Chances are, if you sign up for one of the more practically-minded creative writing courses, read a ‘how to’ book on writing a novel, or seek advice from a literary consultancy such as the Writers’ Workshop, at least part of what you will get in return for your money are some rules. Rules, for example, that dictate what makes a story a story and not just a collection of events, or what separates a three-dimensional character from a flat cliché.
Indeed, on the Writers’ Workshop website there is a lot of free advice, and if you hunt around in it, you will find quite a few rules. For instance, there is some on points-of-view, that is, the perspective through which we view a scene, which is usually that of a character contained within it.
One particular rule is: ‘Don’t switch POVs [points-of-view] in the middle of a scene. If you start a scene with Mary, don’t end it with Tom.’ I like this rule. It helps to make the text coherent, brings a bit of space and air to proceedings, and stops your novel reading like it was written in 1876. It may not be of particular use to you if you are trying to write Naked Lunch 2, but if you are aiming for something reasonably commercial then, in my opinion, you could do a lot worse than follow it.
Another person who seems to like this rule is John le Carré, no doubt having discovered it after a visit to the Writers’ Workshop website. I was reading The Constant Gardener recently, and was struck by how rigidly he follows it (this is what literary consultancy work does to you after a while). Scenes begin with the point-of-view of one character. The scene or chapter ends. There may or may not be a change of point-of-view at the beginning of the next. Textbook.
Except. On p. 73, le Carré blatantly jumps from the point-of-view of Woodrow, the Head of Chancery at the British High Commission in Nairobi, to his wife Gloria, without the scene or chapter ending. Needless to say, I felt betrayed.
So what does this mean? Is it that le Carré should have stopped mucking about and being silly and put a line break in there? Or is the rule itself flawed, and much less a rule and more a gentle guideline that can be ignored whenever you feel like it?
The answer, I feel is this. The rule is generally good, and should be stuck to. But in that very particular instance, if le Carré had followed it, then he would have destroyed the rhythm of the scene, and it would have created a fracture when flow was needed. Because le Carré knows his craft, he knows that keeping tight control of his points-of-view aids him in creating the type of prose he needs in order to tell his stories. Yet he also knows that a writing rule is only a means to an end, and if occasionally the end is better met by ignoring the rule, then that is what he must do.
It reminds me of the Dogme 95 film movement. A group of Danish filmmakers produced a ‘vow of chastity’, in which they pledged to make films within a strict set of limitations (only using a handheld camera, all on location, only using found props and light sources etc.). Perhaps inevitably, however, the rules were, on occasion, broken. When challenged on this, I remember, one of the directors stated that the point of the rules was not that they should always be followed, but that they caused you to question why you were breaking them when you did.
Following good writing rules will make you a most competent author. When you reach the stage of knowing when to break them, and why you are doing it, then that may well be the moment you have become a good one.