Six impossible things

Rules again

In the past two months, at least five different people have said something to me along the lines of “My teacher said/some professional writer said/my crit group says/I have observed [insert writing technique] is the rule for [insert writing problem or situation]. So is that a rule?” This means it’s about time for another look at writing rules.

Actually, let’s start with looking at rules, period. The definition of “a rule” according to the Oxford Dictionary is “one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedures within a particular area or activity.” There are rules for games; there are rules at school; there are safety rules; there are government rules; there are “house rules”; there are rules of etiquette and rules of the road. Some of them are common sense (“Measure twice, cut once”), some of them people have mutually agreed on in order to make our lives easier (“All cars in this country travel on the right/left side of the road”), and some we agree on for fun (“The batter gets three strikes, and then they’re out.”). What they all have in common is 1) rules are made by one or more people and enforced by one or more people, 2) rules can be broken (unlike, say, the law of gravity), and 3) breaking rules has consequences, which are often undesirable (see enforcement, above).

Having a bunch of rules for something can be desirable. It’s not much fun to play a game that has no rules. Rules also remove the necessity of making decisions (large or small depends on the rule). In some cases, following rules can keep one from making a serious or even life-threatening mistake (“Don’t cross a busy street against the light”). And, of course, following rules keeps one out of trouble with whoever is enforcing them.

Rules depend on a common context and/or repeatable situation. “You can’t play a red Jack on a black Queen” may be a perfectly good rule for a card game, but it doesn’t help if you’re playing football or driving a car. Which brings us to writing.

Saying “there are rules for writing” is like saying “there are rules for card games.” The only one I can think of that applies to all card games is “You have to have a deck of cards,” and even then, there are a lot of card games like canasta and pinochle that require multiple decks or specific types of cards. Even if you start by saying “OK, I’m going to play poker,” you still have to decide what kind – Texas Hold’em? Five-card draw? Razz? – and which variation you’re playing with how many people.

And if you’re trying to play solitaire and somebody starts criticizing your plays based on the rules for canasta…well, that’s not going to be very helpful, is it?

Writing “rules” are even worse. One of my editors once told me that publishing 60 books a year was essentially doing 60 new product launches a year, because no matter how people try to group and classify books into genres and subgenres, every book is different. There may be similarities with other stories – you may have two authors who are both playing Solitaire, for instance – but you still face the problem that one is playing Klondike and the other is playing Spider. The same rules do not apply, even though the game is similar in a lot of regards.

People like rules, because it gives us a benchmark, a way to tell how we’re doing. But general “rules” for writing are just about impossible to codify – there are too many variables along too many different axes, everything from genre to intended audience to desired effect to the interaction between characters, plot, setting, theme, style, and all the other technical aspects of writing.

What one can do is set specific writing rules for oneself. Creative writing classes and how-to-write books do this all the time; homework assignments are rarely “go write something” – no, they’re things like “Write 500 words of dialog between two characters who are never named” or “Write 300 words of description of a setting that lets the reader know that a horrible tragedy took place here, without actually mentioning the event.” The idea, of course, is to practice a specific technique that the teacher or books wants the writer-students to improve. Yet when I teach, there are always at least two out of every ten to fifteen students who ask “Does this mean it’s wrong to name characters when I’m writing dialog?” or “So it’s a rule that you’re not supposed to tell the readers what happened in the past?” (This is one of the reasons I hate giving exercises and homework, though it’s really the only way to cover specific techniques in a short time so I still do it.)

Writers set themselves rules for all sorts of reasons: because they want to master a particular technique, because they want to stretch their skills in a new direction, because they’re trying to eliminate a writing tic that they’ve noticed (this last can be anything from forbidding oneself to use specific words like “really” or “grin” or “tiara” to limiting the number of compound sentences or semi-colons on one page to forcing oneself to use a viewpoint or technique that one has been avoiding).

The thing is, those rules are invented by the writer or teacher for a specific project or purpose. They don’t usually apply to all of that writer’s work, let alone to everyone else’s writing. It is important to remember this, because if one doesn’t, one can become trapped by a writing “rule” one made up ten years and twenty projects ago that is getting in the way of whatever one is trying to learn now.

Almost all “writing rules” depend on what kind of thing you are writing, what kind of effect you want it to have, who you’re writing it for, and whatever else you may be trying to do. The only rules that really do apply to all fiction are things like the rules of grammar and syntax (and even those vary depending on what language you’re writing in), plus these two: 1) You have to write. And 2) What you write has to work.

  1. “Don’t ‘write by the rules’. Write the story that rules you.”
    –Alma Alexander

    “The average writer is covered with suits of armor and ideas about what writing should be. That’s a lot of nonsense between you and the writing process.”
    –Ray Bradbury

  2. Also, if you follow ALL the rules, you sometimes end up with a very dull story…

  3. I think of writing exercises as being “stunts.” They often ignore the usual rules (“don’t fly the airplane upside-down”) in favor of their own.

    Then there are the things that fall under the Tolkien Rule: “You can get away with that if you are Tolkien – and you are not Tolkien.”

    After that, there are rules that are generally good practice, rules that try to steer the writer away from common newbie errors, rules that are just loose guidelines, and idiot rules.

    • But how do you know you are not Tolkien? I don’t think Tolkien worried much about whether or not he was Tolkien before writing LOTR.

  4. Exercises are merely practise in doing something. Sometimes they are challenges (rewrite the 10 commandments without the letter “O”.) If you are given a piano exercise of a scale in C# minor, you don’t have to play every piece for the rest of you life in that key.

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