Friday, November 8, 2013

Five Writing Rules and How I Understood Them

It took me many years to start to understand certain common ideas, despite having heard the same things over and over. Because none of my teachers put it in their own words, it became an issue of getting it off the first go or never at all. Either their clever quotes made sense or they didn’t. I would ask, but the answer wasn’t clearer. And if the teacher had any insecurity about what he was saying, he would start to perceive me as nothing more than the face of evil. Asking questions is not the same thing as questioning you, Mr. Gary.

I’m using the term “rules” because that’s how they were defined to me, despite I see the concept of rules as an unhelpful limitation. They seem like the sort of laws that are passed by a suspiciously utopian society, that look like they make sense, but only for those people “too stupid to think for themselves.” That being said the outright rejection of these ideas is about as simplistic and unhelpful as unquestioned obedience to them. Whether we refer to them tools, rules, or the bane of my existence, they still have their place, and I was determined to figure them out.

1. Learn the rules to learn to break them.

Part of the reason why no one told me this in a way I could grasp had to do with the superficial nature of it. We couldn’t talk about the why because that would bring up the entire issue of “playing the game,” something that, as a high schooler, I was not the sort to buy into.

Literature is primarily a comparative art form, meaning that there are no rules. As soon as everyone does something, it becomes wrong. This is illustrated by some people being allowed to break them, but not others. It sounded, when first spoken to me, like they were saying, “There are separate rules for amateurs and experts. You need to know your place.”

Well, of course I’m not going to be taking that seriously. And yes, most of you are going “That’s not what it means.” But that was the way I interpreted it, and, without having someone put it to me differently, I never questioned that interpretation. Quite frankly, not even enough to recognize that was my interpretation.

So what does it really mean?

The problem is that if the rule exists only to be broken later, it isn’t a rule; it’s a guideline. And when working in literature which one of those “guidelines” is to defy the superimposed boundaries of a project, no one is going to look at these paths and decided, “I need to be told what to do.” Clearly it is an issue of context, so it becomes about learning what context to use it in. It is a blanket rule to teach authors how to contextualize, which is just contradictory.

The issue discusses a problem that most authors don’t want to talk about for fear of tainting the sanctity of writing: There is no such thing as quality, but there is such a thing as the perception of quality.

Like beauty, it is an illusion. “Good” does not just exist. A chair exists. You show it to someone without a word and they’ll agree there’s a chair there. You put another chair next to it and it’s still a chair. With the exception of some bizarre styling choices, a chair is always obviously a chair, and you can’t change people’s minds by saying it isn’t.

We like to think that people aren’t stupid, that they can tell for themselves what quality is and isn’t. But being uncertain on what’s “good or bad” doesn’t make someone stupid. The reality is that, because it doesn’t exist, it’s hard to recognize it when we see it.

Greatness is not always recognized in its time. People want their work to speak for itself, but in order to do that, someone has to listen. Readers start listening because they have faith something interesting or useful will be said. That requires a good first impression. A good first impression comes from meeting people’s cultural expectations. It comes from keeping up appearances.

Abiding by cultural expectations, from plot structure in your story or wearing a suit to work, sometimes feels like we’re bartering into a system, playing by people’s stupid rules just to get them to like us. Which is exactly what it is. But doing things to get people to listen to you, especially when it doesn’t affect what you’re actually saying, is the only way to get people to commit to your book over all the others. Potential is defined by perspective. Perspective is defined by all the elements, superficial or no.

“Learn the rules to learn to break them,” means “Make a reader think you know what you’re doing so you can do questionable things later.”

2. Everyone wants something, even if it’s just a glass of water.

The most important part of a story is motivation—The character’s motivation, the narrator’s motivation, the writer’s motivation, and even the reader’s motivation. A good story has characters, narrator, and readers wanting something, things that best conceal what the author wants.

The way I finally understood “everyone wants something,” is, “no one does anything without having an intended result.” That result does not have to be specific, likely, or even logical, but they still have some sort of hope for something good to happen.

It can be simple. I sat down because I thought it would feel better than standing. I go to work to earn money and then want the day to be over as quickly as possible. I asked “How are you?” because I thought I would feel better without the lengthy silence.

A motivation can be vague or unlikely, without any knowledge of the actual “how.” I said hello because I thought that I might find out you were the one and we would eventually fall in love and get married, and I don’t have to worry about my weight anymore. I applied to UCLA because I am going to go there and meet people and network until I find myself successful in the film industry. I write a book so that people will respect me. (Hypothetically of course.)

