September 21, 2021
By Tim Storm
Reprinted with permission Tim Storm
Almost every writing rule you can think of has exceptions. Why? And if breaking writing rules is possible, why pay any attention to them?
The Case of the Effective Deus Ex Machina
Earlier this year, I read a book called Fifteen Dogs. The premise is a strange one: Hermes and Apollo are hanging out in a bar debating whether animals would live happily if they had human intelligence and consciousness. So they decide to go to a dog shelter and give the dogs there (15 of them) human consciousness and see what happens.
The story then follows these dogs as they deal with their new awareness of existence. It’s a pretty captivating read, and a couple of times, the main character dogs—the ones we’re really rooting for—get out of trouble purely because of interference from the gods watching over them.
It is classic deus ex machina. And in most other books, I would cry foul. But in this story, it works because the whole premise is rooted in random godly interference.
The Case of the POV Smorgasbord
In the same month I read Fifteen Dogs, I also read a middle-grade novel, The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz. It’s a frame narrative in the style of The Canterbury Tales. Sundry folk are brought together in an inn, and they each take turns telling the story of three saintly children and their adventures across the French countryside.
It’s an absolute hodgepodge of narrative POVs. Sometimes it’s first person, sometimes it’s third. Sometimes it’s past tense, sometimes it’s present. Sometimes it’s third limited, sometimes it’s omniscient. Sometimes it’s even first person omniscient somehow.
But in this story, it works. Again, it’s because the whole story is sort of predicated on the importance of books and storytelling in coming to understand, well, God, really. (But you could also substitute God for “what’s right.”)
Subvert the Maxims
For pretty much every “rule” you’ve heard for writing, there is some story out there that illustrates an exception.
Don’t name too many characters in chapter 1; show, don’t tell; escalate toward a climax; prioritize scenes over narrative summary; avoid coincidence. There are stories—good stories—that subvert each of these. And for pretty much any maxim you can think of, there is likely a story out there that successfully bypasses it.
That’s not to say that those maxims aren’t good advice. “Show, don’t tell,” for instance, is a principle that every writer should attempt to master. But it can also get you in trouble, and there are times when telling is actually preferable to showing. It’s a good idea to know how to avoid filter words in your narration, but there are times when they, too, are not only acceptable, but actually better than the alternative.
Why isn’t writing something we can pin down a little better? Why can’t we come up with a list of rules that apply universally? Why can’t it be more of a science?
There are a few meta-principles at play here—that is, principles about why writing principles can be undermined.
Some writing instructors have tried to make writing a science, providing spreadsheets and graphs and various recipes and formulas. And I’ll admit that such formulas can be helpful for generating story ideas and direction.
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Tim is one of our very popular conference presenters. You can see him in March 2022 at Let's Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference.
T.D. Storm writes short stories and essays. His work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Black Warrior Review, Copper Nickel, and Literary Hub. He he has been a finalist in a number of contests, including the International Literary Competition at Salem College, which he won in 2013. He has an MFA in Writing from Pacific University.
Tim lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he works as a writing coach and editor. You can learn more about his teaching and editing at stormwritingschool.com. Prior to his current work, he taught high school English for 15 years and briefly pursued an Olympic rowing berth.
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