With so many writing rules that new authors have to follow, it’s hard for me to read writers who don’t follow the rules. I can’t hardly read one writer who was one of my favorites for years because that person tells instead of shows, head hops, and has lots of author intrusion. I never noticed those things before I became a writer, but now they jump out at me and can ruin the story.
The “writing rules” this author is referring to is not the Strunk and White type of rules, the standard principles of grammar and composition. There’s “other” rules for contemporary novel writing, formulas for publication which some hold to be just as binding as rules of spelling and punctuation.
Some of those rules are:
- Show Don’t Tell — Use action and dialog rather than exposition
- POV — Maintain a consistent, realistic narrative point-of-view; don’t “head hop” from one person to the next in the same scene
- Avoid Passives — Keep tenses active; Dean killed the cat is better than The cat was killed by Dean
Of course, there’s many other rules and literary conventions, most of which have developed over time and are reinforced by academics, experts, or people in the know (i.e. published authors). But those are some of the biggies.
What’s rather fascinating (and illustrated by the above quote) is the inordinate emphasis placed on new authors to learn to follow these writing rules. Like the good legalist, when I officially began writing, I followed these rules to the letter. I toiled to eliminate passives from my m/s and maintain tight POV’s. And I made it my mission to enforce those rules on unsuspecting newbies.
Until something happened — I started reading.
Frank Peretti’s The Oath, had sold over one million copies worldwide, so I knew it must be terrific. Besides, it was the recipient of the 1996 ECPA Gold Medallion Book Award for Best Fiction, and one of Peretti’s most critically acclaimed novels. I dug in, not only to be entertained, but to be wowed by his craftsmanship.
I read about 50 pages of The Oath before shelving it. Why? The “head-hopping” was driving me nuts!
Here I’d spent a solid year learning the rules and diligently applying them… only to find that Peretti did not do POV’s. In the same scene he’d bounce from one character to another, almost in “omniscient” manner (another writing no-no). Being that POV’s are one of the most elementary of “writing rules,” Peretti’s loosey-goosey head-hopping completely turned me off.
But he had sold a million books.
Now I was faced with a dilemma. Either:
- Frank Peretti was a bad writer
- What I was learning was wrong, or
- The writing rules weren’t as important as I was being taught
Now, after three writers conferences, a dozen craft books, a small library of novels read, several critique groups, two agents, and a two-book contract, I’ve reached this conclusion:
- Frank Peretti is a good writer
- What I was learning was correct — in the beginning
- The writing rules aren’t as important as I was being taught
After that season of legalism, Stephen Koch’s book, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, was revelatory. In it, he writes this about POV:
Many teachers of writing will tell you that the way to unify your story and integrate it with its characters is through something called the narrative “point of view.” There are even certain purists who will insist that an “integrated point of view” is the only way a narrative can achieve unity. . .
. . .The academic emphasis on “point of view” in fiction is precisely that — academic. The notion that “the most important thing in fiction is point of view” is a beguiling but vacuous theory that bears only a marginal relation to real practice. And it causes vast amounts of misunderstanding.
. . .Of course, a consistent point of view can indeed be a guide to unity, and of course, you will want your prose to have a coherent texture. But it is a mistake to assume that point of view itself necessarily endows any story with either unity or coherence. Too often, this rather fussy doctrine pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range. (pp. 88-90, emphasis mine)
After my early indoctrination, I must say it was refreshing to hear the POV rules called, “. . .a beguiling but vacuous theory. . . [a] rather fussy doctrine [that] pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range.”
And therein lies the danger of writing rules.
If the primary goal of a story is to take us somewhere, then the “writing rules” must be subservient to that end. Much like a map, aesthetics are secondary to functionality. It is required first of the mapmaker to know which way North is. A colorful, good-looking map that has its directions all wrong is about as valuable as a well-written novel that doesn’t take us anywhere. Perhaps this is what we should first teach aspiring novelists — not about passives, POV, and show v. tell, but about how to take readers somewhere.
By over-emphasizing writing rules we unwittingly create a “checklist mentality” that places style above story and “pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range.” Of course, new writers need to understand the rules. But if we’re not careful, we will turn the creative process into a formula and make literary Pharisees out of our proteges.
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Question: Do you agree that these “writing rules” can be a danger to aspiring authors? How much do you emphasize the rules when mentoring new writers?