Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rules for Writing Fiction

Last week, I mentioned that I’ve been writing a couple books. In that discussion, I said that part of what inspired me to write was to see if I could do it while following a set of rules to avoid what I considered cheating by other authors. A couple people asked to see these rules, so here they are.

The first set is designed to avoid the things I consider “cheating”:

(i) No changing the reader’s “access” by letting the reader see everything the main character is thinking and then withdrawing that access at critical moments to generate tension or deceive the reader. It’s either all or nothing. I chose “nothing” because tension comes from uncertainty, i.e. not knowing what people are really thinking or how they will ultimately act.

(ii) No deus ex machina moments and no coincidences to move the plot. If a character tosses a jacket into a dumpster, that jacket does not somehow get to the cops five states away for use at trial for a crime no one even knows about yet.

(iii) Cause and effect. There can be no effect without a cause, and no cause without an effect. Every effect must be a logical consequence of the cause AND every cause must suffer its logical effects.

(iv) Characters must act consistently with their own values, beliefs and interests. They cannot act out of character to move the plot, and they cannot act in ways humans won’t. Also, characters have a full range of motivations, e.g. their own happiness, morality, job requirements, pride, greedy, guilt, etc.; nobody acts according to one motivation only. Characters also evolve over time as the consequences of their actions come home to them.

(v) Use real trial procedures, not Hollywood trial procedures. No breakdowns on the stand, no last minute surprise discoveries or hidden witnesses, no fake trials that last weeks and take breaks after critical witnesses to give the characters a chance to investigate their testimony, and no “this is highly unusual, but I’ll allow it” rulings.

(vi) No supermen. Nobody is all knowing or all powerful, and nobody can read minds. Average people don’t kill in cold blood, can’t climb buildings, and can’t bend people to their will Jedi-style.

(vii) Everything important needs to be foreshadowed at least twice.

(viii) NO Star Trek TNG Deanna Troi moments: “I sense he has the following personality....” Character traits are revealed through the character’s actions, not by stating them.
Beyond the “no cheating” rules, I also set some stylistic rules that may interest you:
(ix) No filler. No wasted words, no irrelevant discussions, and no scenes that don’t develop the plot or an important character trait.

(x) The reader should be able to understand each scene from the dialog alone, i.e. what the characters are doing and thinking, and where they are.

(xi) Avoid long blocks of text, and avoid information dumps. Specifically avoid describing characters by giving blocks of physical description. Whenever possible, describe characters through something they are doing and/or in relative terms rather than absolute terms, e.g. “Unlike George, Bill was too short to reach the light bulb.”

(xii) Every character needs to be real enough that people think they know what the character is probably doing when they aren’t on the page, and that the reader can tell if they are acting out of character.

(xiii) Each characters needs their own dialog style, word choice, and beliefs.

(xiv) I also got the truly excellent advice of dropping as many adverbs (quickly, angrily, etc.) as possible, as they are meaningless.
Finally, there were three things I wanted to do within the story.
(1) First, I wanted real-realism, not Hollywood realism, particularly with regard to the choices the characters face and how courts work. I really wanted people to get a sense of how it felt to go through a trial, and what it would be like dealing with people you can’t trust. Interestingly, I found this made the plot move in interesting ways and it let me exploit clichés by twisting expectations. It also made the characters more real -- several of my readers even reported strong reactions to different characters I hadn’t expected.

(2) Secondly, I wanted to infuse a lot of philosophy, but to do it in subtle ways throughout the story so the casual reader wouldn’t notice.

(3) Finally, I wanted to leave the characters’ physical descriptions as minimal as possible (without appearing to do so), so readers could insert their own preconceptions. Nothing kills a story quicker for me than having a character described in ways that don’t fit how I expect them to look: “What do you mean the President looks like that guy from ZZ Top?”
So what would you add to the list (or subtract)? Thoughts?


AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Let me add, thanks to the everyone who helped read the book! Your feedback was invaluable! :-)

Tam said...

