For four years, I taught SAT/ACT essay writing. It was ball-achingly dull. Standardized tests, you see, require a very specific, very rigidly-formatted style, the type of writing you’ve had tattooed on your cortex since sixth grade. The hook. The thesis. Three body paragraphs offering supporting evidence. The conclusion. The arrival of a team of paramedics who attempt to resuscitate you after you shoot yourself in the face to avoid ever again having to write something so boring. I didn’t love teaching it, and the kids didn’t love learning it, in part because it bears so little resemblance to any of the writing you see in the real world.
Think about it: when was the last time you read an op-ed piece that went like this?
Recent scandals within the VA health system have shocked American sensibilities. Eric Shinseki, the United States Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, should step down. He should do so for the following reasons: he is incompetent at his job, he needs to give someone else a chance to lead, and he has dumb taste in shoes. I will now expand upon these points with concrete supporting evidence.
Or a novel that began like this?
Margaret had grown weary of her quotidian existence. She was weary for the following reasons: her boyfriend had dumped her, she had too many student loans, her IBS was acting up…
Et cetera, et cetera. I understand why we all learn this style growing up. It’s tight, cogent, and easy to understand. It emphasizes the need for concrete supporting evidence (a need that loads of adults and the entire Fox News team have yet to internalize.) It prevents our nation’s middle school students from trying to argue in favor of euthanasia by writing about the time they ramped their BMX bike off a sick jump (that’s a thing middle schoolers do, right?) In short, it’s effective, if desperately, desperately boring. Fortunately, as we grow older, we learn how to bend the rules to make our writing more engaging.
But just how far will the rules bend? Surely some writing rules are sacrosanct–never to be broken under any circumstances? After all, professional writers are always rattling off lists of definitely-dos and absolutely-don’ts. Those lists must mean something.
Well, no. Not really. Your writing needs to make sense and keep the reader interested, but everything else is surprisingly flexible. Here are some of the rules that popular authors have broken, are breaking, and will continue to break for the foreseeable future.
The Rule: Write What You Know
This one makes me a little bit bonkers, because if everyone wrote only what they knew, entire genres would cease to exist. Who the hell has personal experience with elves and trolls? With wormholes and alien planets? With stupid vampires and stupid humans shacking up and making stupid babies? Christ, writing what you know for most of us would consist of detailed descriptions of stains on cubicle walls.
There’s this thing that people have, though: it’s called imagination. And another thing: local libraries with reference books and internet access and all manner of research tools. But mostly imagination.
In his essay, “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”, Neil Gaiman answers the titular query thus: “I make them up. Out of my head.” No mention is made of his eight months as an apprentice Sandman, during which he bumped into some American Gods and took the meeting for a Good Omen. Although if that’s a thing that happened to him, I’d love to hear about it!
The Rule: Cut Everything That Isn’t Absolutely Necessary
The utility of this rule depends largely on how you interpret it. What counts as “necessary” in a piece of fiction? The answer varies widely in accordance with what the writer is trying to accomplish.
On the one hand, you’ve got Ernest Hemingway, famed proponent of pared-to-the-bone prose. Hemingway wasn’t fond of flourishes and tangents–the man never wrote a word that wasn’t absolutely vital to the main through-line. He also wound up killing himself. I’m not saying there’s a connection, but I’m also not not saying it.
On the other hand, you’ve got Stephen King, one of the bestselling writers of all time. His books are chock-full of side stories, character moments, and descriptions that could be cut without losing comprehensibility. And yet, what would you sacrifice if you did that? A good deal of the richness and character insight that mark the best King stories.
To choose but one example, IT is a simple tale–kid’s brother gets killed by a clown, kid and his friends investigate the clown, kid and his friends fight the clown, giant Turtle Wax turtle appears as an avatar of universal order (sometimes I have a hard time convincing myself I really read that last part.) You could probably strip the book down from 900+ pages to about a third of that. But here’s the thing: I read IT when I was 14 years old, and I still retain vivid memories of it because of the depth of attention King paid to the kids, their relationships with one another, and the small town in which they lived. Seriously. Without all that stuff, it’s just a monumentally goofy, B-movie book about a clown that kills some people, and I would have forgotten the details a couple weeks after finishing it.
So while I get where the cut everything folks are coming from–I’ve read my fair share of writing that was bogged down with endless descriptions of what the character ate for breakfast and how many times he scratched his ass on the elevator–I think the rule should be reworded. Perhaps we should try Don’t Be Boring. That way, the dull stuff gets cut, and the interesting stuff, even if it’s not strictly necessary, gets to stay.
The Rule: Plot Above All
The need for a strong plot seems self-evident, but damned if there aren’t authors subverting even this fundamental rule.
John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is both highly-regarded and one of the funniest books ever written. It focuses primarily on a young New Orleans man named Ignatius with strong opinions and no job. At his mother’s insistence, Ignatius tries to make some money, but mostly winds up insulting people and eating a lot of hotdogs. There’s also a side story about some people trying and failing to sex-up a bar to lure more customers. And…that’s about it. Hilarious as it is, Confederacy isn’t big on plot, which might be why O’Toole couldn’t get the thing published in his too-brief lifetime.
Douglas Adams did manage to get The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy published, despite its similarly digressive, light-on-plot nature. There’s no primary objective in Hitchhiker’s Guide–no ultimate goal toward which the characters are striving. They’re just sort of jetting around the galaxy, getting in and out of trouble and stumbling across weird stuff. And yet, the series is massively popular, because it’s got a lot of other things going for it.
A clear plot is an important ingredient for success. But a lack thereof doesn’t seem to be a guarantee of failure, as long as you give the readers other reasons to keep reading.
The Rule: Always Use Proper Grammar
If you’ve read enough, you know that authors often play around with language conventions. They use sentence fragments. They end sentences in prepositions. They force words to do jobs for which those words were not originally intended.
Then there’s Thomas Harris, author of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. He mixes past and present tense. Like, all the time. The second chapter of Silence of the Lambs starts out like this:
Dr. Frederick Chilton, fifty-eight, administrator of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, has a long, wide desk upon which there are no hard or sharp objects. Some of the staff call it “the moat.” Other staff members don’t know what the word moat means. Dr. Chilton remained seated behind his desk when Clarice Starling came into his office.
Well, holy smokes! Now, Harris is a very competent writer–some of his prose is gorgeous–so obviously the shift in tense is a conscious choice. He has a tendency to switch to present tense when he talks about people and institutions, so my guess is that he’s letting the reader know that these people and places still exist. In the present. Even though some of them, like Dr. Chilton, really don’t.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he just does it because he can, man. Writers do what writers want! Let’s all go out and break some gosh darn rules!