Most People Read Fiction Not So Much For Plot As For Company

Girl reading

Whether or not you agree with the above quote by Josip Novakovich, it’s certainly one that makes you think, and question what it is that makes you love a novel or not. It’s an appropriate quote too because today we’re going to talk about writing rules – please present your tickets to the girl on the door then come in and have a seat. Ready? Then I shall begin…

I recently read a post by JM McDowell entitled Damn The Writing Rules—What Do Readers Like? She had written this as a result of feedback she received from some alpha readers of her novel – of which I was one (I will mention at this point that I loved the story and the way it was written). Her post was around the issue of writing rules, and who they are really for. You might want to pop over and read JM’s post before continuing here to get the background on this post.

Personally, I haven’t done a huge amount of fiction writing, a couple of half-finished novels, a couple of barely started novels, an occasional short story, mainly my bits of published writing have been non-fiction. I haven’t really learned the rules of fiction writing – I’ve picked some up along the way, mainly from blog posts written by writers, but I haven’t actively sought to learn what they are. Therefore when I read fiction, whether just for pleasure, or in the case of JM’s novel, to critique it, I’m not consciously measuring it against a set of rules.

Man measuring weights

When I’m reading, the negative things I tend to notice are:

  • Something that doesn’t seem realistic within the context or world that has been created.
  • Story threads that don’t go anywhere.
  • Things left unexplained that I really wanted an explanation for.
  • Anything that seems contrived.
  • Descriptions that feel too lengthy and self-indulgent.
  • Grammatical errors.

These are things that non writers might notice too, things that aren’t particularly to do with fiction writing rules. The one thing I do notice which would come under “writer knowledge” is the show-don’t-tell issue. I can really see the value of that one, and I admire it greatly it when it’s done well, it totally breathes life into the story.

What I do wonder though is where the rules come from. I know there won’t be just one answer to that, but how evidence-based are the rules? How many of them are proven to be key to a successful novel, and how many of them were just said by someone influential at some point because they sounded logical, and have then been passed on and quoted by everyone else, but actually don’t make any difference to reader enjoyment? It’s hard to be conclusive, you could no doubt find a correlation between rule-compliance and successful novels, but you couldn’t be sure that the following of the rules is what made them successful. Of course following the rules is part of the game you likely have to play if you want a traditional publishing route for your book, and that’s probably the main driver for following the rules for many writers.

Something that comes to mind here are the TV talent shows, particularly the singing X-Factor type ones (which yes, I do watch, sorry ‘n all). So many times when I’ve watched the early audition rounds, I’ve seen people who are a bit raw, a bit rough around the edges maybe, their personality is there and it draws you in, they’re different, and there’s something special about them. But then when they make it through to the live shows, they’ve been polished up, scrubbed to perfection, turned into a formula-looking and sounding pop singer. They’ve had that raw edginess, that quirkiness, that made them great taken away from them. I understand that it’s been done by people in the industry who presumably know what is needed to turn those people into money-generators, but it’s a real shame. And I wonder sometimes if too much strict adherence to the writing rules can at times do a similar thing to the writer’s story.

I don’t really have a conclusion to make here. I’m certainly not saying that writing rules are pointless, I understand that many of them are based on solid reasoning and have value to them, and in general I’m a rule-follower, but it’s the idea of blindly following them, or thinking that they are the ONLY way that something should be done, which I take issue with. But I’m no expert, and I welcome any counter arguments below. It’s a subject that gets discussed often amongst writers and there are many different views.

Speaking of writing and novels (notice how seamlessly I work this one in), over on my Sugarness blog, I have this week started a new series of posts in collaboration with author J Keller-Ford, where I have created recipes for each of the characters in her new novel In the Shadow of the Dragon King, to be published in 2016. The first recipe is Eric Hamden’s Red Wine Apple Pie.

Red wine apple pie

What are your views on writing rules? Or if you don’t know much about writing rules, what things turn you on or off when reading fiction? Do you like apple pie?

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photo credit (red-headed girl) : Girl and book via photopin (license)
photo credit (measuring weights) : Checking Accuracy of a Scale in a Feed Mill Establishment (FDA 117) via photopin (license)
photo credit (apple pie) : Me!

