I ran across an article a few weeks ago on the Writer’s Digest blog titled: The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings, and I think it fits perfectly with that Kafka quote and my own personal feelings about style advice. Sure, we have all heard this sort of advice being bandied about -- have heard so much of it that we cringe when we hear new authors speak them aloud as if they were the 10 commandments.
I could go on to make a list, but it’s not really necessary. The list would be painfully long and rather off-putting. What really warrants clarification here is that most of these so-called rules for writing fiction are not rules at all. Are not now and never were. What they are is the latest fashion. And more often than not, the new writer takes these mantras as gospel before they even understand exactly what they mean, and so the writing winds up worse off than what it might have been if they had just gone with their gut. Certain genres have certain writing conventions and one would be wise not to ignore them entirely, but conventions are not rules, either.
Sure, there are a lot of real fiction writing rules, and much of what I consider “fashion” statements are valid advice-wise to a certain degree, but we need to proceed with caution here as it can sometimes get confusing when it’s difficult to distinguish a real rule from the latest overworked fashion statement. I can tell you, most of the advice you will hear is just fashion.
That said, we can proceed to the First Line Hook. Now, I will agree, the first line is the toughest to write, and many writers will slap something down to get started, but in the end, it will be the single most rewritten line in their entire book. However, that doesn’t mean we need a shocking one liner. The first line should fit the story, as it sets the mood and tone of the narrative right from the start. You don’t need a gimmick; you just need a first line that is intriguing enough to start the story off. As a reader of many thousands of books, I can safely say, I have never put a book down after the first line because I was disappointed in it, and actually, when I am shopping for books, I would rather just plunk it open and read any random passage from the middle. The middle of a book is a better indication of the writing than the beginning or the end. And no matter what you do with that first line, not every reader is going to get “hooked” by it no matter what, so in reality, it’s just silliness to obsess over it. If it was a dark and stormy night, then it was.
As for Start With The Action, I feel pretty much the same as Jane over on Writer’s Digest. Not every book is meant to begin with an action scene, and an action scene out of context can be more annoying than it can be intriguing. Not to mention that action doesn’t necessarily mean a combat scene, sometimes starting in the middle of the action simply means starting your story at the most critical moment, which will later allow you to move back and forth exploring the why and what if.
When it comes to Show Don’t Tell, well, I have talked about this ad nausea already, and again, most new writers are simply confusing descriptive language with dynamic language. Exposition should be just as lovingly crafted as the dialogue and the physical action sequences. But you are not writing a screen play, you are writing a novel, and exposition is an integral part of storytelling. And speaking of dialog, I know we hear all time that we should use the word “said” because it is invisible to the reader, and while that might be so, it’s nice to have a little a variety, providing you are using conversational verbs. Please do not have people laughing their words. And as for adverbs, well, I love them. But like anything else, overuse -- while the writing might appear to be succinct -- will leave you with prose lacking the dynamic action we need to fully understand a character or a scene: the movement. So instead of stripping out every adverb you see, just take a step back to determine which ones might be better animated. However, you don’t want to slow the pace by putting in too many beats or pages and pages of objective descriptions. If the character retorted, then they retorted. But they don’t retort angrily. That would be redundant.
When it comes to Passive Voice, Wordiness, Dense ‘purple’ Prose, or even, god forbid, Pretentious Prose, well, I am reading a book not watching an action film. I don’t want my literature dumbed down. A novel is not a screen play. Write in the language and style your ideal reader would want to read. Write in the language and style that fits the story. Use your own language. As an example, I will share a short passage from The Splendor of Antiquity. Now I could have said that my character Joliette often struggled with her emotions and that she also spent a great deal of time torturing herself by trying to apply logic to them. Had I just said that, if would have been succinct and certainly unpretentious, sure, but it wouldn’t have fit with the narrator’s voice and style, and it would certainly not have fit with the poetry of the story. It would have been telling, most definitely, but telling isn’t always a bad thing ... and so it was written like this:
Mercy’s gift, a flood of tears, or so Joliette had always wanted to believe, abacus in hand, as she knelt down and looked out over the edge: A fortress wall—tall and proud. A jagged edge—steep. An edge where chill winds score the soul, its lamentation quick and deep. The edge of infinity, some might say, one devoid of idolatry, whereupon reaching dizzying heights, she could stand perched precariously upon a life full of truisms and negate her own will.Of course, I am still telling you of Joliette’s internal struggle, but hopefully the telling has been elevated to some degree beyond the mere exposition that it is ... or maybe not. Now, not everyone likes to read prose like that, doesn’t mean it’s bad or that I have violated some writing rule. My style may not be the current fashion, nor may it be fit for mainstream consumption, but that is all it means. If someone should think it’s pretentious, that’s fine. It’s a subjective opinion. You see, fiction is an abstract expression of life: Everything is stylised and exaggerated to a degree. It’s not supposed to mirror real life. It’s only purpose is to imply it through an alternative perception of it. So the writing can be as elaborate or as simple as you like, and the characters do not have to be sympathetic. They can be caricatures, archetypes, martyrs, saviours, or fiends. They don’t have to grow, and they don’t have to be an accurate representation of humanity. So if the fiction story has only to imply life, then all the characters have to do is articulate it. How they do it is up to you. They have to be appropriate to your story. They don't have to be good or decent, they just have to be the right character. They just have to be significant in some way, that’s all. And that goes for the theme, the language, and the story arc. Not every story is going to be significant, thought-provoking, or entertaining to every reader, so why on earth would we think that by trying to mimic the latest fashion we will make it so. It won’t. Learn the real rules, stay true to your story, develop your own style and voice, and leave the fashion to Rupaul’s Drag Queens.
Cheryl Anne Gardner