[I]f you are going to break any of these prohibitions, know that they exist for a reason. Defying them is meaningful — an act of rebellion that says two things: one, “I don’t give a shit about your rules,” and two, “I am good enough to step on them and break their little bones.” Your contravention of expectation — your demand to be an exception — has to be one made of great effort and skill. Most prologues? They’re dogshit. That’s why everyone hates them, because people tack them on not because it’s essential to the tale but because they saw some other asshole do it and they thought, “I dunno, it’s a trope?” Like they’re checking a checkbox. People who overuse adverbs are frequently amateurs. People who start with weather do so not because the weather is essential to convey something about the plot, or the setting, or to lend us mood, but rather because the storyteller doesn’t know what the fuck to talk about. “I dunno — uhhh. The sun… is up? But a storm is… coming? Wait, is there supposed to be something relevant here?”
Do not ignore the prohibitions.
–Chuck Wendig on writing “rules”.
I see this a lot with people chafing under the “Hemingway/Stephen King Method”. Y’know, that whole thing about not using adverbs and not using dialogue tags other than “said” and only using short, clear sentences and whatnot, and then some bright spark will run Hemingway through Hemingway, and be all like, “Hah! See! Not even Hemingway follows his own advice therefore it’s totally fine for me to write about my main character screaming prettily in the prologue as she describes herself to herself in the mirror while outside the weather and–“
No. Stop. Just stop. That’s not what “rules” of writing are about. If you’re at that stage–the sneering, I’m-better-than-your-goddamn-rules stage–then I urge you, please. Take a step back. Look around. And breathe.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a much better writer than I am an artist. I do draw, and when I was a kid I wanted to be an animator (Back In The Day when Disney had a big studio is Sydney). But it’s never something I could pursue professionally now. Why?
Because I got stuck in the “screw your rules!” stage for too long. Fellow artists, you may recognise this stage as the “but it’s my style!” stage.
Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.
And here’s the thing. Because teen!me–hell, even early-twenties!me–was so busy defending “my style” from criticism that she forgot to take a step back and look at what was really going on. And what was really going on, was that I was spending too much time focusing on, well, style when I should’ve been focusing on substance.
Go watch a Disney cartoon sometime. One of the old 2D classics like The Lion King. Pretty stylised, right? I mean, neither lions nor baboons nor warthogs really look like that. But we know what they’re supposed to be. That’s the style.
Now go dig up some of the concept art that went into making that film. Disney sent all its artists to the zoo to sketch lions and lions and more lions for The Lion King. Those animators knew every bone in a lion’s body, every muscle, every way a mane could grow. They spent their ten thousand hours learning lions, and stacked it atop the previous ten thousand hours they’d done learning people and motion and lighting and whatever the hell else. And all that? That’s the substance.
And me, why I’m not an animator? Because I was too busy copying the former without thinking I needed the latter.
It was exacerbated because I’m not a terrible artist, so it was easy to lie to myself and pretend I didn’t need the foundations to build the house. A lot of art teachers over the years tried to push me in the right direction, but that’s something I can only see in retrospect. At the time, I was too busy hiding behind BUT IT’S MY STYLE to listen.
Those teachers knew I was never going to be an artist.
So it is with people who sneer at Writing Advice.
Because, look. I get it. Liesmith has a prologue. There are adverbs a-plenty on every page. As you may have figured out, I have tendencies towards em-dashes and complex sentence structure and stuttering dialogue that drives my editor mad. And once upon a time, in another life, I wrote an entire novel in second-person present tense (intercut with third-person past tense, which honestly probably doesn’t make the 2POV more excusable).
So I get it, I do. For every “rule” there’s a place you want to break it. Because IT’S YOUR STYLE, right?
In my late twenties, I started to buy digital art magazines. Concept art–like for videogames and whatnot–had suddenly become A Big Deal in the previous decade and finally, finally I’d found something that suited MY STYLE; a kind of borderland between the cartoonish and the real. Samwise Dider and Brom and Tony DiTerlizzi writ large. And finally, finally I started learning the craft I’d needed as a kid; bones and muscle, lighting and shadow, colour and composition. Within about twelve months of picking up my first few issues, I was, for the first time in my life, producing works that I was… actually kind of proud of? Even if I could see the flaws.
Actually, yeah; I could see the flaws. Learning to do that was new, too.
I’m still never going to be a Great Artist; I came at it all a bit too late for that. But I’m much better now than I was before, because I started paying attention to the bones of it. To The Rules. And, very slowly, that’s helping me to learn to see the difference between MY STYLE and “no, that’s just fucking bad“.
So, young writers, listen to The Rules. Run your work through Hemingway and pay attention to what it’s telling you. Has it found an adverb? Re-run the sentence without it. It sounds better, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, you can admit that here. It’s just you an me and, trust me, I’ve gone through this too. Because the trick is you don’t really need the adverb; the context lets us know Sarah is huffing frustratedly, we don’t need to repeat that. It’s okay to take it out. You put it in in the first draft because first drafts are rough and you over-write them. I know. Everyone does it (except when we’re under-writing them).
Or maybe you do need the adverb. Maybe there’s no other context to show what you’re trying to tell, and adding it in would just take up precious page space from the stuff that’s actually interesting. That’s fine too; the point is you made that conscious decision, weighed each option and chose the one that worked.
That’s the difference, that’s the foundation and the craft. It’s not easy and, no, you can’t do it by intuition or by feel.
You might fail at it, that’s true. But at least that failure will be conscious.
Learn the craft, and write to it. Write and write and write. Your style, your voice, will come later.
But you still need to foundations to build the house. So start building.