The Guardian UK‘s fiction blog has collected an enormous list of rules from various authors. Booklife responded by calling for amusing forays into rule-crafting. Then the Guardian followed up by calling on its readers for their rules.
There’s a lot of truth in the axiom from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style that “one must first know the rules to break them.” But that’s for grammar, punctuation and syntax, and doesn’t apply to content or work habits, let alone literary merit. I’m a fan of craft, but skeptical of prescriptive rules that go beyond the basic foundation necessary for clarity.
However, it must be said, there are some very smart people who disagree with me. They’ve written whole books of rules. And there are people, some of them writers, who love them. James Wood’s recent thesis on How Fiction Works isn’t just full of rules but, if David Gates laudatory Newsweek review is to be believed, “intensity and intelligence,” as well.
James Wood’s new book, “How Fiction Works,” is as knowing as you’d expect from one of the best critics alive—more knowing than that, in fact—but that may not always please writers, since Wood also knows how fiction doesn‘t work. … Wood brings this degree of attention and rigor to his compressed discussions—but rich in specifics—of narration, character, dialogue, language (including rhythm, repetition, metaphor and levels of diction), the use of detail and the ever-recurring debate over literary realism.
That’s a lot of guidance all in one place. But even as much as Gates praises, he has to admit that “when fiction works, on the readers for whom it works, it works without rules or formula.”
Personally, I think the only real rule is “don’t be boring.” And, to steal a line from Pirates of the Caribbean, that’s more what you’d call a ‘guideline’ than an actual rule.
William Emery wrote a great response to this post over at 365 Crush.