writing theory, part 1

Interesting thing about rules in art. Someone, once upon a time in a country not farther away than somewhere else, invented them. Along came a rebel, and, ‘Aha!’ says he-or-she, ‘permit me to deconstruct those rules and do something entirely different!’

Enter an art critic, at first appalled, then hesitantly appreciative, then suddenly overwhelmed with enthusiasm. ‘Your rule-breaking is remarkable! And here’s how you seem to have done it…’

A lecturer, who was listening in while pretending to read the Times, looked up with unfeigned delight. ‘Oh, is that how it’s done? Brilliant!’ And he goes and teaches his students to do the same.

‘These,’ he explains, ‘are the rules of the rebellion.’

‘Boo,’ says a daring young artist. ‘Permit me to do something entirely different!’

(Repeat ad nauseam.)


If we do not shatter the broken scaffolding to build another, how will we repair the world?

That brings me around to my ongoing blogversation with Jenna St. Hilaire of A Light Inside–for which, if you’re just joining us, there are links at the end of this installment. In her Monday repartee, Jenna addressed the difficult question of rule breaking. When to do it, how to do it, and how do you tell young writers that the best writers don’t hold onto the handlebars, without igniting a catastrophe?


Jenna gives several links to excellent articles discussing the when, the how, and the unavoidable of rule breaking. To that sortie, I add my own link to Mike Duran’s synchronistic post on ‘The Danger of “Writing Rules”.’

There is, Duran says, ‘inordinate emphasis placed on new authors to learn to follow these writing rules.’ So much so, that young writers come to believe that the contemporary idiom, afflicted as it is with the despair of the modernists and disaffection of the postmoderns, is the only proper way to write.

Which is, of course, ridiculous.  It is a way to write, and like any other way can be a very good way. It can also, like any other way, be awful. [Insert your choice of horribly written bestseller here.]

‘If the primary goal of a story is to take us somewhere,’ says Duran, ‘then the “writing rules” must be subservient to that end.’ The story must dictate its own style, he says. We stifle and destroy creativity when we insist that all voices sound the same.

The question, as Jenna points out, is still when and how? Which rules are appropriate to break, and when?

Even though I sound almost anarchic in some of my comments, I agree with pretty much everything Jenna says. The rules are there for a reason, and it’s usually because they work. We no long speak like Victorians—we shouldn’t try to write like them either.

I suggest simply that these must be scrutinized. What does this rule accomplish? So, for instance, single POV allows for a deeper, psychological explanation of the character. Perspective is limited to one—perhaps biased, perhaps naive, perhaps ill-informed—narrator. It creates deeply layered writing, calling into question the accuracy of the events. The changes in the character are emotional and readily apparent.  It also avoids the confusion of jumping haphazardly between ordered and disparate worlds—from the mind of the killer to the mind of the cop.

In popular literature, I think John Grisham’s The Summons is an excellent example of this rule, and proof that you don’t have to be Joyce to use it well.

A good rule? Yes. An unbreakable rule? Ah, no. Learn it, learn how to use it, then do something completely different. It might work better, for that story. It might set a trend, or deconstruct one. So, for instance, Neil Gaiman’s Instructions is written in what might vaguely be called third person omniscient. Actually, it doesn’t really have a POV, it just is. And boy, is it!

The rules are there, we know them, use them, appreciate them, and leave them.
That’s what writing is.


In a post I’ll reply to Friday, Jenna has discussed one of her favorite rules to break. So, to keep in harmony, let me introduce you to my favorite rule to not break.

I suggest that for anyone living later than 1902, Rule 17 is utterly, completely unbreakable: ‘Omit Needless Words.’ This Strunkian formula, exemplified in the works of his student E. B. White, is not a command to brevity, whatever Hemingway accomplished. It is a command to balance—tuning the prose until the exact right note sings off every line.

If you take a truly classic work—say, to choose at complete random, Moby Dick—you will not find the concision of the moderns. But you will find, and with vengeance, the precise, singing balance of words, tension, and music—the fusion of story and sound. So, for instance:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.

The introductory sentence, justly the most famous in American Literature, grips. It’s as short as R17 itself, a blunt introduction from a person who refuses to be identified. But at once the note changes, falling into the florid cadences of a Victorian travelogue. He continues with evasion, ‘never mind how long precisely’, and dismisses his quest as ‘a way […]of driving off the spleen’.

Yet, particularly if we are familiar with Victorian English, we are unsettled, disturbed. The man calling himself ‘Wanderer’, identifying himself as a disinherited son, is not, as he so properly explains, regulating circulation. In these lines alone, we begin to realize that he is on a spiritual quest, seeking the haunted self through escape and imagination. He will encounter the deep recesses of his mind personified in Ahab, Starbuck, the rest of the crew, and—most insidiously—in the deadly, beguiling monster of the whale.

In other words, this florid bit of Victorian prose exemplifies Strunk’s rule. It is, simply, perfect.

The balance of a story cannot be achieved through slavish application of classroom-made laws. We must know, we must learn, those rules. We must work within their boundaries until we know them like our homes. But the artists is Ishmael. We seek out ‘the watery part of the world’, the untrammeled and untamed, the unexplored and unfathomable. This, after all, is the purpose of our art, and the heart of story.

Going forty miles on a rowing machine isn’t going to get us there. We at least need to get out of the building. Maybe even out of the boat.

