I’ve been considering ‘rules of writing’… at the end of the day and when all’s said and done (I’ve just broken one of the universal rules of writing ‘avoid clichés‘!) you are your own writer and you make your own rules – but it is very useful to look at the way people you admire write, people who are generally respected write, and people who are successful write.
You may have your own rules – and you might be quite rigid with them, or quite lax, but it is worth considering what masters of the craft suggest.
Here are two very contrasting sets of writers’ rules:
First, Annie Proulx who has deservedly won many major literary prizes including the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Orange Award etc. Her rules are looking at producing the best, most perfect piece of writing that you can, to polish and perfect, to work and rework and be the most critical critic your work will ever receive. Her rules are for the techniques of what she describes as good craftsmanship:
- Proceed slowly and take care.
- To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand.
- Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.
- Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading.
- Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/page/story/chapter
For many of us this would mean that we would never ever finish everything – for those of us with terrible handwriting, or who hand-write very slowly, the end would never be in sight. However surely we should aim to ‘take care‘, to learn through ‘wide reading‘ and to ‘rewrite and edit‘ to the best of our ability.
In complete contrast, and definitely with a very different audience in mind, is Billy Wilder. Maybe he is not well-known, or even known by younger people, but every film-buff will know and appreciate his great films Ninotchka, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch, The Spirit of St. Louis, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment and Irma la Douce – and that’s only a tiny selection! He gave a lot of advice, a lot of insight into how he was able to produce successful film after successful film… and here is just a selection of his thoughts:Well, here are some of Wilder’s screenwriting tips:
- The audience is fickle.
- Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
- Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
- Know where you’re going.
- The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
- If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
- A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
- In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
- The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
- The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.
Wilder is writing about film but his rules apply to fiction (and some non-fiction too) – here is our interpretation of film writing rules for other writing
- there are so many books to read, so many other things to do, don’t let your reader put your book down and move on to something else
- your beginning has to engage your reader and keep them reading
- your main character (or characters) must be consistent and true to themselves
- know where the story is going (this maybe only when it is complete and you are working on it – you must have a clear path you are following)
- make sure everything is there so the reader will understand what’s happened in the end – but as Wilder says, be subtle, hidden in plain sight!
- if you’re struggling in one part of your story – the roots of the problem maybe in a different earlier part
- don’t be pedantic, don’t explain every little thing in minute detail
- show don’t tell
- sometimes the seeds of the conclusion are rooted in a much earlier part of the story (if they’re not, but just windblown into the conclusion your reader will not be happy!)
- the conclusion of your story must be satisfactory – it mustn’t just end as if you’re fed up writing/have run out of ideas/have run out of time. Once everything is concluded, tie the ends up nicely but don’t bore the reader with a long and unnecessary epilogue
© Lois Elsden 2017
Here is a link to Lois’s books, including her how to guide – ‘So You Want To Write‘ and our own anthology “The Moving Dragons Write’