That's a good set of rules. Very thoughtful. While every author has their own particular style, and you have to base your writing on your own observations, experiences, and imagination, I would say that it is important NOT to put too much of yourself in the novel. I read a book written by someone I know, and the main character WAS the author. If you are doing it on purpose, then you should acknowledge that somehow...make it known that the book is semi-autobiographical. A good author should be able to see (or at least imagine) the world and circumstances from another perspective, but if your reader can't distinguish the author from the characters, I think it is a problem.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, Thanks! And that's a good point. Interestingly, one of my readers knew the people who I used as a base for some of the characters (though they were really mixes and matches) and they had problems initially separating them from the real people until they realized that the similarities were just on the surface.

Beyond that though, I would also think that if you put too much "you" into the book, then you run the risk of making it incomprehensible to people who don't share your view of the world.

On a related point, one of the things I wanted to make sure of, for this very reason, was that each character was their own person. I've read many books in the past where all the characters were the same person (presumably the author) just playing different roles. I wanted to be sure that each character had their own lives, because that (1) made them more interesting and (2) kept me from cheating, e.g. the characters often disagreed about the right course of action which wouldn't happen if they were all clones.

JG said...

One thing I did very differently from most of the people in my writing classes was that I made sure that anything important came out in dialogue, not "narration". It's just more organic. And I'm sort of the opposite with character descriptions. I prefer having detailed character descriptions when I read. Somehow it just makes the reading flow better, but that's a personal preference.

Anonymous said...

One thing I did very differently from most of the people in my writing classes was that I made sure that anything important came out in dialogue, not "narration".

I've read many novels where one chapter ends with, "Bill walked into the conference room, prepared for the meeting." And the next chapter begins with, "Bill walked out of the conference room, the meeting having just concluded..."

...and we find out everything that transpired in the description and narration, not the dialogue.

Andrew -

I didn't know you were soliciting feedback; I would've been happy to contribute!

As far as stuff I've dabbled with (namely comedy), the rules still apply and the laughs are so much better when you stay authentic to who the characters are. This is why I find something like The Office much funnier and more heartfelt than some of the crappy TGIF sitcoms I grew up with, where characterization changed to suit whatever zany plot the writers came up with that week.

In the Ghostbusters DVD commentary, director Ivan Reitman discusses the "domino theory of comedy" in which you can do whatever you want at the end as long as you start small and set things up logically. (He was referring to having the audience buy the idea of a marshmallow man, based on everything they had seen earlier in the film.)

Speaking of TNG jabs, when are we gonna get another episode review? :-)

Notawonk said...

best book i ever read about writing fiction: john Gardener's *The Art of Fiction*

he was a genius.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, Clearly, people can (and do) disagree. These are just my rules. I think they're pretty good, but I definitely understand there are good faith disagreements, there are no real hard and fast rules.

In fact, I've seen several people talking about writing and they were rather put out when the author didn't describe the characters. They felt that each character needed to be fully described. So there is definitely disagreement on this rule.

But I don't think giving full descriptions is a good idea, based on a couple of observations. First, the better writing I've seen rarely spends a lot of time telling you how the characters look. You'll get a couple of distinctive points, but rarely much more than that -- it's all about hints and suggestions. By comparison, the stuff I thought was not great usually did the opposite and gave the reader police-blotter-like descriptions of the characters.

I think writing is about subtlety and pulling the reader in. To me, it's a lot easier to get the reader to invest if you let them fill in the details. Give them the big parts they need to see the outline of the character or anything that's relevant to the plot, but let them fill in the rest. Also, I think descriptions are better handled in subtle terms. Rather than saying, "He is 6 foot 5 inches tall," describe him as too tall to fit in the car.

(FYI, I didn't leave the characters blank, but I didn't give things like eye color or specific heights or builds, and when I did, I did it in vague or relative terms except where it was relevant to the plot.)


AndrewPrice said...


