Read a blog post recently that got me thinking. This is what came of it.
Rules. Every game needs them, otherwise it wouldn’t be different from any other game. Writing is a game as well and it has rules to create something that makes sense; we call them stories.
The problem is most so-called writing rules are summaries of long discussions. If you don’t know the entire discussion, reading the end product – the rock-solid rule – may be more damaging than helpful.
Rules were created to avoid mistakes. And here’s a thing about mistakes: we only spot them when we don’t enjoy the story. That’s why the professionals can get away with huge goofs. Their stories are so good we fail to see the blunders. And that is the whole point of writing; when mistakes don’t matter anymore, we’ve won.
Rules are suppose to be guiding principles, not impenetrable walls that deny access to areas on the other side of them. They shouldn’t be treated this way and yet many times they are. Without basic rules we cannot hope to achieve much but all these rules should be taken as orientation points.
So I’ve decided to go through some of them that caught my eye lately and decided to make my own version of them.
1. “Avoid prologue.” Well, I’ve read some good prologues over the years. Maybe the rule should be “Avoid prologues that look like Lord of the Rings prologue” since that was not a prologue but a 100-page disertation on Hobbit sociology. Sometimes an ominous voice of a prologue is exactly what we need to get in the story. Sometimes the prologue reveals vital knowledge that our POV characters simply don’t know. A song of Ice and Fire series comes to mind; if we didn’t read the prologue in the first book, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the story, but now we know something most characters don’t.
2. “Don’t begin a story with waking up.” I would rewrite that into “Avoid beginnings with waking up unless you have a good reason”. I have numerous ideas of how the waking up could be used well and I’m sure there are a lot of stories out there that can also use it well. I loved the waking up at the start of Predators movie. That guy woke up in free fall a thousand meters above ground. Hell of a way to begin.
3. “Show don’t tell.” Ah, this one is a classic. Nearly a cliche, I should think. Most of us know the discussion behind it and most of us know that you can’t use ‘show’ on the entire story. Sometimes ‘tell’ is more elegant and less cluttering. I would rewrite this into “Show when you can, tell when you must, imply if necessary”. Yes, imply. The most satisfying story is the one that allows the reader to reach her own conclusions instead of guiding her like she were blind.
4. “Avoid cliches.” Well, most of the time, yes, but not always. Cliches can be powerful; they were powerful before, otherwise they wouldn’t become cliches. I’d say “Treat cliches like poisonous snakes: handle them in gloves, place them only where they can do no harm but always be ready to pull one out of the bag because sometimes we do have to scare our readers. Or critiques, the poor creatures.” Cliches can ruin a story. They can also make it memorable.
Most of the rules and the exceptions to them can be explained by “But that was done by a professional!” Exactly. Professionals are allowed to break rules because they make it up to us by giving us a great story. Give your readers a great story and you can break rules too.
Summary: we all have to learn the rules to get along with each other. But those that remain behind the bars forever will be imprisoned forever. In the writing world, such people become professional critiques and reviewers (are those two the same? I can never tell), or as I like to call them, wardens to the prison that became their home. Myself I prefer to use that cage only as a shelter. A shelter from which I can explore the surroundings and have a life outside those bars.