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58 responses to “Most People Read Fiction Not So Much For Plot As For Company

  1. I love apple pie!! As for what I like in books – I think it’s a mixture of believable characters and settings and the plot has to be good. Too shallow of a plot and I put the book down. Too complex, it loses me and I put it down. It has to have depth. Substance. Something that makes me think. As an author, these are all so hard to weave into a tale that will captivate an audience. I hope I’ve done that with IN THE SHADOW OF THE DRAGON KING. I like the quote from Pirates of the Caribbean – “the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.” That’s how I feel about writing. Sometimes, you have to throw the rules out the window and write from the gut. Let the world decide if your story is rubbish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Who doesn’t love apple pie right! That’s a good way of looking at it, guidelines rather than rules – rules implies that they have to be followed whereas guidelines allow a bit of flexibility, and who doesn’t love a bit of writing flexibility with their apple pie right? 🙂

      Like

  2. Thanks for the apple pie as we chat. You are a very good baker!

    I’m not a fiction writer or reader, but here’s an interesting thought. A writer told me that they read so many “how to write” posts, that they become discouraged, questioned their own writing, and actually stopped writing.

    Oops … one tiny lie … Out over almost 1700 posts, I’ve done one post with fiction. … but hey … I turned it into a challenge that I think you will enjoy … https://afrankangle.wordpress.com/2015/06/28/on-a-challenge/ … and I welcome your readers as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you’re enjoying the pie 🙂

      Yes, I think that’s the thing, too much knowledge about how you’re supposed to do things can zap creativity at times I believe.

      I will definitely check out your challenge link later! Of if not later today, then over the weekend. Speaking of which, have a good one!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I make a delish custard apple pie. Yumm
    I’m a rule breaker, which is why I so like Shakespeare. He made up words, mashed words together, and played around with words and their meaning. My kind of writer.

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  4. I’ll bet you made J. Keller-Ford bake that pie, didn’t you? The rules exist for a reason, and it can take years to figure out why. The best bet is to follow them until you gain some insight into them. To put it in cooking terms, it’s like a perfectly good apple pie made exactly like the recipe said. After you’ve made a pie or two, you might try a free form version with some red wine in it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love how you brought the notion of ‘evidence-based’ into writing rules. So in that vein, I’ll add that I think there is a correlation between rule-following and a writer’s experience. The more books produced, the more lax the rule-following becomes. But the hope is, by that time the writer has learned which rules can be abandoned (and how) without sacrificing the story. In fact, at that point I’d say the rules are broken to enhance the story.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. For me, if a writer makes me love the characters I almost don’t care what happens in the story. I just want to be with them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just typed a reply to you and then it disappeared, so if you get two replies to this comment, that’s why! I was saying that your view fits in with the quote in the title of this post then, I agree, you’re allowing the characters into your life for a while and they need to be people you want to hang out with, that’s what makes you care about their story.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. As in most areas, go ahead and break the rules, on one condition: you need to know what they are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah well, that in itself is a rule isn’t it – don’t break the rules until you know what they are. So in this case, that implies that you can’t write good fiction unless you know what the rules are, whether or not you follow them. I might argue against that, or at least question it – not saying I will, just that I might! 😉

      Like

  8. Book publishers are looking at a manuscript from the viewpoint of “Will it sell?” to determine if it’s worth publishing. They’re checking marketability.

    Compelling characters, humor, a good story…that’s what does it for me. Remember that J.K. Rowling went to about 9 publishing houses before someone was brave enough to publish her. She influenced an entire generation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, but it must in some ways be self-fulfilling, the bigger publishing houses decide what is marketable, and that then sells well because it’s come from a big publishing house who are not only well known, but have all the mechanisms in place for marketing and promoting the book, and so then they “know” that these are the writing formulas that lead to success, and so it goes on. I know that’s a simple view and there’s more to it than that, but I’m sure that must come into play.

      I bet those other publishing houses who turned down JKR still haven’t gotten over it! Although who’s to say if it would all have been so successful in a different publisher’s hands.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Evidence-based statements | correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation … you know how to tick my boxes! Anarchy in the UK.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Vanessa I am not a fiction writer at all , well unless creative exaggeration counts as fiction. I’m afraid I am terrible at following any kind of rules around writing at all. My guess is most of my posts make English teachers cringe. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I think what you listed above pretty much is what catches me as I am reading a book. Overall, I look at does the communication flow or does it hang up. If it flows I usually stay with it.

