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Every "Rule" has Exceptions

One of the many fascinating aspects of English and writing is that anything that sounds like a rule has exceptions.  The only real rule in writing is this: IT HAS TO WORK.  If it works, it's good.

So, a lot of the standard wisdom writing teachers hand out is challengable, if you know what you are doing.

-    Write what you know.  This is intuitively wrong, or at least poorly stated.  I prefer "Don't write what you don't know," because that implies you can find out stuff (and should).  Too vigorously applied, "write what you know," produces a lot of belly button gazing.  At the college that means I get a ton of dorm stories, filled with drinking and teen angst.  Maybe an even better way to phrase this might be, "Write what you can imagine, and imagine with gusto (and detail)."  At least for science fiction and fantasy writers.

-   Don't shift point of view.   In general, this is good advice.  A writer who slips around willy nilly with point of view just confuses the heck out of the reader.  I responded to a story the other day that dipped into the cat's point of view for a sentence, and then, catastrophically, into a house plant on the fireplace mantle for another sentence.  The better advice, at least to stronger writers, is Control point of view.  If you know what you are doing, a story that shifts point of view can be the only way to tell the story, if it works.

-   Show, don't tell.  This rule is what I had in mind when I started this post because yesterday I said the weakest way to reveal character is by the narrator directly telling the readers what the character is.  What I had in mind was the writer who puts something like this down on the page: "Leslie was witty and clever," and then Leslie never does a single witty or clever thing.  That's telling without confirming showing.  But some of the most memorable characters in fiction are revealed partly through the narrator directly telling the readers what the character is like.

For example, here is one of the most famous character introductions in all of English literature:

Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge.  No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.  No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.  Foul weather didn't know where to have him.  The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect.  They often "came down" handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

I think that nice bit of telling works, don't you?  All right, it's a bit of a cheat as an example, because there is some effective showing in there too, but the mode is mostly telling.  Look at how much milage Dickens gets out of mixing showing and telling.  Remember, too, that the very first time we see Scrooge in the story, his character is revealed through dialogue: 

"A merry Christmas, uncle!  God save you!" cried a cheerful voice.  It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

"Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!"

So, for me, the better advice is "Show, don't tell, unless you earn the right to tell by doing a lot of showing."  It doesn't quite roll off the tongue as easily as the first piece of advice, but it seems closer to the truth.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 24th, 2007 12:31 pm (UTC)
I've always taken the aproach that it's ok to break any and every "rule" you like - as long as you are aware you're breaking it, and know exactly why you've chosen to break it. Certainly as a reader I've seen POV shifts used all over the place in ways that, now I'm a "writer", I'm constantly told are "wrong". Yet the things I've read have clearly been written by writers (many of them extemely successfull and well-regarded ones).

I think it's the same in many fields of endeavour.

As for the "write what you know" dictum - this is so woefully misunderstood, so often. Your version of it is much wiser - i.e., don't write a story set in a Nigerian AIDS orphanage if your only knowldge of Africacomes from watching Animal Planet. The whole job of a (fiction) writer is to write that you don't know, but make it convincing so people think of it as "real". There's a whole arsenal of techniques out there to try and achieve that, and few if any writers will master all of them, but ultimately, we're telling stories, and stories are believable lies.
Apr. 24th, 2007 12:56 pm (UTC)
What's really sad to me is the writers who know stuff, but clearly don't apply it. For example, a writer who has a character who is supposed to be grieving, but the writer applies nothing of his own experience of grief to the scene. Or the writer who describes someone dancing as if the writer had never stood up on his own two good feet and moved to a tune.

It's baffling.
Apr. 24th, 2007 01:14 pm (UTC)
Every time I come up with a possible rule, I soon enough think of a piece of successful humorous writing that breaks it. Perhaps the only rule for humor is that it has to be funny. I may also be embittered by comic sf which seems to be littered with humor-like objects.

Sometimes I think it's "write what you love", with the caveats that love includes paying attention and that Heinlein was right about love and hate being closely related.
Apr. 24th, 2007 03:12 pm (UTC)
"The only real rule in writing is this: IT HAS TO WORK. If it works, it's good."

When I was teaching lit and comp in Alaska I would say basically the same thing to my students: "There are rules, but the best writers can break the rules and the only real rule is that the writing has to WORK, it has to accomplish what was intended."

I would say that and all the engineering students in my class would look panicky, lol. Very concrete thinkers, are young engineers. Which is funny because the rules are the same for a bridge or a building or a rocket, right? You have to obey the rules of physics, but the really brilliant engineers see new ways to make things and break the old rules by making something different that works well.
Apr. 25th, 2007 04:27 pm (UTC)

Perhaps sometimes we forget that the storyteller is really just another character in the story, and that sometimes the manner of the telling reveals as much about the storyteller as it does of that which s/he is describing.
Apr. 26th, 2007 01:29 am (UTC)
another rule about showing vs. telling
Mark Twain on the rules of writing:

"They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description."
Apr. 26th, 2007 02:53 am (UTC)
Re: another rule about showing vs. telling
I remember that one. Thanks for reminding me!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )