Where do these writing rules come from?!

Posted by Shannon Haddock on June 6, 2015 in Rants, Uncategorized |
English: Cover of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy...

English: Cover of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, published 1908. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I decided to try to “workshop” the first paragraph of No More Lies, mostly out of curiosity, and because I was a little uncertain about one line.  The last time I did something like this, all I got was something about how I didn’t need to italicize the character’s direct thoughts.  This time though . . . I must’ve missed a memo.  All books must start with action now.  Right from the start.  First paragraph, something’s got to happen.  It doesn’t have to be dangerous, but something has to be happening.  (And apparently a character tuning an instrument while thinking about how badly he needs the vacation he’s on isn’t something happening.)

I present the opening paragraphs of three of my favorite books, three I’ve read again and again and again.  Tell me, where is the action in these?:

“The Lives of the Senior Member of the Howard Families (Woodrow Wilson Smith; Ernest Gibbons; Captain Aaron Sheffield; Lazarus Long; “Happy” Daze; His Serenity Seraphin the Younger, Supreme High Priest of the One God in All His Aspects and Arbiter Below and Above; Proscribed Prisoner No. 83M2742; Mr. Justice Lenox; Corporal Ted Bronson; Dr. Lafe Hubert; and others), Oldest Member of the Human Race. This Account is based principally on the Senior’s Own Words as recorded at many times and places and especially at the Howard Rejuvenation Clinic and at the Executive Palace in New Rome on Secundus in Year 2053 After the Great Diaspora (Gregorian Year 4272 of Old Home Terra)—and supplemented by letters and by eyewitness accounts, the whole then arranged, collated, condensed, and (where possible) reconciled with official records and contemporary histories, as directed by the Howard Foundation Trustees and executed by the Howard Archivist Emeritus. The result is of unique historical importance despite the Archivist’s decision to leave in blatant falsehoods, self-serving allegations, and many amoral anecdotes not suitable for young persons.”


Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

“Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little

stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.”


Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

You’d be hard-pressed to find a book I love that isn’t an action-adventure story that does start with action.  And don’t give me that “But that’s not what modern books do!” crap, because The Name of the Wind starts with a cryptic statement about a silence of three parts, Game of Thrones starts with dialogue, fuck, even Twilight starts with somebody’s thoughts!  (And the first paragraph manages to make it sound interesting, which is an amazing feat.)  Hell, nothing happens in the first paragraph of the motherfucking Harry Potter series!  You go tell Ms. Rowling she’s not hooking readers.  I’m pretty sure she’s too polite to laugh at you.  But she might snark at you.

There is no magic formula to what makes a good beginning.  Make it interesting, and what exactly that means will be different to different readers.

But, I think this is really just another manifestation of that fucking thing lately where all books have to have, as someone I know called it, thriller pacing.  Every goddamned book, regardless of genre, has to keep you on the edge of your seat, never knowing what’s going to happen next because everything has to have twenty billion plot twists (that don’t need to make logical sense; it’s enough that they exist), never knowing who’s going to live or die, never a second to take a breath.  Fuck that shit.  If you can’t wait one hundred fucking words for some goddamned action, then you aren’t going to like my book anyway, because it’s got a lot of introspection and thinking and shit like that, because, guess what?  Some of us want 60 page descriptions of the food at a banquet.  Some of us wish GRRM would spend more time describing heraldry, because we think that shit’s cool.  Hell, some of us actually like the Council of Elrond!  I know I’m the minority.  That doesn’t mean I don’t exist.  And when I look at the books that sell best, they aren’t written the way you say everybody loves, so, really, fellow authors, where the fuck are you getting your rules from? Each other?  Why don’t you get your fucking heads out of writing advice books for a bit and read some good fiction, then get back to me on how a story should start.