Previous Conversation:

A Light Inside: On Breaking Rules
Paradoxes: Core Magic, Art’s Caprice
A Light Inside: Reading and Writing: The Stories that Mattered Most
Paradoxes: Momentary Editing, parts 1 and 2
A Light Inside: How Not to Write

6 thoughts on “writing theory, part 1

  1. My first classes as a composition major were in music theory. My teacher (whom you know, Bob) explained to us exactly how these “rules” came to be: First, composers wrote good music. Then, scholars studied their music and identified things they tended to do and not to do. (Western music being a bit younger art than storytelling is, we can even identify fairly precisely where this began: Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum is a key contender.) This quickly became a system for instructing pupils–you could have them analyze the works of all the great composers for themselves, but this is simpler.

    Learning the “rules” of music theory is a simple way to assimilate many of the habits of the great composers. But there’s no guarantee that following the rules will make anybody write good music, as anyone who has heard the work of freshman theory students can tell you.

    Music is not about the rules; the rules are about music.

    CSL also points out that there’s all the difference in the world between a writer like Shakespeare “breaking the rules of poetry” to serve his art, and a beginner breaking them because he doesn’t know any better. Shakespeare may put a trochee or a spondee in his Iambic Pentameter because he has mastered the form and just wants to emphasize the right words; the beginner will do it because he hasn’t mastered it and doesn’t know how syllables work.

    The irony comes when some pedantic English teacher says Shakespeare was a bad poet because he broke the rules.

    (Reading Mike’s post, I may repackage some of this if I ever want to write a post on legalism. The parallels there are intriguing.)

  2. Or when, as Heschel scathingly griped about one of his seminary professors, they say primly that the repetition in Isaiah 40 –‘Comfort ye, comfort ye My people’–was a scribal error.

    Excellent observations, Eric. You’ve guessed entirely where I’m going to go with this. The rules of writing should more properly be called writing theory–the observations of what has worked and what doesn’t, learning a basic skill set which you can then employ freely in the service of your creativity. Not pedantic ‘This is how to write a story’ mindsets.

    Really, writing theory would profit from taking the approach of music theory, looking at not only the overall basics, but studying its growth through time–this is how theory developed in the 16th century, the 18th, what the Victorian’s did to it, how the moderns revolted, and so on.

    It would be a fascinating exercise, I think, to make beginning writing students write stories and compositions according to the ‘rules’ of, say, 18th century prose. Then next week, write like a Victorian. But we don’t ever do that, oddly enough.

  3. Sorry if I stole any of your thunder, Mr. P. ! You got me reminiscing.

    I love your idea of imitating great writers to learn the craft. I once talked to a Juilliard-trained musician who said that one of his high-level composition classes was exactly that: Write a piece in the style of Mozart, now one like Beethoven, now do Bach, etc. The final exam was composing 10 minutes of a Wagner opera.

    Certainly given the pervasive popularity of fanfiction, there’d be some market for this among budding writers. (Of course Gaiman, to come back to him again, does this very well professionally… an HP Lovecraft story in the style of Conan Doyle? Check.)

  4. Fantastic post. I’m totally with you on the Rule Not to Break–and love that first line of Moby Dick, which is still one of my gap books. Guess I need to read that. Maybe I’ll find out why the international coffee house started less than a two hours’ drive from my front door is called Starbucks.

    I love the idea of trying to write in the style of classic writers. Maybe I’ll try that out with my writers’ group. We need some stuff to work on over the summer. Hmmm…

    Mike Duran’s post made me want to cheer, even though I have a strong taste for exclusive narrative POV. And Eric, you’re right about following the rules not making for great art. The secret to great art is a little less quantifiable. Also, if you write a post on legalism, I’ll have to come read that.

    I’ll look forward to the Friday post, Mr. Pond, and will put thought into a Monday response.

  5. Actually, Jenna, I’ve heard that it’s because at the last minute they decided it was a bad idea to tall it Pequods. Still a Moby Dick theme, though, and I’m not sure why that is…

    Moby Dick is one of those books that’s absolutely shattering and revolutionary, if you’ve got a good idea of what was being written at the time. Sort of like Twain’s Life on the Mississippi–devastating, deconstructive, and new…to a Victorian. To us, slow, didactic, humdrum and bewildering. Melville’s classic has, I think, deeper and longer power than Twain’s, but you have been forewarned. Read it by all means, just be aware that amid the disturbing monologues with the depth of Shakespeare, you’ll get to read academic lectures on the basic anatomy of whales (with sections in Latin for the awkward bits).

    If you do try that out with your writers’ group, let me know how it turns out. I’m puzzling over what might be a good author to start with–it would take (for me, at least) the better part of a summer to study, say, Fielding, before I felt comfortable actually writing in that style (18th century prose is so bogglingly different for the post-Hemingway apocalypse) rather than simply aping it in the style of bad historical drama dialogue everywhere. Perhaps, though, if your circle is reasonably well-versed in the style of Ms. Austen? I could see you having a lot of fun with that.

    Note–I don’t mean, of course, just writing fan fiction (as in the ‘sequels’ that are coming out these days), but actually analyzing and using the literary techniques of Austen and her day. Much, much closer to Fielding than to Hemingway, really.

  6. Pingback: writing theory, part 2 « The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

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