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Rule Number One: There Are No Rules
AJ
ann_leckie
So, the cool kids were all doing that "10 Rules of Writing" meme last week. But I've been laid low by that horrible bronchitis thing everyone seems to be getting. (If you haven't gotten it yet, don't. It's not the worst thing I ever had, but it's not fun.)

Anyway. I saw the original article, the compilation of various writers' ten rules, and it annoyed me. And I thought, "If I were not coming down with that horrible bronchitis everyone seems to be getting, I would post to my LJ about my annoyance." But I was coming down with said bronchitis, and in the meantime lots of people on my f-list started posting their own versions of the list. (Which were pretty much sane. As a consequence, nothing on those lists was an actual rule.)

I was all prepared to write a few paragraphs on my disdain for the whole "Rules of Writing" thing, but matociquala beat me to the punch.

"There are no rules, only tactics and techniques that work or do nor work in any given situation."


So, um, what she said.

The whole idea of "rules" really bugs me. I hear people say things like "You have to know the rules if you're going to break them" and I want to bang my head against the keyboard and start shouting, "For Mithras' sake, if you can break them they aren't rules!" And some of the rules that get passed around to new writers are just completely unhelpful--I mean seriously. For instance:

Never use any dialog tag besides "said."


Now, I know the reason for this advice. I am not advocating this sort of thing:

"Pass the salt, please," he chortled.

"Of course," she squealed. "Do you want the pepper, too?"


No, that's obviously not acceptable. And it needs warning against--I see it often enough in slush. (Just an aside, think twice before you make anyone "shriek" their lines. No, think three times. Four. Make it five, for the sake of felicity. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, you'd be better served by something else. Anyway.)

But contemplate this, for a moment:

"Oh, God! My pants are on fire!" he said.


Too many of the "rules" are like this one--it's meant to discourage newbies from making common mistakes, but the new writer who needs the advice isn't likely to understand the unspoken part of it, the "except" that's standing behind the "never do this." What that "rule" really means is, "Most of the time, said is what you need, don't worry about varying it, there are other, better ways to get around using said every line. You'll get better results if you save the other tags for the moments when they're really, truly called for." Once you understand this, of course, you don't need the "rule." But when you do need it, you don't understand it, and you end up scouring every non-said tag from your drafts--or adverbs, "never use adverbs" is the same sort of thing--and lecturing others in your crit group to do likewise because after all, Elmore Leonard said so! Without actually fixing much.

There's another rule in that article, though, that bugs me no end not because it's phrased in a way that makes it useless, but because it's frankly stupid.

Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.


Okay, right, I'm nobody compared to Franzen. But I've heard this crap from lots of other folks. Here's the thing--there's no reason to prefer third person. None. Right now, limited third is fashionable. And that's fine. I've got no beef with limited third. But what's wrong with first? Tell me? I can't give Franzen's reason, but I'll tell you the argument I've heard most often--when you're writing in first person, you eliminate suspense, because since the narrator is telling the story after it's happened, you know the narrator can't have died.

Stop and think about that. It looks like logic, and it tastes like logic, but when you examine it, you discover that it's based on a fairly insane premise.

I mean, you know what makes Pride and Prejudice a gripping read for me? Is knowing that at any moment, Elizabeth Bennet might die. I'm on the edge of my seat, furiously turning pages, because I just don't know...will she or won't she survive?! Same with Middlemarch.

And I'm bored beyond belief by the tensionless Great Expectations, not to mention The Great Gatsby. I mean, the whole point of a book like that has got to be whether or not Nick Carraway makes it out alive, am I right? And Moby Dick is an utter yawn--not because of all the chapters about whaling, but because from the moment we're on a first-name basis with Ishmael, we know he's going to survive.

Let me put it in a way that doesn't require sarcasm tags.

There's this assumption that "suspense" means "really high stakes" plus "doesn't know how it comes out." This is, in fact, not a particularly good assumption. Sure, a good writer carefully controls the flow of information so that it reaches the reader at exactly the time needed to produce whatever effect the writer is after. And part of producing suspense involves this flow of information. And of course, a character generally does need something at stake in order for there to be much of a story. But this does not mean that any story in which a character's life is in danger and the reader doesn't find out whether or not she survives until the end is automatically suspenseful. It certainly doesn't mean that concealing anything in particular until nearly the end of the story will generate suspense.

