There are few things more certain to stir up animosity in any group of writers than a discussion about ‘rules’.
As soon as someone mentions anything to do with there being rules about how to write, a series of explosions is triggered and a war commences. Two camps rapidly align themselves: in the first are those who believe that there are particular inviolable principles which apply in the world of fiction writing which, if an author hopes to be successful, he or she must master; in the second are those who dismiss this whole notion as ridiculous and dangerously restrictive, and who argue that 'rules were made to be broken'. The first group, the ‘Rulies’, as we might call them, are more often than not in the minority; the second group, the ‘Rebels’, are usually both more numerous and more vocal in their defiance.
I think that the whole thing, like most violent disagreements, rests upon a fundamental misunderstanding. Moreover, I think that this misunderstanding, if it could be cleared up, could be used to enlighten both camps and to bring them together in new ways.
The word ‘rule’ itself does not assist us much in this regard: it comes from Middle English and ultimately from Latin regula ‘straight stick’, with its accompanying unhelpful imagery of punishment and restriction. The idea that there might be a set of ‘straight sticks’ buried deep in the way we write stories serves only to encourage the Rebels to seek them out and bend or break them. We need a new word, I think, if we are going to get around this and arrive at a solution with which both camps will be happy.
To approach that new word, I want to go right down into the nitty-gritty of language and start with the symbol known as a ‘letter’. The set of pen strokes (or key strokes today) which designate a particular letter or set of letters is one ‘straight stick’ with which all writers must begin. There’s no point using an invented set of symbols if one hopes to communicate in words - indeed, if one just ‘makes up’ one’s own letters without reference to anything that a reader might recognise, one can scarcely begin to write anything at all, nor would anything that one wrote be recognisable as ‘words’. And these things called ‘words’ give us our next unit of ‘straightness’: one must use words which are familiar to readers, unless he wants to write another Finnegan’s Wake - and even in that novel, Joyce uses our familiarity with words as they are in order to suggest words that might be, to a large extent.
Words must also be put together in particular orders to qualify as tools of communication, and so we get our next units, the subjects of syntax and grammar, along with punctuation. These are all ‘rules’ with which very few of even the Rebel camp would disagree. But I want to look deeper at what they are - which brings us to the new term that we are looking for. All of the above - the letter, the word, the subjects of syntax, grammar and punctuation - are ‘communication bridges’. We need them all, and need to employ them according to strict and established codes of practice, if we hope for our communications to make their journey effectively to readers on the other side. Without the communication bridge of a recognisable letter, readers would struggle to understand the message; without the communication bridge of a familiar pattern of syntax, readers would struggle to piece together a set of words at all.
So far, these communication bridges have been fairly mechanical things, about which Rebels cannot argue much. But I want to take this further by suggesting that there are other ‘communication bridges’ which are almost as mechanical, but less visible, in fiction. One set of these is the group of conventions which we commonly define as a ‘genre’. If one is writing a Western, for example, it is likely that certain settings, characters and even lines of plot will appear. A reader picking up a Western to read expects to see highly specialised ‘communication bridges’ in place: cowboys, guns, towns with sheriffs and features of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, and, of course, a general background of what we call the ‘Old West’. These elements are part of what makes a Western what it is; lose too many of these and an author is losing communication with the reader who expected them - he’s burning his bridges, in other words.
Similarly, in the Romance genre: frustrated, unmarried women encountering initially arrogant or aloof men but eventually winning their hearts is one of the tropes of this genre. A ‘trope’ is a kind of ‘rule’, but it may be more helpful to define it as a communication bridge: a set of tropes is a foundation for the transmission of a particular message. And this applies to any genre, big or small.
Rebels may protest: it is their duty, they may claim, to rip apart these established norms and strive to reinvent genres and tropes and all the rest of these reader expectations. And of course it is the job of any writer to entertain a reader without making the means whereby he or she hopes to do so so obvious that the reader feels let down. A convention or communication bridge which is overused or plainly in view is clearly not forwarding the excitement or passion connected with writing fiction. It is a cliché. But, having said that, a communication bridge of some sort is needed, or the communication will not make it to the reader.
It turns out, as readers of my book How Stories Really Work will know, that there are a lot more of these communication bridges than we might initially suspect behind the framework of most stories from ancient times all the way up to the blockbusters of modern cinema. All the way through era after era of fiction, the same ‘bones’ stick through, the same underlying pathways make themselves known, the same templates exist. Rebels can protest as much as they wish: there is hardly a tale in existence which does not use a set of standard communication bridges to achieve its impact, from the simplest child’s story to the most complex literary novel, from the most dramatic stage play to the funniest film. Even the tales that claim to defy these things rest their strength on the fact that the 'things' were there in the first place. That these things remain so invisible, so disguised, is a testament to the power of authors to master them, not to reject them.
Fiction, it seems, is a giant ‘communication bridge’: an author takes what he or she wants to say and constructs a series of connections to the reader, starting with the alphabet of letters with which an audience is familiar, then using a particular vocabulary, framed in a particular syntax, using a precise grammar - but extending those connections into the zone of character archetypes, plot tropes, standard settings and many other things, until the gap between the writer and the reader is firmly crossed.
What about the Rebels, then? Is there no freedom from ‘rules’? Must one accept a given set of restrictions if one is to communicate anything?
Of course you can rebel against anything you wish. Be a rebel. Break rules. But I would suggest that the great artists all learned what the rules were before they set about breaking them. In effect, great art is an attempt to build better bridges, or find new ways of communicating. In the meantime, learn the trade.
The simplest example is that of the alphabet: every writer accepts that there can be little deviation from it if anything is going to be achieved. Yet it’s possible to argue that an alphabet, that letter shapes, are just more ‘rules’. Where protest has its place, and where the rage of the Rebels finds its true vent, is not in the destruction of bridges, but in the use of them to communicate passionate messages and powerful meanings using every tool available. Just as we would not seek out a new set of letters for the sake of it, so we should not dismiss the tools that we already have to hand to express what we feel, what we know and what we want others to understand.
Fiction is a set of bridges. Instead of wasting time denying them, let’s cross them together and accomplish great things.