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  • Actually, it’s standard to use italics for direct thoughts, especially for stories written in third person. It’s true that you don’t HAVE to do it that way, but you also don’t HAVE to limit question marks to questions — apparently a lot of the trendy kids have decided that ANY rule/guideline is bad because such things stifle their uniqueness or some such nonsense. (Some people will tell you ANY use of italics is inappropriate. Such people are idjits.)

    The bit about ‘all stories MUST begin with action’ is a misinterpretation on the part of the people telling you that. You need SOMETHING happening within the first several paragraphs, but it doesn’t need to be a car chase or a gun fight. Tension is something happening. A character deciding to make a change is something happening. From your brief description, it sounds as if you’ve got something happening in your first scene.

    “If you can’t wait one hundred fucking words for some goddamned action, then you aren’t going to like my book anyway” — A friend once harshly criticized one of my favorite sci-fi novels because it didn’t have a huge space battle within the FIRST 5 PAGES. *rolls eyes*

    “Some of us want 60 page descriptions of the food at a banquet.” — Exactly. Some readers have not had their brains scrambled by overexposure to ubiquitous media devices and actually want to spend time READING the books they read.

    • I honestly think, given the exact way they worded their comment about the italics and that the link they gave me was not quite relevant, that they were just of the opinion that critiquing something means you have to find something to complain about.

      First scene, I’ll agree with, but first paragraph?! Of course, I’ve noticed these people tend to forget that someone buying the book will have had clues as to what it’s about from things like the cover and blurb and, oh yeah, what genre it’s listed under! I think I might’ve gotten so grumpy because they reminded me of a horrible creative writing professor I had who, among other things that make me hate him, said genre should always be clearly established in the first sentence, because apparently if a unicorn or something isn’t mentioned that fast people will be confused when there’s an elf a couple of paragraphs later. He had terribly mundane tastes though; the stories written by my classmates that he seemed to like the best were the ones that were barely fictionalized accounts of college life.

      See, I consider not having a huge space battle within the first five pages a plus. I’ve rarely seen it done well.

      “actually want to spend time READING the books they read” — As someone who once wrote a 900 word bit of dialogue about Elvish history (with a 100 word sentence in it!) I’m the last person who can complain about too much world-building stuff in a book, but on the other hand, the detail has to be interesting. I’m sick of self-published books where the author thought “show, don’t tell” meant they need to do things like describe a character getting dressed every morning in excruciating detail or describe what the character has for every single meal, regardless of how mundane it is. I read a book where it was mentioned so often that the character had orange juice and scrambled eggs for breakfast that I was incredibly surprised when it didn’t end up being relevant to the plot.

      • “apparently if a unicorn or something isn’t mentioned that fast people will be confused when there’s an elf a couple of paragraphs later” — Guess he never thought that maybe the weird bits could be introduced gradually, showing the POV character slowly becoming aware of strange things happening.

        “barely fictionalized accounts of college life” — I’ve seen that a lot from university students; they can’t make something up to save their lives. (I wrote a lot of crap when I was a teenager, but it always impressed adults because it was DIFFERENT. Not that I can really take credit for that, either — I had no idea how to write “normal teenager doing normal-teenager stuff” stories, because that wasn’t part of my own experience.)

        “I read a book where it was mentioned so often that the character had orange juice and scrambled eggs for breakfast that I was incredibly surprised when it didn’t end up being relevant to the plot.” — I hear ya. There’s only so many times the reader can be told (in the same novel) that the hero’s favorite meal is steak, a butter-loaded baked potato, and salad before the reader snaps and throws the book across the room. For one thing, WHO CARES? Is there anything unusual or quirky about this? No. If the character’s favorite food was honeyed dormice, that would be worth mentioning (because it’s weird), but emphasizing commonplace details over and over is silly and tedious.

        “Show, don’t tell” being taken to such an extreme… Yeah, one more thing we can blame on lazy teaching. Easier to say, “This is how you must ALWAYS do it,” than to explain the GUIDELINE and WHY it exists and how there are degrees of showing rather than a perfect dichotomy of “show” or “tell” with no in-between.

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