11 rules for writing bad
An acquaintance of mine, an aspiring young writer, once asked a commercially successful author to critique her work. This is, in general, a good idea, but there are three things that can go wrong:
First, you can set your sights too high, and choose an author who hasn’t got time to respond—or who is just too curmudgeonly to bother. (All authors are issued free life memberships in the Curmudgeon’s Guild 10 years after their first appearance in print. Some pony up their own money and subscribe early.) Stephen King won’t read your manuscript, let alone comment on it—unless you’re his dog, in which case he wants to talk to you about the movie deal, pronto.
Second, you can aim too low, and ask for the opinion of someone who’s really not qualified to give it. For instance, you could ask me for a critique. Don’t worry, I won’t give you one. I only critique the work of personal friends, and only on rare occasions—generally when I am suffering from writer’s block myself, and want something to take it out on. In such cases I charge nothing for the service, and it’s worth almost half the price. (If you want criticism from other novice writers, you can get it from a writer’s workshop. Critters is a well-established online workshop with a substantial reputation.)
In this case, my acquaintance made the third mistake: she asked for criticism from an author whose books she didn’t like. Tastes in literature are notoriously reciprocal. Writers usually write the kind of fiction they like to read, and if you don’t like an author’s books, she is very unlikely to think well of yours, no matter how well written. Don’t bother asking. I have made this mistake myself, and nearly gave up writing in consequence. Experto crede.
Unfortunately for my friend, the author she picked on had some very peculiar ideas about How To Write. I offer them here as an example of the kind of bad advice you are likely to get if you go promiscuously courting criticism (especially on the Net). I don’t know the identity of the author who came up with these
1. ‘When I read a book, I want to BE your point-of-view character.’This advice is almost good; it would be good if one could only change the accepted meaning of the word ‘be’.
One of the most acclaimed science fiction stories of all time is ‘The Cold Equations’, by Tom Godwin. A teenage girl stows away aboard a spacecraft, and has to be jettisoned to prevent the ship from crashing, because her weight exceeds the ship’s margin of safety. Now, this is perhaps a questionable idea, as other commentators have pointed out; but the story itself is gripping and indeed harrowing, and instantly made Godwin’s reputation as an important sf author.
So who do you want to BE in this story: the stowaway who is doomed by her own stupidity (and by the laws of gravitation and rocketry, the ‘cold equations’ of the title) to be dumped out of the airlock? Or the pilot, a decent human being who is forced by circumstances to become her executioner?
Perhaps this advice is valid if you restrict yourself to the sort of fiction in which nothing bad ever happens to a major character and everyone comes out smiling (and ready for next week’s episode). In other words, it applies to junk. As soon as you introduce the elements that make for good fiction, it all breaks down.
What do I mean by ‘good’ fiction? I mean fiction that engages my imagination and my emotions while I’m reading it, and that I will remember long after I’ve finished it. There are two effective ways of achieving this in a story: the Realistic and the Romantic. The Realistic method is to give all the characters various human flaws, and let them suffer the consequences, either by changing or by perishing. The Romantic method is to put the characters in an extraordinary situation, with an extraordinary problem to solve, and make them work out their own salvation. The best stories combine the two methods, as we see in ‘The Cold Equations’. The first method produces characters who make mistakes, who have unpleasant traits, whose weaknesses may prove fatal; the second produces characters who achieve great things at the cost of great suffering. Most readers don’t want to ‘be’ those people, but we greatly enjoy reading about them and identifying with them emotionally.
You could defend B.A. by saying that she didn’t mean she wanted to be the character, only to identify emotionally with the character. Then why didn’t she say so? The words ‘identify emotionally’ are not difficult; most people understand what they mean. If B.A. is not guilty of giving bad advice, she’s guilty of a far graver offence: incompetent writing.
When I read a book, I want the author to know what the word ‘be’ means.
2. ‘Don’t be cute, and hide from me what the problem is. . . . so I can wonder how the POV character is going to overcome that problem, because I never could.’Again, B.A. gives us something that bears a considerable resemblance to good advice. But when we say that a writer is hiding something, we mean that he is leaving important things unsaid so he can spring cheap surprises on us. When we discover, just as Our Hero is about to be beaten to jelly by the Villain’s retinue of eight-foot, quarter-ton professional wrestlers, that he actually has a ninth-dan black belt and an Uzi in his inside pocket, we feel cheated. When we discover at the end of the story that Our Hero is really a dog, or that his name is Adam and the planet where he has just crash-landed is called Earth—but we don’t discover that; that’s what editors are for, and that’s why editors have such very large waste-paper baskets.