Secondly, I've spoken to a lot of people who seem to skip over these kinds of details. Indeed, I've been surprised how many people can't tell you what color hair or eyes an author gave a character -- they fill in on their own. And others who (like myself) have objected to descriptions that were inconsistent with their expectations. So to me, it makes sense to avoid these this potential hang ups and then to bring out the details in more subtle, but more memorable ways, i.e. shape the readers vision rather than tell them what to envision.

As an aside, I found that different readers "saw" the characters very differently in my book, but none of them felt anything was missing.

On the dialog thing, I agree completely. I think that the biggest problem many writers have is taking out things that shouldn't be in there. And when you tell a writer, give me a paragraph describing X, they tend to go way beyond what they need and it often gets bogged down in attempts to sound deep. But if you force them to write it as dialog, they end up producing, shorter, more vivid descriptions. Also, that's often a great moment for cleverness, which is much easier to bring out in dialog than in narrative.

Also, one thing I've noticed with myself and others (especially lawyers), is that people skip over large blocks of text or they just skim them. Nobody does that with dialog. So if you want to highlight something important, don't put it in the middle of a huge paragraph of narrative.

Finally, I think that describing things through dialog gives you a real chance to bring out the characters, which you don't get through narrative.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, On your first point, don't forget that dialog doesn't have to mean contemporaneous. In your example, for example, the next scene could well involve one character recounting what happened in the meeting. That's actually a good way to handle something like a meeting because it gives you the ability to describe the meeting without the boring parts, or put a spin on it, and again display character traits, e.g. does the person describing the meeting give a fair presentation, do they insult certain people, do they show something like impatience, etc.

In terms of comedy being logical, I think that's right. Jokes more than anything set the stage through a logical set up. You can't just say, "And that's what he said!" and expect people to laugh. You have to get there somehow, and people need to buy into that "somehow" or the joke won't pay off. Think of a joke like a Rube Goldberg device: so long as each step makes sense, then it will pay off -- even if you could have gotten there in a less complicated way.

The same thing applies with comedies in general, which is why I've said several times that I think the best comedies are disguised dramas with funny lines in them.

And I agree about the sitcoms. What made the classic sitcoms so classic and what works with things like the Office is that most of it is normal and within character and we can relate to it.... then it gets strange and out of place for the jokes. We find that funny, because it fits with how we live our lives -- dull and normal, interspersed with the strange or funny. But when your characters just bound around to serve whatever silly joke you've got planned, then there isn't much to like except the joke itself.

On TNG, I want to do the next one, I've just been really busy with other things and haven't had the chance to do one. I'll see what I can do.

On the feedback, thanks. I actually got feedback from different sources, so I never put out a general call for it. In particular, I got a couple people I know are hard to please and one person who has written a lot and whose style I really liked.

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, I haven't read it. Thanks for the info! :-)

Writer X said...

Wait. You mean the guilty party doesn't appear out of nowhere? Running down the center aisle of the courtroom and waiving the long-lost murder weapon?! (Cue the Lifetime movie channel.)

Seriously, Andrew, this is a great list. Your writing processes are more organized and defined than the ones of most authors I know.

Like you, I have a pet peeve whenever a character is described for me to the nth-degree. I do not need to know the color of every strand of hair, mole, and freckle. I consider this annoying filler, although that's just my preference. Some authors would vehemently disagree with me.

Looking forward to seeing your book in a bookstore one day!

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Hey, how did you know how my book ends?!! ;-)

Seriously though, it really turns me off when authors (or films) use these massive coincidences to solve their plots. To me that's a failure of creativity and a lack of respect for the audience.

I understand coincidence, and that it happens all the time. But you don't suddenly find a long lost twin the moment you need one and you don't happen to go to a mall in a different city and suddenly run across the guy who really did the burglary. It just doesn't happen.

And what's always fascinated me about Hollywood and the law is that the law is full of drama all on its own, so why bother creating fake drama? What's wrong with the real stuff?

Answer: the fake stuff is easier to write.

On the list, thanks! It only seems organized. But these are the rules I do try to apply. I don't always succeed fully, but I do my best. The darn adverbs in particular are the bane of my existence!

