Writing: the rules

I don’t have time for a well-thought out, lengthy blog post but I wanted to share something that has socked me between the eyes recently.

I have begun a literature module with The Open University this month, and the first part attempts to address the question: ‘What is literature for?’
The first text is Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It’s my first experience of Chekhov and I was quite nervous so I read about him and his life in the introduction and thought he sounded like my kind of writer: a rule challenger. A bit of a maverick.

I have wanted for ages to write a proper discussion about writing ‘rules’ because a lot of them frustrate and irritate me enormously. It seems, often, that people can follow every so-called ‘rule’ in the many how-to books out there, only to ignore what to me is the most crucial step: to make your writing understood by constructing sentences properly and spelling and punctuating well – or at least getting someone that can to do it for you. Properly. I see link after link to posts about how to write and the rules of writing. I studied creative writing for 2 years and read about some of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’. It seems we must twist and bend, and force to fit a formula, our beautiful bubbles of creativity that pop from our minds and not share the whole creation if they don’t follow the rules.

Here’s an example:
One of my short stories for my tutor last year was about a coach crash. I wanted to show how incidents involving a great number of people will have several different stories. I knew that I would have trouble getting a reader to grasp several different view-points in a short space but if I could picture it and describe it well enough I could have more than one main character. I don’t always think the good versus bad, or a main protagonist to sympathise with, works. Sometimes things haven’t happened the way we thought we saw them and sometimes there are several wrongs or several rights or several positions that have us scratching our chins. Life is like that.
My tutor’s response was understandably: ‘Just whose story is this?!’ I was expecting that. Even if she liked it the rules were, that in a short story, I should stick to one main point of view.

Imagine my delight when upon reading The Cherry Orchard I found that there was no main protagonist to sympathise with, lots of different characters – each with their own strong story and lots of names and confusion to get our heads around.
I liked this passage in my course book so much, I wrote, ‘Good for him!’ in the margin:
‘None of the characters seems to stand absolutely condemned, or absolutely supported by Chekhov.’ Hooray, hooray, hooray! I may even have clapped.

I think if you want light-hearted entertainment, escapism, something to help you drop off to sleep at night, you never want to re-read a passage because it’s all clear. If you want to have a sense of all loose ends tied up and a feeling of finality when you turn the last page, the message delivered to you by the author, then that’s what literature is for.
If you want to be made to think about stuff, consider complicated characters, feel as if you have dropped from the sky to visit a world that will carry on once you’ve gone, leaving you wondering what will happen after the final page, have to re-read the odd page to see if you’ve understood correctly, make up your own mind about stuff, then that is what literature is for.
Sometimes we are left thinking about a book after we have read it and have more questions than when we started. I want to write that kind of stuff. I’m so glad I’m delving deeper into literature than I did when I was younger and realising that it’s okay to challenge a few rules and play around with your writing.
If you like obvious beginnings, middles and endings, and baddies, heros and villains that fulfil their conventional roles, then you may not always like my writing. I can write to a formula. But I’d really rather not every time.
My mother said next time someone demands, ‘Just whose story is this?!’ I must reply firmly, ‘It’s mine.’

13 Oct, a later addition. Here’s a brilliant guest post by Mike French on Elizabeth Baines’s blog about the ‘thirst for instant recognition and complete comprehension’: Fiction Bitch – What’s the Story (fiction as art)?

NB I realise the question of what literature is for goes much deeper and people have been discussing it a lot longer than I have – so I shall be continuing to find out more.

15 thoughts on “Writing: the rules

  1. Fascinating subject, Rachel, and I have no more clue than anyone else on these “rules” but I do know they annoy the hell out of me. Aside from the obvious rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling, I don’t follow any at all, and to me your tale of a coach crash and its impact on the passengers/witnesses sounds brilliant.

    But then, what do I know?


  2. Your course sounds so interesting. I’m sure you’ll have an amazing year, if it started off by looking at Chekhov. One of the things I love when reading great writers is seeing where they haven’t followed the rules and looking at how it’s worked for them.

    The writing rules drive me nuts too, Rach. They feel way too prescriptive and formulaic but I do think it’s worth knowing what they are – especially if you intend going your own way and bending or breaking a few or all of them!


