• Welcome, visitor! Litopia is the oldest & friendliest community for writers on the net. If you are serious about your writing, we cordially invite you to join us.

Breaking The Rules

Status
Not open for further replies.
#1
These rules are not rules, as such, more pithy advice that's entered the neuroses of writers everywhere.

I've previously mentioned semicolons getting bashed by Kurt Vonnegut. Elmore Leonard also offered some grumpy advice to writers:

Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules for Good Writing - Gotham Writers Workshop

His rules include don't begin a story with the weather and don't use a prologue.

Bothered by such advice, which is so often contradicted by successfully published authors, I kept records of the last fifty novels I read in 2017, some bestsellers and award winners: twenty mentioned the weather on the first page and thirty had a prologue. Both devices served to set the scene for what was to come and contributed to a sense of unease. Take this famous example, from the opening of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island has a labyrinthine plot designed to hoodwink the reader. The prologue contains a lot of foreshadowing that an observant reader would be wise to consider. Even the epigraph gives a clue as to where the story is going:

'must we dream our dreams and have them, too?'


—Elizabeth Bishop,

Questions of Travel

I haven't used a prologue in any of my four Cornish Detective novels, though two of them begin with detailed descriptions of the weather, which influences the crime that takes place, as well as interfering with the pursuit of the offender. They were set in the wettest winter on record and the hottest summer for forty years, so it would have been foolish to ignore them; the weather became another character.

Literary agents are said to detest prologues. But, as a reader, I don't mind them—sometimes referring back to them to look for clues in a mystery story.

Another common piece of advice is to avoid using contemporary references, such as news events, as this will date your book, so much so, that in ten years time no one will want to read it. Firstly, you'll be fortunate if your novel is still attracting attention in a decade, so that's a foolish thing to worry about. Also, what's happening in your character's life is affected by the decisions of politicians, natural disasters and warfare. One of my Cornish Detective novels was set at the time of the Brexit referendum, and the voters' decision that we leave the European Union directly harmed the finances of the farmers I was writing about, driving one man to commit a crime.

A similar thing is said about not inflicting an 'info dump' on your readers. I agree, that this can be distracting for the reader, and they may skip reading it if done with a heavy hand, but at least they're aware of why the characters are behaving as they do. I explained the psychological mindset of a serial killer by referencing the trauma he went through as a boy soldier in the genocide of the Bosnian War of Independence. Had I not done so, he would have simply come across as a sadistic psychopath, a two-dimensional bogeyman.

Contemporary references and info dumps can act as tethers, which help to locate the reader's imagination rather than restricting it.

Are there any so-called writing rules that drive you mad, and which you quite happily break?

 

Rich.

Guardian
Staff member
Patron
#2
What I try to do is not break the 'rules' in ignorance; that is to say, the ideal is to master the craft to the point where I'm not making cock-ups.
 

Carol Rose

Guardian
Staff member
Ambassador
#3
Prologues can be successful if used correctly, and in certain genres, they are perfectly acceptable and even expected. But most writers tend to use them to dump backstory (instead of dribbling it in throughout the story), or write them in such a way that they should really be first chapters.
 
#4
I like prologues. After reading one, I settle more comfortably in the chair and say to myself, 'Okay, let's go.' They add to the anticipation and frame the coming story.
 
#5
I agree with @Carol Rose and @Marc Joan . They can be badly misused but they can also be comforting, and a good way to settle the reader into a mindset.

I have, for good or ill, used them quite heavily in one of my projects. As it was a trilogy of books and there were numerous threads running through, I used a series (three per book) of prologues as a way to introduce main subjects and make it clear that the story was not just single threaded.
 
#6
To prologue or not to prologue that is a big question.
I have struggled with this but feel in children’s novels a prologue is not needed. Children have great imaginations and do not need all the questions answered like adults. They are happy build their own imagery and change it as a story builds and gives clues.
I have read excerpts of my novel to the children in my class and they never have as many questions as adults have when they critique my work. Oh the joys of being a child.
I think it depends on the complexity of the world and plot that embodies the story for adult fiction.
 

Amber

Benefactor
#7
The rule I remember an author going on and on about is not starting a story with a dream sequence.

I do have a rule about semi-colons. I don't think there is any reason for anyone to use a semi-colon. I hardly ever see someone using it correctly and readers hardly ever know what it is.
It's grammatically correct to use two sentences where a semi-colon would go.

I'm not against or for weather or prologues. But I can't help but point out that the purpose of the opening line of 1984 is not the weather but to let us know we're in a world with different rules than our own. It's the clock striking 13 which is the important part of that sentence and the comment on the weather, something which establishes we haven't changed so much as to not notice the weather. We're human. Whether he meant to or not, the first sentence is subtle worldbuilding.

I've tried to write prologues a few times but I end up starting a new story instead. But honestly, the few times I tried to write one it was because the people who were reading my story didn't understand what was happening and wanted more information. Sounds like a personal problem to me. Mine.

It seems likely Elmore Leonard was reacting to an influx of novels where weather was used as a proxy for legitimate conflict in the opening pages of a story. A dream sequence can do the same thing. Which is why the author I'm thinking of wouldn't shut up about dream sequences. I knew someone who started her story with a dream sequence and she used it to insert a sense of the supernatural. Dream sequences aren't really that interesting though. I never did find out what her point was.

I think the real rule must be, "Don't be a lazy writer."
 

Rich.

Guardian
Staff member
Patron
#8
@Amber, I agree with almost everything you said, but I will have to challenge you to a duel with pistols at dawn over your slur of the semicolon. ;)
 

Carol Rose

Guardian
Staff member
Ambassador
#9
A semicolon has gone the way of the dinosaur. You simply don't see it in genre fiction anymore. I'd avoid using it. I know they're cool and neat and all that, but readers don't expect them, and an editor may well have you take them out anyway.
 