    One thing that i have heard which I feel has merit is the length of ones writing is often much longer than it should be and there is some rule…I don’t recall it exactly but something like cut off a third. I think that works because people want the writer to get tho the point. I have skipped pages when writers drag on too much.

    Great idea to make recipes to go with characters!

    Like

    • Yes, I completely agree, when reading, I get frustrated with lengthy writing that takes too long to get to the point. When I’m writing something, even a blog post, when I’ve finished I often look to reduce wordage, say if it’s 900 words, I might see if I can get it down to 800, and when I do it definitely reads better.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I do like apple pie! That one I can easily comment on! And I think it’s super cool that you’re writing recipes to go with a novel’s characters. What a fun, creative, cross-promotional! You clever Brits, you!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I don’t think there are rules for writing. I think there are some guidelines, but they’re also meant to be broken… I have the most fun writing when I am pretty much positive I’m breaking the so-called rules and don’t really care. I just keep going. Something eventually takes shape, and sure, it might be crap, but it also may not be. Can’t tell until you’re done.

    The show-don’t-tell thing is an excellent guideline, however. It’s also really fun to circumvent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sometimes it’s good to know what the rules/guidelines are, even if you choose to avoid them, but other times I think blissful ignorance is good, then you are free to write without even needing to think about restrictions.

      Like

  14. We discuss this topic a lot in my household, as we’re all readers, and we all love stories, though we enjoy them in different ways. I love characters who speak to me, my husband loves tight plot, the girl likes happy stories.

    While some rules can stifle, rules like “show, don’t tell” speak to your own personal guideline of no “description that feels too lengthy and self-indulgent,” so I think there is some proof of success to a lot of them. Following the rules of basic grammar and punctuation is pretty proven, too – it’s nightmarish for me to read a story without paragraph breaks in it! But I think a lot of other so-called rules, such as “no unnecessary words” can make a story feel choppy and prevent us from connecting with a character or a moment. Going overboard isn’t good, either, but I think we need to have some distance from our stories before we can see those bits. My gut response is to “just write” the first draft, then pay closer attention to the rules when I edit. Everybody has their own way of doing things, though.

    Thanks for the great post, Vanessa! (I wish I could join you for that scrumptious-looking apple pie!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, we all like and dislike different things in a story, but as we mentioned on your blog post, it’s really all in the telling.

      When I’m reading a short story, I don’t mind that kind of choppy, straight to the point style, but in a novel it can get tiresome, I want to relax and meander a bit with them sometimes.

      Your gut response to writing is what I always think too – write from the heart and correct from the head.

      Thanks for stopping by Mayumi, sorry there’s no pie left!

      Like

  15. A good story trumps rules – always.
    Many read for adventure and escape from boredom – plot more than company?

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s very much in the telling though isn’t it. A great story in the wrong hands is a disaster. Even if we’re reading for the adventure and boredom escape, isn’t that a form of company? We want to be part of that world for a while, to share those experiences with the characters.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I can’t imagine writing fiction. Lord, where do the ideas come from? I certainly haven’t got any.

    Writing rules are tricky business. I heard Kurt Vonnegut and, in the same spirit, Charles Bukowski, say that too much eduction is a bad thing. That it can water-down a writer’s uniqueness for the sake of rules and grammar. It’s a fine line. You don’t want your stuff to read like it came from an ignoramus, but you don’t want it looking like a academic tome, either.

    Good Lord, almighty, I love apple pie. On my birthday, my daughter bakes an apple pie for me instead of cake, which I don’t care for all that much.

    Like

    • You probably do have lots of ideas, it’s just that you don’t have in mind the idea of developing them, taking them forward into writing fiction because it’s not something you do. Little thoughts when you’re out places, like – wouldn’t it be funny if X happened now? Or just little speculations we all have about why someone is dressed a certain way, or acting in a certain manner. That’s all it takes initially, but if you’re not inclined to write fiction then you probably wouldn’t take the thoughts any further.