Every action has a reason behind it. This is true in reality as well as fiction; we just aren’t always aware of it.

Just because we don’t know our thoughts doesn’t mean they’re not there. We are always thinking as well as thinking many things at one time. If we are conscious of one of them, we’re doing good.

A great example is a comedic article I read on the internet in which it discussed between what a man and a woman were thinking.

A man says, “Are you tired?”

The woman over analyses it until she decides it means he hates her.

But, according to the article, the man was really “just curious.”

There are two things that people rarely are. And I mean rarely like a dog playing a piano rarely. Not impossible, but not something you’d see everyday. Those are “just curious,” and “just explaining.”

Both of those two remove as much motivation as they possibly can, which not only is the least interesting choice, but not a very natural one. Because we all have an objective, “just explaining,” is limited to the artificial set up of a clear hierarchy—A speech given by a politician or teacher. And even then, they often still have an agenda.

To prove the article’s point, let’s overanalyze what “Are you tired?" really means.

It is most commonly motivated by three things.

“Are you tired? Do you want to do something else tonight or go home?” The intended reaction could be either, “Yes, I want to come home,” meaning the man will finally be rid of her, or it might be, “No, let’s go to the movies,” or even better yet, she reaches over and they start making out. But, his motivation was trying to find information so that he could take an action.

It might mean, “Is that why you’re being such a bitch?” The motivation is he’s trying to inform her, “You’re being a bitch,” so that she either stops or at least is punished by being informed that’s exactly what’s happening. His intended result could be that he thinks it will make her stop being cruel.

Or lastly, he might just be trying to fill the dreaded silence and can’t think of anything else. The intended result would be, if not rationally, that it would ignite a conversation, or stall long enough until he could think of something interesting.

“Everyone wants something, even if it’s just a glass of water,” illustrates that it is unnatural to not want anything. The tool of motivation can make any inorganic scene better. From bad dialogue to unconvincing fight scenes, understanding and indicating a character’s objectives can fix many problems.

3. “Don’t use said.” OR “Always use said.”

I feel this is the most common on this list because no matter the class, the teacher always brings one or the other up, and there is always a student who goes, “Wait. I thought it was the other way.”

People like this, I guess, because it’s pretty straight and to the point. The use of the word said, or lack thereof, is an obvious and fairly influential choice that can change the entire value of a dialogue.

Said is a supportive word. It is neutral and without connotation. It can be used in any situation and still make sense, whether it be crying, screaming, love, or general apathy. All synonyms for it, besides for a few exceptions like “tell,” are influential words. They change the tone and can only be used in certain contexts.

It is common for writers to overuse supportive words. Not only is there a strange belief among some that the best kind of writing is neutral writing, but supportive words are safe. If you have achieved the tone you wanted, said will not ruin it.

But not only are influential words more interesting, they have the capacity to grow and add onto the scene. The constant changing of it, even though in the end it’s the same outcome, makes it more interesting and less predictable, also seem less lazy. If choices were numbers, “said” would be zero, and everything else would be everything else.

Say an author wants 21. His first choice might be 21 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0, instead of going 8 9 3 -5 -3 8 1 22 -13 -6 -10 7. He says what it is supposed to be (telling instead of showing) and then does his best to not influence the story in either direction for fear of him not being able to get back to 21.

But readers grow tolerant to stagnancy; they want change. In fact, if an author was capable, he would benefit from using only influential words because they are more powerful, more heartfelt, and make every single sentence add to the story. Supportive words only maintain the status quo.

So that sounds like I’m on the side of “Never using said.” Let me go on. It is not possible to constantly use influential words because there aren’t enough words in the English language. Many have additional meanings that subtract from the intended vision. Secondly, even if there is a perfect word out there, you very well might not be able to think of it. And it might not even be worth it.

While supportive words are flexible, influential words are not. Hence the gist of the problem: using an influential word in the wrong way can ruin the tone created, just like we feared.

The reason why people like the word said is because it doesn’t stand out until about the 60th time it’s used. But an influential word, if used properly, doesn’t either. The issue is that when it is used improperly, it screams at the reader.

I discussed writer’s motivation a little above and how it is important for the character’s and narrator’s motivation need to overshadow the author’s. This is a case in point. Many people, having been told never use said, will proceed to try not to use said, and it will often read like that’s what’s happening.

