Friday, June 29, 2012

Rules and How to Break Them

A guest post by Scott Bury

There sure are a lot of rules when it comes to writing, whether it's fiction or non-fiction. And theyre driving me crazy.

I know you cant break grammar and spelling rules. Unless you really want to. And you know that you're doing it. And you know why you're doing it.

But those other rules are starting to bug me. Like Elmore Leonard's ten (or is it eleven?) rules for writing ficion like "never start with weather." And never use the word "suddenly."

Genre fiction has even more rules. In many ways, these rules make the genre. Consider spy fiction: CIA agents always call their agency "the Company." And there's always a convenient computer wizard who gets critical information to move the plot forward, when there's no other plausible way to get said information.

In epic fantasy, the old mage knows everything, and either the hero or the heroine is a prince or princess. Maybe a lost royal, or a hidden royal, but definitely a royal. Fantasy always features a crude, childish map of an imaginary land.

In romances, the good girl always gets the guy. And the guy is always intimidating at first impression. But hes ruggedly handsome, and athletic. And if hes not obviously, fabulously rich, then he lives in a house he built by himself and keeps his substantial wealth well hidden. And one of the pair is smokin hot in bed, while the other has undiscovered sexual talents that yearn to be released.

And Im not talking just about erotica or even the soft-porn that calls itself 50 Shades of Grey. Youll find these tropes from Bridget Jones to Jane Austen.

You gotta have those things, right? I mean, them's the rules. Apparently.

I hate rules.

Why do the hero and heroine have to be beautiful? Next time youre on the busor train, or in a food court or sports stadiumlook around you: how many of your fellow humans are beautiful? How many are fabulously wealthy? Think about your own partner: have you discovered the sure-fire trigger that turns them into lustful tigers in seconds, every single time?

Writing is an art. As artists, were not giving ourselves or our audience what they deserve if we dont explore new ideas, try new ways of writing, write new plots. In other words, break rules.

But as I said, you cant just write down whatever comes out of your head and expect an audience to finish reading it. It just wont happen.

The English languages has rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar for a good reason: they enable us to understand one another.

And those rules for plot, characterization, setting have evolved because they work. A story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, or its just not a story. Why is the plot of The Lion King the same as Hamlet (except for the last scene)? Because that old, old story, the story of Cain and Abel, touches something deep inside all of us. There are ideas in there that are still to be explored.

But then there are ideas that are so worn out, theyre kind of nauseating. Like the couple who cant get married, because at least one of them is afraid of commitment. Or anything else that has been in any Julia Roberts movie.

Story-telling requires some rules. But writers should not be afraid to break them, as long as
-       they know theyre breaking a rule, what that rule is and why it exists
-       they have a good reason to break it.

Elmore Leonard is a great writer, but why couldnt I start a book with weather? And not just it was a dark and stormy night.

How about this?
Rain again. Grey, dark, cold. Not enough to keep plants alive. Not enough for the farmers, said the voice on the radio. Just a fine, chilling drizzle from clouds that seemed to get stuck in the power lines. Nadia wondered if that’s what had happened as she blew across her coffee and waited for the phone to ring. She sipped her coffee: still too hot. She shivered as a rusty pickup truck sloshed along the street, wipers going too fast for the amount of rain. She blew on the coffee again. Ring, dammit.
Her breath was fogging the window. She turned away and put the coffee beside the phone. Why won’t you ring?
There. Started with the weather, moved right to the character. I think it works. I have no idea where to go with it, though. If anyone reading this wants to use it, feel free.

Rules apparent in fiction today:

1.    Heroines, especially young ones, are always beautiful. Heroes are ruggedly handsome.
2.    The good boy always gets the girl.
3.    Bad boys are really good, underneath their rough exterior.
4.    Cops have English, Irish, Scottish, Italian or Polish names, except for a token Spanish name.
5.    Couples initially hate each other and do awful things to each other, only to mask their irresistible sexual attraction to each other. Eventually, they end up in bed and then married.
6.    Heroes are always dead shots, and villains never hit anything.
7.    In epic fantasy, good guys have vaguely Celtic-sounding names; bad guys have Germanic-sounding names or, if theyre REALLY bad, Turkic.
8.    The background information source, whether its a magician, and ancient mystic, someone with second sight, a street-wise information with his ear to the ground or an ingenious computer hacker, is always 100 percent reliable and NEVER wrong.
9.    The blonde bombshell the hero is dating at the beginning of the book is always wrong for him or her. The mousey, shy  and faithful co-worker is always the soul-mate.

Those are just a few of the common ones I notice, and they drive me crazy. What about you? Which rules would you like to break, or to see your favourite writers break?

Scott Bury has been writing about publishing, computers, and communications for over 20 years. And he has won awards for it. Read his blog, Written Words. Follow him on Twitter @ScottTheWriter.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Scott Bury. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

7 comments:

  1. Check out Scott's latest book too, called The Bones of the Earth. Here's the link. http://www.amazon.com/The-Bones-Earth-Scott-Bury/dp/0987914111/ref=la_B007Z4BXGY_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1340978185&sr=1-1

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  2. I love this, and I am proud to say that I am purposefully breaking two of these rules in my book. Thanks for the post, keep up the good work!

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  3. Sweet! Scott makes some great points. And I think that if you are mindful of the rules you're breaking, then you're in good shape. As for me, rule-breaking is a favorite hobby of mine. Well, not completely. But I do tend to gravitate toward characters who break rules, now that I think about it. Hmm.

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  4. Must name a character Nadia...

    Great scene, great points. Thanks.

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    1. Chloe, thanks for stopping by, and glad you enjoyed Scott's post. He's consistently good with his advice!

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  5. Excellent post, I should show this to my mother. She complains my sentences are too long, so I show her Tolkien; she comments my adverbs are incorrectly placed, not sure who to show her for that one; and I have made an effort to write....be an author and illustrator.

    Rules are there for a purpose (I need them to teach my pupils English), and yet, when contorted and twisted can create such fantastic (sometimes beautiful) prose.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah, and glad you liked the post! Yeah, Scott makes some great points about rule-breaking. It's funny how people will try to fit us into boxes with our writing, but that just doesn't work all the time.

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