There sure are a lot of rules when it comes to writing, whether it's fiction or non-fiction. And they’re driving me crazy.
I know you can’t 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 he’s ruggedly handsome, and athletic. And if he’s 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 I’m not talking just about erotica or even the soft-porn that calls itself 50 Shades of Grey. You’ll 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 you’re on the bus—or train, or in a food court or sports stadium—look 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, we’re not giving ourselves or our audience what they deserve if we don’t explore new ideas, try new ways of writing, write new plots. In other words, break rules.
But as I said, you can’t just write down whatever comes out of your head and expect an audience to finish reading it. It just won’t 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 it’s 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, they’re kind of nauseating. Like the couple who can’t 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 they’re 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 couldn’t 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 they’re REALLY bad, Turkic.
8. The background information source, whether it’s 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.