Thoughts on Writing Rules

First, have a glance at this list of Pixar’s storytelling rules.  I found this on Twitter from one of the people I follow.  I couldn’t seem to find who, though I’ll keep looking to give proper credit.

Second, here’s an interesting list of writing rules from Myke Cole.  Some will find it frustratingly contradictory.  I think it’s perfect just the way it is.

Now to my question:  What purpose do rules really serve, anyway?

As Jack Bickham would have said, they set us free.  And they do so by defining boundaries.

In a recent review of mine, I said that the middle portion of Kindle novels were generally their most unsatisfying parts.  That’s because middles are hard to write.  It’s not hard to compose an interesting beginning to a story.  It’s only slightly harder to write a strong finish.  Middles, though…middles flummox people.  So many writers seem to find themselves incapable of imposing structure on that section of the story.

Imagine that you’re trying to build a railroad bridge across a canyon.  It’s not hard to anchor the bridge on either side, and it’s not hard to lay the track leading up to or away from the canyon.  But many a writer facing the middle of a story is like an engineer who would face that canyon without the foggiest idea of how to span it.  Should I get two long rails and lower them across, or start building out into thin air?  How will I attach the ties?  And many middles to stories collapse in exactly the same way this bridge would, if the engineer tried to span the canyon without a trestle beneath for support.

Rules are your trestle.

What I mean is, rules give you support.  You’re no longer facing an empty canyon.  You can now clearly see where the track must go, because you already have the support structure in place to outline its path.  And if your rules don’t work exactly as you thought they might — if a section of trestle collapses — it’s not as big a deal.  Rebuilding or reworking a portion of trestle is easier than facing a canyon without one.

This metaphor has now been abused enough.  But you take my point, I trust.

Do the rules matter much?  No, I don’t think so.  There are certainly enough formulations of them, from free and relatively unconfining to very specific and detailed.  The Hollywood three-act structure is an example of the first type; John Truby’s genre-specific plot point breakdowns are examples of the second.  Pick one of the many types already available, or combine their features into your own unique plan of attack.  Or set your own arbitrary requirements:  “All my short stories will consist of exactly eight scenes.”  “This book is finished on page 250, and I want major plot twists every fifty pages.”  Whatever.  And if the rules aren’t working as you want them to, you don’t have to stick with them.  The point is to have them as a starting point, so they can motivate you to create.

Pixar’s so-called rules, for example, amount to nothing more than a set of general common-sense writing prompts.  You don’t have to move through them and check them off one at a time; they’re not meant to work that way.  What they are meant to do is unblock you and get your creative juices flowing.  When you’re stuck, scan the list for an idea that might get you out of your predicament.  Then apply it.

Cole’s rules, meanwhile, are not meant to be story aids, but writer aids — things to consider about being a writer, especially in this new age of e-publishing.  These sorts of rules are every bit as necessary.  I have found that when I’m writing a story, my attitude determines my output.  Not “affects,” “determines.”  If I think what I’m writing is awful, I’ll either compose the prose that will prove me right or else grind to a halt right there.  If I think what I’m writing is excellent, I will happily hum along and finish well-pleased with a day’s work.

(I know none of that seemed related to either his piece, or this post.  Hang on.  I’m getting there.)

But one of the surest things that will grind me to a halt?  Worrying about anything other than my writing while writing.  The moment I start to focus on sales, page-rank, publishing format, interactions with people, or any of a dozen other minor considerations that are necessary to think about at some point — but not now — my writing dies on the vine.  With that in mind, I envision using Cole’s rules as an amusing way to rattle my brain and re-focus it on the task at hand.  “Yes, there are tons of different ways you could approach your career.  You’ll make those mistakes later.  Now.  To hell with those concerns, and get back to writing, or you won’t have a career to hurt.”

(I told you.)

What purpose do rules really serve, anyway?  The most valuable purpose of all.  They help us write.

Now.  Go write.

Published in: on June 19, 2012 at 11:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

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