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Learn and Obey the Rules


Another point that occasionally comes up is an attitude to do with ‘rules’. The attitude is 'To Hell with Rules.' It's a mistake.

I can understand how it arises. I’ve seen many senseless arguments over the years about fiddly rules to do with the use of commas or quotation marks, or even about fonts and font sizes. It’s very possible to develop a viewpoint, if you see too much of that, that says that ‘All rules are rotten’ and to protest against them as a general… well, rule.

I published a story once about a princess who, bored with her life in the castle, runs away into the forest. There she meets a leprechaun who is forced to give her three wishes. She wastes two of them (as is common in such stories) and tries to extend the number beyond three wishes only to be told that this is ‘against the Rules’. At that point, she has a brainwave: what if she were to wish that there were no more rules? The leprechaun, under protest, grants her this wish, and all seems fine for a moment - but then gradually the fabric of reality itself breaks down, and the princess is left alone in the dark.

Don’t worry, though. An old man with a stick appears and restores everything. But the princess has learned a lesson: not all rules are bad, and order itself forms the foundation of things as far as they can be understood. Some rules are so fundamental that they simply must be obeyed if a writer wants to communicate anything at all. Otherwise chanobfrsyd fkk ebdnf nsenme.

See what happened there? I broke one of these basic rules. Writers must use words that can be understood by an audience if they are to communicate something. You may have ‘dubbed in’ the meaning of those collections of letters, which is fair enough because you had the beginning of the sentence to extrapolate from. But had I written a whole sentence in such a jumbled fashion, you would have been lost. And even then, I used recognisable letters - true denial of all rules would lead to some other symbols being used, or even to an attempt to use some other form of communication. In the end, as we find with a few authors, rebellion against rules can lead to a failure to communicate at all - even the most basic and unprocessed communication must follow some rules.

In fact, if as a writer you want to communicate, you need to be at least halfway up a ladder which would look something like this:

1. No communication at all

2. Desire to communicate but refusal to apply basic principles

3. Intermittent attempts to communicate without mastering basics

4. Partly successful attempts to communicate using limited basics

5. Increasingly successful attempts to communicate using more and more applicable rules

6. Fairly effortless and successful communication using most of the rules

7. Mastery of the rules, enabling highly successful communication and even experimentation with new ways of communicating

Note that some authors try to jump to the ‘experimentation’ phase without having moved up through the other phases. Their experiments almost always fail.

Many writers are stuck in phases 2 or 3, regarding rules as something to be ‘unlearned’ or protested against, rather than mastered.

Many writers whose work I examine regularly are at phases 4 or 5 - they are aware of, and attempting to use some rules, with various degrees of success. The best stories that I read belong to 6 and 7, where writers have command of the language and its techniques, and a proper understanding of the craft of telling stories. With that proper understanding, some attempts are made to surprise and play with the reader, just as a master musician can surprise and play with his or her listeners.

Where are you, do you think, on the above scale? It’s possible to progress, step by step, to complete mastery in a relatively short time - but only by understanding and being able to apply the rules as they are.

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