    • Oh yes, Kath. Couldn’t agree more. The best way to challenge something is to know more about it. And it’s no fun breaking rules if you don’t know you are! 😉


  3. I think the ‘rules’ are important for generic storytelling-and I’m not criticising that. I also think that you should have an understanding of the rules so that you know why you are breaking them and what you want to achieve in doing so. Isn’t that what all artists do?


    • Yes, I think that: ‘want you want to achieve’ bit is important, Nettie, because we can look at how someone might read something we’ve written and judge it on how we haven’t done this or should have done that and instead we can try to see ways around it.

      And there are formats to follow if we are specifically aiming something at a particular area and we probably have to accept that.
      (Unless we are already successful or very very rich and can own our own publishing group, invent new ways of writing to be followed, and make up new rules of our own to annoy everyone else!)

      I guess to be an artist who follows their instincts you need to be a bit mad and brave, and very, very patient…


  4. Very good point – the ‘rules’ don’t aways fit with the type of story you’re telling. I agree with Nettie, though, in that you should understand the rules and know why you’re breaking them. When I was doing my MA, I remember wanting ot break a ‘rule’ (unfortunately, I can’t remember which one!) but I asked my tutor, the wonderful Jane Rogers, ‘can I get away with…’ Her repsonse? ‘You can get away with what you can get away with.’ I thought that was a very useful answer and I often quote it. It really is sometimes a case of ‘suck it and see’, if it works, it works, rules or not.


    • Yes, I think we all agree to a point with the knowing what the rules are to know how to break them argument. It’s also useful to see where these rules – if they are rules – come from, and why people are saying we should do things a certain way. Who do we trust? Who do we want to obey? What are their reasons? I have been told ‘You can not do that…’ ‘You must do this…’ and me, being me, I have been more determined to prove them wrong or at least challenge why it is being said.


  5. Great post, Rachel. I think that for each writing ‘rule’ you’ll find, you’ll be able to find at least one great story that’s broken it – even the rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar. As a reader, all I need to have in order to be able to believe in a story is a feeling of confidence in the narrative voice of that story. I need to feel that I’m in competent, skillful hands – the hands of an author who knows what they’re doing, what rules they’re following and what rules they’re breaking.

    I love the idea of your coach crash story; it sounds like a perfectly sound premise for a short story! 🙂


    • Actually, yes, you’ve made me realise, Nat – despite what I wrote above – I break grammar rules regularly. My favourite is putting the word But in the ‘wrong’ place. 😉


      • Have you been watching Stephen Fry’s ‘Planet Word’? This week he was talking to a bunch of teenagers in an American High School who published their own dictionary of school slang. One of the girls said to Fry, ‘Language does not have a right and wrong. Language is just how you communicate.’ I think that’s worth remembering! 🙂


        • I have been watching that, and while watching that particular conversation I saw a boy sat round the table who looked so like my nephew that I missed what they were saying! (I think I was also updating my blipfoto) That is a great quote.


  6. Have you read ‘The Rice Mother’ by Rani Manicker? The book alternates POVs chapter by chapter — the mother’s, several of her children’s, and later a grandchild’s voice or two (thumping great tome). It’s been ages since I read it, but the cohesiveness wasn’t challenged so much as enhanced, by the masses.
    On a personal note, I’ve just had a non-win on a comp with a short story with lots of children in it — it’s a form well suited to the novel, but a shorty is harder to shepherd, perhaps.


    • No, I haven’t read that book, Martha. Sounds very interesting.
      Yes, very hard to shepherd numerous characters in a short. I guess it depends in how much work you can persuade your reader to put in as much as anything… Some things obviously require concentration… Maybe… ? I suppose it depends on the purpose of the piece too. We should be cautious about outrightly stating that a particular way (i.e. no obvious POV or protagonist) is just wrong, shouldn’t we?


  7. Rachel as always I enjoy your writing. It is the freedom to read and enjoy wheat we like, sadley not everywhere can do this but we have hat freedom. I frequently change Genre and sometimes no direct genre at all, which of course the rules say if you do not have a genre and stick to it ((pigeon hole yourself) you will not be published!! Rules are thier to be broken, write how you want not what some rule maker wants!! I enjoy reading it!!


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