Posts Tagged ‘writing rules’

One of the cardinal rules of writing speculative fiction (and there are few cardinal rules in a field where the goal is to gain enough credibility to break the rules) is that you can take one fact and change it to make your story. That’s why they call it speculative fiction. But you only get one. There are certain accepted tropes, made-up facts that have been used so often they are exempt from this rule, such as faster-than-light travel or aliens, but as to a central conceit, you are only allowed one. If you take more license than that, you risk losing your audience.

There is another cardinal rule, a cousin to the first: Don’t use an unreliable narrator. The reader only knows what you tell him, and if you tell him something that isn’t true because later you want to pull out a plot twist, the reader will immediately lose all faith in you. Characters can lie to each other, and the reader may be intended to believe those lies, but the narrator cannot lie to the reader directly.

It has been suggested that we are coming into an era of “alternative facts,” where demonstrable truths may be twisted simply by insisting that they are not, in fact, true–in favor of the speaker’s preferred narrative. This is a bad idea.

First, it violates the “unreliable narrator” rule. Everybody gets one chance to tell the truth. Blow that chance, and a second opportunity may never come. Sure, you can tell the truth from now on, but who’s going to believe you? It doesn’t matter if you’re a schoolboy, a writer, or the President, once you lie, you’re branded a liar.

Second, of course, is the “one time only” rule. If you’re going to make an outlandish claim, make it your best and most important, because you only get one shot. Even if you’re not branded a liar (perhaps because the claim you make is not demonstrably false), your credibility will always be suspect from then on.

We may call it “fiction,” but facts are not malleable. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time. But you have to be careful when you’re doing it; if they don’t go along with your “alternative facts,” you’ve lost half your audience before you’ve even begun.



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It is pretty commonly accepted nowadays that parents want their kids to experience a wide variety of activities, like soccer, ballet, kick-boxing, etc. (and even reading), but they also don’t want their kids exposed to any type of danger, or even unpleasantness. Kids are growing up with more allergies, for example, and it’s theorized that it’s because they’re not allowed to get dirty. It seems reasonable to me, but I don’t know the science.

What I do know is books. I’ve been an avid reader since I learned how. My house had a lot of books in it (although not as many as I have now), and no one ever told me what I could or couldn’t read. I tried reading House of the Seven Gables way too early, for example, and gave up after a few pages, but nobody told me I couldn’t read it. (Note: Must read House of the Seven Gables sometime.) This extended even to those (few) books that contained racy material. My parents knew they were there (they had bought them, after all), but nothing was forbidden. And although I skimmed a few tomes to find the juicy parts, I wasn’t permanently scarred. (I didn’t write Fifty Shades of Grey, for example.) The point is, my parents trusted me to make my own decisions about what to read. (Maybe they thought I should read less and play outside more, but that’s another subject.)

Apparently, however, you no longer have to trust your kids. In fact, it is now possible to feed them adult literature without the adult parts. Why you would want to do this is a mystery to me.

Let’s say that you want your kids to read classic literature, like, say, Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote what was, for the 16th century, some pretty bawdy stuff. Do you take that out? “No,” you say, because your child won’t understand the subtext anyway. To which I ask, “Then why is he reading it?” If you don’t allow for the full experience, warts and all, the child will not benefit. You don’t read great literature to learn to read; you learn to read to read great literature.

The first rule of fiction is “Take out anything that doesn’t count.” In other words, only include what’s necessary. This is more applicable to short fiction than to novels (and some very famous authors have thrown the rule out of the window right around the half-way point of their seven-book series), but the rule is still the rule. There are’t many hard-and-fast rules in writing, but this is one of them.

The corollary to this rule is that anything the writer left in, he intended to leave in. He intended that you should read it. That includes swear words. My stories, as a self-serving example, tend to have few swear words. But I have written at least one story where the viewpoint character spouts the F-word almost continuously. Why? Because he’s an F-ing serial killer, and a lousy excuse for a human being, and that’s how he talks. If you remove those words, you take something away from my story–and not what I want you to take away from it.

Life is messy. Literature is life imbued with order. But that order was invested in this world by the author, the author who is trying to tell a story, and make a point thereby. You mess with the story, you mess with the point.

Life is messy. You can throw a bubble around your child, but bubbles burst. Literature can be messy, too, but it’s a contained space where a child can dabble in the world’s dirt before going out into it.

After all, you wouldn’t want your kid to be allergic to literature, would you?

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