Let’s All Write the Same

I hope you realize I’m being facetious by suggesting all writers should write in the same way. However, I sometimes get the feeling that advocates of certain writing approaches think this outcome would be desirable.

I recently read a review that criticized a work for what it did NOT do, as if all works had, in fact, to do exactly the same thing. Now if the criticism was that the story did not have a likable protagonist or it did not have sufficient conflict or a central theme, then I would understand. These are things necessary to every story. But this was not the case.

Instead this criticism centered on a style. I’ll use an example. James Scott Bell, in his excellent book Plot & Structure advocates using the “three-act structure.” Does that mean this is the only structure a novel can follow?

Apparently some people believe so, religiously, to the point of criticizing any novel that dares to use a different structure as if it is inferior or deficient. The fact is, the three-act structure is one way of telling a story, but not the only way. James Bell himself says so:

Can You Play With Structure?
Of course. Once you understand why it works, you are free to use that understanding to fit your artistic purposes … So grasp the worth of structure, then write what you will.
– p. 24

Jim does go on to say that even in non-linear plots eventually the same elements and information found in a plot organized into three acts will also surface.

But what if a reviewer uses the three-act structure as his bible for The Way Stories Should Be, and he comes across a story like Lost Mission by Athol Dickson? Anyone reading the various posts during the CSFF Blog Tour for this book probably knows Athol did not follow the three-act structure.

And I suggest, the literary world is better for it. We’re better for books like George Bryan Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon, too, that creates “story movement” as John Truby calls it, through a means other than linear story telling.

My point is simply this: when an author is allowed to actually create, his work may be very different from some of the patterns advocated in writing instruction books. Truth is, it may be inaccessible, as I find A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be, no matter how acclaimed a writer James Joyce is. But it also might be brilliant and award winning (think, Gilead by Marianne Robinson) and wonderfully fresh and even wildly successful (think Harry Potter).

The alternative is for authors to put creativity aside and work exclusively within the cookie-cutter structure of screenplays. All books would soon become predictable (have you started noticing that the least likely suspect is almost always the culprit?) and characters, interchangeable.

The same is true of any other dearly held belief about writing. Some of the oft repeated writer advice—avoid an omniscient point of view, strip away all adverbs, don’t use “was,” kill off -ing words, and so on—ends up sterilizing writing. No longer does an author have a unique voice, a creative story, a fresh approach. Instead, it all needs to sound the same, only better.

I think the “only better” part is accurate. I’m taking issue with the hard and fast approaches that render fiction too much the same.

12 Comments

  1. I’m a firm believer that you have to know the rules in order to break them (sort of writer’s version of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development). I love reading different narrative styles: that’s part of what makes any book fun. Jeffery Overstreet’s style, for example, is beautifully poetic to the point that I often feel like I’m reading a painting (probably intentional, given the subject matter). But I certainly don’t want to everything to read like his books: I enjoyed A Star Curiously Singing, which wrote in first person present with a complete different narrative tone. Just like singers have different vocal qualities, so do authors have different styles.

    As for the writing advice, I tend to go with my earlier statement: know the rules so you can choose when to break them. Yes, people should not blindly follow any writing advice without seeing if it works (hence why grammar check has never caught on). To extend the singer’s analogy, though: while I can comfortably carry most hymns, I’m not about to tackle a solo public performance of the national anthem. I think I could eventually train to reach that point, but in order to really nail it would take lots of rote practice. In the same way, many writing rules are not about what can’t be done, but what is difficult to pull off. Too often traits like omniscient point of view, passive voice, or excessive adjectives are not part of an authentic style but merely the result of inexperienced or weak writing. That’s not to say they can’t be used effectively, but it takes a skilled hand who’s well-versed in the “dos” to truly pull off a “don’t.”

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  2. I so whole-heartedly agree, Becky. This post should be required reading for every nit-picky, religious, self-appointed judge of “quality” writing. Formula, formula, formula is BORING, BORING, BORING.

    One of the reasons I enjoy Travis Thrasher’s writing: he breaks all the rules. Refreshing.

    I break my share, too. Unapologetically.

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  3. I’ve shared this before, I think, on my blog: I used the Nangie list for editing my WIP, Scapegoat, and was absolutely ruthless. Then I took it to conference (CCWC), and met Bryan Davis there. He put back most of the -ly words I’d taken out of the first 3 pages. LOL…

    Gotta love it.

