Sunday, February 24, 2008

Writing Rules

I said in a comment a couple posts ago that there are no writing rules -- meaning no hard and fast, unbreakable rules -- and I believe that. It's as easy to come up with the exception to a rule as it is to make one.

But of course there are rules floating around out there, and some writing teachers feel like their students aren't getting their money's worth unless they finish the class with a nice little portfolio of do's and don't's. But usually, if you follow these rules, you end up writing exactly like the writing teacher, and who wants to do that?

Here are some of the rules of fiction writing I've heard over the years. Some are more valid than others, but none are written in stone, in my opinion. What do you think? Have you heard any good, or bad, ones?

* Never write in dialect, that is, spell out how someone pronounces words. You should be able to to convey an accent through word choice and punctuation alone. (I follow this rule.)

* Dialogue should never convey information -- that's what exposition is for. (I like this rule, too.)

* Characters should never speak directly to each other in dialogue. There should always be an element of misunderstanding or not listening.

* At the end of a story, you should get all the characters together in a room. (This might not have been a rule, just a good way to end a story, but I'm not sure.)

* Never switch the point of view in the middle of a paragraph.

* Use no adverbs, ever.

* A word of Germanic origin is better than one of Latinate origin.

* Always say "fuck" instead of "make love."

* Never open with dialogue.

There have to be others, but suddenly I'm drawing a blank.


Mr. Saflo said...

The dialect rule should be carved in stone, and that stone should be dropped on the head of anyone who violates it. The rest can go in the garbage can for all I care.

Mr. Saflo said...

That was pretty glib. I just can't seem to help being a cool, devil-may-care rebel.

5 Red Pandas said...

Mr.Saflo, I always imagined you as a cool, devil-may-care sort of fellow, so thanks for confirming it for me.

I'm mostly jealous of your monocle, but the top hat stirs a little bit of something as well.

Hugo Minor said...

The "dialogue should never convey information" rule is interesting, but what does that mean? Basic info, like descriptions? I suppose you'd want to reveal the name of a killer or the truth about some secret in dialogue.

Anonymous said...

"Hello there, Patty, who just last year lost her right arm in an auto accident!"

Dusty said...

Not that I'm a fan of "make love", but I really hate the idea of of using "fuck" as the default verb. I can think of far more people whose love-making would be done a total disservice with "fuck" than those whose sex is made more "real" or something by it.

Dave Eggers wrote an essay about this called "Never Fucked Anyone" that almost made it in Might magainze, but was put instead in its post-shutdown anthology. A good teaching tool, I've found.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I try to avoid referring to the act by any particular term, instead describing the circumstances surrounding it, if they're important. You almost never have to say that anyone fucked or made love or whatever--your reader knows what they're doing. It's akin to sort of giggling and putting your hands over your mouth and whispering "Oh my God they're doin' it!"

That said, I'm sure I've succumbed to both terms over the years.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of using profanity to describe profane things, I've always been a bit unsure of how best to present poop in prose.

I'm being serious here.

Whenever I read about feces in a literary novel or the Atlantic or the New Yorker described as anything but feces or defication or stool, it makes me uneasy.

This is especially true when it's about dog feces.


In last week's ed. of the New Yorker, in the S&M piece on Ray Davies, there was this:

"Davies, heading downtown, remarked on the persistence of locksmith shops and the absence of dog turds...."

The minute I saw the word 'turd', I cringed.

This happens all the time. It's worse when someone respectable says something like, "I need to take a shit." Or, "It smells like a shit in here." You get the picture.

The same is also true - but for some strange reason less so - when I hear a respectable person use the word fuck.

It just doesn't hit the ear right.

That said, I realize that I may be in the minority here.

zoe said...

No, I agree.

Back to the dialect point, count yourselves lucky that you don't live in Scotland. There is a huge thing here about dialect being more "real" than standard English.
It's even supposed to be taught as part of the English curriculum. I don't mind characters speaking in dialect, but I am not a fan of a whole book being in dialect - especially if it's used as an inverted form of snobbery.

