Thursday, January 30, 2020

Breaking The Rules

     One of the pleasures I take from writing fiction arises from my fascination with “the rules:” the rules of fictional construction and depiction, and whether and how tightly they actually bind the writer. I’ve occasionally gone off on great and windy tirades about “the rules” – as I understand them, of course – often regarding blatant violations of them committed by other writers. It can make me seem pedantic. Candidly, that’s a longstanding fault of mine.

     But in truth, my fascination with “the rules” goes deepest when it concerns how they might be broken to advantage.

     Sometimes, an approach “the rules” seem to forbid is really just something that hasn’t yet been done successfully. Over time that can lead to a certain rigidity:

“We don’t do that.”
“Why not?”
“It’s not done.

     Should the questioner ask “Why not?” a second time, his interlocutor might say something snippy and apply the Cut Direct. This is especially prevalent among “established” writers, who are ever ready to dismiss the parvenu: “He’s not one of us.”

     But time marches on, and sometimes a writer who has muttered “Why not?” in privacy will resolve to try out a particular rule breakage and see if he can make it work. Those who loftily proclaimed that “It’s not done” might sniff, but that’s ultimately of no moment. Indeed, on rare occasions a rule breakage becomes a part of the adventurous writer’s mystique, even a reason to proclaim him great:

     “Shakespeare never breaks the real laws of poetry,” put in Dimble. “But by following them he breaks every now and then the little regularities which critics mistake for the real laws. Then the little critics call it a ‘licence.’ But there’s nothing licentious about it to Shakespeare.” [C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength]

     Until fairly recently, one of the “little regularities” was that first-person and third-person narration don’t mix. Yet it can be done, if properly structured, and if enough care is taken not to jar the reader unduly. I’ve done it a couple of times. Another narrative technique disdained until fairly recently is first-person multiple: having more than one first-person narrator, their viewpoint sections interleaved. Yet Ursula Le Guin succeeded brilliantly with it in The Left Hand of Darkness and Robert Silverberg used it to tremendous advantage in The Book of Skulls.

     Another group of pseudo-rules concerns mandatory elements in particular genres. Such a rule is of the form “If you’re writing in genre X, you must include element Y.” This is an indirect attempt to define the genre, which I don’t disagree with in principle. However, let it be said at once that genres of fiction, like many other things, have nebulous margins. Their edges are not at all hard or fast. Anyone who’s ever delved into the interminable arguments about “fantasy versus science fiction” (or the more recent and much more acrimonious arguments over romantic science fiction) will know how such debates usually run.

     Now, I’m hardly one to counsel young writers to ignore “the rules.” Rather, I advise knowing them as completely and thoroughly as possible. One way to do that is the method prescribed by Lawrence Block: Read a great deal in your target genre, such that you subconsciously absorb what makes it the kind of fiction you want to write. Once you’ve read five hundred murder mysteries, you’ll have a pretty good sense for what’s been done in that sub-genre and how well it worked.

     But that doesn’t mean you can’t break the rules when you think it will work for you. You can strike out on a completely new path, if you’re willing to take the risk that you might not find a readership. However, you must be ready for the sneers of the “established” set, ever ready to defend their turf against an interloper.

     For example, I have a great affection for the romantic science fiction of Linnea Sinclair. Her “Dock Five” stories, in particular, strike me as near-perfect blends of two seemingly distinct genres, with all the appeal of both. Not everyone will agree; as a colleague of mine once said, “That’s why there’s chocolate and vanilla.” But by dismissing a pseudo-rule that spurns the inclusion of a major romantic element in an SF tale, Miss Sinclair has done something new. Whether you like it or not is up to you.

     However, some writers don’t feel that De gustibus non est disputandum is a sufficient guide. They want “the rules” to bind tightly, with hard edges around “their” genres. Their immediate reaction to stories of Miss Sinclair’s variety will be “That’s not SF!” Others, of course, will exclaim that “That’s not romance!” They probably want to burn her at the stake for her three-way blend of fantasy, SF, and romance in An Accidental Goddess, a tale I find particularly inventive and charming.

     If there is any rule that really does bind tightly, it would be this one:

Know clearly what you’re trying to do.
Accept that not everyone will like it.

     And yes, that “should” be “obvious,” though it seldom is.

     Sometimes that involves a conception of “what the reader is there for,” which is pertinent to writers striving to address a particular kind of reader. Is he “there for” the technological speculations and elements that characterize what’s commonly called “hard” science fiction? Or is he more charmed by the sociologically oriented stories told by Heinlein and similar writers? When it comes to fantasy, there are many sub-categories. Their elements distinguish them more sharply than “hard” versus “soft” SF. Is your target reader there for elves and wizards, or for vampires and werewolves, or for angels and demons? While these elements are occasionally combined in a single tale, such crossbreeds are rarer than the hybridizations that occur in science fiction.

     Mind you, there’s a good reason traditional publishing houses and the agents that serve them (a.k.a. “Pub World”) disdain such genre-crossing experiments: they’re tough to market. As the typical genre reader really is looking for his preferred elements, you’ll have a hard time winning him over. You must hope that there are readers who’ve been waiting for what you have to offer. If there are some who’ve been praying for an innovator such as yourself to arise, you might get lucky.

     Just be braced for the reactions, whether they’re screams of dismay, yawns of indifference, or thunderous cheers for your brilliance. And don’t spend the proceeds until the check clears the bank. That, too, “should” be “obvious.”

     (Cross-posted at my fiction-promotion site.)

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