Made To Be Broken

Ranting time.  I’ve encountered this problem so much in getting critiques for my stories that it takes away from the quality of said critiques.

Can I ask a favor?

Can we please stop pretending that there are style rules to follow when writing prose?

I’m not talking about grammar, which word to use, where and when to put your commas, or how many spaces to put after a period.  I’m talking about rules such as “show, don’t tell,” or “never start with a dream sequence.”  We need to stop pretending that these are hard and fast rules, and start treating them as guidelines to be used and abandoned with reasons.

Many authors have broken these supposed rules and made successes out of it.  A Song of Ice And Fire has a long history behind the setting, and much of that comes out through telling.  Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter does the same with developing characters.  For movie examples, the entirety of The Wizard of Oz was made into a dream, because the producers decided that would make the story more believable for the audience.

Now, I’m not going to deny that these guidelines have a purpose.  Too much “telling” cuts description out of your story and makes it less exciting.  Opening with dream sequences can give a feeling of “what was the point?” and turn off your reader.

However, on many occasions people seem to take these reasons and apply them across the board.  NEVER start with a dream, because THEY say so.  Never have a prologue, because I read an article by an editor who said she didn’t like it.  Don’t show me, tell me.

Too much showing can be just as damaging as not having enough.  Fill your scene with descriptions and you’ve distracted the reader from the story and your situation at hand.  As for dreams, what happens when that dream serves a purpose?  Perhaps it provides motivation for a character to act from the start.  I maintain that any rule can be broken for the right reasons, and people shouldn’t get their panties in a twist simply because “them’s the rules.”

Of course, it won’t work all the time.  But if a technique doesn’t work, reject it on the technique’s merit and not because it contradicts some rule you read in an article on Writer’s Digest.  

  • Instead of “show, don’t tell,” try “this scene isn’t described well at all.  Could you expand a bit on where the characters are?”
  • Instead of “never open with dreams,” try “the scene as written doesn’t seem to have a purpose.  What’s the point of the dream here?  Can you elaborate?”

Someone else’s writing style may not be your cup of tea.  But never assume that they have to follow your rules or standards.

2 thoughts on “Made To Be Broken

  1. Sorry if I’ve been an automaton. It’s just that I cling to those guidelines because I don’t know what works, yet. Once I figure it out, I’ll be more help. People tell me, “Don’t follow a writing rule off a cliff.” I’m just as likely to jump off myself—with or without guidelines!

    1. I don’t recall a time I’ve seen that from you, though it is not an uncommon occurrence among users at CritiqueCircle, so don’t take my comments too much to heart. And I’m sure I’ve been guilty of the same. I just think it makes more sense – and is more helpful to the one seeking critique – to say why something works or doesn’t work rather than parroting an old rule. In this way, “show and don’t tell” is rather contradictory.

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