Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Writing Wednesday: Rules

Because grade school teachers often see it being used improperly, they tell students that you can't start a sentence with the word because.

This sentence sums up most rules about writing. A lot of the “rules” of writing come from examining the work of writers who do something wrong. The big trend these days is to say that a story needs a glass wall between the writer and the reader. In one of the stories I'm proudest of is A HOME TO DIE FOR. not only wasn't there a glass wall, the reader was the main character.

Some of my favorite short stories are told as if the main character has stopped by the readers house to tell them about the incident that made either them famous or notorious. This is now considered bad form, not because it isn't clear and and effective, but because editors see it being done so bad that they cringe when they see it.

Another “Rule” is single consistent Point of View. Some of the greatest novels I've read have been told from omnipotent point of view that changed who the main focus was often. The funniest thing about the consistent single point of view “rule” is a lot of people refer to one of my favorite authors, Ben Bova, as an example of how to do this.

I became a fan of Ben Bova because he didn't use a single point of view. A lot of his books that I read started out with a omnipotent voice that set up the stage, moved to the main character and showed the rising conflict through things happening around the world. Once he became a famous editor and had to read tons of confusing POV shifts he started preaching the single consistent POV.

I must note that Ben Bova himself doesn't say not to switch POV, he says, “In a novel it is possible to shift from one viewpoint character to another, but you must take great care to make certain that the reader understands these shifts in P.O.V. and is not confused by them.”

The key point in reading about “rules” for writers is not to memorize and follow them, but to learn why people think something should be a rule so when you break that rule you break it properly and don't confuse the reader.

If a writer memorizes the “rules” without looking at the why behind them they risk having the craftsmanship of writing kill heart of the story. Rachelle Gardner talks about that here: Story vs. Craft.

Just like in the beginning sentence of this post, if you know that “because” is a conjunction to link unequal parts of a sentence, you can start a sentence with it. If you make the mistake that my classmates in 3rd grade made of using it to link to the teachers question, that is improper.

BTW: Being the smart ass that I was in school when a teacher told the class we couldn't start our answers with the word “because” I always would do something like this:

“Why was the main character feeling sad?”

“Because his bike was stolen, the main character felt sad.”

Teachers loved having me in their classes.


  1. I'm with you on POV and rules. I am not a fan of the one limited POV and only the limited POV type thinking. I always wrote from omnipotent and was pressured to do otherwise.

    Well, I've made it work, but I only have one full-length novel where I stick with a single POV and I have to say it's unlikely I'll do another. I like see multiple perspectives and I might very well go back to omnipotent. There are places, particularly in the ensemble works I love most, where it's the only way to go.

    Rules are only useful if they build a better story. If they're in the way of the story, they should be discarded.

  2. Rules are made to be broken--but only once one knows the rules. Can you tell I'm an English teacher? Writers who play around with rules, using fragments for effect or modifying typical expectations, can do so very effectively, as long as they do so for good reason (and understand why they do so).

    Unlike my beloved Stephanie, I detest omniscient POV. I'm too plot driven to enjoy being inside a bunch of people's thoughts, and I get impatient for people to stop thinking (or lusting, or complaining about past hurts) and get on with some action. Limited omniscient is more palatable to me, so that I am only inside one character's head, but I prefer first person (a POV I know that Stephanie tends to dislike).

    The main thing is to write what WE like to read. If I don't like reading my own writing, I won't be happy, even if other people love it.

  3. If I didn't already have the rough outline for next weeks post formed in my head these comments would make me write the same one.
    Next week I'm going to write about reading vs. writing.