Following the Rules of Creating Fiction: But How Far?
By Hugh Rosen
The question arises periodically as to whether there are any rules to follow in writing creative fiction. Indeed, there are! Yet that leaves us with the quandary over to what extent they should be followed. Are they absolutely rigid, leaving no latitude for departing from them; or can the author simply deviate from them at her whim? This article is an attempt to grapple with that issue.
It is helpful to keep in mind that previous fiction writers who have endured the test of time had no set of rules to follow. One has only to think of such great novelists as Cervantes, Dickens, Henry James, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf, to name but a few. In fact, writing styles have evolved up to contemporary times, yet many of the rules are derived from reading great novels of the past. Today, rules are manifest on commentaries in domains such as punctuation, grammar, conflict, tension, dialogue, plot, characters, setting, description, and so forth.
A good piece of advice that is often advanced is that the author is free to break the rules, but she must first know them and have a compelling rationale for breaking them. Sometimes the rationale is based on reason, intuition, or merely the feeling that "It seems to work better this way." Rules, after all, are not prison bars intended to constrain the novelist or short story writer within a confined space. Nevertheless, it is worth noting parenthetically, that we find multiple bursts of creativity and genius within the rigid form of Shakespeare's sonnets.
In general, the codification of rules by committees and even those to be found in the by-laws of institutions are often written with a degree of ambiguity and absence of specificity in order to allow for the possibility of interpretation to meet the demands of situation and context. Granted that this is not always the case, nor would it be desirable at all times, but it does occur in order to impart flexibility of application where and when it might be called for. Rules should be regarded as guidelines rather than obstructions. The very notion that rules are considered as constraints or obstructions is antithetical to creativity and innovation.
Ray Bradbury has suggested that, "Life is trying things to see if they work." He may as well have said the same thing about creative writing and I wouldn't be surprised if he had that in mind. Andre Gide has said, "One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time." If we think of the shore as the boundaries set by rules, then we find encouragement in these words to break the rules when the occasion calls for it.
One rule that is frequently invoked by writers about writing is to minimize the use of flashbacks. Imparting flashbacks to one's writing may disrupt the flow of the story's development, particularly if they are frequent and long. Yet what if multiple flashbacks are artfully interwoven within the plot's forward movement so that they actually advance the plot or illuminate the depth to some of the major characters, or both? I would submit that if the author so adjudicates, then it is permissible to break that rule. The flashbacks then become an integral and organic part of the story, rather than a distraction. Admittedly, pulling this off requires skill and talent, but without the confidence to venture in this direction, the author will limit her creative development over time. As Jimmy Johnson asks, "Do you want to be safe and good or do you want to take a chance and be great?"
Probably the most repeated rules of all is, "Show, don't tell." Yet there are long passages of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in which he "tells" rather than "shows." Despite his breaking of this rule, his stories have delighted readers around the world and are amongst the finest that literature has to offer. Even his masterful use of "magical realism," which defies all logic and reason, is so artfully incorporated into some of his work that the reader is completely willing to go along with it rather than to challenge or reject it. There is an applicable saying to be invoked here, "Don't be afraid to go out on a limb. That's where the fruit is." (This quote is attributed to H. Jackson Brown.)
The premise I am promoting here is not that one should irreverently disregard the well-established rules of creative fiction, but that when the author's judgment, coming from whatever source, urges breaking the rules, it is worth taking the risk, so that one's work may have the opportunity of achieving greatness and not be merely good by playing it safe. If the author fails in the attempt, then she should look for what may be learned by the failure so as to grow in the future. In the words of Mark Twain, "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do....Explore. Dream. Discover." What if Kafka hadn't risked having Gregor Samsa wake up one morning as a huge bug, as he did in the short story, "The Metamorphosis?"
Professor Emeritus Hugh Rosen, D.S.W., born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa., is the sole author of three academic books and has co-edited three others on cognitive development, moral reasoning, and psychotherapy, and has published a novel, Silent Battlefields.
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