The problem with B.A.’s advice is that there is an equal and opposite error, which, if we obey her too strictly, we shall commit ourselves. That is to explain the whole Problem, the exact nature of the Villains, all the details of the McGuffin, and all the parameters of the plot like a chess puzzle, in a gigantic expository lump or ‘infodump’ right in Chapter 1. (Or, God help us, in the Preface.) Most readers despise infodumps. B.A. probably does, too. She should be careful what she wishes for, for she may get it.
3. ‘EMOTE! EMOTE! EMOTE!’Since B.A. wants to ‘be’ the main character, obviously she must feel whatever the character feels. Right? Well, yes, but this isn’t the way to do it.
The word ‘emote’ was originally a back-formation from ‘emotion’, invented by some clever duck who wanted a verb to go with the noun. But it didn’t really catch on until the era of silent films, when it was applied to the particular style of grotesque over-acting that those films required. If you make your characters ‘emote’, you and they will look like consummate asses. Theda Bara could spend the length of a movie making eyes, heaving her breast, and gesticulating like a hyperactive exclamation point. We are not so fortunate; we will not get away with it.
Ernest Hemingway never let any of his characters emote. It would have taken up precious wordage that could be better used to get on with the plot. This didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most read and admired authors of the 20th century. Obviously, tastes differ. B.A.’s taste differs all the way over to the edge of the chart, and about six inches beyond.
4. Tight third person is the best, the greatest, the only POV choice. First person is a self-indulgent writing style.Tight third is indeed the most popular way to write fiction nowadays. But it is not a point of view choice, let alone the choice. It is a whole group of techniques, each with its own appropriate tools and applications. You can have one POV character throughout the story, or one per chapter, or one per scene. You can delve deeply into the character’s thoughts and emotions, or hang back and stay almost as detached as a camera. The possibilities are numberless, and you can go on subdividing them until you find yourself picking nits too small to see.
Now, some writers are indeed self-indulgent in their use of first person. ‘Mary Sue’ stories, roman à clef autobiographies, and other ego trips are most often written in the first person. What of it? You can be self-indulgent in the third person, or disciplined in the first. Indeed, you can have a first-person narrator who is not the protagonist, but a mere observer on the fringe of the story, like Sherlock Holmes’s Watson, or the unnamed guy in Damon Runyon’s stories.
I should also put in a word for the omniscient narrator. Omniscient POV has gone right out of fashion in the last few decades. They say it creates an undesirable emotional distance between the reader and the characters. Now, this only confirms my suspicion that They don’t know what They are talking about, any more than anybody knows just who They are. At bottom I suspect that modern critics dislike the omniscient viewpoint because they dislike the idea of omniscience itself; it reminds them too much of the idea of God. In fact, tight third (and all other POVs in fiction, except first person and the very rare second) is merely a subset of omniscient. The writer who hops from one character’s head to another at every chapter break is an omniscient narrator; he is just restricting his omniscience by arbitrary rules, following the excellent principle of doing one thing at a time. But brilliant work has been done in the omniscient viewpoint, and when the action is spread out over a large area, or involves a large cast of characters, or requires a lot of exposition and back-story to be intelligible, omniscient is by far the best choice. Just try to imagine War and Peace written in tight third!
5. ‘The narrator is always completely subjective and unobtrusive, always completely reliable, and everything else is an error. The author is always the narrator, whose job is to tell it like it really is.’So far, we have seen B.A. wandering in the general vicinity of good advice, sometimes missing it only by a small but vital interval, like someone singing out of tune. But she has been sharping and flatting away so erratically that we begin to suspect her of being positively tone-deaf, and so it comes as no surprise to hear a screeching discord like this. For this point is not only wrong, it conflicts with all the advice before it, and with itself, too. Someone who can blithely contradict herself in the space of a single sentence has a rare and awe-inspiring talent, but I doubt whether the art of writing fiction is the place to apply it. How can anyone be ‘completely subjective’ and ‘completely reliable’?
