Conundrums and Contradictions

I have been known to question writing “rules.” (See how those quote marks sneaked in?) Sometimes I wonder why… Am I a knee-jerk rebel, one who thinks any piece of written schlock is good as long as it was written sincerely? Do I really think writers who follow rules and comb through their works-in-progress for transgressions are “sheeple,” churning out lifeless overworked prose?

I hope not, but…

One thing I’ve realized: I react negatively to words and phrases I see trotted out repeatedly and without question. Phrases like “Show, don’t tell,” “Kill your darlings,” and “Never use [insert word(s) here].”

Such writing rules are triggers for me.

Now I’ve admitted all that, here are some thoughts that won’t go away…

Why is it OK for established writers to flout the rules? And don’t say it’s because they do it well. If prologues and backstory are bad, they’re bad, no matter who writes them. Right?

Is “info-dump” simply a pejorative term for what is called “rich, detailed description” when it appears in a book by a big-name author published by the Big Five? (Maybe soon to be the Big Four?)

Does anyone really write a first draft that conforms to the three-act story structure? I’m convinced that structure in a work of fiction is discovered after completion, rather than deliberately created by the writer. Especially in a first draft.

Every main character must have a goal, and every scene must contribute to their efforts to reach that goal. No goal, no story. Really? What about characters who are just bumbling along through life? OK, those are found in “literary” novels. (Yes, I know many of these well-worn rules apply to genre fiction.)

Why do some poorly-written books get 5-star ratings and gushing reviews? Could it be that those readers skimmed the boring parts and are happy as long as the book ends with a startling twist or a heartwarming scene? (OK, let’s toss a few sour grapes into the mix.)

I can’t help but notice that many advice-to-writers posts illustrate their points—about creating hooks, or where the first pinch-point should be, or what kinds of conflict you really need—with examples from movies, not books. What does that tell you? Their advice is not directed to screenwriters, after all, but to those who write long-form fiction. Why can’t these folks come up with examples from novels or stories? Maybe they don’t read much?
(This is not a rhetorical question; I really don’t know.)

All right, steam has been let off. That’s it for now. (And those colour-gradient backgrounds are fun!)

gargoyle grumpy

Does anyone else harbour niggling thoughts like these? Little thought-bugs you can’t swat away? Here’s your chance to share them with your fellow writers and readers!

87 comments

  1. I’m with you on this, Audrey. I think we’ve discussed some of this before. Of the ones you listed, I think the one that bugs me the most is that every main character must have a goal, and every scene must contribute to their efforts to reach the goal. Now, that is what I call fantasy. Not everyone operates that way in life, so why do our stories need to follow some preordained path of enlightenment?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. They don’t. The “rules”–see how I used Audrey’s air quotes there?–are either formulas to write formulaic fiction or “producing content” to attract people to your blog and then hit them up to buy your books. (Oh, I’m cynical this morning. Speaking of being triggered!)

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I did try to ‘Like’ your comment, Liz, but WP is acting up this morning. We must have drunk from the same cynic juice because I see those rules as formulaic as well. You can mandate grammar, punctuation and spelling [well, within reason], but mandating /style/ just feels wrong to me.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. A great piece Audrey. I think too many ‘rules’ stifle creativity. I would rather read a rattling good story written with passion/heart while being slightly imperfect, than a starchy one, where every i is dotted and every t crossed. Cheers. x

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I read a book once, sorry, can’t remember the author, called Story Trump’s Structure. An excellent read, and the writer made the point that 3 act structure, plot points etc are not so important as a rattling good story.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. My first creative writing professor made this very point in a Craft of Fiction class, Joy. He used D.H. Lawrence’s short story “Chrysanthemums” as an example. A powerful story written in “clunky prose.”

