Thursday, June 11, 2009

Too Much of A Good Thing

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?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I'm easy to please. Here are the things I look for when I read.


1. Give me a character I care about.
2. Put them or something/someone they love in danger
3. If they do something terrible, make them do it for a very good reason.
4. Tighten the thumbscrews.
5. Make sure they overcome the problem using their intelligence and heart. (No rabbits out of the hat).

Oh, and do all of this while breaking the conventions of the genre, so I don't get bored!

See, I'm easy to please -- grin.

WangZheng259 said...

'When Cicadas Cry' seems a pretty obvious case of a successful modern story breaking the no unreliable narrator rule. It contains a very great number of headgames and mysterious happenings that are not what they seem at first. Any examples would likely be massive spoilers. Anyway, I liked it, even if I came in at the end, after reading about it in secondary sources.

That doesn't seem too bad.

Kate said...


That's a good set of rules right there. You're just so easy-going about it all!

Which books do you think do the job well? And (if you wish to name the guilty) which don't?

Kate said...


I'd have to say that anime and manga - also movies and TV - are a different beastie and operate by different rules than books, which are purely textual. To take an obvious example, the Lord of the Rings movies didn't have to spend ages building the feel of people overwhelmed by their surroundings - a single shot moving from close in to panning out was enough to have the same effect as something like five pages of narrative.

At the same time, a book can go a lot further into a character's mind than a movie or anime. Manga is somewhere in between - but it also needs to be acknowledged that the conventions and rules of manga and anime are not the same as those of novels. They're the product of a different culture.

So, after all of that, what books do the job well in your opinion?

WangZheng259 said...

And video games are also a different set of media. There is also the light novel versus novel issue. I don't know of any confusing/deceitful narrator text original fiction that I enjoy. The Full Metal Panic light novel translations might count, but I don't have anywhere near all of them, I wouldn't know what exactly the narrator in the original Japanese said, and the surprise may have been revealed to the reader enough in advance not to count.

Another example of breaking the rules might be Tom Kratman's Terra Nova books. You can read them as a purely secular series that is essentially set on current day earth. However, there are a few subtle hints that magic exists, God exists, and He has picked a side in the conflict. So the thing can be read as a Christian/rural fantasy disguised as a thriller disguised as a sci fi book. (Of course, this is off of maybe a dozen paragraphs out of 500k words.) This has to violate some sort of rule, but maybe it is the sort of thing only a major fan would pick up on in the first place.

Other than that, maybe I am not well read enough, or maybe sucessfull blatent rulebreaking is difficult.

Kate said...


I think your last statement is the one that's on the money. "Successful rule breaking is difficult".

It can be done and done well, but it takes a very good author to make it work.

One example I can give of the unreliable narrator that works well is Gene Wolfe's New Urth series (beginning with The Shadow of the Torturer). Severian, the narrator and principle character, claims from the beginning to have an eidetic memory, but as the books progress it becomes clear that he doesn't have as good a memory as he thinks and that he's not as observant as he'd have us believe either.

I won't recommend the books, because they're decidedly not to everyone's taste, but they are a good example of breaking the rules and doing it well.

KylieQ said...

I get bored when it takes too long for anything to actually happen. I've recently finished a book (which shall remain nameless) which took more than 300 pages to get interesting. Now normally I wouldn't keep ploughing through for so long with no reward but this book has been a very big hit both here and overseas and I was SURE there must be something better to come (there was, but it wasn't worth the 300 pages it took to set it up). Normally if the plot doesn't grab me within the first 50 pages, I would toss it in - and when I'm not getting into a book, I do deliberately stop at page 50 - I think that's a fair enough time in which to hook me. Now I'm left feeling distinctly cheated that I wasted so much time for so little reward.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kylie, why were you reading The Historian? (runs.)

Chris McMahon said...

Its strange. I just realised that for a writer who plots everything quite pedantically, I don't really focus on structure. For me its all about the character, their journey, the settling around them and the challenges they face.
What really get my goat are authors who are masters at hooking and drawing you into a character that cannot seem to draw the story to any sort of decent conclusion. The 'promise' of the story - hinted at from the outset (its part of the hook) - never seems to materialise and instead it end 'Not with a Bang, but a Whimper'. Maybe its just me. Perhaps these are all just post-modern masterpieces.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, yes, Chris. I hate that too. The characters never grow, nothing ever happens, they just sort of noodle around and hten the novel ends. GRRRRR

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris said -- Writes who draw you in and never finish the story.

George RR Martin's Fire and Ice series. Having said that I loved it!

Kylie said -- Writers who take 300 pages for the story to start.

I recently read a three books series where the actual plot didn't stat until page 283 of the first book. And this series has been an enormous hit!

KylieQ said...

Sarah, I've just looked up a review of The Historian. Got to say, I'm intrigued! A little worried about the number of pages though!

Kate said...


If you actually know the history involved, prepare to be very irritated by The Historian.

(This is a drive-by commenting from work. Real comments will happen tonight after I get home)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Aside from its sins of ommission and commission against defensless past events, The Historian drove me insane.

As full disclosure, I was listening to it on cd while cleaning the house, but that usually makes me more tolerant of slow stuff, rather than less.

It seemed to be all talking around the point and ominous music, if you know what I mean. "And that was then the terrible thing happened." beginning of next chapter. "The week after that, we were in Algiers...."

It's BORING. Also, yeah, the history was so bent out of shape you can HEAR it scream. That last part caused me to eject the CD and physically JUMP on it in the beginning of hour seven or so. For the record, it's the first time I've done so. Normally, if I hate a book on cd I give it to the thrift store.

Take that as you will.

Kate said...

KylieQ, Sarah,

I'd have guessed Robert Jordan, actually.

The doorstopper where the action moved 4 days and a few miles in something like 800 pages.

Can you say "bloat", anyone?

Kate said...

Chris, Sarah, Rowena,

Oh, yeah! That is so frustrating. I'm the kind of reader who gets sucked into a book and emerges several hundred pages and a few hours later.

If I emerge before that, something's wrong. If I finish the book thinking "is that IT?" chances are that author isn't getting any more of my money.

Example-wise, quite a few of the "New Wave" authors - whose names I shall not repeat lest I gag on them, I hated the books that much - either never started the story, never finished the story, and in at least one case (the book that started me writing in the spirit of "I tell better stories than that to put myself to sleep" - I'd been telling myself stories for as long as I could remember. This piece of drek convinced me I should be writing them down) didn't have a story at all. I'm not entirely sure it had characters either, just paper cutouts with nametags.

KylieQ said...

Kate, I'd like to like Robert Jordan. I really would. I've got a brother who thinks he's the best thing since whatever but I read the first book of his series and just didn't get it. I have a vague memory of some kind of thread supposedly tying things together and I had no idea what it was supposed to mean :)

Kate said...


I think we're in agreement, there. I know people who think his books are the best thing since sliced bread, but I couldn't get into them at all.

Too much faffing around the point for my liking, too predictable, and could have been riveting with an editor willing to chop each one by about half.

Obviously, my tastes aren't everyone else's.