In terms of appearing in book stores, let's hope! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, If you come back... what were your books about?

DUQ said...

I don't write, so I can't say much about the list except that it sounds good to me. What's the philosophical stuff you're including?

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, In the first book it's the question of whether it's right/wrong to frame someone for a crime who is innocent of that crime, but guilty of other crimes. That's the underlying philosophical question, though it's not as easily presented as that. Long story... 103,000 words to be precise. ;-)

Notawonk said...

andrew: if i come crazy.

daddy issues, mommy issues, and mommy and daddy issues. in that order.

aren't i helpful?!

listen, gardner's book may be out of print. a used store should be able to locate one. so worth the money. light and wisdom emanates from it.

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, LOL! :-)

Mommy issues, daddy issue, and mommy daddy issues. That's helpful enough. I was just curious.

We have a couple used book stores in the area, I'll check that out. You've piqued my curiosity!

Doc Whoa said...

That's a great list! I've tried writing, but I've never pulled it off. In description, I like a good deal of description. What I don't like are things like Moby Dick where the author goes off on long, long, long pointless discussions of things that aren't relevant. I think he once spent 2 pages describing a bucket. I wanted to slit my wrists.

Ed said...

I agree with Scott, let's see more Star Trek take downs!

I agree about your comment on access, especially in films. Almost every heist film does that, showing you the planning but leaving out the key moment where they plan the doublecross. I get why they do that, but it feels a bit like cheating.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, Thanks! As I say above in my response to JG, this is just my opinion, and people certainly disagree.

One of the interesting things about writing is that there really is no right and wrong, as long as what you do works.

In "Moby Dick", you've actually picked upon my most hated books. I know exactly what you're talking about. In fact, I recall the very chapter. I struggled to finish that one.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I'll see what I can do.

I agree on the heist films. My complaint on this originally goes all the way back to Agatha Christie and some of the others from that era. I don't know if you've seen Murder by Death, but I always think back to the rant by Truman Capote about the mystery writers cheating their characters. Then you see this is modern films like Ocean's Eleven, where you get to see "everything" except the critical parts. Sure, it delivers a nice surprise and to that degree it doesn't bother me, but they shouldn't make a habit of it... which too many people do.

I decided when I started this book that I wouldn't do that. I was either going to let them see everything going on in the character(s)'s mind or nothing. I decided on nothing because it fit with the realism aspect. When you stand in a room with someone, you don't know what they're really thinking. Why should a book be any different? So I let no one into the character's minds, and that created a great deal of tension as you don't know what each is capable of as the end nears.

I think it worked.

Anonymous said...

I've actually seen Murder by Death. I don't recall Capote's speech but I thought the film was a hoot. I think it was Alec Guiness' last film before doing Star Wars and I just love his name: Bensonmum. :-)

UPDATE: Here's the rant from IMDb:

"You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I've outsmarted you, they'll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents."

Hell, sounds like Lost!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's the one! :-)

That and The Cheap Detective were written by Neil Simon. I really like both films and I highly recommend them. They're older comedies (1970s), but I think people would really enjoy them -- excellent parodies of mystery novels and Bogart films.

I often think back to that very speech whenever I see a movie or TV show do some of these things: "Hey, now that we're about to wrap up the crime, did I ever mention I had an evil twin I haven't seen in 20 years?" Groan.

That's the kind of thing I wanted to avoid in this book. That's what the no cheating rules are about -- no deceptions, no springing of impossible surprises, etc. There are many surprising things that happen, but none of them can't be foreseen. And there are even a couple moments where I use the expectation of a ridiculous plot moment against the reader because we've been so conditioned to expect impossible things to happen and to play out in certain ways that I think people trick themselves when they come across those. It's only in hindsight, when it doesn't happen that way, that people realize "yeah, that would have been a massive coincidence and wouldn't have made sense?" Like the jacket example in the article.

