Rule-Breaking Writing Exercises

I’m in a writing group that’s been going on for years now. Normally we follow a certain schedule (if you’re interested in how our Garden Group operates, see this), but recently I’ve decided to shake things up a bit. I asked everyone in the group to tell me a rule he or she generally abides by. I explained it doesn’t have to be a rule in a prescriptive sense—I didn’t want this to be something the writer felt must be written in stone, especially since most of us know those rules are rare—but, I said, it can be. Each writer gave the following:

  1. Write from one POV at a time. Show, don’t tell.
  2. Give authenticity of space, sense of place.
  3. Be sure to have a tight plot and believable, likable characters. Write something that can be read on an airplane while at the same time giving a deeper commentary. Shoot for realism…in other words, no idealized characters.
  4. Use all the senses.
  5. Nail the voice first, then worry about the plot.

(The last one was mine.)

Then I proposed that we continue to do our regular novel submissions and critiques, but with these we’ll submit very short rule-breaking exercises based on the above. The point of the exercises is not to write something publishable, but to see what can be learned from rule-breaking and from each other. For example, I feel pretty confident about rule 4, but 5 and 8 (mine) will be really hard.

Here’s the agenda (the third author’s rules had to be broken down into several exercises):

  1. Write in omniscient. Tell, don’t show. (Of course, you must show to some degree, but do a great deal of telling.)
  2. Write in whatever POV or tense you like, but give NO sense of place. You can give other sensory details, or not. Try to think of what would justify doing this.
  3. Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?
  4. Write an evil protagonist. A veritable villain with no redeeming qualities, not even a sad, broken childhood to explain our villain’s character. Pure. Evil.
  5. Write a beach read. Don’t be deep, no greater commentary, nothing intellectual. Imagine you’re writing the next best seller and your agent tells you not to go anywhere near literary. You’re gonna make a ton of money. Movie deals. You might hate yourself a little…or not? Can this work?
  6. Write something with a big point, without any aim to please a general audience. It can be scholarly or not. The tone is up to you.
  7. Don’t use senses in an evocative way. You can let the reader know the story’s taking place in a grocery store, but you have to leave it at that. We’re not looking at the flowers in the grocery store, not seeing the color of someone’s shirt, not hearing the cash register…unless these are crucial for the plot.
  8. Write a tight plot (keep it simple, maybe even cliché, since this is only a quick exercise) and the voice should be not only secondary, but utterly bland. Since “voicelessness” is impossible, think of someone who’s conventional, not someone who bores you to death (since this would actually count as a strong voice).

So far we’ve gone through the first three rule-breaking exercises, and here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Omniscient + Tell, Don’t Show.

Telling worked best when the telling had either a strong narrative voice and/or told of very specific and interesting details. In longer works, telling is often used to move the story forward without having to read about people opening car doors and doing boring things to get from point a to b. Here, telling served a different purpose, yet it turned out not to be a big problem.

Omniscience, however, creates distance, which was problematic in a short writing exercise. There simply wasn’t room to dip into the inner thoughts of multiple characters without “head hopping.” The way to avoid head hopping is to either avoid dipping into a close third person, or use that close third person to purposefully create a sense of chaos. Controlled chaos. The voices of the characters must be distinct both from each other and from the narrative omniscient voice. I felt we all came close to pulling this off, but we all needed minor tweaks to clarify.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

No sense of place/No authenticity of space

This exercise seemed to be the most difficult so far, at least for me. I tried to use the setting as a minor point of tension, a little question in the reader’s mind: “Where is this person? What is she doing?” I tried to avoid describing the room, sticking closely to my character’s thoughts. I wrote from the POV of a woman involved in the Milgram experiment (banality of evil, compliance to authority.)  Unfortunately, everyone guessed this was the Milgram experiment and they imagined the location/setting without my having to describe it. I imagine if I’d chosen to write something more original, I might’ve gotten away with it. But hey, plots are hard to come by. For an exercise, I figured it’d be all right to steal.

Others chose to establish a setting, then alter it in a way that wasn’t expected. They ended up writing surrealistically, and that led to an unreliable narrator. The two combined can work, but only for short bursts. Surrealism is difficult to pull off, and I find it much easier to take when I know I can trust the character generally, and I know that what I’m reading is an altered state.

Since these exercises were “short bursts,” the writing turned out to be interesting and, in my opinion, new territory for these writers.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

Don’t write a tight plot.

