Monday, January 3, 2011

Rules: Do They Matter?

Guest Post from Chris Rhatigan

Recently I read James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. This is a phenomenal book, as anyone reading this blog probably already knows. It’s epic and crazy, filled with distinctive characters and wicked twists. I devoured it--really addictive stuff.

It got me thinking about writing and rules. Some of the rules I follow are things other people told me (like only use “said” as a dialogue tag, don’t use adverbs, etc.), but many are self imposed. When I'm writing or revising, I'm not even necessarily aware that I'm following these rules. It’s more like I write with certain constraints without realizing it.

Ellroy broke three of my rules when he wrote:

1) A ridiculously complicated plot
2) A book that stank of research
3) A lot of monologues posing as dialogue.

Yet this made no difference. In fact, I think without breaking the first two, the book would have been much weaker.

One response is that we're mere mortals and Ellroy is a genius and, therefore, he can get away with this shit.

I disagree. Because if that was the case, he would've succeeded in spite of breaking these rules. But I think he succeeded because he broke the rules.

An epic book like this one demands a plot with a lot of moving parts--the reader is supposed to get lost and confused. Though the research frequently shines through (he even includes fictional newspaper articles and police reports written in the style of the time), this helps create a living, breathing world for the book to happen in. Even the monologues work well because they drive home each character's voice, which is essential when you have so many characters wandering in and out.

Ellroy knew what he had to do to tell his story and he did it. He didn't pay attention to any artificial constraints. (Of course, I have no idea what Ellroy's intentions were or if he even considered these factors--I'm just coming up with possible reasons for why he did what he did.)

I could use a bit more of that Ellroy spirit. Sometimes I eliminate material solely because it violates a rule. Don't get me wrong--I'm sure this has often made my work more readable. And for beginning writers, constraints are helpful. But at what point does it become  writing "safe"?

What rules do you follow? Do they you think they help your writing or hinder it? Are you willing to break them from time to time?


Chris Rhatigan’s fiction has been published in A Twist of Noir, Mysterical-EYellow Mama and Pulp Metal Magazine, and has work upcoming at the brand-spanking-new Pulp CarnivaleHis blog, Death by Killing, is all about the world of short crime fiction.  


Kate Pilarcik ~ absolutely said...

Oh Chris ...

Substituting the word "rules", the great Belushi tells you ~ "BADGES? WE DON'T NEED NO STEEEENKIN' BADGES."

Then again, as rules go, my first literary mentor F. Scott Fitzgerald warned in his beautiful and damned POV-voice: "Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke."

Uh, if it feels good, do it and don't read Gravity's Rainbow at the same time . . . Nice mindzone you shared. ~ Absolutely*Kate

Paul D Brazill said...

Smashing post. Becuase I don't usually think about what I write, just wing it, I wonder which rules I follow, unconciously?

I think trying to write like Ellroy would be a bit iffy since he doesn't always get away wth his gig.

Unknown said...

Let those shackles slip free n go with the flow. Top write, Chris.

Dana King said...

I've found myself gradually paring the "rules" I work with. Doesn't seem to have hurt my publishability any. (I wasn't published before, and I'm not published now.)

I'm down to about three rules: everything needs to either advance the story, flesh out the character, or be highly entertaining. (This last usually goes hand-in-hand with the character rule.)

Everything else gets cut. How it gets told is style, and the only rule for style is readability.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

It seems like there are no rules for successful writers, or at least once they "made it". I think the basics of grammar and punctuation are important. Elmore Leaonard's rules are a decent guideline I suppose, especally the adverb and dialogue tags.

I think the reader ultimatley decides what works and doesn't. A lot of the crime shorts I read, could be considered unconventional and people who are not familiar with the genre, are usually quick to bypass the story and nitpick the format, style, and other things.

I hate rules, but I guess if you have the grammar / punct taken care of, you can do most anything.

Don Lafferty said...

"The Rules" can effectively help mortal writers to keep from from bouncing a reader out of an otherwise thin or overdone story.

They provide a starting place for writers to get in the game, but it's up to the writer to rise above or get around The Rules.

I recently purchased a first edition of Strunk & White's "THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE", a book so many fledgling writers have had to come to terms with over the years. I say "come to terms" because in the historical and academic context of acceptable writing standards and practices, Strunk's 1918 advice, practiced to the letter, could indeed help a writer improve his game significantly, however, following his rules would surely have sucked the personality out of thousands of books since then.

In the meantime, everybody in the publishing food chain has come up with their own set of rules by which they write, edit, represent, acquire and publish. I'd argue it's more important to know "the rules" of your market in contemporary terms if your goal is to be published. All of sudden guys like Ellroy become the rule makers, not the rule breakers.

So when preparing to sit with your editor or agent to defend your work, it's important to know the rules so you at least know that you're breaking them properly, without being a straight up copycat.

John McFetridge said...

Elmore Leonard's rules are like learning scales in music - James Ellroy is jazz improv.

(as an aside here, it's very funny in Djibouti how Elmore Leonard breaks all his own rules. I can only think it was deliberate and he's having fun. A character even says, "All hell broke loose.")

And thanks for this post, I agree completely.

pattinase (abbott) said...

First I write, then I rewrite and remove a lot of adverbs. Then I rewrite and remove a lot of adjectives. Then I get rid of a lot of words that function as a scaffolding. And overused words like just. When it looks pretty bare, I put a lot of them back in because it is too spare and I hate it. I rewrite constantly. I love to rewrite-hate to write.

Joyce said...

Terrific post, and it really got me thinking about things I've never considered before. Grammar, spelling and punctuation were always critical to me in school and I believe I used to be fairly rigid about everything I wrote, including personal letters.

Looking back at some of my earlier stories, they are difficult, if not impossible, to really enjoy because they come across as very stiff and contrived. I believe over the years, I have loosened up in some regard (not sure what exactly) and hopefully, they flow a lot better. But this is not something I was conscious of or did deliberately. My style just seemed to evolve over time into whatever it is now.

I am not aware of any particular style, or rules, when I sit down to write. I'm concerned with the characters and the plot, and when it's done, I proof for spelling, grammar, etc. I will admit however, that I get really tensed up when I see too many commas or short sentences, etc., so there are probably some in my head that I follow without really being aware of them.

My literature and journalism teachers must have planted some permanent seeds in there that I wasn't aware of. This post really makes me wonder how much of those rules still govern what I write.

Ben said...

Ellroy succeeded at breaking the rules because he knew the rulebook by heart. If you read his works, he went gradually more complex with each novel. I say only the people for who the rules have no secret should break them.

Eric Beetner said...

Rules schmules. It's one of those things that if you break the rules and it works people think you're a genius. If it doesn't work people blame these artificial "rules" for what is essentially a storytelling fault.

Recently read Don Winslow's Savages. There are no rules to be found in that book but it works because he is consistent and he develops his own set of rules contained within the book.

I do agree with the notion that you must know the rules in order to break the rules.
Rule-breaking work may not appeal to as many readers but those who like it will be really passionate about it.

Chris Rhatigan said...

Wow! So many great responses.

I think you really have a point Eric--a lot of rules are created just so one has reasons for disliking a story.

But perhaps Dana's observation with a few very simple and generous rules could work. Though I will say I'm almost always like Patti--rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Parables Today said...

one reason screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, of LA Confidential could break the rules is because he also co-produces and directs a lot of his films.