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Marginal Notes

Rules and Tools

I once had a client tell me she'd heard that sentences should never run more than fifteen words. To this day I have no idea where that rule came from, though it was probably from someone who either had a short attention span or had read way too much Henry James.

The rule is nonsense, of course. It wound up making all her characters seem like they had short attention spans. But it shows one of the dangers with trying to write by the rules - you wind up limiting your characters or story so you can color within the lines. Sure, more sophisticated rule-givers (George Orwell, for instance) try to get around this danger by giving you the rules on when to break the rules, and maybe even rules on when to break those. My head usually starts to hurt by that point.

Are there guidelines that can help you shape your writing? Sure. I co-authored a book full of them. And I recommend that you learn as much about them as you can. The danger lies in treating these guidelines as rules. It's much more accurate - and safer - to think of them as tools.

Rules are made to be obeyed. Tools are made to do specific tasks. They'll do one thing well, and another not so much. Once you know what various tools can and can't do - what's in your toolbox - you can pick the right tool for the job. (Full disclosure: I'm saying this as someone who has, on occasion, used a socket wrench as a hammer.)

Various writing techniques do specific things. Shorter sentences quicken the pace, first person generates more intimacy than third, and beats reveal character. When you treat these tools as rules, the techniques you use become more important, more authoritative, than the story you're trying to create. But if you think in terms of the best tool for the job, then your plot and characters control the techniques you use, rather than the other way around. That's the critical difference.

Take, for instance, Elmore Leonard's rule to "avoid prologues." Prologues are certainly the wrong tool for the sort of terse, immediate writing Leonard usually does. But for other kinds of stories, they can foreshadow some key event and generate tension as readers anticipate what's to come. A prologue showing some major development that happened before the main story begins can be an efficient way to lay in background. Dick Francis started Whip Hand with a prologue that did nothing more than introduce the main character - through a dream sequence, no less. ("Avoid dream sequences" is another popular rule.) Prologues can be useful tools, depending on what you want to do. And so can dreams.

"Never insert a flashback in an emotional scene." (This is one of Jessica Morrel's.) Generally it's not a good idea, since flashbacks pull your readers out of the moment, which can undermine an emotional scene. But if the flashback is a literal, PTSD flashback that's happening to one of your characters, it becomes part of the emotional scene. It's also possible that a flashback can reveal information so surprising and so critical to your readers' understanding of the story that it's worth interrupting an emotional scene for. Even within an emotional scene, a flashback may be the best tool for the job.

Then there's "chick lit should always be in the first person." (I've seen this in various places around the web.) Well, chick lit is usually about self-discovery, and because the first person gives you so much intimacy so easily, it's usually the tool of choice. But if you want to center your story around several characters, or if you need to build tension by revealing information your main character isn't aware of, then third person can be the tool you want. Riley Ford uses it quite effectively in Carpe DiEmily.

So can you just forget about your craft in the name of being free of the rules? Of course not. You need to learn your craft in order to write well. But as you read all the books and blogs, remember that your story is as unique as a snowflake and about as delicate. So translate all the rules you come upon into tools and make sure you understand how and when to use them. When your tool box is full, you'll have the resources you need to write the story you want.