On Monastic Rules
Are there rules in writing fiction? It’s possible to err on both sides of the argument by extremism. Yes, there are many rules, such as “show, don’t tell”; don’t use clichés and redundancies; don’t do that, and do this and that. But there are no absolute guidebooks and recipes. True, formula fiction is guided by certain rules, but even there, some invention and violation of the rule can act as a surprise and bring the writing to a higher level and intensity.
And it’s fashionable to say that the only rule is that there are no rules. That sounds paradoxical and simple, yet it has been overused to the point of becoming a cliché, and can be used as an excuse for impulsive writing. Impulsive writing is worth trying out, don’t get me wrong. Everything is worth trying out—writing formulaically and according to many rules, and on the other end, writing wildly. Most often, the game of writing will fall somewhere in between. And while there are no absolute rules, there are various game plans, and games have their rules.
And there is one rule, for sure. Tell a story! No matter how much technological innovation there is in writing—with hypertext, and the possibility of including Web links, inserting graphics and charts—one thing remains the same: our thirst for story. Through many layers of different structures, most of us still want a story, with events, conflicts, themes, interesting connections. It’s usual to splice two stories together, use pictures, graphs, Web connections, to create a bazaar of possibilities, but nevertheless, somewhere in the whole structure, most of us still look for a story.
And I believe this is the golden rule: I understand you want to write? Then write! (Tolstoy’s answer to Turgenev who wanted to philosophize about the difficulty about writing fiction.) There’s hardly any other art form or sport that people profess so much desire to do as writing, yet they avoid doing it. It’s almost a Nike commercial. Just do it!