“Rules?” you snort. “You can’t apply rules to writing. It’s a creative craft.”
Think of writing rules as guidelines rather than hard and fast commandments from some all-knowing writing deity. In fact, most rules reflect prevailing public opinion and artistic conventions of what constitutes good writing. And as we know, writing tastes change with time. They can also change depending on the form and context you are writing in.
Take the classic writing rule: “Show, don’t tell.” Nonfiction writers often resist this rule. It’s ingrained in their nature to balk when asked to tell the story of their book. They may look at their editors blankly and say, “It’s not a story because it’s nonfiction.” Or, they may spin a series of colorful anecdotes and think that a list of storied episodes sufficiently makes a book.
Both of these viewpoints lose sight of the creative possibility of subverting or following a cardinal rule.
Nonfiction can benefit from many storytelling devices. Sure, there are some that definitely don’t work: made-up facts and dialogue are a big no-no, no matter how trivial. You also can’t attribute motivations of the people you include in your nonfiction piece without solid, factual evidence– sourced facts that are carefully laid out on the page. Speculation in nonfiction is acceptable insofar as you make sure your readers know these thoughts come from you.
Still, narrative techniques work in several instances for nonfiction. Readers know a good story when they read one. They want to read a good story. Writers should present their subject matter in a way that moves from a beginning to a middle to an end, and makes the reading experience more seductive, even if no dramatic elements like dialogue are used.
In effect, you can “tell” a story– breaking the rule– and introduce good narrative tension– following the rule– even when the book is not structured as a story.
Here’s an example I made-up:
It was a trip to the capital the group of young economists embarked on with trepidation but also excitement. For years, the local authorities had ignored their policy recommendations, choosing instead to go with politically expedient solutions from business cronies. Dr. Salazar remembers the bright, cold December morning when the Secretary of Commerce rang him up. A plane had been arranged to ferry him and fellow University economists to see the President. “Please come at once,” the Secretary said over the phone. The line crackled with his voice. It was less a plea than a staunch command. The three professors cancelled their classes for the semester, packed their suitcases, and were on a red-eye flight that evening.
The writer here is ‘telling’ the story rather than ‘showing’ it in the conventional sense, but it serves the purpose of propelling the historical account along with some much-needed narrative tension.
All rules have at one point been broken by a slew of writers. You’re not alone when you bristle in reaction. But don’t break rules for the sake of anointing yourself an anti-establishment, rebel with a pen.
As a writer, you may be looking for interesting and adventurous ways to subvert the writing rules, but there’s a fine line between excusing yourself from good form and practice, and transcending rules in some focused and illuminating way. Break the rules with style.
Breaking a ‘rule’ strategically can pull your readers into a story in unusual ways, so practice with care. Put a harness on convention and see where you can drag it. Practice in small doses, and see how it changes your narrative.
Below are timeless rules by several well-known auteurs.
Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules of Writing:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that they will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character they can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the plot.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
How to Write With Style by Kurt Vonnegut:
1. Find a subject you care about.
2. Do not ramble.
3. Keep it simple.
4. Have guts to cut.
5. Sound like yourself.
6. Say what you mean.
7. Pity the readers.
George Orwell’s 6 Rules for Writing:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing:
1. Never open a book with the weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the parts the readers tend to skip.
And of course, the classics:
1. Show, don’t tell.
2. Avoid too much backstory when introducing characters.
3. Write what you know.
4. Don’t lecture your readers.
5. Pace your narrative with action.
Kurt Vonnegut’s lectures on writing are illuminating. Here’s his discussion on the ‘shapes of stories’, great advice (to heed or flout!) for crafting the narrative arc in both your nonfiction and fiction pieces:
And for more gloss on the visuals, read Austin Kleon’s “Graph a Story with Mr. Vonnegut“.