Friday, February 17, 2012

Tinkering With the Rules

A few years back, I posted about a book written by Paul Harding titled tinkers (little 't'). It's a Pulitzer-winning, rule-breaking, fearless little book with an endorsement by Marilynne Robinson and a starred review by Publishers Weekly. It's the best example I've ever found of successful rule-bending. Here are some of his 'infractions':

  1. Multiple POV & tense changes. The kind that have you backtracking to figure out whose head you are in at the moment.
  2. Long sentences. I mean long. Stream-of-consciousness long. One sentence had 386 words and 30 commas. And two question marks, which did little to impede the sentence, since it did not actually come to a stop at either one.
  3. Lack of punctuation. I finally realized that the capitalized word in the sentence meant someone was speaking at that point, sans those helpful quotation marks.
  4. Sentence structure. Some had so many clauses that I forgot the point before the end.
  5. Non-sequential time travel. At least, it felt that way, with the main character's hallucinations transporting him back to his childhood and further, and back again.
  6. Long passages from a manual on clock repair. I understand that these were important to the story and paralleled his father's writings, but they began without warning. Just a slight indent of the paragraph.
  7. Slight overuse of a few favorite words. The words 'sibilant' and 'boreal' and 'arboreal' were used several times. I didn't have a problem with them (they are ethereal and slightly sensual) but they stood out because the words were distinctive, and most editors would have requested a word change.
Basically, I'm tickled pink that an author who was allowed to defy so many rules was awarded the Pulitzer, but I do see the wisdom in those rules. More than once, I had to step back from the story to orient myself. If the story's not compelling enough, a reader may feel it's too much like work and use the book as a doorstop.

Susie Finkbeiner raised a good point in her comments this week (thanks, Susie!). It is easier and more natural to break the rules when you're writing dialogue and when writing in first person. When you're in a character's head, you enter into a contract with him or her. There's an implied intimacy that allows for a natural flow of story. If the telling is stilted and proper, the story will not seem genuine, unless, of course, it's in keeping with the character's personality. I think this is why I prefer writing in first person. Short phrases, run-on sentences, dropped conjunctions - isn't this how we think in our heads? It's how we speak to intimate friends. At least, occasionally these are allowed in literature. Unless you have a Pulitzer on your hands, and then, anything goes.


Patti Hill said...

I just finished reading The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. He uses a dash to signal a line of dialogue, which worked great. The novel was beautiful, thoughtful, smart--very worthwhile.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh! A shout out! Thanks! :)

I started out as a playwright (I even have one of my little plays published somewhere in the world). Dialogue and first person is where I feel at home.

I do think that it's important that the reader can actually follow the writing. Our audience really is important. I read "House of Leaves" forever ago. It was so difficult to follow (the reader had to rotate the book to follow swirls of narrative) that it gave me a headache. But I didn't stop reading. The plot was so intriguing that I wanted to learn what would happen next.

Bonnie Grove said...

Great post, Debbie, as per your usual. :)

My favourite reads are the ones the world has, rather unkindly at times, labeled literary. I've just finished a book of O. Henry prize winning short stories (they publish this anthology annually, and I recommend it). I'm used to dialogue without quotation marks, and dialogue appearing in the middle of what looks like narrative summary (also without quotes).

One story I read (The Lover) told the story in third person and first person consecutively (meaning the narrator referred to the hero of the story as "he" and "me" at different times to great effect. Another (Obit) formatted the story like a newspaper article with two streams of story (in different POVs and covering different time periods) running down the page so that you read the right column to where the paragraph broke, then moved your eyes back up the page and read the left column which was about another character. But by the end of the story, the columns merged into a regular right to left filling the entire page stream of writing. Again, to great effect.

When I read works like these, ones that snap writing rules in two, I actually don't consider them 'rule breakers' because the writer is only patterning the story the way the story demands. They do it for the sake of the story, and the patterns, breaks, non-breaks, POV, etc., are purposeful. Much the way a poem might be arranged differently in order to convey a deeper meaning than can be found at first reading.

My great hope is that everyone will dive into "literature" at some point, and discover that deep water swimming isn't as disorientating as it first appears.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I picked up a book of poems by Robert Frost (not really a reader of poetry)and some of his later poems incorporated more dialogue. Snatches and bits of sentences, intriguing, brief. I felt I was eavesdropping on the couple. Instead of slowing me down, his lines propelled me forward and it all made sense in the end.
Rules-breakers unite!

Megan Sayer said...

Debbie I remember your post about Tinkers from's still on my TBR list, although I think it needs to be bumped up a bit closer to the top now : )

Bonnie my favourite reads are literary too. And I completely agree with your description of writing the way the story demands. Good description.

One of the craziest rule-breakers I've ever read was David Foster's The Glade Within The Grove, which told a story with a very large cast of characters in small chapters. Each chapter ended with a brief summation of the character, ie: Woody. 36. Ex-military. Married to Betty (deceased). Gradually though, as the book went along, those summations contained more specifics, ie: Woody. 36. Dishonorably discharged from Vietnam. Married to Betty (found murdered in bed).
The book ends on a massive cliff-hanger which leaves you flicking through the remaining blank pages wondering how the book can end in such a way, until you realise you actually know what happened next - it was revealed all the way along through those character summations.
Totally, totally amazing.

As is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which does my head in with its beauty.

Jan Cline said...

I would think that a book with all those infringements would mess with my focus. It becomes about the style and less about the actual story. It may be entertaining, but I'm afraid I would miss the point. Maybe that's just me.

Heather Marsten said...

I'm adding this to my to read list - I give the agent kudos for taking on a book that is that unusual. It had to have other things going for it - strong characters, good plot or something. Have a blessed day.

Marti Pieper said...

When I teach beginning writers, I tell them to follow the rules first. I think that--and lots of reading--is the way to know when you can break them.

Pulitzer Prizes notwithstanding.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Marti, I agree. And sometimes, from the publisher's standpoint, you have to 'earn' the right to break them. In other words, you have to prove you respect the rules.

DP said...

Hey ladies. All this proving you know the rules stuff, I don't buy it. Many award-winning novels, that were debut novels, broke many, many so-called rules of writing. What's the use of following the rules only to write a novel that sucks. My richest reading experiences have come from reading novels that, strangely enough, have broken the rules. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I don't think he ever followed any rules except his own. The Great Gatsby, I think Nick narrates a scene in which he is not even present. "The Lover" by Marguerite Duras (talk about breaking rules), in one paragraph you can find her writing in past, present and future tense. Sometimes if you want to get connected to your material these so-called rules can be like shackles at times. I say free yourself.