Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Games Have Rules, Writing Has Guidelines

There are far more rules governing writing than there are governing golf. Grammar and spelling are lifelong pursuits for any writer and are made all the more manageable with desktop companions like a good dictionary, The Elements of Style, The Chicago Manual of Style and a host of others. Where rules should be considered guidelines is in the crafting of a story.

So many new writers see the word ‘rules’ and immediately adhere to them without question. This can be a dangerous thing considering that if every writer stayed true to these so-called ‘rules’ then fiction would be unbearably formulaic. I took it upon myself to research the ‘rules’ for writing a mystery. I’ve written a mystery/thriller to be released in November, so, I just wanted to see how close I came to staying inside the lines.

These are in no particular order and I have not listed all of the rules I found, only some of them.

*Plot is everything.

*The hero must be male.

*Introduce the detective and the culprit early on.

*The setting will be Los Angeles.

*Introduce the crime in the first three chapters.

*The crime should be sufficiently violent, preferably a murder. Or, it must be a murder mystery.

*The crime should be believable.

*Some violence is required.

*Certain Violence is prohibited.

*Write in first person.

*The hero cannot be the culprit.

*The culprit must be capable of committing the crime.

*Don't try to fool your reader.

*Use only two-character scenes.

*Authenticity is required.

*Do your research.

*Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit.

*The reader should have the same opportunity as the Hero to solve the crime.

*No tricks can be played to mislead the reader unless it is also done to the Hero by the criminal.

*The Hero should not have a love interest.

*Neither the Hero nor one of the official investigators can turn out to be the criminal.

*The villain must be found by logical deduction, not luck, accident, or un-motivated confessions. Or, the solution must come by 'naturalistic means'. Or, the detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods.

*There can be only one hero, not a team.

*The villain has to be someone who plays a prominent part of the story. After all, he/she is at least as important as the hero, right?

*The culprit can't be a servant.

What an interesting list of rules. Should one take these as gospel then we would never have had great stories from authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (no teams – poor Watson), Ian Rankin (write only in first person – poor Ian and his bestsellers, I’ve lost count), and Sue Grafton (the hero must be male – how dare she write a female protagonist) just to name a few.

I certainly don’t want to walk through each item on this list, but I do want to talk about why we should view any ‘rule’ of writing as a guideline. Consider these ‘rules’ carefully before you decide how stringently you want to follow them. I’ve broken my fair share, thank goodness.

For instance, the first on the list – plot is everything. Let’s be honest, when it comes to mysteries the plot is extremely important. However, a killer plot with flat, lifeless, uninteresting characters would have readers, well, not reading. The plot drives the story but the character is what keeps the reader engaged. They see the mystery by way of the protagonist and not only root for them, they work with them. Give the reader a character to pull for, and you’ve got the reader hooked. As important as plot is, never forget the importance of your protagonist. It’s all about balance.

There are a few items on the list that I suggest you ignore; the hero must be male, the setting must be Los Angeles, write in first person, no teams. I’m sure readers will strike a few off the list right away considering personal taste, attitudes, and the work they’ve read by published authors. But, let’s not be too hasty about killing them all.

Many of these ‘rules’ come down to common sense when writing. Introducing your hero, culprit and crime early in the novel makes sense. If the crime takes place in the middle of the book you’d better have some entertainment planned to keep the reader around. Doing research and keeping it as real as possible make sense as well. If by the culprit can’t be a servant they mean that the butler can’t do it, then yeah, steer clear of that cliché. I’m sure you’ll find more.

There are those items on the list that when handled carefully and respectfully, can be bent or outright broken. I’m referring to the use of violence. Many writers believe that certain areas of violence should never be touched on such as cruelty to animals, rape, and child molestation. I believe that if handled correctly, any of these areas can be used. Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones would not exist if she didn’t venture into this territory. Her protagonist is a young girl who was raped and murdered. It has been called a masterpiece of writing yet, those who would follow these ‘rules’ would staunchly disagree.

J.K. Rowling answered her critics regarding the omission of Dumbledore’s sexual preference by stating that it wasn’t necessary to the story. And, it wasn’t. Nowhere in the series of seven books would the mention of his sexual preference further the story or give the reader more clues to who he was. One should consider the same thing when writing about violence. Ask yourself if it is necessary and if it can happen off the page. Often it is the aftermath to an event that is the necessity showing the personality and mental state of the characters.

Whatever genre you write, be aware of the rules, learn them, try them, then do what is best for your story.

It seems my mystery/thriller, Endo, is colouring outside the lines.


Anonymous said...

Good post, Ian. Readers have expectations, so mystery writers should follow some rules, but which ones? I guess the secret is to follow enough of the rules to write a compelling story that is recognizable as a mystery, and to ignore enough of the rules to make it interesting.

Sheila Deeth said...

Interesting post. I used to teach kids to play chess. There's an nice distinction there between rules and guidelines. Rules of the game have to be obeyed. But "rules" that help you play well (Don't move the same piece twice in the opening. Don't send the queen out without reinforcements. etc.) can be disobeyed successfully once you know why they're there in the first place.

Ian O'Neill said...


Exactly! I love your chess analogy. In writing it comes down to the definition of rules. There are rules in writing that pertain to usage and beyond that, we have to be careful.

Juliet Waldron said...

Thanks for the "rules/guidelines" of the mystery genre. Have wondered what these might be, as my poisoned pen friends seem to have them by heart. (Thanks to Pat and Sheila, too.)