SJ Duncan

 
 

The Tipping Point Blog

Break the Rules: Rethinking Common Writing Advice

 

 

If you want to write something truly innovative, you'll have to break a few rules.

 

 

Caveat: You must know which rules to break, and how to properly break them.

 

Caviar: Fish eggs/fancy people food. Unrelated to this article.

 

Writing advice is often given in absolutes (I'm guilty of this myself; shhh, our secret). Always do X, never do Y. But nothing, especially writing, is ever that simple. So this week we're looking at three pieces of common, well-meaning, and not wholly incorrect, writing advice. Ready to get more confused than you already are? That's the spirit.   

 

 

Show, Don’t Tell

 

Don’t tell me there’s a pizza in the kitchen. Show me the glint of fluorescent light on the grease.

 

To paraphrase Anton Chekhov.

 

 

Okay, I can see why we love this quote. It’s beautifully poetic. It’s succinct. And in most cases, it’s exactly what you should do.

 

But not always.

 

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve come across the getting a guy out of a room problem. I clearly remember my first round with this conundrum. I had a character in a car. He had just parked. Then he was turning off the engine. And removing his keys from the ignition. Then he unbuckled. Then he grabbed the door handle. And pulled it. And pushed on the door. And stepped out into the misty morning air.

Detail after detail, and none of which served any function within the realm of the story. In fact, how he got from point A to point B was completely irrelevant.

 

Unseasoned writers often worry so much about getting it all in they rarely consider leaving some of it out. I was being a good writer, right? I carefully described every move my guy made. And yet, somehow it all felt wrong. So, what was the problem?

 

The problem was I didn’t just show my readers the glint on the glass, I picked it up and poked them with it. Multiple times. Like a big, fat jerk.

 

Sometimes the best way to get a guy out of a room is to simply state (tactfully, of course) that he left the room; to tell your readers the guy is gone.

 

Telling is as valid a device as showing. And with practice you’ll learn when it’s appropriate.   

 

But to give you a start in the right direction, I’ll share my own personal rule: Show, don’t tell, the good parts. Tell, don’t show, the boring parts.



 

 

The Very Word

 

I’m blaming this one on Mark Twain. I’m sure you’re familiar with the quote. If not, here you go.

 

“Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” -- Marky Mark Twain

 

Mark Twain and John T. Lewis, July 1903

 

 

And since then, we have all hated the word very. We’ve crossed it out with red ink, we’ve shared lists of words to use in its place, and a quick search of the word will pull up countless articles on why it’s so useless.  

 

But here’s the thing: There are no useless words, and Mark Twain was a tad mischievous. He made a lot of statements with glimmer in eye and tongue in cheek. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that he was only half-serious when he denounced very.

 

So, here’s my opinion on this poor, maligned word. Personally, I have no major beef with it. In fact, I kind of like it. Just a little. It carries a certain childlike innocence, when used in the proper context. And I’m uncomfortable with striking a word from my palette because I’m told to.

 

And yes, I’ve seen Dead Poet’s Society: “So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose.”

 

But sometimes, on occasion, morose is heavy handed. In which case, it’s perfectly fine to let a very crawl into your lap, nestle in, and listen as you tell (rather than show) it a story.

 

 

 

All Stories Must Have Conflict

 

 

Correct?

 

Yes. But what exactly is conflict?

 

 

Like other nuggets of well-meaning writerly wisdom, all stories must have conflict can sometimes direct new writers down a confusing, ill-defined path littered with rehashed arguments, stale scenes, and one-dimensional antagonists. Eventually that path wraps back around to genuine creativity, but it can take time to get there, and some would-be novelist never do.

 

The problem lies with our perception of the word conflict, and how easily we relate it to human interaction. A cruel boss, an angry spouse, a murderous villain. This is because conflict with other humans carries an emotional weight unlike, say, a conflict with scheduling.

 

But conflict (and the correlating tension) in a story can be anything which hinders your protag from getting what they want (or avoiding what they don’t want). The weather, poor timing, bad luck, misinformation, misunderstanding, and self-deceit can all become a source for conflict. Along with any number of limitations, restraints, boundaries, gathering complications, or the relentless force of blind, dumb chance.

 

So, while conflict is indeed necessary for an interesting story (a story without conflict is a vignette, rather than a story) I like to think a little broader about its source and implications.

 

 

 

Learn the Rules; Then Break Them

 

 

For something to feel new, fresh, and original, it must be different enough to be innovative, but not so unusual as to be completely off-putting.

 

 

In short, you need to know the rules in order to effectively break them. But the rules are subtle, and have as much to do with reader’s perception as writer’s intent. So how do you learn these unwritten, secret rules?

 

You read.

 

Read, read, read, and read some more. Read everything. Good books, bad books, long books, thin books, and books that come so close to greatness it breaks your heart when they fall short.

 

This is how you internalize the unspoken rules of the craft.

 

And once you know the rules, you’ll see the gaps between them; the secret spaces where you can insert your own inventive twist without collapsing your story.

 

Read, write, experiment, edit mercilessly, and take all writing advice with a grain of salt. You never know when you may need to break a few rules to get where you need to be.



 

 



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