On the persistence of rules

by Aliette de Bodard

There is writing advice that is pervasive and all-enduring: I’ve lost count of the number of times I saw “show don’t tell” on writers’ forums, or of the number of people who have referred me to Strunk & White. It’s advice that bugged me quite a bit when I was learning to write myself: I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian; and the idea that you have to do things in a certain way, or you don’t ever stand a chance of publication, obviously grated.

And you know, I still don’t think those “rules” are healthy–at least not till you’ve understood a bit.

Accordingly, here is a selection of rules I don’t think should be applied without thought. As usual, this is 100% my personal opinion on what works for me. You might have a very different opinion, or a very different writing process. Take what you need, and discard the rest.

1. Show don’t tell: the main problem I have with “Show don’t tell” is that, interpreted wrongly, it encourages what I call the “movie” approach: movies are pretty much your quintessential showing, describing in detail the setting, characters, and giving a good feel for the whole. What movies can’t do, and what books can, is get inside characters’ heads. And this is the part that’s essentially all about telling. You can show how a character is feeling by external signs such as heartbeat, but how many of us notice that our hearts are beating faster when we’re excited? We’re generally too busy with our own thoughts. If you want to have a character’s thoughts in the narration, it’s going to be telling all the way. And there’s nothing wrong with that: it creates a bubble of commonality between the reader and the character, and enables readers to get attached to characters.

Also, telling is faster than showing, which means there are times when you’ll want to use it in order to avoid being boring: if I’m describing how my characters went to interview three people in a building in the course of an investigation, with no interview giving tangible result, and none of those three people playing a part in the main story ever again, why should I waste hundreds of words showing the interviews? A simple sentence or two will do: “we interviewed three people on the second floor: one old woman, one disaffected student, and a young couple who had just moved into the neighbourhood. None of them had seen or heard anything pertinent.”

2. Passive voice: you know the adage “avoid passive voice”. It comes with two problems: the first is that many people do not identify passive voice correctly, and throw into the mix things that have little to do with it, such as the use of “to be”, or of present perfect, or even of present continuous. The truth is that there is nothing wrong with the use of either three: they’re perfectly valid parts of the English language, as long as you don’t use them to excess. In particular, I’ve always been puzzled by people who advise to remove all instances of the verb “to be”, which is pretty much one of the building blocks of the language. Take any published book from your shelves, open it at random, and count the number of occurrences of “to be”. You’ll see that not only is it used, it’s used fairly often, every few sentences.

The second problem with passive voice is although a whole novel written in passive voice is indeed annoying, because it’s a heavy construction that draws attention to itself, there are times when the passive voice is not only necessary, but the best thing you can use. If you’re describing a murder by an unknown person, drawing attention to the victim rather than the perpetrator, a simple “the councillor was killed at three in the morning” will go a long way. There is no need for convoluted constructions that seek to avoid the passive.

3. Use a style manual, such as Strunk and White: while a style manual can be really useful to know the “standard” rules of the languages, especially when you’re starting out, for me, it soon becomes a burden. Manuals of style such as Strunk and White were written for academic non-fiction articles, in order that the style would not overwhelm the content. However, when you’re writing fiction and developing your own voice, the last thing you need is to sound like a dry academic. James Joyce or Toni Morrison most definitely do not respect Strunk and White, and neither do Hal Duncan or Elizabeth Bear.

What I tend to have at home is a grammar, which will tell me proper use; and then build on from that, rather than try to norm my language from a style manual (especially since I don’t agree with most of the rules from Strunk and White).

4. The story has to be in third person, past tense: I’ve often seen that one, or a variant, which tends to go something like that: “there is something wrong with the story, why don’t you try writing it in another person?” It’s not always wrong: sometimes, there is a right choice of person for the narration, and it’s not been made. But a lot of times, it refers to the norm of having third person limited as the golden standard. And it’s a norm that bears thinking about.

There is a reason third person, past tense is the standard: it’s flexible, it allows you to have visible indicator of who the narrator is (useful when you want to switch points of view), and there little to no convention that the narrator is actually telling his story to someone (unlike first person, which can come burdened with a set of expectations).

However, and notwithstanding the slightly distancing effect of first person, it can also come in handy. If your character has a distinctive voice, or needs to do many smart asides, the story might read better in first person. Some genres, such as noir, also come with expectations of using first person (think Chandler).

Past tense, again, is the more practical tense, as opposed to, for instance, present tense; but it doesn’t have to be the only tense. If you need to write sections in present tense, for instance, you have to be aware that they’re going to be slightly more difficult to parse for the reader (mainly due to the fact that they’re not the standard, more than anything else). But if you need them, and if you’re ready to pay the price of slightly less reader attention, then by all means go ahead.

I guess I’m trying to say here is that with all rules, you have to understand why they came into being, and to apply them smartly–and break them when you need. Very few rules are absolute, and most should be applied in moderation.

At least, that’s how it’s worked for me. What about you? How do you feel about writing rules? What rules have you found useful, and what rules have you never understood?

Aliette de Bodard is a Franco-Vietnamese who lives and works in Paris, where she has a job as a computer engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction: her series of Aztec noir fantasies, Obsidian and Blood, is published by Angry Robot; and her fiction has appeared in venues such as Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy and Interzone. She won Writers of the Future, and has been a finalist for the Campbell Award, British Science Fiction Awards, and the Nebula Awards.
Visit http://www.aliettedebodard.com for more information.