Suspense is generated when the reader cares about the outcome of the characters' choices, of the story's events. Stakes, sure--but the stakes could be "does the man she turned down years before still love her or not?" or "Will this character take the path of least resistance (but also sully himself ethically) or will he do the hard thing and stand up for what he believes?" Those are both, in their contexts, high stakes. And sometimes it's a matter of watching a car-wreck you can't tear your eyes away from--not because you don't know what's going to happen, but because you do and damn it, you can't look away, it's too compelling.

The idea of suspense as concealed information, btw, leads to some appalling missteps in slush, in my experience. Writers conceal something--a character's gender or species, a crucial relationship between characters, whatever--in an attempt to produce energy that will move the reader forward, thinking that it will make the reader want to keep reading to find out whatever information has been hidden. But the reader has no reason to care--there's no forward movement without the desire to know more about the character or the situation, and once you've got that, hell, you can make "Will she order tea or coffee?" suspenseful if the story calls for it.

And let's be honest--even in a "She's jumped out of the airship with no parachute, will she survive???" kind of story, if she's the main character and the book's not more than halfway done, you mostly know the answer. Sure, there are exceptions--but once again, the excitement and suspense isn't generated by your not really knowing if she makes it--it's your interest in the character and the situation that does the trick.

That's much harder to achieve, of course, than just concealing information about the outcome. But dang, it's ever so much better to read.

So next time someone tells you to only use first person unless you've got some kind of really good reason for it because first person will kill all your suspense, thank that person politely and then go ahead and write whatever's going to work for your story, with a clear conscience.

On a more positive note. burger_eater was one of the many folks on my f-list who posted ten sane pieces of advice. This one caught my eye:

5- Don’t cheat the concept. If the reader is thinking “Oh my God, is he going to go there?” The answer should be “Yes! He went there!” Don’t shy away from uncomfortable implications of your concept.

6- Cheat the concept sometimes. Don’t be an asshole about rule 5. If “going there” means being lurid, tedious, cliche, or repulsive, figure out a better way.


I'd condense this down to a single sentence--"Don't look away." Or, as I've said before, "Be honest."

If you've started somewhere that's going to lead you into something horrible, or over the top, or shocking--don't say "Oh, no, too horrible!" and write around it. If your story is going there, go there. But don't just charge over the top and shoot 'em all and figure God will sort it out. Study the terrain over the hill, consider what path will have the effect most like what you're after, and then...go there.

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I totally agree. I'm also getting quite irritated by all this 'rule' stuff. On a workshop site where I post my short stories, there's this one writer who continuously jumps on everybody when they use a gerund form of a verb. Some people will jump on every adverb, or every time you use 'was' or 'had'. Some will think the nirvana of writing is a piece of text that contains 0% passive constructions according to Word. Erk, erk, erk! This sort of advice (and it's never more than advice) only matters if a writer is using the offending word/construction to death. There is only one thing worse than a piece of text where the word 'was' occurs at least once in every sentence: one in which it doesn't occur at all. Substitute 'the word was' with 'adverbs', 'passive tense', 'the word said', or you name it from the Creative Writing 101 manual. None of it matters unless over-used to the point of being ridiculous. What matters is emotion, a reader's connection with the story, setting and plot.

I tweeted my writing rules yesterday (hint: they're short):

1. Read
2. Write

There's a guy on critters who--used to, at least--post a paragraph sniping at any story that used the word "had." Erg.

I mean, you know what makes Pride and Prejudice a gripping read for me? Is knowing that at any moment, Elizabeth Bennet might die. I'm on the edge of my seat, furiously turning pages, because I just don't know...will she or won't she survive?! Same with Middlemarch.

I adore you so much right now.

I love your essays! So glad to be reading your blog. And, coincidentally, I was just thinking to myself, "I wonder when Ann Leckie will post again?" And here you are.

I very much appreciate what you say about stakes. I'm so annoyed by the notion that the planet, or the whole human race, or the galaxy, or ALL WORLDS EVER must be in danger or the story won't grab readers. People who stop and think about it do realize--I know--that anything can be high stakes if the story is written that way. Will he pick up the telephone? Will that tomato seeding grow? These can be questions whose answers you're deeply invested in, if the story's told right. But that being the case, why do we even need to talk about stakes? If all we're really saying is that the story needs to make readers care about the characters and the outcome, then isn't that a given? So yeah, I'm not a big fan of the concept of stakes as such.

