Thursday, July 12, 2012

DeCompose: Stephen King Breaks the Rules!

DeCompose: Stephen King Breaks the Rules!

Mike Duran over at the Decompose blog writes:

"I’m about 250 pages into “The Stand” and thus far one of the takeaways, to my shame, has been how often I’ve noticed King violates some of the most basic writing rules. Namely in his use of passives and head-hopping. Lots of jumping from one POV to the next in the same chapter. And then there’s the “had been’s” and “was’s.” This book would drive some of my old mentors crazy.

More importantly, however, King’s infractions haven’t kept me from enjoying the story. That’s the weird thing about it.

Like many writers, I spent the first couple of years learning about the rules. Show don’t tell. Avoid passives. Maintain POV. Stuff like that. I took it as gospel and worked darned hard to apply it. Now, some six or seven years later, I’m trying to unlearn them. If my reading of The Stand is any indication, I’ve got a long way to go. It feels like a bad hangover — only time and abstinence will cure it." Follow the link above to read the rest.

This blog post made me think about the rules that neophyte writers like to impose upon one another. One time I attended one meeting of a writers' group at my local library. The ladies of the group were all about the age I am now, so at the time they seemed older than dirt. One lady shared copies of a vignette she wrote. In one sentence she piled up 4 adjectives to describe a couple she once knew. After failing to convince her to remove one or more of the adjectives--- they were all true, she insisted--- I came up with the suggestion that she rewrite the string from 'they were loving, happy, devout and athletic' to 'they were loving and happy, devout and athletic'.

I thought the rhythm of my version was slightly better. But all of the ladies bristled. "That would be using 'and' too much!" they chorused. And I realized that though I had never heard of the anti-and rule, it was for them a major rule of good writing.

The other writing rules I hear a lot of are rules like the and rule and the no head-hopping rule. They are things that are very easily measured.

While the rule I was going by was something I learned the way I tend to learn rules--- it was a generalization based on years of reading books during every waking moment when I could get by with it. The rule was that the words of your writing should have an appropriate rhythm.

The problem with a rule like that is that it isn't as easy to explain that rule to a beginning writer. What do you mean by rhythm? What rhythm is appropriate to what writing situation? How good or bad is my rhythm, right now?

My rhythm rule isn't an on/off rule, either. Beginning writers and their teachers tend to like on/off rules. Either a story uses head-hopping or it doesn't. But my rhythm rule? There are an almost infinite number of levels of good, better, even better than, and best, as well as bad and worse than bad. And people will not agree on where a given sentence falls, or on when a dissonant or even clunky rhythm is being used well to achieve a desired effect.

I think somewhere within most beginning writers there is a feeling that if they learn to follow their full set of simplistic on/off rules completely, they will have achieved writing gold. That's not true. You can write the worse prose imaginable without breaking a single one of those rules.

The rules that really count are the more complex, difficult to explain, and difficult to follow rules. They are best discovered as I did, by reading a great number of books by people who know how to write well.

When you discover one of these rules, you may be assured of this--- nothing you ever write will follow the rule perfectly. In addition, the rule you find most important may be a rule another writer doesn't even count as a rule. But the end result of following rules like mine is writing that is more compelling to the reader.


Tracy Krauss said...

I guess it goes to show that rules are meant to b e broken. :)

Krisi Keley said...

Great article - thanks! Learning to break the rules beautifully is definitely an art, but one that can make a rough sketch a masterpiece, so it's wonderful advice to study how other writers go about it.

P.S. Very good, Tracy! :-)

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