules is sometimes worth the risk!

Brian Crawford said...

It was great meeting you at the SFWC.

As for breaking the rules, I'm thinking of Jim Harrison's novellas, which are like Hemingway concentrate. So stripped down and far-reaching is Harrison's prose, his novellas read almost like synopses. But they're beautiful synopses.

We're supposed to show and not tell, but Harrison tells, with very little in dialogue or scene. It works because everything fits together in a way that propels the reader forward. And it works because nothing is extraneous -- every line is a poem.

Susan Bearman said...

Seems to me that Fitzgerald broke most of the rules (especially your rules) in The Great Gatsby. We get a lecture about tolerance and reserving judgment, backstory about the narrator (who is somehow not really a main character) and a little weather thrown in just for fun. I guess you have to be a Fitzgerald to break all those rules in the first two pages.

Pam said...

great post. I am gonna share this about a bit if you do not mind.

Christine H said...

I am writing speculative fiction, so I've struggled a lot with how much detail to reveal about the world and when. I took a lot of the explanation out, but ended up having to put some back in because my readers were totally confused. Instead of a prologue, I have a three-sentence Introduction which seems to be doing a good job of putting things in context succinctly before jumping into the action.

I really appreciate the advice about pleasing one person. I've had so much feedback from different people, that I feel both I and my novel are both being pulled in too many directions at once.

I've decided to take a break from feedback and just write to please MYSELF first. I may end up completely changing the point of view, but the way it is now just isn't working for me. So it's good to have the reassurance to follow my instincts.

The rule I would break is the one about describing scenery. I re-read Tolkein all the time because of his lavish descriptions that pull me into Middle Earth. While I'm not writing as much of that as he did, I'm still describing things a little more than many of my plot-oriented friends prefer. But I feel it's important to establish the characters in their environment.

The thing is that the descriptions and world-building details that readers skim on the first reading, are the things they linger over the second, fifth, and twelfth time. I want my story to be rich enough to bring readers back over and over.

David Thyssen said...

While interesting, the first rule of writing should be that there are no rules.

Adhering to certain written rules only means severe restriction, and a writer should be free to let his or her thoughts flow without any limits.

The diversity of rules mentioned in your article, proves my point entirely.

Anonymous said...

I've always disagreed about "suddenly." I don't think there's anything wrong with it, if used sparingly.

R. Garrett Wilson said...

Thanks for the bringing the rules and exceptions together so succinctly. I’m sure I am going to refer back to this page in my writers group. I think each member of my group is guilty of a rule break here or there and it is nice to have the reference available.

Martina Boone said...

This is an absolutely fantastic post. I'm not sure why having the rules put together makes them say so much more than seeing individual lists, but I am in mid-revision and heading to pick up the rules from the printer. And I have my blog subject for tomorrow with a link back to this post. Yay. Two gifts in one. Many thanks!

Edward G. Talbot said...

you have some great points here, but I am going to have to bring up the one I disagree with. Prologues. My favorite ones are ones that both feature a character who is not a critical character AND take place deep in the past.

I know quite a few other fans of thrillers (as I am) who feel the same way. Are we in a small minority among thriller fans? Maybe, but I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that. I have seen a lot of evidence to suggest that the people who dislike that sort of prologue do not like James Rollins or Clive Cussler or Steve Berry anyway.

Which is fine - there are plenty of bestselling authors and genres I don't like, either. But with example after example out there in the genre of authors not only including prologues but including the very things you hear shouldn't be in prologues - and selling very well - I'm frankly a little surprised at how much vitriol I hear from agents and publishers about prologues. For some sub-genres of thrillers, they sell, and I would think that until substantial evidence presented itself to suggest that most of the actual buyers would have liked the books better without prologues, the publishing industry should be encouraging writers in this genre to include them.

Max Gladstone said...

@susiej Absolutely. First person especially seems so limiting after reading what Dunnett can do with a subtle gesture, a choice of costume, a verbal quip.

In general, I don't mind prologues. They can be a great way to establish issues that will haunt the main characters for a while before they are revealed explicitly... Then again, this might just be a bad habit of mine.

Erika Marks said...

Thanks for this post--loved it.