There are exceptions to this, of course. I don't know if you have ever read anything by Irvine Welsh at all (Trainspotting, for example) but he is perfectly capable and assured whilst writing in standard English or dialect. I only use dialect when it's important to a character to speak that way. There's also the added issue of Scots which is a parralel language here at times.

Possibly this seems irrelevant to a (mostly) North American readership. But it's one of my current drums to beat.

rmellis said...

Oh, yeah, I don't remember where I heard that "fuck" rule, but I don't follow it. I usually write "have sex" when that's what I mean.

In a very old story of JRL's he wrote something like "They got on the floor and did some things." I love that deliberate vagueness, because if it's not me, I don't want to know, thanksverymuch.

amy shearn said...

These are good rules. I used to hate "writing rules" more than anything, but I had one fantastic professor in grad school who was full of write-down-able bits of wisdom -- his classes really turned me around. Things like "action is metaphor" and -- this one changed my life I think -- "every character is driven by secret hopes and fears which are revealed in moments of stress." Ok, maybe that's not a rule, but it's a darn helpful thing to remember. Oh, and I also really like Kurt Vonnegut's Creative Writing 101, which I could practically recite by heart. Most importantly: "Write to please just one person. If you throw your window open and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will catch pneumonia." An important point, I think!

Teaching humor writing I've become attached to some humor rule-like-things that I find helpful, like, duh, always save the joke for the end, and also, injustice is funnier than justice.

God, what happened to me?! Apparently now I LOVE writing rules.

Oh well.

Diana Holquist said...

There's a great set of rules and lists for Harlequin Steeple Hill writers (Harlequin's Christian line of romance novels) on what words and acts writers can and can't use. It's too long to post here, but there's a long section on "doo-doo" (not okay, btw).

And don't get those guys started on fucking. Christ! I mean, you know, not "Christ." And certainly not fucking Christ....'cause that would just be WRONG.

Anonymous said...

Hoo boy. No doo-doo huh! You don't ever have to shit, in heaven.

The obvious answer to the fecal nomenclature issue is just not to put pooing in your book. But sometimes, just every once in a while, it's actually important. I kind of feel the same way about this as I do about sex in don't have to call it anything, really, just describe the part of the experience that needs describing. I think there's actually a crapping scene in Mailman...I can't remember if I euphemized or what.

Sometimes the word "shit" is great for effect though. There's this hilarious Wallace Shawn play, I can't remember which, where the protagonist is sitting in a restaurant and a guy at the next table is loudly talking about an attack of diarrhea..."...and I just kept SHITTING and SHITTING!" And then the protagonist asks him to stop and they have a big fight. It's very funny--but of course it's a joke about the blunt awfulness of the word.

G C Munroe said...

"I think there's actually a crapping scene in Mailman...I can't remember if I euphemized or what."

John, I hope you didn't write that with a straight face. I'm still trying to cleanse* my mind of the many thunderous shits that Albert took during the course of that novel.

Apart from incest and self-deception, chronic bowel loosening might be THE major thematic pillar upon which Mailman rests.

(And yes, you have my permission to use that as a blurb in the book's next reprint.)

* Forgive the association.

5 Red Pandas said...

Ooh, I like that humor rule. Injustice definitely is much funnier than justice.

myles said...

Vonnegut's rules are good: every character must want something, every sentence must either reveal character or advance the action.

There's Elmore Leonard, of course, and his ten rules. Particularly: Never say "suddenly" and never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. And never stick an adverb to it.

And if it seems like writing, rewrite it.

I strongly agree with the dialect/patois rule. The only exception is Wodehouse's "Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend", where it's used lightly with great comic effect. Almost anyone else will cause me to fling the book violently out the window.

Anonymous said...

:-D Many thunderous shits, eh? Sorry, man, but the guy was sick...what can I say...I think I might never write another toilet scene again.

grant, you're no longer emailable through a profile, it looks like. Drop me a note at jrobertlennon at gmail, I wanted to write to you...

myles said...

