Or Rules, Damned Rules, and Formulas.
You've all read them. The books that are so formulaic you know within the first 50 pages how it's all going to end. The characters that make cardboard seem full of depth and texture. The books where you look at how much is left to go and think "It's about time all hell broke loose", turn the page, and right on cue all hell breaks loose.
There's any number of words for them, words like trite, cliche, formulaic - but what they are, based on the examples I've read, is either someone chunking out the wordage on something he, she, or it detests, or someone who's taken the rules to an extreme and sucked all the life out of their story in the process.
I think this might be what John is trying to avoid when he says he doesn't buy into rules of modern story.
It's like everything: all things in moderation, even moderation. Also known as "you've got to know the rules before you can break them effectively".
I can see the skeptical looks and the little superior sniffs, so here's the challenge. Take a look at your favorites, and look at the rules they break. Then look at how they break them. I guarantee you, you won't find a single really good book in the bunch that doesn't break at least one of them.
Not just the rules as espoused by Mark Twain, either. Grammar, spelling, Thou Shalt Not Commit Prologue... They're all fair game.
Since not everyone reading has access to a slush pile I won't suggest picking out random entries and seeing which rules they break and how, but I promise you they will break them, and the results will be painful. They may even include bearded lips (hat tip to Mike at Onyxhawke Agency for burning that little gem into my memory).
So what, I hear you mutter, is the difference? You've got to understand the rules before you break them, and that means the painful phase of following the formula. If you should by chance find yourself writing for one romance house which shall not be named, that includes instructions that the first kiss will happen no later than page 84, the book will be exactly 180 pages long (I think - I'm going from the stainless steel lint trap memory enhanced by nearly a week on a quarter-dose of my narcolepsy meds here), and many, many more equally hard (no, not that way) rules. It takes a lot of skill to write a story where the actions flow naturally from the characters and the setting in that kind of framework - which, perhaps paradoxically, can make you a better writer.
The reason a tight structure improves writing is that it forces the rules - and the rules are actually an expression of our natural sense of story. We might know buggerall about plotting or character or world-building, but we know when something violates the rules of Story. It feels wrong, or slow, or we throw it at the cat because it pissed us off (okay, maybe you don't do that, but I do. Fortunately for the cats I'm a lousy shot).
If you don't believe me, try telling young kids a story. They know what's supposed to happen. The good guy wins, the bad guy either dies or is fixed so he's not a threat any more, people who do the right things get rewarded and people who don't get punished. What's more, there's a proper time and place for all these things to happen. If you fail to meet all of these, you'll get the same complaint as the grandfather in The Princess Bride.
"You're telling it wrong, Grandpa!"
So... who tells it right, what rules do they break - and which ones do they keep?