If I say, “‘The engine’s internal mechanism will combust if we don’t cool it down!’ he ejaculated,” every single member of the audience will be brought right from emersion and think, “Why did the author choose that word?” And, in this case, it will be very obvious that I was just trying to use something other than the word said.

Influential words imply a tone. It gives us a distinct image of facial expression, body language, and the inflection. It is important for synonyms of “said” to fit the situation precisely. If it does, the sentence will be enhanced in bounds. If it doesn’t, it would be ruined to the same extent. Said is for when you can’t think of a word that precisely speaks the desired tone, which will be most situations.

4. Never use a semicolon.

This comes from the same problem as the above. Just as “ejaculated,” means, “I’m trying not to use said,” to the reader, the semicolon says, “I’m trying to sound smart.”

That’s all there is to it. Semicolons tend to ruin immersion by means of illustrating the author’s motivation. They are distracting. It’s why people don’t like them.

With that in mind, I personally advise to throw this this advice right out the window. Semicolons are useful, and the more we use them the more people will ignore them, thus solving the problem.

I am constantly feeling limited by the options of punctuation I have. There are many web comics and blogs that make jokes about “new punctuation” we need, and they stem from a place of truth. Periods and hyphens and question marks are the subtlest means to indicate pauses and inflections. We are already limited; we don’t want to make it worse.

And for those who don’t believe that the semicolon is useful, they are disregarding the importance of rhythm and flow, i.e. are dumb.

The semicolon is used between two full sentences as a continuation of a thought.

“The dog was ugly; he was brown.” The dog is ugly because he is brown.

“The dog was ugly. He was brown.” The dog is ugly and he is brown.

A hyphen might work: The dog is ugly—He is brown. But it changes the tone. The semicolon makes the voice drop down and be completed, the hyphen makes the voice go up, trailing into the next sentence. Both are acceptable, yet each one is better than the other in different contexts, meaning we shouldn’t limit ourselves just because one is “close enough.”

The semicolon is punctuation we can’t afford to lose.

5. Show, don’t tell.

I, like every other teenager in the universe, did not take well the word “don’t.” I still don’t, ironically.

Translate advice with has the words, “don’t,” “never,” or “always,” into, “I assume you do too much, so stop it.”

Balance and variation are the keys to good books, and it is fairly typical for beginning writers to have the same sort of problems.

Telling and not showing is a typical one.

Telling is far more efficient, clearer, as well as easier. There are a lot of benefits to doing it, which is why it is typical for people to do it far too much.

So, we’ll just clear out the “don’t” part of the sentence because everyone whose ever heard this advice probably already did. As it is the main part we take issue to, it’ll also be make the advice more palatable.

Showing is proving. Telling is… telling. I can say to you, “My character is really cool.” The problem with that is 1) the author’s motivation is really obvious, and 2) people are probably not going to believe it. Mostly because the author’s motivation is really obvious. So, instead, the author marches him into a room where everyone hates him, has someone shout at him, “Your book is a travesty against literature!” makes him raise his hand in acknowledgement and say, “Noted.”

Could people not understand that this “proves” he’s cool? Or worse, disagree with it? Absolutely yes. Hence why people like telling. I once had a reader write a bunch of questions in the script, complaining I wasn’t explaining enough. Then, in the next paragraph, where it had answered those questions, she wrote, “Why are you talking about this?” So yes, it’s easy to be too subtle.

When people know someone’s trying to persuade them, they tend to do their best not to be persuaded. Or that might just be autobiographical.

Showing tends to be more grounding. It gives you specific images of actions rather than abstract big pictures. The examples prove far cleverer, mostly because an actual illustration that someone is a bad ass is much harder than just saying that he is.

The difference between a summery and a story is the difference of showing and telling. It’s the difference between reading the Wikipedia page over the actual book. Showing has ambiance, immersion. Telling is more straight-to-the point and gives less room for error. Though that can be the thing you want at that moment, showing is what makes the book real.


Too much simplification of information makes it inaccurate, but it doesn’t void it of truth. When trying to give blanket advice to many people, writers, teachers, and critics do their best to come up with something that everyone can use. Of course it doesn’t perfectly fit to each case, so it becomes the job of the individual to filter past the generalization, through the “cleverness,” and get to a point of usability. It helps when someone puts it the way they see it.