#10
A semicolon has gone the way of the dinosaur. You simply don't see it in genre fiction anymore. I'd avoid using it. I know they're cool and neat and all that, but readers don't expect them, and an editor may well have you take them out anyway.
Have to disagree. See it all the time, in general fiction, in sci-fi and fantasy: hell, even Rowling used the hell out of it (not sure whether that is a plus or not, but...).
The semicolon is very much alive and well. I would say that only the most simplistic of writers stay away from it, and that is likely because they don't know how to use it. It is still a useful tool and therefore I see no reason to discard it at all. If a publisher ever wants to talk to me about my work and has an issue with my punctuation, then they and I can have a long and productive talk on not dumbing down my work to pander to the hard of thinking masses. :D
 
#11
As a general observation on punctuation, I think that it has to be spectacularly bad for the average reader to notice errors. Most readers race over those funny little dots and squiggles. As writers, we read stories differently, taking in technique, word choice, grammar and punctuation.

It could be argued, that the main role of punctuation is simply to signify a pause of some kind. Noah Lukeman, in his The Art of Punctuation handily labels punctuation marks to indicate their roles. The full stop/period is the Red Light, the comma is the Speed Bump, the semicolon is the Bridge, the colon is the Magician, the dash and brackets are the Interrupter and the Adviser, quotation marks are the Trumpets and the paragraph and section break are the Main-line Station and the Branch Line.

One trend, that I've noticed in recently published novels, is the rise of the em dash which is replacing the comma for some authors. I read a crime novel where the pages looked like they'd been shot with a staple gun, as so many em dashes made mini horizons within sentences.

 
Last edited:
#12
One trend, that I've observed in recently published novels, is the rise of the em dash which is replacing the comma for some authors. I read a crime novel where the pages looked like they'd been shot with a staple gun, as so many em dashes made mini horizons within sentences.
Yeah! What the heck is it with em dashes of late? I mean, I make use of them myself on rare occasion, but as you say, they are suddenly everywhere, and in vast numbers. I sincerely feel they have risen because of what I said above: people don't know how to use the semicolon. Or the colon, for that matter. Or, in fact, the comma, which countless authors utterly misuse these days (ie, do not use enough of, leading to sentence structure which can be interpreted in about a dozen ways).
Or is it just an upswing in the number of stories with a sort of train-of-consciousness style of narration, which the em dash tends to fit?
 

Carol Rose

Guardian
Staff member
Ambassador
#13
Evernight and most romance publishers take out semicolons if we do put them in, so I don't bother these days. I do know how to use one. I simply don't have a need to do so. :) And I doubt my readers miss them. I doubt my readers give a rat's behind, to be honest. LOL!!

But hey, if they're that important to someone as a writer, for heaven's sake put them in. But don't assume that because they aren't used by others, those authors don't know how to use them, or are simplistic writers for not using them. It's insulting, not to mention laughable as a generalization if the author in question is published and selling, despite not using that particular punctuation mark. :)
 

Carol Rose

Guardian
Staff member
Ambassador
#14
The problem with talking about the weather on the first page isn't talking about the weather. It's that authors will use it to set a scene, when nothing happens in that scene. The scene isn't an integral part of the story. They use the weather or something equally benign in the opening pages because they don't understand where or how to start their story.
 
Last edited:
#15
What @Carol Rose said: I think those tentative, descriptive openings are not unlike difficult conversations with friends or family members where the Elephant in the Room needs to be addressed, and so we skirt around the topic and tiptoe on eggshells rather than get to the point and confront tough issues. When what will spark the reader's interest is conflict, drama and excitement from the first line.

I have enjoyed slow openings that build to a crescendo line by line. The suspense is there, though, especially if the deceptively mild weather is about to become a cyclone bomb!
 

Carol Rose

Guardian
Staff member
Ambassador
#16
What @Carol Rose said: I think those tentative, descriptive openings are not unlike difficult conversations with friends or family members where the Elephant in the Room needs to be addressed, and so we skirt around the topic and tiptoe on eggshells rather than get to the point and confront tough issues. When what will spark the reader's interest is conflict, drama and excitement from the first line.

I have enjoyed slow openings that build to a crescendo line by line. The suspense is there, though, especially if the deceptively mild weather is about to become a cyclone bomb!
Yes, and slow openings are fine if they build, as you said, to an actual point. :)

What I mean are opening scenes that talk about the weather, or have one of the characters strolling along, musing, thinking, etc., but then nothing happens. They just keep strolling until they're in the next scene, and all that musing didn't mean anything to the overall story.

A thing in contemporary romance for a while was to have the heroine jogging as the book opened, but she was doing nothing except jogging and thinking yet. UGH. And this went on for pages and pages, but did nothing for the story. Why editors allowed this for so long is beyond me.

Or openings where every leaf in the forest or every shape of the clouds overhead are described, but nothing happens. There's no point to telling us all this because it doesn't move the story forward, it doesn't show characterization, and it doesn't give the reader new or important information. If at least one of those three things isn't going on in every single scene, cut it and leave it on the floor.

Weather is a device some writers misuse to "set a scene," but in doing so they also forget that scene has to mean something. It's not a play, where you toss in a few lines at the beginning of each act to describe the where and when. It's great if you can do that in a story on the first page, but it still has to have meat. Going on and on about the beautiful blue sky, or the approaching storm clouds, but then all of that means absolutely nothing to the next scene, or to the rest of the story for that matter, is just filler.

Hope this helps. :)
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top