The using "said" always sticks with me--and using "said"s alone. Talk about a habit that's hard to break, but there is something very pure and satisfying when dialog is pared down.

Not letting the reader know everything up front. Hmm, does Fight Club contradict that rule, or would one argue that the protagonist has let us know, we just don't KNOW we know, yet...?

Audry Fryer said...

I have been aware of the rules of writing for some time now. And, though I couln't pin point it, something about them always bothered me. Perhaps there's something about having someone say never ever do "this", that makes me want to prove them wrong. So, as you can imagine, reading your post about all the rule breakers was quite a gratifying experience. But, more to the point was that the authors who broke the rules did not do so out of rebellion. They broke the rules to tell a better story, to make their writing work in a more powerful way and to set their novels apart in a literary sense.
I thank you for your post and for giving me as a writer a much valued perspective on how I approach my writing.

Judy Ridgley said...

'Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that they will not feel the time was wasted.'
I like this rule.But all your rules are excellent. Now I don't have any particular book in mind to add here because I experience books and well, forget titles etc. (working on that) As for my writing, well, great rules. Thank you for sharine.

Roger McNulty said...

I find it telling that neither of the two actual writers claimed that "show, don't tell" is a rule...only the literary agent did. "Show, don't tell" is poison. It's a rule for losers with no ideas. It's the reason MFA programs produce carbon copy writers and not real voices. Imagine some editor telling Beckett he needed to "show, not tell"...

jesse said...

I love your take on "the rules," and I agree with the Vonnegut's eighth exception for novels. However, I think write what you know needs to be interpreted loosely.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most helpful and direct things I've read about rules/rule-breaking in a long time. It's nice to read the why's and hows, and have general rules feel empowering rather than crippling.
Thank you!

Beth said...

I'm rather of the opinion that there are no rules; there are only things done badly and things done well.

Of course, some things are very, very hard to do well, which is how the "rules" were born.

But a good story in the hands of a good writer can take just about any liberty.

Unknown said...

Its fantastic that I get to find rules and guidelines such as this. Especially for up and coming authors, or people who just enjoy writing in general.

I'd appreciate it if you could check out some of the post I wrote myself. I plan on writing until my hearts content, but it's always good to get constructive criticism.

Dr. Lewis Preschel aka themadmutt, author of the Karmic Knight Mysteries. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr. Lewis Preschel aka themadmutt, author of the Karmic Knight Mysteries. said...

Another set of rules was written by Sol Stein in his book Stein on Writing. They work wonderfully for all forms of story telling, although they may be redundant after Vonnegut and Leonard.

The Ten Commandments of Writing According to Sol Stein

1. Thou shalt not sprinkle characters into a preconceived plot lest thou produce hackwork. In the beginning was the character, then the word, and from the character’s words is brought forth action.
2. Thou shalt imbue thy heroes with faults and thy villains with charm, for it is the faults of the hero that bring forth his life, just as the charm of the villain is the honey with which he lures the innocent.
3. Thy characters shall steal, kill, dishonor parents, bear false witness, and covet their neighbor’s house, wife, man servant, maid servant, ox and ass, for reader’s crave such actions and yawn when thy characters are meek, innocent, forgiving, and peaceable.
4. Thou shalt not saw the air with abstractions, for readers, like lovers, are attracted to particularity.
5. Thou shalt not mutter, whisper, blurt, bellow, or scream, for it is the words and not the characterization of the words that must carry their decibels.
6. Thou shalt infect thy reader with anxiety, stress, and tension, for those conditions that he deplores in his life, he relishes in his fiction.
7. Thy language shall be precise, clear, and bear the wings of angels, for anything less is the province of businessmen and academics and not of writers.
8. Thou shalt have no rest on the Sabbath, for they characters shall live in thy mind and memory now and forever.
9. Thou shalt not forget dialogue is a foreign tongue, a semblance of speech and not a record of it, a language in which directness diminishes and obliqueness sings. Agendas are hidden as it is spoken with a serpent’s tongue.
10. Above all, thou shalt not vent thy emotions onto the reader, for thy duty is to evoke the reader’s emotions, and in that most of all lies the art of the writer.

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