Breaking the Rules


Breaking the Rules

The previous post had examples of where the author broke what seem to be cardinal rules of writing and not only got away with it, but produced a stunning novel.

Great, I can do what I want

This type of break-the-mold book can make some writers think, “I can write whatever I want because these celebrated authors did.” Given this mindset, the writer might be resistant to feedback which tries to steer him to more tried and true methods. He might even see it as trying to dampen or change his unique voice.

Uh-huh. Well, okay, there’s always the possibility you’re writing an iconoclastic novel which will confound your critics when published to great acclaim. I always leave that possibility open. And I do buy that if you don’t believe in your novel, nobody else will. So, you may be right. But on the other hand, you might not be. So, why not read the rest of this before you toss the idea?

Walking then running

These writers didn’t skip from novice to iconoclast in one leap. Cormac McCarthy has been publishing novels for over 35 years. Similarly, Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has both a long history of writing for prestigious journals but also had already published a much acclaimed novel, Moth Smoke, before Fundamentalist.

These authors undoubtedly spent many long years honing their craft so that they could use the traditional methods with ease and mastery. It is only after they reached that high level of competence that they understood when a particular technique didn’t serve the needs of the story, and launched into something which amazed their readers with its audacity.

How do you square the rules circle?

So, what if your writing teacher or writer friends are telling you one thing and you think you’re following a different star? Well, as I’ve elaborated in other posts, slow down the automatic reaction to reject the feedback and try to find anything that might be useful in it.

Say the feedback is that your descriptions are too long even if beautifully written. This sticks in your craw. They admit the passages are stunning and still want them cut down. What’s with that? Have they no literary sensibility?

So, here’s where you need to slow down. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Is there anything useful in the feedback?
  • Too long for what reason? What is it preventing the reader from doing?
  • Is it possible that the delightful description is slowing the action?

You might huff that your readers should invest the time required to allow you to fully paint the atmosphere in which the action is taking. Fair enough. You may be right.


However, how horrible would it be if you experimented with moving more quickly to action?

I’m not suggesting you do so and then lay the new piece before your critics as you confess the error of your ways. But just when it’s you and the computer, could you give it a try and then decide its value? Does it help the narrative? Does it serve the story better to rein in the description? If the answer is on balance, yes, then factor this into your future writing. If on balance, no, then you’ve seriously considered the feedback and decided to ignore it which is okay.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist and All the Pretty Horses


The Reluctant Fundamentalist and All the Pretty Horses

The really annoying thing about writing is that for every sacrosanct rule that we’re supposed to live by, there’s some writer who comes up with a narrative which breaks it and damn if it doesn’t work. Like Cormac McCathy’s All the Pretty Horses and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Take the novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Reading the first few pages, I thought, “This can’t be a first person monolog for the entire novel. That’s ridiculous. It’s never going to work.” It was and it did!

The author breaks the monolog, in fact although not in form, by having the protagonist ‘repeat’ the words of the American he is speaking to before responding. Similarly, there are long flashbacks which take the more standard form.

But still, a full novel monolog. It shouldn’t work, it does, and is even necessary for the nature of the ending (read it—it’s worth it).

All the Pretty Horses

Similarly, Cormac McCarthy, the author of, in particular, All the Pretty Horses. It won the National Book Award in 1992 so I thought I would give it a go.

I hated it at the beginning. Hated, hated, hated it. For one thing, McCarthy had dialogue like (this is my imitation of him):

“Is Ruth coming?”

“Nah, she’s busy.”

“Won’t be no fun without her.”

Who’s Ruth? Who’s talking?

Also, he had long passages in Spanish (without translation) which moved the action forward. And his sentences were often (again my imitation): He hit him with a shovel until he intervened. Aaahh! These are all male cowboys. Give me a hint!

I was pissed but decided to read exactly half-way before giving up to figure out why he was so praised.

Around page 75, I fell in love. The descriptions of the West spoke to me as if I had been born to it. With characters who don’t talk much and whose internal life is almost never revealed. With only their actions to show, McCarthy created a compelling story with basically one authorial hand tied behind his back!

Yes, he still did unattributed dialogue, untranslated Spanish, and confusing pronouns. But it didn’t matter. I loved, loved, loved it.

So some authors can break from the traditional way and make it work. Sometimes, wonderfully.

Accordingly, can you break the rules, too? Next post.

Showing Show and Tell


Showing Show and Tell

In another post on The Life of Pi, I discussed how the director of that movie gave us a powerful example of the power of show. Let’s look at the uses and effects of ‘show’ and ‘tell.’

‘Tell’ has its uses

Say you are inclined to write something like this:

He listened intently to the orders. He felt his throat tighten at the thought of what Serena told him to do. It was immoral and probably illegal. But he didn’t feel as if he had a choice. He felt as if the walls were closing in.

So, gets across the point that he (let’s call him Matthew) is very unhappy. Efficient way to do it. ‘Tell’ is useful if you need to establish some not very important point in the narrative but which the reader must nevertheless know. But this scene doesn’t seem to be one of these.

The power of show

Let’s rewrite the passage using more ‘show.’

“I can’t do that!” Matthew protested. “Come on, Serena, that’s practically, practically…”

“What, Matthew?” Serena turned the corners of her mouth up but her eyes didn’t change. “Illegal, immoral, unethical, all of the above?”

“I can’t, Serena, I just can’t.” He felt as if the walls were closing in on him.

Serena flipped away his protest. “And yet, you don’t really have a choice, do you?”

