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SLANT LETTER: Breaking the Rules in Style
Some big news to begin! Slant Letter has moved!
This letter will be showing up in your inbox as always, free to you just as before, but now sent out via Substack. Considering post by owls in the future, but today is alas not that day. I hope you enjoy the new look.
In like but less-figurative news, I have moved! And my husband and I spilled the tea on some personal news that is lighting us up these days. I hardly know what to do with myself now that all my long-held quarantine secrets are out in the wild open. Phew.
There’s so much hard in the world right now, and I hope you’re hanging in there. Whatever your corner holds right now, especially in the many transitions of fall, I’m wishing you much peace and good, true, beautiful surprises along the way.
Breaking the Rules in Style: A Crash Course
Maybe it’s because I was feeling feisty this weekend as I wrote this new issue, or maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic that is breaking all our norms and patterns, but today I want to talk about the rules of writing and the creative joy that is breaking them.
Rules in writing serve a purpose. There are narrative rules, technical rules, and rules that defy category leaning into the subjectivity of creativity, but nevertheless prove themselves by way of effectiveness. Rules can range from the simple—“avoid fragment sentences”—to the complex, “Never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off,” as Anton Chekhov famously advised.
Show don’t tell
Write what you know
Use active over passive voice
Kill your darlings
Avoid abominable adverbs
Never talk down to your readers
Every page should drive the narrative forward.
...all of these are rules designed to support better writing, as they often do quite well.
The rule I feel fustiest about is that you have to master the basics before you earn the right to break them.
In the end, this will make for a far better show than anything-goes scattershot. I’m of the personal persuasion that craft is defined not only by understanding and honoring the classic wisdom, but likewise by discerning when and how to make a stylistic exception.
Sure, blatant disregard for centuries-proven convention is not a good look, and tends to demonstrate itself in the eyes of the reader as more sloppy than avant-garde. Certainly writers have a wealth of wisdom to learn from the canon of writing advice available to us all, and we do well to pay our dues as students before having the audacity to break rank and blaze new trails. There’s a world of difference between style breaks that take your breath away or make you roll your eyes.
So first thing’s first: be humble, be a student of your craft, and master the basics. But after that, you might as well have some fun.
The writing process is neither math nor science, it will never be a surefire formula but forever an unknown terrain, requiring each of us to start from scratch every time we sit down to the blank page anew. Creativity can be served by set rules, but it finds its nerve in something else entirely: the boldness to break sequence and try something new. And that’s when things start to get interesting.
To every rule there are exceptions, and admittedly sometimes the exceptions are delicious. Let’s talk a look at some examples.
“Nothing is going to happen in this book”
I recently re-read one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors, Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. Mine is a dog-eared copy with intermittently embarrassing college-era Steph mark-ups in the margins. I remember the read well, a poetic and sometimes brutal meditation on the meaning of suffering in the world, but I’d forgotten how squarely Annie defies one of the most strident principles of writing advice: at the start of any story, set the stakes.
Instead, Annie writes,
“Nothing is going to happen in this book. There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time.”
She’s not bluffing either, because 24 pages in she’s described mountains, moths, her cat waking up, and not much else.
Yet the message is clear: the drama is not in the plot line but rather in the interior world, the true place where everything happens. She breaks the rule, but it works because she does so with purpose, and the book delivers profoundly on this purpose.
Punctuation in the Apocalypse
Here’s another example. This past year my book club read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the acclaimed novel following a father and son’s lonely journey across a land destroyed by some unnamed cataclysmic event. The novel is blisteringly stark, with really just two primary characters, spare sentences, and notably, no punctuation marking dialogue.
This was a source of controversy in our book club discussion: can McCarthy really just do away with quotation marks altogether, when much of the novel is a father-son dialogue? Well, he does, no matter what the reader might make of it. My initial read was that this style choice, while breaking convention, is deliberate in mirroring the starkness of the landscape in the very language of the book. It’s the apocalypse, after all! Who has the luxury to care for punctuation? Risky move for sure, but seemingly purposed, and this made sense to me.
It was only later that I found out McCarthy ditches such punctuation in all his books, post-apocalyptic or no, and—post script—I was admittedly less impressed.
Just Crazy Enough to Work
One more to round it out. This chilling short story by Matt Bell doesn’t just break the rules, it makes merry sacrilege of them. Just look at the form itself. Bet you weren’t expecting a work titled “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” to be an alphabetic acrostic account! Yet that’s exactly his game, a literal A-Z progression that haltingly reveals more and more of what happened, and who is shockingly responsible.
There’s not a single complete sentence in the whole piece. All are fragments, and the sentence structure is quite fluid. Is it campy? Or is it just crazy enough to work? You decide. But the brilliance of it, in my opinion, is the way the writer juxtaposes the predictable end of the alphabet with a thoroughly unpredictable reveal that becomes the highest blasphemy yet—desecrating a rule few writers would dare to defy. I won’t give it away, but see what you think!
All to say, if writing can only be done by the book, the elements of play and surprise become creative casualties.
If writers are overly committed to producing work only under the banner of Doing It Right, they end up confining themselves. To the contrary, creative risk cultivates courage, develops artistic intuition, and instills confidence of voice.
Most of all, breaking the rules is excellent practice for telling it slant, rather than telling it straight, and as we know by now that’s what makes for the best stories. So this week, consider this your full permission: break some rules. Make your own. Turn it all upside down. And tell it slant.
Until next time,
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
P.S. // Find a Good Thing Here?
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