What have I learned in the four decades I’ve spent pursuing my craft as a writer? Pretty much the same thing I’ve learned in the 25 years I’ve worked in film. The truth is, there are no hard and fast rules. Everybody wants to know what works and what doesn’t. Many are happy to oblige, with everything from lists to entire books on the subject. Doesn’t change the fact that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for others. It’s for that very reason I usually tell aspiring writers and filmmakers that any “rules” they come across should be taken with an enormous grain of salt.
By way of demonstration, I subscribe to several writing groups on Tumblr, where rules tend to proliferate. Normally, I scan them, nod over the insights with which I agree and roll my eyes over the ones with which I don’t. Some writers can be pretty pedantic when it comes to writing. Those are generally the ones worth ignoring – even if they come with a pedigree. Need some examples?
Recently I tumbled across a list of dos and don’t from Elizabeth Bowen, an Irish novelist and short story writer born in 1899, whose war novel The Heat Of The Day (1948) is considered “one of the quintessential depictions of London atmosphere during the bombing raids of World War II,” according to Wikipedia. Her ghost story The Demon Lover is also considered one of the best in the genre. I mention all this so that you understand she was a writer of some worth and not just some fly-by-night know-it-all.
These are her 7 Rules For Writing:
- Dialogue should be brief.
- It should add to the reader’s present knowledge.
- It should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation.
- It should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk.
- It should keep the story moving forward.
- It should be revelatory of the speaker’s character, both directly and indirectly.
- It should show the relationships among people.
Okay, let’s start at the top. Her number one rule is, I’m just going to come out and say it, hogwash. It, combined with number three, goes against everything we know about writing, which is that dialog should be natural and unaffected. One of the greatest challenges of any writer is to convey story without making the dialog sound stilted or, at worst, leading. Any writer worth his salt should want to surprise his audience and many times that’s done by introducing clues that don’t look or sound like clues.
Nothing is more satisfying, as a reader, than to look back at a snatch of conversation that told us exactly what was going to happen, but did so in a way that we had no idea it was even happening. That same piece of advice goes for film. Why else do we take such pleasure in re-reading, or re-watching a favored book or film, just because we KNOW we’re going to discover elements we missed the first time around?
The rest of her “rules” are pretty standard fare. Taken alone, 2, 5, 6, and 7 are good advice, but because they’re couched in a pedantic adherence to the first, they almost feel priggish. Such pedagogery was common in the time that she was writing, so I guess we should give her a break, but the fact that her rules continue to be proliferated amongst struggling writers presents problems.
Now, compare Bowen’s rules with these Six Tips On Writing from John Steinbeck:
- Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
- Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm, which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
- Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
- If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
- Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
- If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
Right off the bat, we see that Steinbeck isn’t presenting rules, so much as revealing his own method. They’re good tips, even though they probably won’t work for everybody. In fact, number three even contains the caveat “I have found…” which automatically states it is the writer’s preference, not a hard and fast rule, but let’s break them down anyway.
Number one, in particular, is pretty great advice, if only because nothing is more daunting than sitting down to write 400 pages. If your story is strong and multifaceted, you should have no trouble getting there, but not thinking about it will make the journey far less stressful.
Personally, number two doesn’t work for me, because I have a tendency to return to previous passages, while writing, in order to rewrite them to match revelations that come later in the story. It works and has worked for me, so that’s my process. Again, it may not work for everybody.
Four, five and six are very sound advice. The difference being, they are part of one man’s arsenal and he all but tells you that you can take it or leave it. Because Steinbeck had a long and illustrious career, we can take most of his advice to heart. We do not, however, feel that if we don’t follow his path, we will somehow bastardize the art of writing.
Then we have Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Much like Steinbeck, Vonnegut is speaking from his own experiences as a writer. Unlike Steinbeck, however, he is closer in tone to Bowen, in that his advice smacks strongly of pedantry. One through four and eight are sound advice. Nobody wants to waste the time of the reader and grabbing them quickly should be paramount, so giving them characters and actions that advance the story are key. Five is very obviously the preference of the author. Six I agree with, but again, only as a personal preference. It won’t necessarily work for everybody. Seven is just a more poetic version of Steinbeck’s third tip.
And finally, because I know I’ve already lost many readers due to short attention spans, we’ve got the very sensible and approachable Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules For Writers:
- Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
- Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
- Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
- Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Of all the rules of writing I have come across, these are the most accessible. These are words of advice that strike at the core of any writer’s insecurities. Whereas Bowen’s advice, and the advice of many on the Tumblr boards, is “do it this way or you’re not a writer,” Gaiman’s is simpler and to the point. If you want to be a writer, you have to write and finish what you’ve started.
Five is a brilliant piece of social commentary, one that any writer or filmmaker can relate to. Who hasn’t had that bombastic critic tell them, usually indirectly, what is and isn’t wrong with a particular piece of work? Are they experts? Usually not. After all, what makes them experts? If they’re so damned good at writing or making films, why aren’t they doing it? And if they are, why aren’t they winning countless awards for their absolute brilliance. The truth of the matter is, nobody is that good. Nobody.
Eight sums it all up. If you want to be a writer or a filmmaker or an artist of any kind, be a writer or a filmmaker or an artist. Don’t wait for somebody else to crown you. And if you’re writing to make a certain audience happy, you’re falling into a trap. Finally, the best advice of all: “I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” Exactly!
So you see, if it’s rules you’re looking for, you’ll find them in abundance. All you have to do is Google “rules for writing.” Chances are, however, that the results won’t make you a better writer or filmmaker. They’ll just complicate your process and bog it down in unnecessary self-doubt. Who needs that? Instead, I agree with Mr. Gaiman. You want to be a writer? Write. You want to be a filmmaker? Make films. That goes for any form of art. If you are inclined to create, follow your instincts and do it. In the end, you have nobody to answer to but yourself.