by Rachel Pastan
Last winter I sent a draft of a novel to a friend. She liked the book, so I was happy, and she had several useful suggestions for revision. One of her notes, though, took me by surprise. The novel, she said, was lacking something every novel needed: a kiss. Later, talking it over on the phone, she was adamant. It was a rule, she told me. The kiss rule.
At first I thought she was joking; then I decided she wasn’t. Now, months later, I still don’t know. Of course, one can think of many great novels without kisses—Moby -Dick comes to mind—but that doesn’t mean the rule is not a rule; it may be, merely, a rule with exceptions. Or it may be a personal credo like the late Elmore Leonard’s fabulous but largely idiosyncratic list of rules for writing fiction: Never open a book with weather. Avoid prologues. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This leads to a more general and important question: Does fiction have rules at all?
I can feel you (or perhaps my younger self) rushing in to say No, of course not! There are no rules in fiction, you can write however you want. You can switch point of view mid-sentence, do without dialogue, withhold information, write sentences that go on for pages, use footnotes, eschew paragraph breaks, offer several alternate endings—as long as you pull the things off. Whatever works.
Well, yes. Fair enough. I agree, more or less. Still, looking back at the preceding paragraph, it seems to me I’ve semi-advertently assembled a list of reasonable rules for fiction writing—rules that may have exceptions but are rules nonetheless. Rule one: Don’t change point of view mid-sentence (because your reader will likely get confused or experience vertigo). Rule two: Works of fiction contain conversations between and among characters. (“‘[A]nd what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’”) Rule three: Don’t withhold important information from your reader, at least not for too long.
A few years back I sent the manuscript of a new novel to my agent who was incredulous that I had, early on in the book, let it be known that the main character was keeping a secret from her father, and then the whole novel passed and she never told him. “Your character can’t keep a secret from her father for the whole novel!” he said. “In novels, secrets have to come out.”
As with the kiss comment, I was caught by surprise. Really? I thought. Isn’t that the obvious—the merely conventional—choice? Wouldn’t it be an interesting surprise to do it the other way for once and defy the reader’s expectations? Was the problem that I had kept the secret, or that I hadn’t pulled off the keeping of it? How could I tell?
Let me back up further and pose an even more general and important question: Why do we love stories? What is it about narrative that provides satisfaction, and what on the other hand leads to disappointment and frustration?
The history of literature has handed down to us time-honored, infinitely honed and polished genres—tragedy, comedy, romance, mystery, and their relatives—which is to say, forms of story telling that abide by certain rules. Tragedies end with a heap of bodies. Romantic comedies end with wedding bells. Murder mysteries end with the revelation of the killer’s identity. I sometimes think these forms reflect some physiological structure in the brain, a narrative hunger for specific forms that is inscribed in our DNA. Yet over time, writers, a restless bunch of experimenters and iconoclasts, have taken liberty after liberty with these rules, writing romantic stories in which the protagonists just drift apart, murder mysteries where the murder remain unsolved, rants, wanderings, stories with ragged edges like shattered mirrors, or that drift by like clouds. Is this progress? A misguided and doomed detour?
In writing workshops, we argue over what works and what doesn’t work. Sitting at the teaching end of the table, I do my best not only to tease out what doesn’t work in a piece of fiction but to offer guidelines (rules) for fiction writing that will help everyone in the room avoid time-wasting dead ends. Omit needless words (c/o Strunk and White). Let your characters contradict their own natures (but not too often). Be specific. (Ron Carlson doesn’t agree with Leonard that you shouldn’t open with the weather, but he offers this more tangible alternative to It was a dark and stormy night: “Lightning struck the fencepost.”) A story should cause its protagonist to change (or at least offer an opportunity for change, an open window on which the character may turn her back).
Of course at Bennington, where we team teach our workshops, one’s deeply considered and sincerely offered guidelines (rules) for fiction may be immediately contradicted by an equally authoritative voice from the other end of the table. Sometimes this is deeply irritating. Most of the time, though, it reifies the general truth of the situation, which is that each writer has to decide for himself not only what rules to follow, but even what the rules are.
I have always been a rule-abiding sort of person. I made the daughter’s secret come out in one novel, and I put a kiss into the next. That kiss led, as kisses will, to other things, and the novel became a slightly different kind of novel. I hope it’s a better one, but I’ll never know for sure.