Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Philosophical Problem with ‘Writing Rules’

How the Big Picture is Often Obscured by ‘Rules of Thumb’

A thumb is a very useful thing to have on your hand. A writing ‘rule of thumb’ can also be very useful to an author. But no one would want ten thumbs! Being useful and being true can be two different things.

An author is creating a ‘reading experience’ just as a composer is creating a ‘listening experience’. Both the author and the composer must consider how their individual actions impact the total experience being created.

When I read a writing ‘rule of thumb’ like “change all ‘telling’ to ‘showing’” or “add conflict (or tension) to every sentence” the philosopher in me just cringes.

When I read that conflict is what keeps a reader reading and when things are going smoothly for the characters that the writing is boring, I want to shout: No, No, No! I don’t even believe this is true for a suspense novel.

Can you imagine a symphony where all you hear is tension and conflict, measure for measure, until the climax of the piece? It would be hell.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159–167

There are also more ways to keep a reader’s interest other than conflict and tension. In fact, the reader can be kept turning pages as long as she is being rewarded for reading.

Such rewards are many.

The author can provide fascinating information, stress relieving humor, interesting insights, heartwarming resolutions to minor conflicts, and the discovery of new feelings. The reader can enjoy the author’s poetic beauty as a character describes seeing the stars of the southern hemisphere for the first time while camping in the Australian Outback. There’s charm, surprise, delight, and wonder. The writer has no fewer instruments of interest in her pen than the conductor has instruments in his orchestra.

Now, conflict is good and it works well to keep a reader’s interest. However, I think putting conflict in every sentence is like using a hammer at every stage when building a house.

Rules of thumb are limiting by their very nature. That is, “do it this way and you’ll be OK.” You give up the beauty of complexity for the safety of simplicity.

The author should consider the total ‘reading experience’ and judge each action on how that ‘reading experience’ will be impacted. When it makes sense to add conflict, then add conflict. When it helps to change ‘telling’ to ‘showing’, then make the change. The problem lies when an author makes every rule of thumb change thinking it will produce a better story.

An author should be able to step back, see the total picture, and think in terms of the reading experience and not worry if she has followed every rule of thumb in her toolbox.

'Rules of thumb' should be taken with a grain of salt whenever they are not taken with a little more gravitas than that.


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