Why readers could care less about writers and their rules
October 13, 2012
Something is not right here.
As a writer, I can find a hundred books that lay out rules for me to follow. Stuff like:
- Don’t start a book by describing the weather.
- Grab the reader in the first paragraph.
- Don’t jump from one point of view to another.
- Stay away from leading “ing” words.
- Despise adverbs.
- Make your dialogue realistic.
- Never stop a list at number six.
You know the drill.
But the thing about it is that most of these rules come from writers, authors who think they know they have an inside track on the rules, or would-be authors who would rather prescribe rules instead of writing fiction page by page.
So, I wonder what rules really matter to readers?
Does it bother readers if authors describe the weather in the first paragraph? Does it grate on readers’ nerves if it takes five pages for the action to kick in? Do they care if one section of a chapter shows the story from one perspective, then the next jumps into another character’s head? Does it matter if a sentence says, “Reclining on the sofa, he heard raindrops against the window and thought of the last day he saw her “?
My suspicion about such things is that over the course of the last two hundred years or so, rule makers have collected examples of successful writing, i.e., writing that was popular with readers, and super-imposed rules on them. They have done this to attempt to predict what future readers will like.
The argument is simple enough. If you write like a successful author wrote, you will be a successful author.
The problem is that it isn’t true.
No one can predict what sort of writing readers will fall in love with next.
Who knew it would be vampires or zombies or young adult books about wizards or a Christian allegory like The Shack?
The rule makers scoffed at all these.
But now they have incorporated examples of writing from these very books into their playbook.
So readers, let’s hear from you for a change.
What things annoy you in a book? How important is the first paragraph? Are there rules you judge books by or do you just want to read a good story?
Rule-weary writers would love to know.