      Liked by 4 people

  3. I, too, harbour these thoughts. Especially the one about poorly written books getting 5 star reviews. I read one recently that had a poor, tropic (is that a word? It should be if it isn’t) plot, cardboard characters, and poor grammar, but was a NYT best seller. It had many, many 4 & 5 star reviews. Yes, it had some 1 & 2 star ones, who agreed with me, but really! What do people want? Or are they just uneducated and don’t understand grammar?
    I agree with all your points above. I’m a discovery writer (aka pantster) and so checking the 3 act structure and plot points before writing is anathema to me.
    As to description (infodump?); Some critiquers of my work have said they want more setting of the scene so they can smell the smells, feel the rain or sun on their skin, hear the sounds etc, while others say they want it cut to a bare minimum.
    It’s all very confusing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Write how you feel…It usually shows. If you write from the heart, even though it may not be perfect, your writing will doubtless reach and appeal to more people. YOU are the creator from your own mind, after all! Good luck.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I share your suspicion and irritation at the so-called writing rules, Audrey. I’ve observed the “how to write a bestseller” genre since I began writing in the 70’s. It’s moved online now, but it’s basically the same, and an industry in itself because we all want to know how to write better, get our story raised above the editor’s slush pile. It’s best taken with a pinch of salt. The reason we got the rejection was unlikely to have been any of the above. As for the big name authors, they can get away with anything, and for obvious reasons. So do your own thing as best you can, and if it sells, good on you. If not, don’t try to write like someone else, because that won’t work either.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I’m sure some of these rules are for beginner writers who maybe forgot – or never learned – basic grammar and punctuation. Other rules – like character arcs, and 3 act structure – are more about what the *reader* expects from a particular type of story. If we fail to meet those expectations, we’d better have good reason, and deliver a satisfactory outcome for the reader in our own way.
    Yes, I too am bemused by five-star reviews for some stories, so I go looking for what the readers liked about the book. How can I use that to inform my own writing (or ignore it)?
    Description vs. Info-dump? Sometimes you just need to tell the reader “this is John, he is a lawyer in Boston, Lincs” and move on; other times you need to show the reader where John lives and works, with whom, for what end and how this particular day is going to be different. And adding a minor character’s backstory into a novel for the sake of raising the wordcount doesn’t usually help the story in any way…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I agree. The backstory of a minor character is irrelevant. If the story is finished with a low word count, publish it as a novella. I’ve done that with three stories. Or even a short story.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Rules should be considered more guides than absolutes. And people get bent over whether or not use the Oxford comma… I’m more bothered by badly edited written works than whether or not they follow a mandate.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. You’ve touched a nerve with this one, Audrey. (See my mini-rant to Pete above.) When I taught writing, I would see some out-of-the blue weirdness that didn’t make any sense in a paper, and when I probed to find out what the student had been thinking, they’d applied a “rule” handed down from on high–but the rule didn’t apply to what they were writing. The fundamental problem with these internet “writing rules” is that they’re based on writing strategies intended to serve a particular purpose. But the critical thinking component needed to actually apply the writing strategy appropriately and effectively is nowhere in evidence.

    Sign me, Grumpier

    Liked by 5 people

  8. As you likely know, this post strikes a particular chord with me. Virtually every “rule” you touch on is on my list of things that make me scratch my head. The two that jumped out in particular this time were the three-act structure comment — I mean, I seriously don’t think about structure at all. Ever. Not in first draft, not in editing, not in final draft.

    Who knows? Maybe that shows in my stories? I don’t know I just write stories. Whatever comes out of my head.

    And the last comment … I agree that a lot of the “rules” writers seem to use examples from movies or TV shows and you are exactly right to question then the validity of those rules as applied to writing. I mean, the whole three act structure more or less defines TV. But writing … nope.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I don’t think about the 3 act structure, either, Mark. And I don’t think readers do either. I can’t imagine someone reading one of my books and saying, “But it doesn’t follow the three act structure”, or “the inciting event isn’t early enough in the book”.