I kind of wish people had read it because I'd love to talk about it, although I fear that could bore a lot of people. I was talking to a friend the other day about how everything in it takes a triangular structure... blah blah... and that's when their eyes glazed over. Whoops. Sorry about that. LOL!

Tennessee Jed said...

Had company tonight, so just now getting around to really reading this to comment. Quite honestly there is nothing that jumps out as missing from the list, at least in terms of rules for writing. Obviously, coming up with a good story is critical. However, a strong style and following your rules will turn a good story into a great novel, and save a mediocre story. The converse is equally true, of course.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed. I think these are pretty good rules. In fact, having followed them, I was actually quite pleasantly surprised how much they helped steer me in the right direction.

For example, in several instances, it would have been easy to solve a particular plotting moment if the characters just agreed and I could move on. But since I had to think about how they would really respond, it occurred to me that there would be a problem. And when I thought through how they would really react, then I suddenly found a new route to take that was actually much more interesting than where I was headed originally. I ran into those types of things a lot, where the rules kept me from being lazy and thereby forced me to be a better writer.

darski said...

You have broken my heart. it is bad enough that "educated" people no longer know what an adverb is or how to use one correctly... sob, you are going to purposely leave them out!

alack and alas. how could you be so cruel?

AndrewPrice said...

darski, That's actually common advice, and you'll see it repeated by most agents and publishers who provide advice.

The problem with adverbs is that they don't have specific descriptive meaning. Thus, rather than giving the reader a visual of what is happening in the scene, you end up with a lot of "he said angrily" -- which doesn't give you much of an image.

In small doses, these are fine. But when you start including them in large numbers, you end up with very clunky, non-descriptive writing.

As an aside, one thing that kills me about adverbs are television personalities who misuse them by leaving off the "ly" at the end. I can't stand hearing, "he ran quick to get the ball." Ahhhh!!!

Unknown said...

Andrew: If Tolstoy had followed the rule of not overdeveloping character, War and Peace would have been 150 pages long and a helluva lot more enjoyable. Now that should bring howls from the Tolstoy fans.

As for adverbs, the only thing as bad as not using them is using them badly. I have to restrain myself from throwing a book at the TV every time that ad comes on and asks: "Is your computer running slowly?" Of course it is, you idiot, it doesn't have any legs. Much like the fish smells badly because it doesn't have a nose.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I know the very commercial you mean, that one bugs me too. What bothers me more though are the sports announcers. "He took the ball and he threw it real good." Ahhh!!!!

I know what you mean about Tolsoy! Granted, there is a lot of beauty in what the Russians have written, but there's a lot of fluff too. I wouldn't give up the beauty of something like Dickens' "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" but in terms of modern writing, that just doesn't work anymore -- that's not how writing is done anymore, and trying to recreate that is as stilted as trying to write in Shakespeare's style or Ancient Greek.

darski said...

I fully understand what you meant it just seems that adverbs have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Almost 30 years ago, I accused my English instructor (at a community college) of killing English because he disparaged anyone who used words of more than one syllable. The peons are taking the world... I'm just about ready to give it to them. however, you have reawakened my interest in writing a murder mystery.

AndrewPrice said...

darski, Glad to hear it! I know what you mean about the death of the language, particularly if you look at the internet or texting. I also think that the vast majority of novels today are written at the fifth grade level. But there is still incredibly beautiful writing out there, it's just harder to find.

CrispyRice said...

Darksi, if it's any consolation, I'm one of those people whom you will hear in the store mumbling "ly! ly!!" under my breath as people misuse adverbs. *sigh* Friends and family get corrected openly. ;)

I also wage a solo losing battle against split infinitives.

Andrew - I'm also one of those people who pay zero attention to the description of a character. I'm not much of a fiction reader to begin with, but I just cannot be bothered to care about or remember what someone is supposed look like. Maybe I'm more into the words than the visual images.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Good for you! LOL! Sadly, I think your campaign will ultimately fail as more and more people start misusing them.

I know a fair number of people who completely ignore description in books unless it's something specific -- like a scar or some trademark trait.

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