Oh, and on the euphemism question. "Fucking" isn't often right (a bit too boisterous or aggressive). A suggestion is usually enough. "She dropped the towel and lay beside him" for instance. The reader knows what's going on. And if he doesn't, the rest of the book's going to be wasted on him.

On the other hand, "rooting" is a fine and honoured Australian expression. Or "bonking" if the fuckers are English.

Either way, a writer is flirting with admission to the Bad Sex Awards. (Which, coincidentally, Norman Mailer won with his truly awful combination of sex and poo. Nice one, Norman. Way to end a career.)

Anonymous said...

Ah, you reminded me of James Welch: "He rooted in the heat of her." Or something like that, from Winter In The Blood. I always liked that; it seemed so dirty.

Monketah said...

Don't forget the rule about having a story begin with a character waking up in bed.

Writer, Rejected said...

I don't know...I've seen every one of your rules brilliantly tossed aside with courage and grace and mind-boggling skill; the masters do it all the time. So, I think I'd have to say there really are no rules. Or else if you do something that is usually annoying in narrative form, at least do it well.

rmellis said...

that's my point, writer rejected! :)

sdavis said...

I scurry impudently and hopefully to your blog several times a day. It makes me miss old Rhian and old John inordinately. It also smokily - no, pungently - encourages me to read and write. Unwisely. I wanted, rapaciously and ingratiatingly, to let you know, fast. Sincerely, etc. etc.

rmellis said...

Sarah, you nut!

You should join facebook so I can play scrabble with you.

LemmusLemmus said...

Rules 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 sound like complete nonsense to me.

Isn't the most popular rule (and not such a bad one), "Conflict, Conflict, Conflict!"?

rmellis said...

The Germanic rule is a pretty good one, though of course it depends on your voice.

Conflict? Eh! That's for those genre writers! ;)

Anonymous said...

Irvine Welsh, Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God is 3rd person vernacular), and the entire anthology Rotten English show rule on dialect isn't set in stone. Honestly, I find writing in dialect difficult, but reading it is exciting in a post-colonial way because it often comes from marginalized ethnic groups who had been kept away from traditional education and in their margins created their own "rotten english" . It may sound "ebonics-ish" but there's something to not wanting to heed to the so-called "proper" language of your past oppressor. To me it's what I find amazing in Hurston's novel and what I struggle with in my own.

Jon said...

"Characters should never speak directly to each other in dialogue. There should always be an element of misunderstanding or not listening."

This sseems to be a very artificed way of approaching actual dialogue. Because the most exciting conversations are when both parties are completely engaged. Seems like that's just a interesting constraint to work with than a hard 'n fast rule.

rmellis said...

Yes, I think the characters-not-speaking-directly rule is a perfect example of a teacher giving a rule for *his style,* not for writing in general.

Though I do agree with the general principle that dialogue should be there for a reason and not just to be charming.

David Rochester said...

I laughed and laughed at the
"Germanic origin" vs. "Latin origin" word rule. Oh,my God. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard, and beyond being stupid, would deprive the writer of a great deal of potential euphony, not to mention characterization through language choice.

I kind of agree about no exposition through dialogue, and kind of don't agree. Because in real life, people do accomplish exposition through speech, and often the way in which they do it can be highly revealing, in a way that a narrative POV cannot accomplish ... there's an impact difference between:

Sarah told Alice that she'd been married for twelve years, to a successful insurance agent who liked to golf on the weekends with his best friend Joe Bob Hanson.


"I can't believe I've been married for twelve years to an insurance agent," Sarah said. "At least the money's good." She leaned forward, and lowered her voice, as though about to disclose a secret. "His golfing buddy's name is Joe Bob. People don't have those names, where I grew up."

Hasan said...

I actually just came across a book that doesn't follow the "Never switch the point of view in the middle of a paragraph" rule, creating a really interesting (and dizzying) effect.

Check out "Heart of a Dog" by Mikhail Bulgakov.