This is from and interview with Robert McKee. Good guy to know about if you're interested in storytelling.
quote: Q: Are there "ground rules" for creating the inciting incident?
Robert McKee: The term "ground rules" is inappropriate when talking about any aspect of writing, Inciting Incident included. As I've said many times: Art forms have no rules; all art is guided by principles. Rules are rigid. They say, "You must do it this way!" Principles are flexible. They say, "This form underlies the nature of the art and is conventional in practice. However, it may be bent, broken, hidden or turned upside down to serve unconventional uses that may enhance the telling." Rules are objective applications that require no feeling for the story's characters or events; their use is justified by their traditional function and their comfortable familiarity to the audience/readers. Principles require a deeply subjective understanding of a technique's effect forward and backward along the timeline of a story's events. A principle guides the writer's use of his materials - motivations, characterizations, coincidences, settings, flash-backs/flash-forwards, set-ups/pay-offs and the like - in terms of their effect on both characters and audience/readers. A rule is microscopic; a principle is macroscopic.
I do not stick to rules (except grammatical, for the most part) or preconceptions of what is a short story (except my understanding of something happening to a character who is changed thereby).
However, readers do. And editors do. And many conference-attending, writing text-studying, school-taught aspiring writers do. And their expectations, I believe appropriately, determine "what is a story." 'Majority rules', after all.
Meeting their expectations may result in stories like stacked cans of soup on grocery store shelves, but these cans are what sell.
I think my stuff is relegated to the Farmer's market set up in shed along fellow New Englander Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken". Oddly, I am actually okay with this.
I had the opportunity to ask the editor-in-chief of a pro genre mag (SFWA qualified, award winning) about his view on the rules of writing. He said he doesn't pay any attention to them at all. Just tell a good story.
So at least there's one editor that doesn't care about the rules. I'll bet there are a few more that fall into this camp. The real question is whether the slushers follow the same guidelines.
(Forgive my failure to reveal, but I don't have explicit permission to do so.)
Posts: 1993 | Registered: Jul 2009
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Why write at all? For the big bucks? For the glory? Statistically these are just not rational reasons to write. Even if you can make a living off of writing, unless you're the very, very rare Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, chances are you could make a much easier living applying your talents to some other pursuit.
The reasons you write are personal. The reason I tried my hand at writing was one night I had a dream -- a moving, symbol-laden dream -- that convinced me I ought to try my hand at it. But that's no reason to keep spending my spare time at it. What keeps me going is curiosity: How does this stuff work? Why does it work?
So when confronted with a "rule", my knee-jerk reaction is to see if I can break it and get away with it. When you break a rule of thumb and get away with it, you've gained some insight into the principle behind that rule. Once you understand the principle, you can follow the rule of thumb as a matter of routine, breaking it where you think that would be more effective.
Perhaps some people's reasons for writing are consistent with following rules and adhering to formulas from reliable sources. And that's fine by me; their reasons for writing are just as important to them as mine re to me. But it doesn't work for me.
You have to define success for yourself and if your definition of success is personal to you, the rules you follow to achieve success also are personal to you.
Posts: 1459 | Registered: Dec 2010
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In Robert McKee's interview I see similar vernacular to mine, though his is script writing and mine is prose. We have a few differing terms related to dramatic complication; otherwise, our writing lexicons are strikingly alike.
Posts: 6037 | Registered: Jun 2008
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I believe that a lot of these "rules" editors give are usually short cuts and crutches some writers use that start annoying editors when they come across them over and over again. Editors sometimes see these as red flags indicating that the writer needs to develop a little more skill before they are at a publishable level.
Of course writers can, and should, break the rules when it is what is best for the story. Going out of the way to avoid breaking them can weaken the story as much as relying too heavily on them. The key is to break them thoughtfully, and only when it best serves the story, and not because it is easier for you to write it that way.
Posts: 1102 | Registered: May 2009
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I didn't read the full article yet, but as many of you know this is what I've been saying for years.
And, with immeasurable respect and considerable affection, I must disagree with you Dr. Bob. At least partially, and especially about readers. Most readers don't even know the "rules" of writing. All they know is what they enjoy and there are, I believe, sizable numbers of people who enjoy just about every type style and structure of writing there is.
Editors are a little different. I think many many editors do have a thing about "rules", but it isn't some universally accepted set, it's their own rules which, in the end, boil down to opinions and preferences just like with readers. And then as genevieve points out, there are some that don't bother to even put it in that kind of context and come right out and say they don't care about "rules" they just want a "good story" (which is to say, one they like and wish to publish.)
This is shown by the fact that there is so much diversity in what gets published. If you look at assorted different short fiction markets, they all have their tendencies, and many of them publish a lot of stuff that totally flies in the face of many of the "rules" we hear a lot about here. Others do seem to follow them. In the end its a matter of preference.
More so than rules, there are trends. Trends that some people, including editors and like, sometimes come to see as the definition of a "good" story. But, they change over time and I think as MAP says often have a lot to do with stuff that editors see too much of and simply get tired of. So in a way I think the trends tend to eventually end themselves as the next big thing that some consider the only way to write a story becomes cliché and overused. Also there are often multiple trends going on at the same time such that, again, you can usually find an audience for just about anything you choose to write.
What MattLeo says is very true also. Why we write is ultimately very personal, even if you do seek to make a living at it etc, given how hard it is to do so there is going to be some deeper reason beyond that involved. And I think even if you do have breaking in and really making it financially in the business as a major goal keeping those personal reasons and staying true to them is important...and also, isn't really going to hinder you. I believe, in the end, that its mostly a matter of putting the right thing on the right person's desk.
Of course we all, myself included, think about how to make our writing more marketable and I think an awareness of current trends and points of view and a willingness to work those in to your writing is a good thing, but it must be a balance. I don't think most famous authors got there by slavishly "writing to market"....in fact I remember seeing an interview with Clive Barker where he said he simply wrote whatever he wanted and paid no attention at all to what was "in" or anything of that sort. In the end, I think its best to learn about storytelling principles and they why behind the existence of various ideas, opinions and "rules" but in the end, your story should make its own rules for itself.
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What I think is interesting is that these "rules" very somewhat by genre and locale. Obviously not very settled science if it takes so little to alter.
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