The joke was inevitable: “I do this all the time! This exercise will be easy.” Doing this successfully is a different matter.

What came out of this was interesting. I ended up doing something very similar to another writer—I kept a thematic consistency to make up for the lack of plot. You get the outlines of what could happen with all the dangling threads based on consistent mood and theme.

One writer commented that the imagery seemed richer than our usual writing.

Another writer noted that the reader fills in the gaps, that the lack of plot encourages a more active participation on the part of the reader to make sense of the story.

I ended up writing something slightly out-of-the-box for me. I tend to write about the mundane, and I did it here too, but this time I played around with POV in a way I hadn’t before.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.


The common denominator: Dark stuff. We haven’t figured out why. My hypothesis is that, in a writing exercise, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This gives us license to go there.

Another thing I noticed is that many of us wrote way more than a few paragraphs. Some even submitted the exercise as a short story.

What are your writing rules/tendencies? Have you ever tried to break them?

If you feel so moved, feel free to share your rule-breaking exercise in the comments. You can break your own rule or use one of the above as a prompt. (I’ll share one of mine in the next post.)

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51 thoughts on “Rule-Breaking Writing Exercises

    • That’s the way I’ve always felt. If the voice is wrong, you can’t go anywhere. That said, I’m beginning to see things from the other way around now that I’m dealing with a ridiculously huge first draft. I kinda wish I’d plotted things out first.

      But who knows, maybe if I’d plotted first, I’d get stuck with this stifling framework and maybe I’d end up with two-dimensional characters. I’ll have to try it to find out. (I have an idea in mind for another novel, but that looks like it’ll be many years down the road. I’ll be lucky if I remember this idea.)

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  1. Could this work with comical stuff instead of dark stuff (although such comical stuff can be dark in a way). I am thinking of things like Tristram Shandy, for example. Generally, it seems to me that rule braking would either lead to grotesque results in which a funny or satirical tone would dominate, or to something that is disturbing in some way, and hence would go into a dark direction.

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    • I think so! I don’t see any reason why we all ended up writing dark stuff except that maybe we all just wanted to make an impact. It’s harder to be subtle in short pieces. Honestly, I didn’t think my last piece was all that dark, especially since nothing really happens on the page (there’s a dark possibility, however.)

      Really I think you could do just about anything you want. I’ve seen these rules broken in entire novels, and I’ve seen them work for those authors. The point is to find out what works and what doesn’t by trying. And each person has a different style. It’s very hard to say in advance.

      Oddly, when it comes to writing I’m a die-hard empiricist. I can’t stand it when people wax philosophical about writing, or when they spout generalities and turn it into something mystical or elusive. Supposing it’s true that you’re either born with a gift for writing or you’re not, it’s never helpful to talk about writing as if it’s magic. The only a priori I found helpful: Don’t ask yourself if you’re writing is good or bad, ask yourself if it’s true or false. That’s been helpful for me. I notice that I like any style of writing, even lyrical styles, just so long as it rings true. If someone talks a lot of nonsense in a poetic style, I can’t stand it.

      I consider writing a craft. You have to do it to know how to do it. And then you have to do it some more. After you’ve come up with some material, THEN there’s something to talk about. So that’s why I say the rule-breaking could work for comical or satirical work…it could! Who knows? Give it a shot!

      Speaking of satire, I just read “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis. Awful writing. I couldn’t believe how awful it was. Nothing really happened until more than halfway through the novel. Up to that point, it’s just Sinclair Lewis trying to be clever. The sarcasm got on my nerves. The whole thing was telling, but that wasn’t the problem. The sarcasm could’ve worked, even with all the telling, even with no plot until halfway through the book, even to that degree, but only if he’d made me laugh. Instead I felt like he considered his reader an idiot and had to bash me over the head with sarcasm to make his point. I’m now reading “Infinite Jest” and “Faith and the Good Thing.” Infinite Jest is rule-breaking to the extreme, I still can’t figure out what the book’s about, the barrage of acronyms is confusing, the endnotes are tediously long, I don’t understand a great deal of the references, but I love it. David Foster Wallace is treating me as if I were as intelligent as he was. I find myself laughing out loud, taking notes of how he broke some rule, reveling in his personal style. I’m learning a great deal from reading his work.

      Same goes for “Faith and the Good Thing”…more on that some other time. I might write a blog post about it.

