Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Against the Rules- Terry Pratchett edition

First up, Tahereh is having a contest that will implode your brains.

Also, I've written reviews on Linda Villarosa's Passing for Black and Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith. I'm kinda new to the review game, but I hope to get better at it with time.

Okay, today's Write Away Wednesday. I've been on about the rules a lot lately. Apologies. It's just that the rules seem to come up every other day (hour, minute, second) in writers' forums. Plus I've never been one to follow the rules- at least not all of them. So I'm really interested in when rules apply and when they don't.

I've got two examples of succesful rule-breaking from Terry Pratchett's WINTERSMITH. He's written a 37 (and counting) book series. If that's not successful, I don't know what is.

Broken Rule #1- Never start your story with the weather.

Reason: Weather descriptions aren't particularly interesting. You will lose your reader before you hook them.


Chapter 1
The Big Snow

When the storm came, it hit the hills like a hammer. No sky should hold as much snow as this, and because no sky could, it fell; fell in a wall of white.

There was a small hill of snow where there had been, a few hours ago, a little cluster of thorn trees on an ancient mound. This time last year, there had been a few early primroses; now there was just snow.

Why it works: The book is specifically about winter. Winter is actually a character and not something that happens in the background. And so it becomes important that we know (at the beginning and throughout the novel) what the weather's like.

Broken Rule #2- Don't write dialect.

Reason: It's difficult to read, and readers often have to read it out loud to understand the meaning.


"Ach, crivens!" it grumbled. "Will ye no' look at this? 'Tis the work o' the wintersmith! Noo there's a scunner that willnae tak' "no" fra' an answer!"

Why it works: Only the Feegles in the novel speak this way. The humans, gods and elementals all speak regular English. The Feegles are a crazy race of little blue people, and their dialect reflects that they're different. Admittedly, it takes a while to get used to - and to remember the terms in the small glossary- but once you get into it, it makes the Feegles even more hilarious. And every time you see "Crivens!" you know it's a Feegle speaking.

Don't write dialect if everyone is going to be using it. When you paint your setting - and maybe sprinkle in a little dialect- people will come to understand that the characters are using dialect, but it's been transcribed into standard English for the reader's comfort. Much like you'd watch a Japanese movie, set in Japan, dubbed in English. No one expects that the characters are speaking English, but watching Japanese would be useless. Note however that when one Japanese character appears in the midst of an English movie, he often speaks Japanese and is subtitled. (Like the movie "Rush Hour" with the Chinese cast members.)

For more info on how to use dialect, check out this useful link.

Broken Rule #3- Don't start your story with a dream.

Reason: Readers feel betrayed- they're just starting to know a character and a situation, only to discover it's not real.


All of this hasn't happened yet. It might not happen at all. The future is always a bit wobbly. Any little thing, like the fall of a snowflake or the dropping of the wrong kind of spoon, can send it spinning off along a new path. Or perhaps not.

Why it works: This is a dream that Jeannie, one of the Feegles, has. However, it's not just a dream, but a vision. Of something that may just happen. It helps us understand before we even meet the wintersmith what is at stake if Tiffany doesn't defeat him.

Starting a story with a scene or event from later on (chronologically) is a fairly popular device. Take To Kill a Mockingbird. And Th1rteen R3asons Why. And Twilight. (Silently freaked that TKAM and Twilight have something in common. Eek!) There is something to be said for knowing the outcome and cheering that somehow that won't come to pass, even though you know it must.

In WINTERSMITH however, Pratchett offers us the possibility that what we see won't happen. Having given us the sneak peek of what's at stake, we probably cheer a little harder for the good guys.

So in conclusion:

DON'T open with the weather.
Unless the book's about the weather.

DON'T write dialect.
Unless the dialect is important to differentiating the characters.

DON'T open with a dream.
Unless it's a vision.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, Terry Pratchett broke all these rules in the first chapter. Two of the three on the first page. Proof that rules aren't for people who know how to really play the game!


Dianne K. Salerni said...

Who makes up these rules anyway? How can there be rules about how to tell a story? Sure there might be guidelines and suggestions (referring back to your Pirates post), but those are mostly for fledgling writers feeling their way. Someone who has mastered their craft can tell a story anyway they like!

Love Pratchett, by the way. I haven't read Wintersmith, but I love Guards! Guards! and the rest of the Night Watch books.

E.J. Wesley said...

It was a dark and stormy night, and Claire found herself writing another awesome post!

I think this is why beta readers, critique groups, etc. are so important. They can really help you figure out if you've correctly applied something.

My blog, it's occasionally funny ...

In general, I believe these 'rules' exist because to not follow the rules, and not have your writing turn out to be garbage, is very hard. The people that make these rules (from what I can tell are other writers, editors, and teachers) have probably read more horrible openings in a month than I'll read in a lifetime. These things that Claire mentioned are just commonly used (see - generic) story devices that tend to be followed up by more poor writing. So, when they read an opening with weather, a first 10 pages with tons of crazy dialect, etc. it's probably a safe bet that the rest of the writing/story telling is going to be generic and/or poorly executed.

As Claire has noted many times, it's not to say going against these rules can't be done; however, should you do so it's best to have your eyes wide open, a thick skin, and a rock-solid reasoning for doing so.

Marsha Sigman said...

I think you have to be really, really good to break the rules. This is an awesome post and it shows us that the rules can be broken in the right circumstances.

ElbieNy25 said...

I agree that if you are going to break the rules then you have to do it with flaire. You previously mentioned that you need to first understand the rule, then know how to break it in a way that works.

Great examples!