I’ve been saying for a long time that there are only two rules for writing: 1) You must write, and 2) What you write has to work. And I keep running into writers at opposite ends of the spectrum who really, really, reeeeeeaaaally don’t like that.
The first group argues for more rules. Surely there are things that everyone agrees are Bad Writing, they say. Aren’t those Rules For What Not To Do? So I ask them to name a couple, and then point out a couple of places where famous, popular, highly respected fiction writers break those rules and get away with it. Then I get the argument that they only get away with it because they are famous, and we end up in a long, boring discussion of how a rule can’t be the sort of Absolute Truth they want it to be if it doesn’t apply to all fiction, regardless of the name on the cover, and how those highly respected writers “get away” with breaking the rule because a) it isn’t that kind of rule in the first place, and b) what they are doing works (see #2, above). And these people go away muttering unhappily.
The second group doesn’t like having any rules. It’s all about being creative and expressing your inner soul, and rules are so limiting. So I point out that it’s kind of minimal to say that to be a writer, you have to actually write something, and they get all flustered (frequently because they consider themselves writers, but haven’t actually written anything). Then we go through the same kind of conversation about Rule #2 (“So it is find to write stuff that doesn’t work? Wouldn’t you call that “bad writing”?”) and they flounce off in a huff.
What I really want to do to both groups is give them some tea. Because the thing about tea is, it is fairly simple to make (you pour hot water over tea leaves), but in order to make it (let alone drink it) you must make it in something: a teapot, a mug, a teacup, an insulated thermos, a pan. And the necessity of this is so obvious to anyone who has ever made tea that nobody thinks much about it when they say “I’m going to make tea; want some?”
Writing fiction is like making tea that way. There is need for a structure to contain the story; this is so internalized in so many people that they look at me blankly when I say “To be a writer, you have to write. That is, you must put words on paper or into pixels.” The first group, especially, wants more detail than that. But just as there are hundreds of sizes, shapes, and styles of teacups and mugs, there are hundreds of ways of telling stories. As long as the cups hold the tea and the stories get told, it’s fine.
People who want more structure and more rules seem to think that if a little is good, more will be better. But it is very difficult to drink tea out of a mug that has sides that are three inches thick. People who don’t want rules seem to think that their creativity will vanish if it is constrained in any way at all; they forget that if you just set out some leaves and pour hot water over them, the water all runs away and all you have is a muddy spot in the ground or a puddle on the kitchen floor.
The most effective structures and systems and constraints are the ones we don’t notice, because they are so fundamentally necessary that we can’t even consider doing without them. They don’t come from the outside. They arise from the nature of writing and storytelling. They also tend to be positive rules – rules that tell you things you should do. Positive rules are hard to formulate as a by-the-numbers recipe. Saying “don’t use adverbs” gives the writer a nice, easy thing to check (always presuming that the writer knows what an adverb is and can identify it). Saying “Dialog needs to sound like actual people talking” is a lot more general. It has to be, because actual people have many, many different speaking styles, any of which could be used in a story.
“You must write” is a positive rule; it is something you have to do if you hope to be a writer. Actually, it’s definitional; if you don’t write, then you aren’t a writer. You may be a storyteller or a performance artist or an actor or any number of other things that use some of the same story-making skills, but you aren’t a writer if you don’t write.