Sunday, March 28, 2010

When Writers Don't Follow the "Rules."

You try this long enough and you read quite a lot about today's supposed rules of writing. Here are a few:

No prologues
Don't start with backstory; drop it in as you go.
Go easy on the description
Characters should not look in a mirror as a way for them to describe their appearance to the reader.
You should have clever a premise or a new twist on an old one.
Your main character should be likable.
Your main character must act.
Your main character must solve the central problem.
There should be lots of conflict.
Fast-paced is preferable.
And so on.

And when you write, you try to follow these rules because you figure the people who are making them know what they're talking about and you don't want to eliminate yourself from the game before you get a chance to play.

And then you read something that's crazy successful and breaks all sorts of rules, like the book I'm reading now, Going Bovine, which takes about a hundred pages to get to the plot.

Or another book that I've read probably ten times, Because of Winn-Dixie. The book is beloved. There is no other word. I like it too, so don't read the following as a criticism of the book. It's more of a criticism of the people who promote the above "rules."

Winn-Dixie is about a girl and a dog. Not exactly breaking new ground there. The girl lives with her dad who's into his work. Mom is out of the picture. The girl misses her mom. Again, nothing original there, either. The girl takes in the dog and the dog helps her make friends and not feel so lonely. That's pretty much it. Most of the book is Opal meeting and talking to these people, most of whom are adults. She talks to Miss Franny Block, the librarian. She talks to Otis, the ex-con who runs the pet store. She talks to Gloria Dump. A couple of boys tease her, but she's never in any real danger. There is essentially no conflict to speak of in the story, unless you count Opal missing her mom and feeling lonely as conflict, which I suppose you can, but it's a pretty forgiving definition of conflict. The only "exciting" part of the story, I would submit, is when Winn-Dixie goes missing at the end of the story and Opal tells her dad she's not giving up like he did when Mom bolted and her dad says some things that make you feel all squishy inside. But then she does give up, but it's okay because Winn-Dixie was at Gloria Dump's house all along. The end.

Now, I like the story. I do. But I don't know why I like it. The writing is pleasant. The voice is excellent. The characters are kind of quirky. But as for plot? Eh. Honestly, it's one of those books that, if you were to describe it to somebody, I doubt they'd want to read it. But once read, almost everyone agrees it's excellent. Which goes to show that the rules matter, unless they don't.


Tracy Edward Wymer said...

Rules? There are writing rules? Kidding, of course. At one time I followed the rules like Jesus Christ had inscribed them on a stone tablet and handed them to Moses to spread the writing gospel. Then, I tossed most of them out the window. I was bogging myself down in a puddle of Rules Quicksand and forgetting about my voice, and in my opinion, VOICE is king...

... so long as the other important stuff is there.

Laura Pauling said...

I think its the inner journey the girl takes. And Winn Dixie is just a part of that and we as readers become a part of that. It's written well and its believable. But you're right, a lot of books on paper don't sound great. Which really brings us down the number one rule. It's all about the writing.

Anita said...

I think good books have something that tug at their readers. That can come in all different forms...I just read a book called SPACE WAR that breaks tons of rules and I really shouldn't have liked it, but I did. Something about it tugged at me. You know it when you see it, I guess.

Tahereh said...


so so true.

also -- i realized i broke like 5 of those rules in my MS, and uh, my agent didn't seem to mind.

so.. case in point.

really great post. and funny review. haha.

best of luck with everything!!

Jonathon Arntson said...

"Your main character should be likable." When I read that one, I immediately thought of GOING BOVINE.

I am sincerely intrigued to hear your thoughts on bovine.