See, ‘show’ gives you a much better idea of who the characters are and how they interact. ‘Tell’ is like a semi-transparent screen you put in front of an action you’re observing. You can see but it’s not sharp and clear. ‘Show’ is the screen removed, where you are directly observing what’s going on. And with ‘show,’ the reader can come to his own conclusions about the characters rather than the writer telling how to feel about them.

This distinction is as important in a memoir as it is in fiction. You don’t want to tell your readers what happened; you want them to experience it—‘show’ territory.

Doesn’t ‘show’ take longer?

Yes, it often takes more words for ‘show’ than ‘tell.’ So what? Effectiveness, not efficiency, is what we are after here. The objective for the reader is to live your story not get to its end in record time.

When you want to focus the reader’s attention on particular aspects of the character’s life, these are good candidates for ‘show.’ When you want to glide over some things because they’re not germane to your main point but need to be there for the narrative to hang together, ‘tell’ might be useful.

A rule of thumb: If the point you want to establish is important (Sheila really does hate her brother; Matthew is a wimp; Serena has issues), dramatizing it by using ‘show’ is probably a good bet.

Show Versus Tell in the Movie, The Life of Pi



Show Versus Tell in the Movie, The Life of Pi

Have you seen the movie ‘Life of Pi’? Not the book, the movie.  The book, what can I say? Loved the beginning where the protagonist is sampling different religions, loved the end where (spoiler alert!) it’s not clear which of the stories he tells is true. But the middle? Honestly, a boy—Pi— in a boat with a tiger. For a long time.

I heard somewhere it called magic realism but I guess I’m just not refined enough to get it. To me, it was a boy in a boat with a tiger. For a long time.

So, I was a bit reluctant to see the movie given the boy-boat-tiger thing. However, Ang Lee is such a good director and he was getting a lot of praise for the movie, so I allowed myself to be coerced into seeing it. And, as anticipated, the whole boy on tiger thing played prominently even though Ang Lee did an amazing job with the visuals.

But it wasn’t that which struck me as the master stroke.

Two possible endings in the Life of Pi

In the last scenes, Pi is relating his story to the insurers of the boat. They don’t believe the tiger thing, so to satisfy them, he makes up a story about he, his mother and the ship’s cook surviving in the boat (sans tiger). He says the cook killed his mother and then died himself. The insurers go away with a story they can accept.

But that’s not the brilliant part. The brilliant part is how that last scene is shot. Gérard Depardieu, the famous French actor, appears for about a minute at the beginning of the film as the cook being nasty to the boy’s mother on board before the disaster. That’s all we see of him.

Which was odd. Would Depardieu sign on for a minute on screen? I don’t think any famous actor would accept what is essentially a bit part. And then it hit me.

The power of show over tell

I would bet money Ang Lee (well, a small amount) originally filmed an entire alternate story with featured Depardieu’s character of the cook prominently. But when it came to the editing, he realized that if he showed (SHOW) the scenes with the cook on the boat, it would become too real and compete with the story which we have just spent two hours watching. So, instead, he has Pi just tell (TELL) the story. And because we don’t see the alternate story, as viewers, we believe the one we were shown.

This is a wonderful example of the power of ‘show’. When you tell something, as in the alternate story, it has some power but when you show it, as in the story in the movie, it is the reality we buy.

This is why writing teachers harp so much on ‘show’ versus ‘tell.’ ‘Tell’ gives you one effect and ‘show’ another. In the post called Showing Show and Tell, I’ll walk you through an example how to use the power of show in your writing.

The Problem with English Lit Courses


The Problem with English Lit Courses

Off the top, I differentiate between English Lit and Creative Writing courses. The latter is more closely aligned with this blog. English Lit courses focus primarily on reading the Great Literature of The English Language and talking about why it’s so great.

Great not being synonymous with ripping stories, by the way.   A friend and I once decided that to spend one lunch-time a week reading the Great Literature we’d missed. Unfortunately, we started with Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Fifty pages a week was our goal. To reach it, I had to sit in a hard-backed chair to keep awake.  That I had been unsuccessful was evident when my friend asked, “What did you think of the ship sinking at the end?”

“The ship sank?”

So concluded that pursuit.

English Lit is reductionist

My beef with English Lit for aspiring writers is that the novels are studied by parsing them to death. The devices and metaphors used; how they contribute to the major theme; the effect of the time period and context on the novel’s shape, etc.

Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Certainly you need to be able to recognize the component parts of a novel and the effect of authorial choices on the shape of the story to inform how you create your own.

But because you’ve gotten adept at identifying devices, doesn’t mean you can use them in your own writing. It doesn’t teach you how to create them or when to use them and sometimes even more importantly, when not to.

And gives the impression of fait accompli

The other objection is that a published novel is of course a finished product which doesn’t, if it works, show all the doubt, re-writing, reshaping, and struggle that had gone into it.

I find it prompts one of two reactions to aspiring writers, both bad. The first is okay, I got it. Now I can do it. These writers are unprepared for the mastery of technique they must achieve nor the amount of sloughing. They can be put off and abandon their aspirations.

Even worse are would-be authors who read a novel which has been cut, recut, and polished into the jewel it is and think I could never do this. There’s no point in trying. They don’t realize that the author started off with the same unprepossessing lump of rock that they presently have. They compare their unfinished product to the finished one and despair.

No room for magic

However, my real objection is that English Lit courses leave no room for magic which is the real reward of writing. Oh, the magic of the finished novel might be acknowledged. But not the magic of creation which is the joy of writing. It’s not magic all the time, unfortunately, and you don’t control when it visits, but when it does, it reminds me that this is what I was meant to do.

Okay, I may have set up English Lit courses as a bit of a straw horse. Their objective, to be fair, is not to make you a great writer but to study those who are. You still need to work at technique, and write, write, write. And thereby make room for magic.