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  2. I’m not a creative writer, but if I were I’d have a discipline of creating rhythm through good use of punctuation. For me, creative writing is best apprehended as if music, in that I want to feel that there’s for the most part a rhythmical sense about it. If it feels lumpy and clunky to the mind, then all the rule-keeping in the world won’t encourage me to keep turning pages. I suppose it would be a ground rule, one upon which all others should be added, but without which nothing can be built. Sometimes I read amateur fiction on blogs, and it’s as if I’m listening to music that trundles along in a stately waltz or with four on the floor, and then suddenly flies off into 13/8 for nine and a half bars. It’s like seeing all the edit points when the writer stopped for a coffee break, and then to take a call, and then to go pick the kids up, coming back in an altogether different mood on each occasion. If the rhythm is good, meaning flowing naturally and with a balanced sense of structure, then sentences can be whole paragraphs long without them feeling in the least awkward. Anyway, I suppose this isn’t really what you mean by a ‘rule’, Tina, and something rather more elementary than what you’re alluding to. *Tickle behind the ear for little Geordie Boy*

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    • Not at all elementary! I’ve heard it said that you should read your work out loud to yourself in a final draft. Weird things come out sometimes. In your relatively silent head, you don’t notice that you’ve written the word “laid” a million times…and the weird connotations that has. But once you speak it out loud, you’ll notice it.

      On the level you’re talking about (I think) there’s a syntactical continuity that people don’t notice when they’re reading a great work, but they sure will when they’re reading something amateurish. That’s a tough one to get right, but it’s really at the core of, well, everything. Voice, mood, etc. That’s an oft-overlooked point, actually. When I sense something wrong with the writing, but I can’t quite place it, I look at the rhythm (I call it syntax, but close enough, I think.) “Why so many short sentences? Why not combine them? Rearrange them?” Or: “Why not break these sentences apart? Cut out some verbiage?” This is where you can get super anal about being true to your character or the narrative voice, and it makes a huge difference.

      Oh you’ve reminded me…I can’t wait to get there!

      Geordie gives you a lick on the cheek.

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      • Yes, but it’s not syntax alone, is it? A writer can get the syntax correct, but their usage of punctuation is lax, and they’re not imparting, say, a helpful meter to the reading where it had been intended or assumed it ought be read in such a way – yes? Another point: I find often amateur writers don’t appreciate how useful the semi-colon is, and where it can be applied to good effect. It seems to be being ignored, and yet using the full stop in its stead has a different effect; the comma is just wrong as a substitute.

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        • Oh definitely to all the above. I just assume the punctuation is fine. 🙂

          I think I know what the semicolon aversion is all about. I turned in my work to an agent at a writer’s workshop for a critique, and he told me not to use semicolons. He didn’t say I’d used them improperly, only that I should start a new sentence instead. I didn’t agree with him, especially since I’m writing from the POV of a professor. I think in that case, semicolons are allowed. (I think they’re allowed everywhere, but c’mon…a professor can handle long thoughts.) Plus, I’ve heard that advice elsewhere and I think it has something to do with the market nowadays, which has turned “no semicolons” into a sort of rule that people get uppity about. “Short. Sentences. Are. Easier. To. Read,” says The Market. “Semicolons are unnecessary,” says the new craft rule derived from The Market. But who knows, maybe I’m just making this up.

          In any case, I hope this fad dies a quick but painful death.

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          • I think it’s worth noting that there is a difference between the market preferences of readers and the market preference of agents and editors. Until recently, those were effectively the same thing. But with the rise of indie publishing, it’s a difference worth keeping in mind. I doubt most readers care about how we use our semicolons or how long our sentences are, as long as that use is effective.

            BTW, on rhythm, which I will claim no real skill with, an excellent resource that I came across is ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’ by Renni Browne and Dave King. I often have a sense for when my writing is failing in flow and rhythm, but not how to solve it, but these guys describe how to do it.

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          • I think readers can pick up on things without knowing what’s working or not. That said, I think the semicolon is probably not going to be a game changer for them. I don’t really get why it’s such a big deal for agents (or this agent, anyway).

            Thanks for the recommendation! I haven’t heard much about how to create that sense of flow in rhythm.

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          • Well, then the writer has to decide on whether the marketeers ought determine the nature of the art, or whether they themselves do. As an English (person) reader, I find the American tendency to utilise short sentences most unappealing. [I know very well you don’t do it yourself.] It always seems to over-dramatise the narrative, and make it feel self-consciously contrived. I accept that’s probably as much or more a cultural thing, and that it imparts to me as it does due in some measure to my own cultural biases. In any case, the dumbing-down principle – “no semicolons” – has got nothing to do with writing as an art form. Bloody marketeers!

