From the moment we decide to take this writing gig seriously and actually start studying the art and working on our skill set we start hearing about rules. There are rules for just about everything in this life. The writing life is no different. There are RULES.
Most of us are familiar with some or most of them. Write what you know. Start in the middle of things (in medea res). Don’t use adverbs or adjectives. Don’t preach to your reader. Show, don’t tell. There are hundreds of them, depending on the type of writing you do. We’ve all seen them. We’ve built most of our writing lives around adhering to them. And that’s a good thing. The rules have become RULES because they are effective.
There is, however, one important addition we need to make to each and every rule of writing. We need to add an asterix to each of them, a footnote. The footnote would read: “Some exceptions may apply.”
This addendum was brought to mind as I read Gillian Flynn’s new novel Gone Girl. In this novel (which I really rather liked), Ms. Flynn breaks one of the cardinal rules, especially of mystery and thriller writing: Don’t withhold important information from the reader.
An example: halfway through your novel, your hero and his love interest are fleeing from the bad guys and hole up in a mountain cabin, where they find a loaded hunting rifle. As the bad guys close in through the woods, you (the author) reveal that your hero used to be a military sniper.
“Wait!” your reader cries out. “That isn’t fair. You never mentioned he was a sniper. You just put that in to get him out of the situation.”
And it does look like the author just added that trait in order to get the hero out of a bad situation. That’s why the rule says we shouldn’t do that. Probably ninety-five out of a hundred times, the rule is absolutely correct.
But then there is the other five percent.
Sometimes, someone comes along with an idea or a talent good enough to bend and break the rules. Sometimes, it works.
***Warning. Some spoilers follow. If you still intend to read the novel Gone Girl, you may want to stop now.***
In Gone Girl, Ms. Flynn tells the story through two narrators, husband and wife, through alternating chapters. In the first chapter, told from the husband’s point of view, his wife disappears from their home. There are signs of a struggle and he naturally falls under suspicion.
His chapters follow his emotional battle as more and more evidence seems to point to him killing his wife. We begin to sympathize with him.
The wife’s chapters are in the form of diary entries beginning when they first met. They depict a somewhat naïve young woman, watching helplessly as her marriage begins to fall apart. We sympathize with her,
Now here’s where she plays with the rules. The husband is at his sister’s, helpless as the evidence closes in on him, when there’s a knock at the door he answers and there stands “Andie, his mistress.” End of chapter.
There had been no mention of a mistress before, no hint of infidelity on the part of either him or his wife before that point. By all the rules of authorial honesty, this is dishonest as can be. Yet it works.
What it does is make the reader lose sympathy with the husband. It paints him as a liar and a cheat. Something happened to his wife, the reader thinks, maybe he did kill her. Sympathy switches to his wife.
Shortly after, Ms. Flynn does it again. The wife, in her chapter, admits that not only did she fake her abduction, but she purposely framed her husband for her murder. Why? As revenge for his affair. What’s more, the diary entries from the early pages of the novel were completely fabricated to be used as evidence against her husband.
Again, she has broken the rule about giving all information the reader needs up front. But again, it works. Instead of making the reader distrust the author and give up on the novel, it works to characterize the twin narrators of her novel. Neither end up very trustworthy. Neither end up terribly likeable. The reader doesn’t object to this because it came from the characters and, as we all know, sometimes people can be quite dishonest.
What Ms. Flynn demonstrates is that every rule is somewhat flexible. If you have enough talent and the right story, you can ignore the rules. The problem is that very few of us have that kind of talent. The skill is in being honestly able to measure our own abilities.
I think there is nothing lost in trying to work a scene outside the rules. If it works, terrific. But, if it doesn’t work, if it comes out as badly as most scenes do outside the rules, we have to be disciplined enough to admit it and re-write the scene.
We have to be professional enough to judge what works and what doesn’t in our own fiction. Because that’s what it comes down to. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t work, do it over.
The rules just help us get there.