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  • Maddy Rain

A Conversation on Creative Writing Rules

Technically speaking, there are no "rules" when it comes to writing creatively. There are some standard suggestions about traps to avoid as taking those kind of risks when you're first starting out are ill advised. So, when your creative writing teacher or a writer tells you "never do this," it probably means: "don't do this until you know how to do it well."

With that in mind, I'm going to go over some more technical "rules" I've learned in my studies of writing. If you are breaking any of these rules in your own writing, I would ask that you consider taking a closer look at that piece and ask yourself, is this working?

  1. Deus Ex Machina (God in the Machine)

Your hero is up against a wall -- literal or metaphorical --- and her enemies are closing in. All hope is lost. There is no way she can get out of here alive. But wait, what's that? Is that her reinforcements coming in to swoop her up and save the day just in the nick of time.

The problem with using this technique is that it can come off as lazy writing. As if you as the writer didn't know how to get your hero out of the situation other than to make something that breaks your own rules you've established in your world.

You are the god of the world you create. So, you can do anything you want to do with your piece. However, as far as it is between you and your readers, you have entered into a contract with your reader from the second they open your book or started reading your short story. This contract says, I know what I'm about to read is untrue but I will treat these words as if they are truth as long as you can convince me they are. But this is all an illusion and if you break the rules you established for your world, the reader will not be able to suspend their disbelief.

Also, by using deus ex machina, you are cheating yourself out of a cool opportunity for character development. What if her back is against the wall and she is forced to surrender. Your unbeatable hero has finally faced a challenge she cannot win. What does this do to your character emotionally? What will she do now?

2. Consistency

No matter what type of writing you do, consistency is vital. In your narrative world, you have to establish the rules and the patterns. This is your way of "training" the reader to expect certain things in your work. It helps you build trust with the reader so that when you do something unexpected, they will believe that you have the follow-through to finish what you started.

When I talk about consistency, I mean things like try to keep chapters or scenes about the same length. It helps your readers get into the flow more easily. It also means if you are using a literary technique such as an unusual form or multiple perspectives, it'll help the reader follow along better when they know what to expect.

Another cool thing about being consistent is that when you break this pattern, it'll immediately signal to the user that something is up. They will be hypervigilant as to why the pattern was broken. Which can be bad if you didn't intend to do it but if you do it on purpose, it's a nod to the intelligence of the reader that you expect them to be paying attention. This also works with things like continuity.

For instance, take Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data cannot use contractions. So, let's say in the middle of episode he says "can't" and the characters don't notice, but you do. Of course, this could have been an accident and they didn't catch it in editing. But, what if later in the episode you find out that that wasn't Data at all, it was his brother Lore pretending to be him. You the viewer noticed it because of that break in inconsistency.

3. Show Don't Tell

Now, if you've ever taken a creative writing class, this is something they probably hit you over the head with. I know that you get it but it is an important rule. Would you rather hear in a summary paragraph that this awesome battle took place off-screen or see it happen? Of course it would be far more interesting if you could see it happen. However, there are times when you should probably tell instead of show. You can't show every moment in your story.

So, how do you know which scenes you should show in scene and which you should tell about using summary time? Unfortunately, there isn't a clear cut answer. Ask yourself, is this moment important to the overall story? To know if something is important, if written out as a scene it must do one of three things:

  • Advance the plot

  • Reveal character

  • Establish conflict

Now, once you've established whether or not you need to write it as a scene, you need to figure out whether or not that has to happen now or if you should show the reader the reader what happened later at a different point of the story. Maybe this scene isn't relevant yet and for now, it would be best to summarize your character had a conversation. Then, later in flashback reveal what was said for dramatic effect. This, of course, can be tricky. Be careful when employing this technique because you don't want to withhold information just because you can. It needs to be meaningful.

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