To ‘tell it like it really is’, you must use an omniscient narrator, because no one character can ever possess that much information. So much for point #4. And if our viewpoint character is always hyperventilating herself into a first-class outbreak of ‘emoting’, we can hardly consider her a reliable narrator: so much for #3. Whereas if B.A. wants to ‘be’ the viewpoint character, she must give up all hope that that character will be objective, unobtrusive, and all the rest. Either you can limit the narrative tightly to the viewpoint character’s perceptions and attitudes, or you can be objective, but not both.
6. At the beginning of any scene, you must first set the stage with a description that includes every item that will be used in that scene.‘Oh, and by the way, the third man from the end of the queue is wearing underwear two sizes too small. They will presently bind up, causing him to act in the particularly obnoxious manner that will be portrayed five pages from now.’
It is neither necessary nor expected that you will catalogue every single object in advance of its being used. Anything commonplace can be assumed, and the reader will assume it. We expect a sitting-room to contain something to sit on; the writer need not conduct a census of the chairs. If the setting is contemporary, we shall not be surprised to find a telephone, but we won’t particularly notice it unless it rings.
B.A. tries to support her point with a burlesque analogy, which actually refutes it neatly. ’Tis sport to see the enginer, etc.
You go to a play, and the curtain opens, and there is nothing there. There is an empty stage, with no set. Then your characters walk on, and one of them wants to sit down, so he goes and sits, and a stage hand comes running out of the wings, and sticks a chair under him. And then the other character needs to phone someone, so a stage hand comes running out carrying a phone. . . . It would make a very funny play, but you aren't writing that kind of comedy.No, you aren’t writing that kind of comedy. In fact, you aren’t writing a play at all. Exhaustive stage-directions have their place, perhaps, in writing for the stage. In narrative fiction, they are obtrusive and utterly unworkable.
Actually, no playwright will draw up the kind of stage-directions that B.A. wants us to use in stories. It’s the actors’ job to supply ‘business’, the stagehands’ job to dress the set before the curtain goes up, and the director’s job to decide what business and props will best support the script. Likewise, it’s the reader’s job to fill in the details that an author elides or even omits. This uses a faculty called ‘imagination’.
7. ‘Do not put question marks, exclamation marks or dashes into anything but quoted conversation. These are a narative intrusion. The narrator has no business asking the reader questions, etc.’This point maddens me, because I’ve heard it before, and from people who thought they knew what they were doing. It is unadulterated bosh.
To begin with, there’s interior dialogue. If you are working in tight third, or indeed in any POV that gives you access to a character’s thoughts, those thoughts will often be conversational in form. You should punctuate them just as you would if they were spoken aloud, merely leaving off the quotation marks. In a first-person narrative, the narrator is almost bound to address her imagined audience—Dear Reader or Dear Diary, the Fates, God, Ghu, her own conscience, or her hairdresser, whose presence as listener was established in the frame of the story. Of course, this assumes that the narrator is the sort of person who talks to people; but if not, is she really the sort of person who would be telling her story at all?
Dashes, ellipses, and the like can be used (sparingly) to alter the pacing of a narrative passage, either to affect the level of tension or to convey motion in a scene by prose rhythm. Beginners should beware of these techniques, perhaps; but they are real and useful and thoroughly respectable, and nobody ever mastered them except by trying.
8. ‘Don’t use conversations.’By this, as my friend explained, B.A. meant: ‘Don’t let us find out about the viewpoint character’s background through what she was saying to someone else. If I am the character, I can’t be talking about something I don’t already know about.’
In the theatre, the only way to learn anything about a character’s background is through dialogue—what he says about himself, what other people say to him, what people say about him behind his back. B.A. is fond of taking the conventions of drama and applying them to fiction, whether they work or not. It seems curiously inconsistent of her to ignore them when they actually do apply.
Actually, it’s quite appropriate to let the viewpoint character talk about herself, as long as that behaviour is in character. If she’s a liar, we won’t trust what she says, and if she’s taciturn, she won’t say much at all. But whatever she says will lighten the burden of flashbacks and exposition that would otherwise be needed to explain her present situation. Besides, having someone deliver back-story in dialogue can be an excellent method of revealing character. The way her audience reacts, the questions she is asked (and those she refuses to answer), the asides and irrelevancies and interruptions, can tell us a lot more about her than the mere content of what she says.