      Yes, that’s what I’m talking about, losing the uniqueness by making things formulaic. When I lived in Vegas I had a little go at screenwriting, and I did look at all the rules with that – things like that something major has to happen in the first 10 pages, and the hero has to fail 3 times before eventually succeeding etc etc, and it’s the Hollywood formula that they know works, but it just makes things so samey doesn’t it.

      I’m with you on cake, sometimes I do really enjoy cake, and I do make cakes, but mainly for other people’s benefit, it’s not generally my first choice for me – I too prefer pie, or pastries and doughnuts and suchlike, rather than cake-cake.

      Like

  17. I don’t care if a writer breaks rules, so long as the writing isn’t sloppy. If a scene seems unnecessary, it can take me out of the story. But, if the writing is extra good, then I can handle a scene that doesn’t move the story forward. Ultimately, I think if it’s something that is logical and important for the character in your story, then it belongs. I like stories that are character driven. Since all my flash fiction writing, I’ve come to believe less can be a lot more. I think these days, writers don’t have the liberty of longish novels. It they can be successful, then they have more freedom. That’s what I’ve been reading a lot. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it’s all about the writing and the way it is told. I too like stories to be character driven, if the characters are weak and one-dimensional then it doesn’t matter how good the plot is, it’s unlikely to really engage me. Thanks Amy!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. As long as the story is entertaining and keeps me hooked, Vanessa, I don’t really think about the rules surrounding it. I’d much sooner read something fresh and different rather than much of the sameness. But that said, I like tried and tested as well, so I can’t even stick to my own rules.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I’m a rule breaker if it means getting the writing out. Every word can be replaced but it needs to be put out of my brain first. And I’m a pie whore Vanessa-Jane. Have you heard the pie song? I think Andie McDowell sings it in the movie where John Travolta is an angel called Michael. My theme song. Fruit pies make me weak in the knees.
    Love,
    Shalagh

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Wow, it’s so cool to see these thoughts on your post and “the rules” of writing! I do believe we need to understand what makes a good, compelling story that keeps the audience asking, “And then what happened?” A story that succeeds in this respect has succeeded all around.

    What I personally have trouble with is when “the rules” go beyond the basics of the universals of good story telling. As in leaving out “excess” words” or whether “omniscient POV” is acceptable in “today’s” writing or striking every adverb or use of the word “just.” I see many newer writers getting published who obey these rules, and I can’t help but wonder if the early drafts might have been better stories….

    And on a not-so–side note, I love the idea of pairing recipes with characters! I think you and J. Keller Ford are doing something awesome here!

    Like

    • I keep swinging backwards and forwards really on this one – people make compelling arguments both for and against the rules, and I find myself thinking “Oh yes, that’s a good point…but wait, that’s a good point too!” I guess it’s all about balance, and recognising that every story, and every writer, is different and what may be appropriate for one story, or one writer, may not be for another.

      Glad you like the recipe and character pairings! 🙂

      Like

  21. Red wine apple pie??!?! How can I NOT like that?

    Rules and who makes them. Good question. I think there’s quite a bit of subjectivity, as in any art. The “academy” comes up with rules because they need something to do. They can’t just sit around drinking tea all day. Then there’s the thing about good writers bending the rules and great writers breaking them. Of course, I don’t know who came up with this “thing.” Perhaps critics who wanted to get their two cents worth in. And when rules are broken and there’s a general feeling that the breaking “worked,” we’re not quite sure who records this as a writing success. Surely, there must be some enormous calculator somewhere that keeps a tally of all the rules and how they’ve been broken, successfully or otherwise. But I don’t nave the map that tells me where to find this discerning instrument. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

    Now, must go find the recipe for that pie….

    Liked by 1 person

    • The problem as well is that those who know the rules intimately probably find it difficult to read anything without mentally checking it against the rules, and that must affect enjoyment, whereas someone oblivious to most of the rules (which is probably most readers?), can just enjoy it, or not, without worrying about anything else. In theory, the point of the rules is surely that the oblivious reader will enjoy the reading experience more where the rules are followed, even though they won’t know that this is why, but is that true? Perhaps it is.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Another beautifully written and thought provoking post Vanessa! However as I struggle to complete my first and probably never to be published novel I couldn’t help noticing that 5 of the first 6 negative things you notice in novels may have crept in to my incomplete first draft. So, during a very pleasant BBQ on Saturday I threw the whole thing in the chiminea! (Don’t panic – only joking!) I guess there are plenty of rules and conventions in novel writing but it’s refreshing to think that one of the earliest novelists in the language, Laurence Sterne, was breaking rules before they were even established in his great novel ‘Tristram Shandy’.

