Friday, January 8, 2010

Rule 1: There is no rule 1.

I don't like rules. I certainly don't like formulas. For me, there's nothing worse than a movie or a novel so clearly following some "key-to-success" pattern that you might as well put up subtitles announcing "Act III twist" or "symbolic payoff" or "Epilogue." (Actually, didn't "The Man from UNCLE" used to do that?) There's only what works.

Now of course, there's certainly good advice. There are certainly good principles of plot construction or character development, especially in a mystery or a thriller, when you want to keep the story moving -- such as start each scene as late as possible and let the exposition take care of itself. I just object when I read books that tell me I should always, say, start a chapter with dialogue or always minimize narration. I repeat, there's only what works.

Take the famous rule that says readers want a murder to take place as early as possible in the book. A body certainly makes for a good start, and I've tended to stick to that. But there are plenty of great mysteries that let us see the victim alive, gauge his character, observe his interactions with all those people who'll be suspects once he's bumped off in chapter three. Or seven. Or nineteen. Sometimes it pays to see at first hand what kind of person caused someone to break the world's greatest taboo. I get to witness the altercations and arguments and threats first hand, not hear about them later.

And let's not forget the works that notoriously broke the rules. Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which the murderer gets away with it and becomes the "hero" of later novels. Or Hitchcock's Psycho, which killed off its star (rather memorably) less than halfway through the movie. They're the ones we still talk about. A book that's consistently placed in the top ten mysteries of all time, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, bears no resemblance to the formulaic mystery novel.

Learn the rules. Then ignore them, if it works better that way. (In that order.)

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