Monday, February 16, 2009

The Rules of Writing (Part I)

Authors, agents and editors talk much about the rules of writing. Most of us will agree that these rules are more like guidelines than laws set in stone. What we can’t agree on is what the rules are and what they mean. Oh well, such is life.

Mark Twain said there are nineteen rules, though some people say there are twenty-two. He doesn’t say what the nineteenth rule is, though I doubt he knew since he mentions it in a critique of James Fenimore Cooper’s work. I think he chose the number nineteen to bring attention to how poorly written he believed Deerslayer to be. Twain does give us the eighteen he said Jame Fenimore Cooper violated. I see among them some of the same rules we keep spouting today, so I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at Twain’s eighteen rules governing the literary art in the domain of romantic fiction over the next few days. As we do, I will say that knowing the rules and understanding them is a far cry from being able to apply them to our own writing.

A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

We might restate Twain’s first rule by saying that a story is about change. More specifically, our stories should be about how our characters change. Let’s look at the romance plot, for example. We can tell about a man who takes a job at a new company, meets a co-worker with whom he has a lot in common, takes her on a few dates and asks her to marry him. It meets the requirements of a romance, but it isn’t very interesting. Compare that to a man who dislikes children taking a job at a new company, meeting a widow with five children. While he finds her attractive and an enjoyable person to be around, he doesn’t want to get involved. She has to go out of town for a couple of weeks and she asks him if he will take care of the kids while she is gone. He learns to like the kids and now he is willing to get romantically involved with the woman.

At the beginning of any good story, there is at least one character with something wrong with him or her that will prevent us from reaching the desired end of the tale. An event called the inciting incident incites the characters to change. Change never comes easy, but when if it comes our character will be able to accomplish what he could not accomplish before he made the change.

The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.

Kurt Vonnegut stated this as Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action. This is one of the traps we fall into when we get concerned about word count and start looking for filler, but backstory is also part of this. We have a tendency to think the reader needs to understand why our character is the way he is, so we give backstory that the reader doesn’t need. We also have a tendency to get caught up in the world we create and we want to explore it more than we should. I mean all of us when I say we. Popular books are not exempt from this problem.

We see the backstory problem in Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. This book, which is loosely based on the story of Hosea, has been popular for quite a while. The heart of this book is about the female character learning to accept the love of a man. The problem lies in that the first section of the book is about her early life and the events that led to her becoming a prostitute. It is a huge section of backstory that could have been chopped off.

The problem with the author spending too much time exploring his imaginary world can be seen in The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. This book is also popular. It has been made into two movies and had derivative movies made based on the characters in the book. I love this book, but near the center of the book you will find some chapters that didn’t make it into any of the movies. These chapters are sketches showing us what daily life might be like if we lived in Fantasia. Any conflict that exists is localized and there is nothing moving the primary story forward.

Obviously, having a few scenes that aren’t needed isn’t always the death of the work in the eyes of publishers, but our work can only be helped by looking for such instances and removing them.