Friday, 20 March 2015

Swimming with the current.


If you want to write, there are rules you have to follow. Apparently. What I want to know is, who set these rules? And what will happen to me if I disobey them? I would really like to disobey them, on principle.

First of all, she demanded, who was it who said you should never use any verb but ‘said’ when attributing dialogue? It’s not as if the English language lacks alternatives, she complained. In fact, she confided, it probably has more words for ‘said’ than Eskimos have for snow (allegedly). To be honest, she whispered, she finds it rather depressing. A whole chunk of the English language consigned to the bin, she whined, because someone has decided it’s not allowed. Stupid, she snarled.

Secondly, it’s fervently demanded that most adverbs should not be excessively used. In fact, according to some, any adverbs should never freely be used. Anyone who tentatively tries to insert adverbs thoughtfully will be thoroughly hanged, drawn and precisely quartered. Oh. Well, there goes another massive chunk of the English language. What’s wrong with adverbs? she asked plaintively.

And of course (glossing over the rule that says a sentence should never start with And), there’s the rule that the writer should never switch the dread POV. Point of View for those who don’t obsess about it. If we are following the thoughts and feelings of one character, we shouldn’t be allowed a sneak glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of another. Well, okay, I can see that if a piece is written in the first person, it might be a bit much for the narrator to claim to know what someone else is thinking or intending – unless the first person protagonist is a mind-reader, of course. But if the author is narrating in the third person, why be so restrictive? The great joy of being a writer is that you get to play God. You are the creator, breathing life into all your characters on your very own sixth day (after plot, synopsis, snappy strap line, cover image and that incredibly good line of dialogue you came up with after a glass of wine that really needs to be included in a book somewhere). As creator, you know their innermost thoughts, dictating their every move – at least in theory. In reality, of course, the moment you create your characters, they develop free will and start eating the fruit whereof you distinctly told them, saying 'thou shalt not eat.' But if you, the writer, can hear the thoughts of every character on the page, why not share that with your readers? It’s fun!

Oh, and don’t forget the rule that’s shouted at you, every time you break it. Show, don’t tell. Okay, there’s a lot to be said for showing characters’ personality through their words and action, rather than spelling it out. Can you beat the first chapter of “Pride and Prejudice” where, apart from one of the best opening lines in the English language, and a brief summary at the end, the whole Bennet family is turned inside out through a few short pages of dialogue? On the other hand, what about “Emma”, or any of Jane Austen’s other books, that start with chapters of detailed telling. Once a year, at least, I read Iris Murdoch’s “The Bell.”  From the opening sentence, I am treated to 18 pages (on my Kindle) of unrelenting telling, before we get to action and dialogue – and I love every word of it. Is this horror of telling to do with the notion that readers, these days, have an attention span of 2 seconds? It seems sad that nearly all literature from Austen to Murdoch should be rubbished for not enough ‘showing.’

As a writer, I really itch to break all the rules, because I can’t see what gave the style Stasi the right to dictate how everything should be written. But I won’t. Because I want to published, she sighed.

4 comments:

  1. And I fervently agree with all you've said (oops!!)

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    1. Self-editing. Oh the agony and the ecstasy. Mostly the agony.

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  2. Some great points. Don't forget the freedom to merrily split infinitives...

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    1. Or the rule that prepositions are something you should never end a sentence with.

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