      Liked by 3 people

  9. Nah, you’re not a knee-jerk rebel, but I wonder if you’re a Libra…

    These literary “rules” don’t bother me at all. I think it’s good to learn them so that I know when it’s the right time to break them and when it’s not the right time to break them rather than blindly typing away. I confess here that I’m the kind of person that likes structure in all areas of my life (schedules and menus for the week, stuff like that). Apparently, that part of my personality seeps into my writing life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like being aware of those “rules,” even if I question them. And I actually apply some of that advice when I revisit a piece of writing. Being structured is fine, but I prefer to build my own structure.
      Not a Libra. Pisces-Aries cusp, actually.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I watch the YouTube videos of several traditionally published authors. One certainly thinks of and follows the 3 act structure, and talks about certain points in it while writing, like “break into act two” or some such thing. And I also hear them talk about character arcs that are planned ahead of writing. This leads me to believe that someone in traditional publishing – agents and editors – pay attention to structure. Indeed, if you are looking for commercial success in either traditional or indie publishing, I think you have to pay a lot of attention to the expected structure & tropes of your target audience. They may be different structures and tropes, for example, in traditional publishing you are selling books to agents, editors, and marketing teams, rather than readers directly, but if you want to sell books, you have to write books that target your audience and deliver what they expect. It’s a business and stories are products. Not that I do any of this, of course, but if I don’t sell many books, I know who to blame. Me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good points about traditional publishing and selling books. It would be interesting to find out if anyone has done controlled studies on how readers process books. Maybe the 3-act structure is to be found in most best-selling books. But I still think it’s best addressed after the first draft, except for writers who plan everything in advance.
      And you’re right–being indie means you manage your results, good or bad.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I really like your points and agree with .. well all of them really. I mean, I don’t write novels, so many of these “rules.” “don’t apply to me.” I quote that because maybe they do. – Nah!
    I have rants about what passes for poetry on the internet and one of these days I may write a blog post about that.

    Liked by 2 people

        1. The good ones, well established are snooty. … Just kidding. I don’t know why either Audrey. People around here in the poetry community tend to do workshops which is another way to hone one’s craft -it’s the way I learned. The youngsters flooding the internet with less than good poetry don’t have the background to write poetry advice blogs.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. I attended a 3-day course run by a Hollywood writer and he described the 3-act structure and how it was an absolute. Sure it applies to films, but now I’m looking for the cliffhanger at 20 minutes, the secondary thread part solution at 40 minutes, the car chase at 48 minutes, and the wrap of all loose ends at 53 minutes. It might work for film and TV but in my opinion, not for books. Let’s face it, if you’re a celeb, can warble, kick a ball, pretend to be someone else on the screen, killed a few people, or bared most of yourself in the local newspaper, the trads will race to sign you up. Those books make money and that’s what publishing is today a money-making machine – and who can blame them? To hell with the rules.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Books aren’t movies, but there’s a perception they should be like them. Look at all the references to Save the Cat! You’ve identified one thing–money-making. If that isn’t the priority, different rules–or none–apply.
      Thanks for the reblog, Lucinda.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. I agree, Audrey. Books that follow all these rules will be pretty similar or the same, and I also think that, as you say, in most cases, the structure of a book is discovered afterwards (or constructed). I am sure there are people who write books adhering to similar advice, but it won’t suit all kinds of writers and/or books. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I like your rant, Audrey, and can relate to your frustration. I’ve asked myself the same questions.

    I used to flout the rules, Audrey, and then I started grudgingly paying attention and conforming with most of them. And… I discovered my books got better. Sigh. Dang rules! (I still use a few dialog tags other than “said.” What if the character is shouting? I’m not going to writing “said in a loud voice” when I can just write “shouted.” Argh.)

    I totally agree that writing with strict adherence to a story structure isn’t necessary. It can stifle creativity, and there’s no reason that a draft can’t be analyzed for structure after it’s written. That said, I’m now experimenting with structure first. Ha ha.

    I think writers use movies to illustrate points because more readers will know the reference. More people will have watched a James Bond movie than will have read Far from a Maddening Crowd. 🙂

    And reviews? A lot comes down to personal taste. On the very same book, I received a review that my sentences were too long while another reviewer said my sentences were too short. Lol. They were probably messing with me. Lol. There are my two cents.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Personal taste is certainly unpredictable. In general, I find it’s best to pay attention to rules at the editing stage. Except for writers who plan everything first. I still think using movies as examples is silly, even though reading fiction does create a kind of movie in the mind.
      There will always be room for debate about this stuff, Diana! Thanks for adding your thoughts to the mix.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m not wedded to any opinion, really. It’s something I think about, and my compliance shifts. I do know that when I read a books loaded with head-hopping, endless backstory, filter words, or that seem to ramble without a goal, I can’t make myself finish them. I think, especially for new writers, the rules are important.

