The seduction of rules

“There are three rules for writing the novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

W. Somerset Maugham

I see this a lot: a writer must know the rules of grammar before breaking them in any creative writing. That is a non sequitor.  I certainly don’t believe that is true.

If you’re like me, you probably know a capable and successful adult (in whatever field) who never went to college. Such people achieve through practice and drive, not through the acquisition of formal rules about how to be an adult or how to “succeed.”

The same is the case, I think, with creative writing. We learn good writing from reading and writing. A good creative writer may never have heard of a “dangling participle” or a “squinting modifier” yet turn out wonderful work. A good writer doesn’t need to know the rules before breaking them, but it may be true that knowing the “rules” can keep a writer from ever being truly good. Anguishing over the rules of grammar can prevent a writer from composing an effective sentence, merely allowing a “correct” sentence. Creative writing needs to be liberated from the rules.

S.S. Van Dine once wrote a list of twenty rules for writing mystery novels. Among these rules is the famous admonition that a mystery story must involve a murder, since 300 pages is too long for a reader to bother with anything less. (Also listed is that the killer cannot be a household servant because he or she is not a “worth-while” person.) Despite the fact that virtually all crimes in the real world do not adhere to Van Dine’s views of how they should take place, and despite my suspicion that Van Dine intended his rules as a joke, I know that many mystery writers consider his rules to be hidebound absolutes and write their mystery stories with their guidance.

Similarly, many writers cleave with unquestioning loyalty to Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing, including its infamous “never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” (This specific rule has been attributed to several people.) Hemingway may have approved of Leonard’s rules, but we would be without most of the rich, enduring classics of Western literature if serious writers took these rules seriously. And yet I see appeals to such authority in blog posts and comments all the time. Lesser writers, better known for their sales than their styles, make similar pronouncements and many aspiring writers feel as though they have thus been delivered from the wilderness.

And that, I suspect, is why such rules are so readily grasped and defended.

What we do is terrifyingly subjective. Most of the time we are working in the fog, uncertain of our progress or even of our goal. Does this sentence work? Does my character seem credible? Have I strayed from my theme? Can I even state my theme? Is this the right word? We stumble in the dark, wearing bad shoes, not even sure where we want to go. We question ourselves and then doubt our own answers.*

Thus I can understand the seduction of what seem to be clear, simple rules that tell us what will make our writing work, what should be avoided, and, if the rules are simplistic enough, what we don’t even have to think about at all.

Any given writing rule, whether it deals with plotting or grammar or metaphor or whatever, gives us the short path out of the fog of our doubt, even though that path may lead us to a far less interesting or accomplished or worthwhile work. The rule about only tagging dialogue with the word “said”, for example, actually seems counterproductive to creative writing. Here is a chance to use a stronger verb — something regularly advocated by writing instructors — yet many defend using the anemic “said” even though it is against their best creative interests. And simply because someone somewhere has given them a rule to save them from worry.

Such rules spare us the hard work of thinking for ourselves, of making our stories exactly right within their own context, in part because it removes their own context. The rules say one size fits all.

The goal of creative writing isn’t adherence to the rules. The goal is communication. The rules are merely tools, information about common conventions but not standards for well done writing.

*For another view of this, go to this post. You can see some of my more recent fuming about this little matter in this post.

Explore posts in the same categories: Process, Rants and ruminations, Toolbox

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One Comment on “The seduction of rules”

  1. Brian Keaney Says:

    The rule about only using ‘said’ for dialogue is simply idiotic. You have to learn to trust your own lexis.


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