Telling Creative People What to Do; Or, Rules Were Made to Be Broken

Being a librarian and a generally law-abiding person, I rarely think about bucking the rules. And yet I love books that break the rules by blending genres or shattering character tropes. I adore books that go metafictional. (Jasper Fforde‘s Thursday Next series is one of my dearest reading joys.) So it’s curious that I have a strange fascination with writerly laws and rules, given that there’s really only two rules that I think shouldn’t be broken—but I’ll get to that later.

My first brush with writerly rules was when I ran across “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam.” This isn’t so much a list of rules as it is a list of tropes and clichés that need to be avoided at all cost. (Number 33 still makes me laugh harder than I should.) Reading over the questions made me realize why I had gotten so disillusioned with epic fantasy after several years reading books by the inch when I was a teenager. Those questions made me realize that I was, more often than not, reading the same book over and over but with the apostrophes in the names moved around.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

Then came Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction” and S.S. van Dine’s expanded “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” which is more of a satirical response to Knox and the excesses of the genre at the time. These rules struck me more as Oulipian constraints rather than immutable laws of writing, limits that bound the genre more than offer guidance for aspiring writers. As I read van Dine’s rules, I couldn’t help but think of all the authors I’ve read who joyously broken them to create good stories.

Being a reader rather than a writer, there are really only two rules that I think shouldn’t be broken: Vonnegut’s first rule and the old chestnut of “show, don’t tell.” Vonnegut’s first rule is, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” Books lose me whenever I feel like I’m being made to read something that waste’s my time, I completely lose interest in finishing the book. I’ll take side trips, as long as I’m being entertained, but only if I feel like the tangents are going to contribute to the overall plot or characterization.

I’m still a fairly staunch believer in “show, don’t tell,” because part of the reason I read books is to exercise my imagination, puzzle out mysteries, and psychoanalyze characters. I don’t like being told who characters are and what they’re up to and where they’re doing whatever it is they’re up to. But Sonya Huber published an essay recently on LitHub that reminded me that it’s possible to interpret “show, don’t tell” in more than one way. Huber writes about being stymied as a writer in, “The Three Words That Almost Ruined Me As a Writer: ‘Show, Don’t Tell‘.” This essay rattled me, for a moment. Of course, Huber was talking about writing nonfiction, which has different constraints and opportunities. I realize that I’m going to be told about things in nonfiction, but I still think that a good writer of nonfiction will leave places for my imagination to picture people and places and to draw conclusions and connections.

I have a feeling that writers and writing teachers come up with rules to give potential story-spinner somewhere to start, like training wheels. Once a writer gets going, I want them to chuck out their training wheels with something original…as long as it’s tightly constructed so as not to waste my reading time and shows more than it tells so that I get to participate in the creative process, too.

One thought on “Telling Creative People What to Do; Or, Rules Were Made to Be Broken

  1. Thanks. I enjoyed that.
    Kind of off subject, but have you noticed how life kind of makes odd connections? Like when you buy a particular type and colour of car. Youve never really noticed how many of the same car, same colour are around until you buy one. Then you servthem everywhere. I read the essay by sonya huber you linked in your post. She mentioned William Carlos Williams poem Paterson. Up until this week i had never heard of him or the poem. But by councidence a writer friend of mine who is traveling, posted a photo on facebook of his visit to the town of Paterson, showing a waterfall and benches…where William Carlos Williams worked as a doctor, as well as being a poet. So i looked up the poem. What an epic. 5 volumes of it. Then i happened upon the movie Paterson. About a bus driver living in the town of Paterson who’s name just happens to also be Paterson and who writes poetry. He sits on the bench overlooking the falls and writes poetry. It’s a nice movie about ordinary people who look out for one another…who’s dreams may or may not come true.

    Liked by 1 person

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