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.
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