Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Walking the High Wire and Other Novel Techniques

I really enjoyed Debbie's post on Monday about artistic license in story structure, and I enjoyed the several comments to the post. Katy said, "I love it when authors walk the high wire." I love the image that conjures, because, really, don't we all feel like we're working without a net from the first sentence we write to the last, every time we write a novel?
Nicole said, "Rules were made to be broken in my world." We've all heard that saying, of course, along with the caveat that you must know the rules in order to break them. And I completely agree on both counts. But Nicole goes on to say, "If (emphasis mine) the story works, bravo to the one who told it in a different way."
Ah, therein lies the rub.
Because in taking artistic license, we take the chance that it won't work. And not simply that it won't work, but that it could fail miserably, and do so even before it gets past the pub committee.
And then there are the copycats who think "because a long, rambling letter worked for Marilyn Robinson, it'll work for me." Well, probably not. Because the whole idea is to be unique in our breaking of the rules. And once it's done, it's old news. That's not to say another novel written in the form of a letter can't work, and work well; it just means it must break the new rules established by the former rule breaker. See how complicated this becomes? Yet, what's the alternative? Tried and true, safe, ho-hum fiction, of which there's already for more than enough in the world.
Humorist Chris Dunmire writes, "A rule is 1) A guide or principle for governing action; 2) The usual way of doing something ... While guides and principles are in place for good reason, 'the usual way of doing something' as a rule in your creative work is flexible and open to change."
We must know the difference. A novel written entirely without punctuation breaks point #1 above, to no end. But a novel written as notes between a mother and daughter, left on a refrigerator door, that doesn't just skirt the 'usual way of doing something,' it annihilates it in a most remarkable -- and useful -- way.
Bonnie makes a good point that a "nontraditional structured novel ... needs to adhere to the other aspects of traditional novels -- story arc, character development, and a rich, well-drawn ending." Sort of a breaking-the-rules-while-staying-within-the-rules idea. But none of those elements need to be sacrificed for the sake of creative license. In fact, they must not be.
Had I known all this, I'd have become a novel writer with fear and trembling. Strike that; I would not have become a novel writer at all. I'd have, I don't know, gone into something simpler instead, like black widow spider poison extraction. But you know what they say, ignorance is bliss.
The bottom line is this: successfully breaking the rules in fiction quite often leads to the success of the novel. Or at the very least, it makes the piece memorable. If that's what we're after -- creating successful and memorable books -- we need to do all we can to avoid the usual way of going about it. As we listen to that still small voice, coming from the One who had the power to speak His creative thoughts into existence, we just may find the creative license to take us successfully way, way outside the lines.
Would you take a moment to respond to this impromptu, non-scientific poll? All you need do is post the letter A or B under "Comments." (But feel free to share your thoughts if you have time.)
A. I prefer a novel that follows a more traditional format as opposed to one that experiments with the rules.

B. I prefer a novel that breaks the rules. Even if it misses the mark, I'm willing to stick with it to the end.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"Therein lies the rub." A misquote from Shakespeare's Hamlet.

"Devoutly to be wish'd
To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream
ay, there's the rub (defined snag or obstacle)
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause; there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;"


Andy said...


Andy said...

And I repeat, B., but with the understanding that breaking the rules is always more effectively done by someone who can wield them skillfully to begin with. Children composing songs on the piano break all the rules, but it doesn't make their music brilliant, just adorable.

Carla Gade said...

Do I hear a "C" anyone? LOL!

I generally like A - traditonal novel, but I like it when there's a little mix in there occasionally. A diary excerpt, a newspaper clipping, etc. But I suppose those have been done often enough that they still fit into the traditional category.

I'm not opposed to B - breaking the rules, on occasion. Though I must agree with Andy, the author must have a handle on writing skillfully in the first place or it will fall to pieces. I am not one to stick with a book if it doesn't suit my taste within the first several chapters.

Carla Gade said...

