October 19, 2008

Rules of the Road

I talked a bit about this a while back, but then while talking with the missus the other day I realized an even better analogy for what I was trying to say. And I thought to myself, “Hey, it’s been almost four months and that last post is sooooooooo far down the page now… I mean, no one actually scrolls back on these things, right?”


The rules for writing are a bit like the rules for driving. They weren’t made up by pulling numbers from a hat or throwing darts at a board. People went through lots of trials and setbacks and discussed things with lots of professionals. They looked at past examples that didn’t do so well and ones that were wild successes.

The 55 mph speed limit isn’t just the law, it’s a good, practical idea. Many engineers have shown that most vehicles gets the best ratio of fuel efficiency/ speed at this point. It’s also a very survivable speed in case of accidents, and traffic records show far fewer serious accidents happen at this speed.

Now… does this mean you should always drive 55, no matter what?

Not really. In fact, if the crosswalk ahead of you is filled with nuns and orphans, it might be a good idea to hit the brakes. Same thing in a school zone or residential area. Sometimes 55 is just way too fast.

By the same token, if your girlfriend/ boyfriend/ husband/ wife is in the passenger seat bleeding out from a traumatic injury, going a little faster than 55 might be advisable. The police may even quietly congratulate you for it. To be honest, they’d probably be more than a little suspicious if you insisted on driving the speed limit while your loved one was dying next to you…

In fact, most police officers will tell you that sometimes breaking the speed limit is okay. There are times you can sail down the highway at ten or fifteen miles over the limit and the state trooper driving next to you won’t bat an eye. And there are times you can scrape against 57 miles per hour and they’ll have you on the side of the road instantly. Anyone who’s been driving for a while knows this, and is probably aware of when you can an can’t do it.

So writing is a lot like driving. There are rules, those rules are there for a reason, and editors and agents will punish you if you break them. Sometimes.

For example… some people like to thump their screenwriting bibles and say that you should absolutely never use voice-over in a script. Know what though? Casablanca begins with voice-over. So do The Prestige and Dark City. Layer Cake has almost ten minutes of voice-over from Daniel Craig’s unnamed drug dealer before anyone actually speaks. The Matrix starts with voice-over from two people discussing the main character. The Oscar-nominated short (later expanded to a feature) Cashback is brimming with voice-over.

Are these movies wrong, somehow? Didn’t they work?

The ever-quotable agent Esmond Harmsworth once pointed out that mystery novels should always happen somewhere people want to go on vacation. They happen in Las Vegas, in London, or in the Florida Keys. However, in the same discussion he mentioned one or two manuscripts he was looking at that were set in small towns—but were good enough to overcome breaking that standard.

Your job as a writer is to know when you can break the rules, and by how much. Unfortunately, this is something that cannot be taught or quantified. You just have to learn through practice, the same way it took you a couple of years, a speeding ticket, and a few harsh warnings to figure out the exceptions to the speed limit. Anyone who ever gives you a checklist that says “Rule #3 can only be broken if conditions A, B, F, and Q have all been met” is lying to you. There will always be a clever new way of breaking rule #3 and getting away with it. Always.

The real trick is knowing you’ve actually found that way.

So… go write an exception to the rules.

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