When you first learn about the basics of good writing, about how to best employ the senses, or how not to employ adverbs, there comes a moment when it all comes together, when it all makes perfect sense. Good sense that can’t be argued with. And you start employing those ideas in your own writing and no doubt your writing improves greatly.
However, it’s very easy to go from convert to zealot. The main difference being you suddenly feel the need to impress on others the true path. And in many cases others would certainly benefit from knowing the value of show versus tell, or that short sentences make action scenes more visceral. How could anyone disagree with using fewer clichés?
But that doesn’t mean it’s true for all cases.
It’s human nature to want to impart wisdom to those who have not seen the light. Giving up smoking, becoming vegan, learning about the coming apocalypse a week on Tuesday, it’s very satisfying to keep shouting at someone until they agree with you (in between the sobbing and pleas to leave them alone).
When you’re armed with solid examples and carefully-worded instructions it’s not hard to sound convincing, to such an extent that you can soon have a full congregation in the Church of Start Mid-Action, or the Temple of No Flashbacks. But these are false prophets, even if they mean well.
Following a certain way of writing won’t necessarily make a story work, any more than not following those directions will automatically lead to failure. When it comes to the rules of writing (or to anything), there is two parts to every equation. There’s how the rule works, and then there’s when to use it.
And when others choose to follow a different path in spite of common sense—tolerance, always tolerance (we were not put on this earth to judge others—that what God created the New York Times Bestsellers List for).
There are plenty of times when even the most universal of laws just don’t apply. If it doesn’t jibe with the writer’s voice, or if it detracts from the intent of the story, or if it’s just more interesting to use another approach, as long as the reader can understand what you’re saying it really doesn’t matter all that much how you choose to say it. A boring sentence is far more problematic than a grammatically incorrect one.
That’s not to say a writer’s decision is always going to be correct. Believing a particular approach works best doesn’t make it so. And turning against the tide for the sake of it is just as pointless as following along blindly. The story can take the next left to Dullsville whether or not you adhere to White and Strunk.
Often you find yourself getting advice from someone so deep into their favourite ideology that they stop being able to see the wood for the trees. They might tell you where you say Jack sat down on the chair, you should just say Jack sat on the chair. That extra down is redundant, and as you know extra words just get in the way. And that is certainly true in some cases, but the song wouldn’t sound quite the same as Sit, sit, sit, You’re rocking the boat.
There is a difference between what you could say and how to say what you want to say. And it all comes down to knowing what you mean. You have to know your own intent.
You can have a scene where one man kills another, and depending on how you present it, how you use language and pace and context, the reader could be sympathetic with either the killer or the victim, or even change sympathies mid-stream. That’s why you use the words you use, in the order you use them. Not to fit with some objective standard for what makes a good story, but for what makes your story as good as it can be.
Because they aren't really rules at all, they're options.
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