P.S. Sometimes "too much" creativity can be a distraction.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I would have to say B, as long as the rule breaking is complementary to the subject matter. I would think contemporary stories would suit this much better than historicals would, but it might be interesting to find out.

Lori Benton said...

A, but sometimes B. For most of my reading I prefer the traditional novel structure, but now and then I like to try something different. Either a small twist on the classic structure or something dramatically outside the box. And I'd guess that about half of those books I love, and half I never finish.

"Had I known all this, I'd have become a novel writer with fear and trembling. Strike that; I would not have become a novel writer at all.... But you know what they say, ignorance is bliss."

Oh boy. I've often thought this too.

Bonnie Grove said...

I thought about this before I pushed the "B" button - and not just because "B is for Bonnie".

I spent time thinking about the fiction books I've read in the past two years. Only one of them can be rightly classified within genre writing. All the others are those wonderful books that defy classification (and therefore are dumped into the faithful "literary" classification - where is the justice in that? No one even knows what that word means anymore).

Out of the books I've read, the stand outs have been novels such as Gilead, Life of Pi, Running in the Family (okay - it's a memoir, but it counts. Read it to find out why), and the mountain of literary short fiction I devour while I'm writing a novel (I don't read novels while I am writing a novel, but I do read short fiction. I save my novel reading for in between projects so I can give them the attention they deserve).
I also read fiction that comes straight out of the middle east and India (translations of course - but not Westernized stuff like The Kite Runner - a book I didn't finish because the plot was so painfully obvious even if the writing was good)

Well, I see I've gone on a long road here in this comment. Oops.
I should leave this to less verbose folks.

Let me just say, that in the mix of my reading in the past two years, there have been traditionally written books that stand out because the premise is so compelling and the writing so engaging that I dove in with both eyes.
But "B" is the stuff that made my heart go pitter-pat.

Steve G said...

D - All of the aBove... no wait, Andy took my letter. Hmmmm....
I vote B (for Bonnie too!) Bcause I like stuff that is just a little Bit different, B it novels or woodworking projects. That's why I like Sci-Fi and Fantasy stuff like Eddings and Lawhead. And it still has to be decent writing. There are Bad Books, decent Books and great Books. I like Both Decent and Great Books (not every hit off the Bat is a home run!).

Nikole Hahn said...

A & B

I like books that break the rules and if the story is interesting I'll keep at it until the end. However, I do like traditional stories formatting, too.

I am writing a novella on my webpage called, "The Journal of a Mad Woman." It is not traditional in format. It is not new either I suppose. It is broken up into chapters with subheadings as if this was Jane's journal. It is also wades into the traditional format by having dialogue in it.

Nicole said...

I guess I'd go with Carla: C. Both. I'm not opposed to traditional, but I love the rule breaker because it shows that creativity does not need to be constricted unnecessarily.
But, folks, I include rule breaking within the writing itself. And I wholeheartedly agree one must definitely know the rules to break them. Otherwise it shows up as ignorance. But sanitized writing adhering to a strict regimen of writing rules feels dry to me.

Patti Hill said...

I pick J for jealous. I read a book like Time Traveler's Wife or Life of Pi, and I am egregiously jealous of the the authors' freedom--and creativity. Don't email me. Jesus knows. I'm working on being grateful for the brain God gave me.

Word Verification: "orock," a rock of Irish descent.

Katie Ganshert said...

Oh, that's a hard one! I guess A, usually. But B, with a slight change. I won't stick with it if it doesn't that goes for both A and B, actually. If it doesn't work, I'm not the type to stick with a book. I drop it and move on to the next.

Latayne C Scott said...

I surely do hope people like -- and will stick with-- a risky-type novel I'm writing right now. I've never heard of a novel being structured on the basis that I'm using.

Like Bonnie in a previous post, I'm having to stifle myself about saying too much.

Hold on, everybody -- we're in for a wild ride!

Latayne C Scott

Kathleen Popa said...

I'm blown away by Latayne's writing, and can assure you all that whatever rule she does or doesn't break in her next novel, the result will be magnificent.

I definitely vote B.