The First Commandment of Writing

I just finished reading a dozen chapters of a book online. It wasn’t bad, merely boring; it read like a synopsis rather than a fleshed out novel. Several people left her comments explaining how to improve her writing, and to each she responded, “This is the way I write.”

She seems to be perfectly content in her little world, writing her little book for her online friends. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, we can all write the way we want. We can mix genres; we can have long rambling discourses and internal monologues; we can show off our dazzling knowledge in great passages of exposition. After all, we are the masters of our story universe.

We can do whatever we please. Unless, of course, we want to be published. If so, there are certain conventions to which we must adhere. The novel must have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. There must be a protagonist and an antagonist. There must be conflict between the two of them. There must be enough twists and turns to keep the reader interested.

Readers have certain expectations, and they have a right to have them met. Sure, we can write however and whatever we please, but if we want a wide readership, we must consider the reader. And the first commandment of writing is “Thou shalt not bore thy reader.”

8 Responses to “The First Commandment of Writing”

  1. nomananisland Says:

    I don’t think you always need an antagonist. I certainly have one, but a lot of good books don’t have any. Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, (I think that’s right), The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Sawyer, The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies, Who has Seen the Wind… There is certainly conflict, but not necessarily between characters. Sometimes there’s not even a protagonist, but instead an ensemble cast.

    And I would debate the “recognizable” beginning, middle and end. I can think of several stories that drop you down in the middle, and fill in the blanks later. I’ve known stories that don’t properly end, but give you the sense that more is happening off the page. Robert Heinlein and Stephen King build interlocking worlds with their books, so that the story goes on even if characters and settings change.

    I agree with “thou shalt not bore thy reader.” But there are lots of different readers, and lots of different books than conventional mainstream ones.

  2. Bertram Says:

    Without conflict, there is no story. Without an antagonist, there is no conflict. But the antagonist does not have to be human. In “The Old Man and the Sea” it was a fish. In “The Perfect Storm,” it was the weather.

  3. nomananisland Says:

    Your phrasing seemed to imply actual characters fulfilling the roles of protagonist and antagonist, thank you for elaborating. The root of both words, “agony,” basically means conflict or struggle. One who goes through the struggle, and the opposing force.

    But I would debate the “without conflict, there is no story.” Because “The Night before Christmas” is a story about Santa, but he’s not in conflict with anyone. You could stretch your definition to include the dad looking to “see what was the matter” and resolving the problem by discovering ST. Nick, or you could just say it’s a cute story. I can tell you a story about what I did yesterday, but there wasn’t any conflict in it. Stories are accounts of events, and not all events involve conflict.

    You’re making broad general statements, and there are always exceptions. The thing to concentrate on is “thou shalt not bore thy reader” and then finding interesting ways to relate the events you want them to read. And sometimes, the best way to not bore people is to defy convention, not to codify it and treat it like it’s holy.

  4. Suzanne Francis Says:

    For a unpublished writer, the surest and probably only way to a three book deal is to FOLLOW the rules. Not slavishly, but with enough diligence not scare anyone off. We can all quote examples of great novels that were avant garde in some way or another, but were they the product of a previously unpublished author? Most likely they were written by someone with an established readership, and someone the publisher would be willing to go out on a limb for.
    I am thinking of Samuel Delany, a marvelous author of several quite non-traditional novels, “Dhalgren” being the best known. But he cut his publishing teeth on very trad sci-fi stuff. Or how about Jack Kerouac? Brilliant, unconventional–but he wrote an ordinary novel before coming out with “On the Road.” Contrast “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce with “Finnegan’s Wake” (the mother of all unconventional narratives–never gotten through it myself, though I have tried a few times) produced over twenty years later.
    Bottom line–write that weird novel, but don’t expect to get it published until you have made a name for yourself. It is still worth doing IMHO, because you can learn a lot from breaking the rules and seeing what works for you.

  5. nomananisland Says:

    I’m not disagreeing with the idea that you need to follow the rules to get published. I was just saying that the same conventions for publishing don’t necessarily reflect good stories, or what readers even want. They’re the rules of an established group, but just because it’s traditional and established, that doesn’t make it automatically good or worthwhile.

  6. Suzanne Francis Says:

    What conventions in publishing reflect– the exigencies of the business world, and the book-buying public’s irrational fear of anything they haven’t seen before. You are right, it doesn’t necessarily make for good or worthwhile stories, just money-making ones.

  7. Austin West Says:

    Okay guys it depends on the audience a person is appealing to on whether or not she has the right hooks or not but what do i know i am 14 and was looking stuff up about The Old Man and the Sea and this popped up but seriously, does it even matter? who cares about all this? you actually came publically to discuss this? ha! i find that almost Hilarious.

  8. Bertram Says:

    Hilarious? Possibly. But it does matter.

    What’s more important to discuss than writing?

    Politics? Without writers, politicians would be speechless.

    Celebrities? Without scripts and scripted sound bytes, they’d be as lumber-tongued as the rest of us.

    Social ills and climate changes? Without writing, who would be aware of them?

    Movies? Without writers, movies would be nothing more than demolition derbies.

    Music? Without writers, there would be no song.

    The Internet, instant messaging, email? Without the ability to write, none of those would be of any use.

    And without writers, there would be no novels, and hence no way to delve into what makes us human beings.

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