Saturday 29 October 2011

Knowing When to Break the Rules

As a creative writing teacher, as a publisher and as a writer who often sees the work of less experienced writers, I meet the same common mistakes frequently.
-          Not having a proper story – often with too much or not enough drama or being very clichéd and predictable
-          Switching close third person points of view mid-chapter or even mid-page
-          Telling instead of showing.
Yet many successful novelists and other story tellers break these rules and not only get away with it but receive critical acclaim for their work.
Philip Pullman goes from close third person to omniscient narrator at the end of his His Dark Materials trilogy. Yet it works because he is in effect zooming out of the story and pre-empting our need to think about what we have just read.
Little happens in the stories of Raymond Carver yet they stay with us for days because they tell us much about the human condition.
I’m currently reading Jake Wallis Simons’ The English German Girl. It has a quite clichéd plot. Simons zooms around from the inner thoughts of one character to that of another, then steps back and tells us what the sages say about this and that. Yet the novel is captivating. The author becomes another character. The voice is astoundingly consistent and convincing.   
So why shouldn’t the less experienced writer do all of this?
I’m guessing it’s because Pullman, Carver and Simons really know what they are doing that they get away with this.  They have chosen to break the rules because they have made the decision that doing so will be more effective than sticking to them. In order to make that decision they must understand the rules well and importantly, why they are there.
This is a far cry from accdinetally going against a convention that allows the reader to feel comfortable because it is familiar.
So, the advice is, unless you have a very good reason for going against the convention, stay with it. And that, of course, means you need to understand the mechanics of it and why it is there.  

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