Monday, January 15, 2007

Writing Rules

I had lunch with a couple of friends yesterday, proving once again that if you get three writers together they will talk about one thing and one thing only: writing. Yes, we briefly touched on work, significant others, the Bears kicking that beautiful field goal, but all roads led back to our favorite topic.

However, one interesting point that crossed our lunch table was the rules of writing. One guy who I had a class with said that he was turned off by genre fiction because he felt it was too formulaic and constraining. I think many people feel the same way, and yes, there is a certain formula to creating a mystery, romance or science fiction novel. Crime committed, find out who did it and why. Girl meets boy. They fall in love. Must overcome obstacles to be together. Kind of open ended formulas, don't you think?

But I have to admit, I do believe in certain rules when it comes to any writing. There are certain things you cannot do (although I'm sure someone will remind me of a novel that did it very well).

1) A Good Protagonist. Yes, Chili Palmer is a loan shark, John Rain is an assassin, and Strike is a drug dealer, but what do they all have in common? Redeeming qualities. Rain won't kill women, children or non-principles. Strike deals drugs but doesn't do them and he has ulcers from the everyday stresses of the job. Palmer, well, Palmer is one charming loan shark and it seems he's always looking out for the greater good. Ya gotta love him. If the main character is all bad or has too many bad qualities, I'm not going to like them and therefore will not like the story.

2) A Good Villain. Even if it's not crime fiction, every novel or story has some antagonist or antagonistic force at work. Without it, how is there any conflict? But the most intriguing villains are those that aren't all bad. Look at Hannibal Lecter. He is one charming cannibal, which makes him all the more creepy.

3) A Good Conflict. No conflict? No story. Period. I had a teacher at Columbia who would always coach us to write "the day when the wheels fall off." You cannot write a story without something out of the ordinary happening, without something changing. Not only does there have to be conflict, but the conflict has to be important enough for readers to care. Say in the opening chapter, a housewife finds a dead body in her living room. Okay, I would say that's not an everyday occurrence. But what if the dead person was wearing a locket with the housewife's picture in it? I would think that the housewife would be a little more invested in finding out who this person is and what his corpse is doing in her living room. It's not enough to cause problems for your characters, the problems have to be personal.

4) Change Needed. No matter what genre, characters must change in the story. If the characters don't change, then what was the point of all that conflict? If the protagonist is the same person at the end of the book that he was at the beginning, then why did I follow the story for 300 pages? I'm sure I'll get a few comments disputing this, but I'm standing by my statement. Characters must change, in some way, by the end of the story.

5) Believable. Again a touchy subject, but I'm standing by it. All stories, no matter how far fetched should be believable. Even horror and dark fantasy novels create a world in which the story is feasible. All great science fiction novels make readers believe that this make-believe future could actually happen, no matter how ridiculous and out there the futuristic society may seem. If your story is about an intergalactic plot to take over the earth and one man's struggle to protect the world from the alien invasion, then you better put a hell of a lot of details showing me how this scenario could actually happen. Would this ever happen? Probably not. But it's the writer's job to show me that it could.

I'm always skeptical when someone tells me that there are rules for any kind of art, but these are the rules as I see them. I'm sure there are exceptions just as I'm sure I've left out a couple hundred so-called rules for writing. But for me, these five are the bottom line. If the book doesn't encompass all of these aspects, chances are, I'm putting it down.


Quinn said...

Have you seen Kurt Vonnegut's rules for writing? There's some overlap here. Although a few of his maxims (especially 5 and 8) apply more to his specific style.

I agree with pretty much everything you've said here, especially the part about conflict, although I will mention one of the rare exceptions to rule #4: A Confederacy of Dunces. The lead character, Ignatius C. Reilly, ends the book as pretty much the same ridiculously pompous and out-of-touch person he is in the beginning, although his situation is different. I think it works because some of the other characters have arcs, and are arguably the true protagonists (like Cameron in Ferris Bueller). So I guess you really can't sidestep the rule altogether. If you do, as someone randomly pointed out on a Family Guy DVD commentary, you end up with The Phantom Menace.

Ronni said...

As you know, I love to read and have definite ideas on what's good and bad about the books. You just laid out for me WHY I make the choices I make.

Excellent post - thanks!