‘Maid and butler dialogue’ is to be avoided, not because it’s inherently wrong, but because it’s a tired cliché. If the maid and the butler are interesting characters in their own right, and have a reason for discussing things they both already know, this lifts their talk right out of the rut of cliché and can take us quite some distance into the story. The onus is on the author to make the trip interesting, that’s all.
9. ‘Sound effects only happen in comic books.’The Greeks invented the word onomatopoeia thousands of years before the invention of the comic book. And not even Plato was given to inventing words unless he intended them to refer to something.
Now, silly sound effects should only happen in comic books, and in silly comics at that. And the practice of using a single imitative word followed by an exclamation point (Biff! Zorch! Splat!) is a comic-book convention that has no place in written fiction. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use onomatopoeia when it is the handiest way to describe the sounds that occur in the story.
10. ‘Fill in the steps.’My friend had a character looking for someone to ask for directions. The character saw a boy sitting down by a building, and asked him how to get to such-and-such. Says B.A.: ‘If you don’t say it happened, it didn’t happen. Have her walk up to him.’
Now, the tendency of fiction for 300 years has been to assume increasing knowledge and perspicacity on the part of the reader. If we say, ‘The phone rang,’ a savvy reader knows there is a phone nearby. If we say, ‘She asked the boy how to get to Che Stadium,’ a savvy reader knows that she has approached within speaking distance of him. If we say, ‘The lander touched down at Tranquillity Base National Park,’ a savvy reader knows that a craft has flown to the Moon, and that its probable object is tourism, even though we do not describe the details of the flight, the passenger booking system, or the fate of the multistage rockets.
Readers are, generally speaking, savvy people; they can fill in a lot. Compare the long lectures about rocketry in Destination Moon, both film and story, with the casual assumption of knowledge in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Extrapolate the trend: the curve passed through those points only 20 years apart, and we’re over 30 years further along now.
If you don’t say it happened, a reader will make assumptions. Don’t bother saying it unless it’s something that the reader is likely to miss.
11. Make certain your motivation-reaction sequences are in the right order.Says B.A.: ‘Sally opened a door, and her jaw dropped open as a great hairy monster leaped out. . . . This happens in the reverse order. Sally didn’t drop her jaw because the door opened. Show the monster first, then have the jaw drop.’
Jaw-dropping is a standard bit of business, and a stock device for increasing tenstion: first give the emotional reaction, then explain what caused it. It’s an elementary rule of rhetoric that we proceed from the known to the unknown, regardless of chronological order. In general, we don’t know the present until we have experienced the past, so the rule usually does lead us along chronologically—but not always. This is one of the cases where it actually does work in reverse.
I would be inclined to avoid the dropped jaw, not because of any shibboleth about chronology, but simply because it’s a rather tired bit. When Samson slew the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, doubtless it was the jawbone that the ass dropped in his astonishment at seeing a guy with so many muscles and so much hair. If I substituted some more vivid and less clichéd expression, I would still put it in the same place in the sentence—out of chronological order, but in logical order—and B.A. can go jump in a landfill full of out-of-print English textbooks.
ConclusionYou’ll never please everyone. You’ll never even please a majority of the reading public. If you try, the best you’ll do is offend no one and bore everyone. But if I had to choose whom to please and whom to offend, I think I’d rather offend B.A. Most of her points are wrongheaded in principle, and the rest are slipshod in execution.
Many writers listen to this kind of advice, because it seems concrete, straightforward, and neatly prescriptive. The trouble is that there is no neat prescription for good fiction. The most honest advice I can give is so general, so vague, that it hardly counts as advice at all; and it is very hard to follow:
Tell your story just as comes natural. If that doesn’t hold your audience (and it won’t, at first), find out what will, and practise that until it feels natural. And when you do tell a good, natural story that entertains readers, correct it and cut it before you let an editor see it.
I could give more detailed advice, but fortunately it has already been given by Mark Twain in his inimitable style. In 1865, in his bumptious youth, he gave some advice to a young actor on how to handle ‘constructive’ criticism. In 1895, as an old and wise father of the craft, he dissected the subliterary style of James Fenimore Cooper. I heartily recommend them both.
16 October 2003