        Liked by 2 people

  15. You’ve opened Pandora’s box here, Audrey, so I’m going to jump in with both feet.
    Yes! to all of your points. They’ve vexed me for years now, but I believe the underlying reasons go well beyond discussions of pantster vs plotter processes. I think a lot of the divide has to do with /age/ – i.e. the age of both the Readers and the Writers.
    Apologies in advance to all the commenters to this post but…aren’t we all writers of a, shall we say, mature age?
    If you’re nodding your head, it probably means that you were educated during a time when we were actively taught the basics of good prose, and by that I mean the tools of the trade such as grammar etc. Generations younger than us mostly weren’t. And I say that as an ex-teacher. I taught high school in the late 70’s early 80’s, but by the time my own Offspring started school, things had changed radically. I won’t debate the pros and cons of those changes, I’ll merely say that I was the one who had to teach the Offspring to read. 😦
    I guess that last paragraph was a bit of an info dump. Sorry about that.
    The other unpopular point I’d like to make is that Nanowrimo encouraged a lot of people to believe that they could dash off 50,000 words and voila, instant novel. At about the same time, Amazon made it possible for the writers of those novels to become self-published.
    I began two storylines during Nanowrimo, for which I am truly grateful. I also know a lot of brilliant writers who still use Nano to /start/ new books, but that’s all it is, a start. Most of us know that the real work begins after Nano. But by and large, we’re the older generation.
    I read a lot, and some of my favourite Indie authors are youngish, but they’re the exceptions. I just hope they’re the ones who are remembered, and still read, generations from now. And us, too, of course. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There are writers who absorb style by reading the kinds of books they want to write, and others who learn by reading books about how to write. The objective is the same, though–creating something that engages readers.
      I’m glad my post inspired your thoughts, info dump and all. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  16. I do harbor thoughts like these, and like you, I’ve written enough books to be confident to find my own way to tell a story. But I’ve also noticed that reading trends change. As you pointed out, what was once considered thoughtful beautiful prose is now considered the boring bit. Readers seem to want lots of fast, over-the-top drama and I’m speaking of genre writing specifically. For instance, thrillers with lots of violence and global-stakes seem to be more popular than a quieter whodunit where things aren’t getting blown up. Personally, I’ve always preferred Agatha Christie whodunits to fast-paced thrillers with serial killers running around slashing throats, but I suspect I’m in the minority.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Debra. I wonder if the desire for over-the-top relates to what is seen in movies, netflix, etc. I admit to being out of touch with that scene. And it would explain the movie references in advice to writers.
      As long as there are readers who like what we write, we can be selective as to which bits of advice we pay attention to.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. All that most “rules” do is discourage me from writing. I love to write but I’m stuck on the third chapter of my WIP. I’ve all but given up, and that is largely due to the fact that I find it difficult to practise things like story structure, plotting etc.
    Also, I’m undecided whether to give my limited writing time to my blog or to my fledgling novel. The blog y provides instant gratification in the form of comments. The novel requires work but is my lifelong dream.
    What do I do?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I wrote my first novel in 2000-2001, I had no exposure to writing rules or advice on how to do it right, AND I was totally obsessed with my characters, plot, etc. That powered the writing process. I have found it harder to complete my recent books, but when I’m writing a first draft, I concentrate on bringing to life the story as I imagine it, and don’t worry at all about rules or structure. All that can be dealt with in subsequent drafts.
      I wrote my latest book at the rate of about 500 words per day, which took maybe an hour or two. But I did make myself put in that time.
      I prefer to read and write short blog posts, and I post only once a week (apart from occasional reblogs).
      I hope you find a satisfying approach to writing, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Like

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