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.
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.