    Like

  23. I love this post and all the comments, as I loved JM’s post and all the comments there. Interestingly, I plan to write about this subject too, as I was another reader of her novel. Her experience regarding “the scene” has really stuck with me and I have been thinking a lot about it in terms of giving feedback on fiction.

    I’m generally a rule follower (in writing and life!), and I have come to believe that writing rules are there because we need them. A good writer can get around the rules; an amateur writer cannot. Only with practice and lots of research into the writing process (because there is varied info out there) can we figure out how to write a compelling story — rules or sans rules.

    We also need to know our audience and their preferences. I think if you’re writing a 40,000-word beach read, following the writing rules may not be as important as writing a 120,000-word historical fiction. The same can be said if you’re planning to go indie vs traditional.

    I will also state that readers of today are vastly different from readers 30+ years ago. That has affected the “writing rules” a lot.

    Great post, V!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kate. Reading JM’s post and writing this one, made me miss the Limebird days a bit, when we used to talk though all these things quite regularly 🙂

      What you say makes sense. I liked coldhandboyack’s comment where he compared it to my apple pie – that I probably had to first learn to make an apple pie by following an exact recipe before I was able to come up with my own version of doing one.

      I look forward to reading your post about it too!

      Liked by 1 person

  24. I think being true to the characters is something that I like when I read a novel, and what I’m paying attention to in my own books. And yes, I love apple pie 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I agree about being true to the characters, it’s very off-putting when you’re reading a book and then one of the characters says or does something that doesn’t seem right for them at all. The story then loses credibility. Unlike apple pie, which is always credible.

      Like

  25. Writing dialogue seems a bit tricky when some characters are using telepathy, while others at the same time are speaking out loud. Italics for thoughts seems a way to make a distinction, and “he said”, “she said” is obvious for out loud speaking, but “he thought” is a problem because it’s very colloquial and is often meant to be in the out loud discussion category. She placed in my mind an answer, “I know there’s a rule for that.
    Out loud she said, “Did I really send a thought to you? Do you now know my secret apple pie recipe? Ut oh.”

    Liked by 1 person

  26. I’ve never taken a writing class, and I’m debating it because I have a story percolating. Then I think, maybe I should just get it written, already, and if it’s any good it will rise on its own merits.

    I so agree about the polished-up singers on those talent competitions. They get buffed and polished to a point where their quirkiness can be all but erased. I think of Susan Boyle. Her audition performance STILL gives me chills – I rewatch it every couple of months. Her rendition of the same song on her album? Meh.

    Like

  27. I wonder if some of the writing rules came about in the same way as composition rules in classical music…in that world, a lot of the rules or “types” were created based on famous composers’ work. So those composers weren’t consciously following that set of rules, but the rules came as a result of what their music had in common.

    Like

  28. I loved your example of X Factor, polishing up the rough edges for pop marketability. I too like the raw and the rough…a hint of a future success and all the emotions connected to it. I am sure these are the scariest moments of their lives and I love seeing that experience.

    Could it be that people in charge of publishing, whether literature works, music or video are simply trying to put a formula on success? For example. When Adele came out and blew the world away with her husky voice everyone and their mother came out with a version of their husky voice. In doing so I think they missed the point. I think Adele got huge because she was different, not same old same old. If you look over the music industry you will see the changes, not the similarities in pop music…they actually cycle. The same thing occurs in both movies and literature.

    As far as rules in writing…I wish they would only stick to readability and grammar. When I read, if the author is good at arranging word and thought and it flows well, I will probably enjoy it. I think the words should flow, the thoughts should move uninterrupted. If I am reading and find I have suddenly lost the thought, I will reread it, in case it was an error on my part. But, if I find my attention is stuck and the flow is missing, then there most likely is something awry, whether it be grammar, an incomplete thought or some other incongruity. Editors should catch these things and many writers would be able to get their ideas out to the world. I think this is one of the reasons why self publishing is catching on. Big publishing companies no longer own the market on the next bestseller.

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