To me, high stakes are boring. If it's horror, and a main character is in great danger, they'll die to shock me. If it's any other genre, they'll survive. <yawn>

High stakes take agenda away from the character and makes them predictable (who can walk away when a friend/family member/the world is in danger?). I want a little angst in my books, I want to read about people choosing the right thing even if it's hard (or choose the wrong thing and suffer the consequences and learn from it and try to make up for it). I want to read about the spectrum of humanity - and if you put characters in a life-or-death situation, that picture gets flattened. Jack Aubrey is not afraid of death or disability (both real dangers); he worries about being stuck on land on half-pay without the means to provide for his family and away from the one thing he loves most.

This means that often there are choices where his personal honour is in conflict with his life goal; and that makes him much more interesting.

Making small things matter, keeping the reader's interest by intrigueing him, these are much harder for a writer to get right than merely throwing car chases at the page.

::applause:: (she shrieked)

"Thank you!" she hissed.

I can't give Franzen's reason, but I'll tell you the argument I've heard most often--when you're writing in first person, you eliminate suspense, because since the narrator is telling the story after it's happened, you know the narrator can't have died.

And that's not even true if you write in the present tense (which I strongly prefer for first person), since the protagonist can end the book walking into a hail of gunshots, literally or figuratively. To the point that THAT is almost cliche.

I hate practically any kind of dialogue tags, including "said," and think they're best as seasoning.

Of course, if a story is good enough people can ejaculate and break tense and all sorts of things. That is kind of the point of this post though, isn't it? :)

I've lurked in conversations where using present tense to get around that was Bad, because after all, it's not like you're standing next to them during the story while they're telling you what's going on!

At that point, I curl up in a fetal position and start rocking back and forth.

Talking about 'rules' sort of distorts the conversation in advance. But I remember some sort of heuristic someone used about 'said.' Something like this:
I write a first draft that looks like a play script. Then I add information that's really needed for other purposes, where it will also indicate who's speaking (stage business); eg, "He fondled the musket that hung over the mantel." Then I add stage business that isn't strictly needed but gives color. Then I add gestures and such that show the speaker's emotions or body language. Then I add any tags that are really needed, such as 'Mary/she whispered' or 'John/he shouted.' -- Then I ask a beta reader to mark any speeches where she is not sure who is speaking. There I add 'said' or possibly some 'said word.' Then I let it rest a while and then read for rhythm, to see if anything needs adjusting, or any more 'said's need to be added to keep the dialog from sounding too staccato."



Yeah, that sounds like a workable method.

I get frustrated when I'm in settings without much in the way of props for gestures sometimes. And at least one story, I did huge amounts of research merely because I wanted to know what things the narrator might pick up or toy with or straighten or whatever. I used almost none of it, but maybe I'll use it for something else! And I think the story worked as well as it did partly because my vision of the setting was so solid. I've found that setting really has to be there, for me, for other aspects to really come together.

Well, as the guy who started the whole "rules" listing (the pulse of them that followed the Guardian, I mean) I thank you for this. This is a great post. I also want to say that I started out from the point that they were useful and useless at the same time, only worked sometimes, and were both interesting and irrelevant.

"Tools not rules" as a smart man has said; me, I am smart enough at least to steal from him.

But the comments here are disheartening, as people talk about the reasons "they" make lists of writing rules. They want an easy path. They want a magic formula.

Why not consider this: They have found some tricks that work for them, and have been encouraged to share. Having shared, they get new things to think about.

::crosses arms:: Hmph!

Anyway, you're right, and so is Elizabeth Bear, although as I said in my list, there's only one actual rule: Be interesting.

Thank you for raising the subject. To see the rules posts mushroom all over writer-dom has been interesting.

As one of the 'they'-sayers, I'd like to offer this view about style/grammar 'rules': they're the result of what many people agree, at this current point in time, constitutes good fiction. But they're only the starting point for learning to write well, and definitely not the end of it, and it saddens me to see accomplished writers have no deeper advice than 'don't use said-bookisms'. In that respect, your own, and Ann's, advice is much better.

I think there are some rules, but they're different for every writer. I'm a big believer in the 'Find out what works best for you, and do that, a lot' philsophy.

Yes, I agree on the "find out what works for you and do that."

Great post. Don't look away, indeed.

The "No First Person" thing especially bothers me. I always liked what Will Hunting said: "It's a joke. It works better in first person." And I think the same holds true for quite a few stories.

Also, first person translates great to audio fiction when done well. (I realize most people don't write stories to sell them to audio markets, but still.)

"Oh, God! My pants are on fire!" he said.

...I'm sorry, but to me, that sounds hilarious. :)

Like something Frank Key might write...

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