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  4. With apologies to Jerry Fletcher…

    That’s what they, they start when you’re young, y’know. When you’re first learning how to write they, they Browne and King all the beginners and they Donald Maass all the intermediates, and they, then they air condition ya’ and put ya’ in the Heat N’ Bake Oven and ya’ can’t breathe any more.

    With great respect for Browne, King, and Maass, who are all lovely and brilliant but who would be the first (second and third) to say, I’m sure, that their suggestions are not meant to be slavishly obeyed in the way some are in the habit of doing.

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  5. Bless you for bringing this up, Becky. My biggest concerns about the genre of Christian fiction used to be the low level of craftsmanship and the high level of propaganda. We’ve made huge progress in those two areas, but now I’m seeing a new problem. Most of the CBA novels I’ve tried to read the last few years have seemed to be cut from the same mold. It’s a good mold–the rules are rules because they work–but too much of any good thing becomes tiresome. Unfortunately, we have hundreds of new writers trying to break into the CBA who don’t realize this. They are working hard to learn the rules in their own work, and as Michelle already said in her comment above, that’s as it should be. One must understand a rule completely before one can break it with control and confidence. But because these new writers are still at the stage where they need to follow the entry level rules, they tend to judge all fiction on that basis.

    If everyone approached the creative process that way, painting would never have progressed beyond the rules of pictographs. What’s worse, hundreds of these aspiring authors blog about other people’s novels on that basis, thus they reinforce stagnation in the art form at a time when Christian fiction should be–and could be–at the cutting edge of literature. After all, our genre deals with the deepest and most vital themes. Now that we’ve conquered the craftsmanship and propaganda problems, we should be searching for new ways to express those vast ideas and celebrating groundbreaking novels which expand the limits of storytelling, not creating a culture that insists on squeezing every story into the same mold. The fact is, most great novels break the rules, and any novel that follows all the rules will quickly be forgotten.

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  6. Amen to that, Athol.

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  7. Part of the reason that many of us pick up a book to read is to gain a fresh new perspective in story-telling. I believe there is a market for simple straightforward story-telling, but this is essentially mindless entertainment to pass time for certain readers. Others of us want a challenge in a reading experience. Athol’s Lost Mission was indeed an interesting and exciting approach that didn’t just spoon-feed the readers what they might have wanted to hear, but instead raised questions and posed ideas that made readers think. Stylistically it was Athol’s writing voice and once I adapted to the style (which was very quickly into the book) I was hooked.

    As far as the “rules”, I don’t think anybody is absolutely in charge of the rules. In my thinking, the rule should be if the work is comprehensible, engaging, and it gets its ideas across effectively to the reader so that the reader can leave that reading experience having gained something and made better by the experience then any other rules can be negated. Unless the writing style is totally obtuse and annoying, I do not read a work to see if the author has followed all the “rules”.

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  8. Yes, I agree completely, There are many different ways to tell a story or write a novel and, sometimes, the most creative among us are creative in their distinct way of telling their tales

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  9. As an unpublished author trying to enter the market, it’s difficult. I think the message we are given is that we have to follow the mold. If we don’t our manuscripts will automatically get over-looked. Yet, I often hear agents say they want something “fresh”, “new”, “different”. What to do?

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  10. I have the third edition of Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. In it he acknowledges that his travels around the world have made hime realise that not all cultures find the hero’s journey a suitable template. He particularly mentions Australia, which he calls hero-phobic. We just tell stories in a different way.

    Americans are very good at mass production. When the sausage machine is turned on it pops out masses of identical sausages. We need to look at the “success” of CBA spec fiction in that light. Read one, read ’em all.

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  11. Great comments. I appreciate everyone’s input. You’ve really added to this discussion.

    Jessica, I think you voice the frustration of a lot of pre-pubbed authors. Perhaps this will need to be a blog topic of its own.

    Ken, even if the hero’s journey would be a suitable template for all cultures, I don’t think it’s the exclusive template of any. Yet that’s what some writers are apparently using as their standard for critique. I find fiction to be much broader, thankfully!

    In fact, I’d been working on my fantasy series for some time before I heard of the hero’s journey. I begin to look at my work wondering if I was or was not writing along those lines and wondering if I should try to follow that pattern or intentionally avoid it.

    I finally decided to ignore it. Never did finish reading past chapter 3 or so of Vogler.

    Becky

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  12. Thanks, Becky, I saw Athol’s comment on ACFW’s loop and just got over here to read your, as usual, wise words on the subject.

    And speaking of subject, do all novels have to be set in the southern US?

    Good news on the –ly words. 🙂

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