Reading through some online forums about writing, one thing that always strikes me is the pervasive sense that there are rules. Now, you can tell from the title of this blog (and the book it’s promoting, coming out next year) that I don’t really think there are many rules when it comes to writing, but a lot of writing-related questions center on what’s “permissible” or “allowed.” As if there’s some sort of international court of literary pursuits that will hand down judgments.
Questions like “how many characters should this story have” or “is it permissible to begin the story this way” miss the point of creativity. There are no permits to be issued. You’re on your own.
Writing is Thunderdome
A writer friend and I have been engaged in a circular argument for decades now concerning movie reboots. His position is that reboots are almost always wastes of time because they’re usually rebooting a perfectly good movie to begin with—and almost all reboots are inferior. My position is that any idea can work. There’s no fatal flaw in the basis of the idea—say, the fact that it’s a reboot or remake—that dooms it. You can take a story that’s been done before and improve on it. Or fail to do so. But that’s a flaw of execution, not ideas.
And that’s the thing about writing. It’s Thunderdome. You can try anything you want, and if you pull it off it’ll be great. And if you fail to pull it off, you’ll get crushed. It’s that simple.
People like rules because it’s comforting. They like patterns and formulas because it makes it seem like a step-by-step guide to success. And yes, to some extent following rules or a formula can lead to a successful story—but so can winging it, or actively breaking rules. If you have the urge to ask, is it permissible to do this? why not just do it and find out?
Have a dead narrator? Have one hundred characters? Lie to the reader? Why not. If you don’t pull it off people will tell you it was a bad idea—but it won’t have been. It’ll simply be an idea you failed to pull off. That’s the bottom line: A bad idea is just an idea you failed to pull off.
Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go work on my reboot of The Sound and the Fury in which the whole thing is narrated by Benjy. You’re welcome.