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  • Writer's pictureA.R. McNevin

As a rule, I don't like rules

Updated: Aug 20, 2022

In the worlds of writing, people like creating rules. They like applying rules. They govern themselves by rules and, importantly, they state if you're not using these rules, then you're 'bad' or the work you create lacks something important; that would be covered by one of these rules.

Now, before I go on (and on), I should clarify. There are rules and there are structures. What are the difference I hear you cry from the near future? A structure defines the shape of a thing. Some of these are vague (a novel is X number of words, a novella is Y number of words) while others are more concrete (the defined characteristics of a screenplay, with specific font sizes, spacings, etc.). The rules of which I speak are more about how to tell a story rather than the guides on the physical form of the story or the formatting.

A rather odorous example of such rules is Brandon Sanderson's number one rule "The ability for a writer to resolve a conflict with magic is directly proportional to the reader's understanding of magic". This is, of course, demonstrably wrong as demonstrated (for example) in Mistborn... one of Sanderson's first novels.

The accompanying rules are a list from Elizabeth Bowen; a successful writer of the early-to-mid 20th century.

  1. Dialogue should be brief - Not necessarily no. There are many examples were dialogue is the main thrust of the narrative (a court room scene, for example).

  2. It should add to the reader's present knowledge - Again, not necessarily. The dialogue could be relaying information between characters about things the reader already knows; the revelation coming from what the characters do with that new information.

  3. It should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation - Perhaps, but I've read (and have written) scenes where the "hi/hello/how are you?" introduction of the dialogue is used to build tension. The "late in/early out" convention not always being true.

  4. A) It should convey a sense of spontaneity... - Not always - knowing a conversation is going to happen, the inevitability of it, robs the spontaneity of it, but again, builds tension toward the exchange and the result of the exchange. B) ... but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk - That repetitiveness can show a lot about the characters, both if the repetitiveness is intentional or unintentional.

  5. It should keep the story moving - I'll say mostly yes to this one, but I would also add that allowing characters to pause, reflect, and consider (a selah), especially if their paths are already set, can serve as interesting character moments without moving the story/plot forward.

  6. It should be revelatory of the speaker's character, both directly and indirectly - I would disagree - it should show the character's current state (their demeanor), but not necessary their inner thoughts and drives (their nature), as a character can talk against their own best intentions. That wouldn't be revealed in the conversation, but may be revealed later through their or other people's dialogue.

  7. It should show the relationships among people - much like no. 6, the dialogue would show current state; it may refer to past or future states, but the dialogue itself doesn't necessitate discussion of, or reflection upon relationship in anymore than a surface level.

In essence, if you changed "should" to "can" in each "rule", it would be fine, but then they wouldn't be rules.

Why this diatribe? Well, next time someone says "this is how you should write", think about the opposite. Write a line, a paragraph, a scene, a short story about how the opposite is true. See how that effects your writing.

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