One curious consequence of writing a book on writing is the inescapable sense of humility that descends during the process. (I’m under deadline this week for my next book on craft, this one titled The Compass of Character. I’ll discuss it at greater length in the weeks to come, but for now I’m simply invoking it as my excellent and not-to-be-questioned excuse for a relatively brief post today.)
As a teacher and author of writing guides, I’m obliged to present techniques and strategies for successful fiction. Techniques and strategies, however, require a generalized idea of how to go about things. Concepts such as character arc and three-act structure and backstory exploration inevitably conjure guidelines that demand attention if not strict adherence.
This how-to approach can become trivialized into “Five Ways to Make Your Characters Jump Off the Page!” It can also be maddeningly vague because the only rule is there are no rules.
The Rule of No Rules is especially on my mind of late. While collecting examples for the guidelines I discuss in my book, I was inevitably made aware of how any novel worthy of being called good, let alone great, somehow squirms out of the stranglehold of accepted convention like a slimy piglet.
Whether the author was simply following her instincts or observing a carefully constructed plan—usually based on turning some accepted idea of how to write on its head—the truly remarkable books I have used to illustrate certain points all too often reveal themselves to be not just illustrative but sneakily subversive of what I’m trying to say.
This may simply be a reflection of another accepted truth, that the best stories give readers what they want in a way they don’t expect. This in turn echoes another truth, that stories should be both impeccably logical and yet surprising. And yet how does one teach that? How does one teach: Follow the path to the cliff’s edge, then jump?