Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Rules to Fiction

I think that by now most everyone on the face of this planet has either heard of Twitter or has Tweeted at least once. Correction, let's make that everyone in the solar system because there is that astronaut on the space station who Tweets.

Twitter isn't for everyone, but I'm a big fan and have been pretty much from the beginning. It's an interesting place. At its best, Twitter is a fantastic medium for quick, efficient, real-time communication. It allows you to be a part of events as they unfold, whether that's the Olympics, the MacMillan / Amazon fight, or the Iranian protests. At its worst, Twitter is a great place for allowing people to share every mundane, inane thought that crosses their minds.

Now, I wouldn't necessarily classify the following Tweet as inane, but, well, see for yourself.

“There are NO rules to writing Fiction. None. Zero. Nada. Nyet. Zilch.”

Taken literally, that is true. There are no rules for writing fiction. Now, insert the word “good” before “fiction” and we are rapidly approaching Inane Land.

Speaking from experience, I can most definitely say that there are rules to writing good fiction. You can bend some of them, even break a few here and there, but there is a basic flow and structure that must be adhered to in order for people to comprehend what it is you are writing.

Case in point: the previous draft of my book, To Kill the Goddess. That draft was the culmination of several years of effort where I was bending the rules of fiction as far as I could.  I wanted to tell the story in such a way that the reader and the protagonists were in the dark up until the very end of the story. I wanted the reader to feel what the protagonists felt upon the revelation of what was happening to them. It's a neat idea, something different from most other things I've read, but…  I wouldn't say it flopped, but there was a definite similarity between that draft and a fish lying on the shore, gasping for air. I was so successful in keeping the reader in the dark that not one of mine fellow Scribblerati knew what was happening. They missed the vast majority of the clues I dropped throughout the book and their commutative reaction at the end was: huh. OK.

Not exactly what I was going for.

So let's revisit that tweet for a moment.

“There are NO rules to writing Fiction. None. Zero. Nada. Nyet. Zilch.”

Um, sorry, but yes there are.

I’m now I'm about a third of my way through my next draft. The cards are on the table this time. Those clues that everyone missed are now front and center and the result is astonishing. The comments have turned from “I didn't get this” and “what's up with that?” to “this is a really strong chapter.” Sure, I still get suggestions and there is room for improvement, but this time I'm following the rules and it shows.

As for the unnamed Tweeter who I have just drug through the mud, I hope, for his sake, he figures this out quicker than I did.


MarkoftheBeast said...

Shawn, nice post. I just read the "book"--elmore leonard's 10 rules of writing--and enjoyed it (although I think it's actually a glorified article that had been published elsewhere). There is some pretty explicit wordage in his book about not sharing the content anywhere--so I won't. But I may bring it along to share with you sometime.

Jon said...

Walking that line between "what to tell" and "what not to tell" is so difficult. You know what's going on and as a result, every clue seems so obvious and belabored. Which just makes it even stranger when the majority of people still don't get it. Finding that balance is not easy.

Alice said...

Excellent post. I have read several books on writing. Several tell you there are no rules, but, and its a big but. You have to know the rules to know how to bend or break them.
Follow the rules first, and then break a couple if the story warrants it.