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          • Totally agreed on everything. In my group, I sometimes use this very point as a criticism for exactly the reason you mention. Also, it doesn’t work when you use it universally, especially when you have multiple POVs. Some characters may be terse, but they shouldn’t all sound the same.

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  3. I’ve done a lot of reading on writing in the last several months. It’s left me with a lot of opinions without much experience to back them up. So take everything that follows with a large grain of salt. But one opinion that I feel pretty confident about is that we should learn the reasons for THE RULES. Knowing those reasons lets us know when it makes sense to break them.

    For instance, omniscient POV is generally avoided these days because it puts distance between the reader and characters. But omniscient has a lot of advantage such as quickly being able to get information across, particularly about large scale events. The thing is, here is a place you can sometimes have your cake and eat it too. Portions of a story can be in omniscient and portions in third person limited, as long as the transitions are clear. Heck, these days you can even have your protagonist be in first person POV and all the other POV characters in third (see The Martian). Even head hopping can happen without distancing, as long as you wait until the reader has developed a relationship with each of the POV characters (although you probably don’t want to do it unless strictly necessary).

    I think it’s also important to remember that we’re writing for readers, not necessarily other writers. In my experience, readers who are only readers are often are a lot more tolerant of rule violations. Yes, sometimes they’ll dislike a story that violated a rule without understanding that’s why they disliked it, but for most of THE RULES, they’re often fine with deviations, as long as those deviation are intelligent.

    I’ve developed a new attitude about the show, don’t tell rule. Too many people seem to take it to mean that we show details and let the user reach their own conclusions about something. But to me it now means find a plot mechanism to show it. For example, if a character is a bigot, and it’s important to the later plot, have a scene where they act bigoted toward someone.

    As for my own habits, I’m pretty minimal with setting descriptions. It often makes for fast narratives, which as a reader I generally like, but I’m always wondering if I shouldn’t pay more attention to the five senses rule.

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    • “But one opinion that I feel pretty confident about is that we should learn the reasons for THE RULES. Knowing those reasons lets us know when it makes sense to break them.”

      Definitely. I’d recommend this to anyone who hasn’t been writing and going to workshops and classes, etc. I’ve often wondered if the “don’t do omniscient” rule (which is passé now, apparently) comes from seeing so much poor work in the hands of novice writers. It’s just EASIER to stick to one POV. And the recommended POV is 3rd (1st seems like it’d be easier to pull off, but it’s not.)

      My group was getting a bit stuck in their ways and they know the rules like the back of their hand, which was why I wanted to shake things up for them. Plus, we’ve been together for three years and have come to know each other’s styles pretty intimately. We’re able to show each other our worst writing without any fear of getting a bruised ego. So instead of having each person break their own rule, I wanted the group to break each rule systematically, so we could learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It turns out we’re all incredibly different writers, which is a good thing.

      I found that breaking your own rule tends to be very difficult…to the point where you usually end up not quite breaking the rule. (I keep telling them to break the rule anyways, and if they write utter crap, so be it!) But at least you get to see how others accomplish it, successfully, and learn from that.

      “Portions of a story can be in omniscient and portions in third person limited, as long as the transitions are clear. Heck, these days you can even have your protagonist be in first person POV and all the other POV characters in third (see The Martian).”

      I’ve always loved omniscient for the reason you mention: You can have your cake and eat it too. I’ve managed to stay away from it, though. I’ll tackle it when I feel I am capable. I feel like I’m getting close. Funny you should mention mixing 1st person and 3rd. That’s exactly what I’m doing in my novel…and for a reason.

      “For example, if a character is a bigot, and it’s important to the later plot, have a scene where they act bigoted toward someone.”

      That could work. Or you could bring it out in dialogue. Or both, depending on how important that aspect is. (Sometimes we don’t believe what characters say. Dialogue can run contrary to action, which is fun to play with.)

      “As for my own habits, I’m pretty minimal with setting descriptions. It often makes for fast narratives, which as a reader I generally like, but I’m always wondering if I shouldn’t pay more attention to the five senses rule.”

      I find the five senses rule a bit tedious, to be honest. What is our experience really like? Do we really walk into our bedrooms and notice everything anew? On the other hand, if we have a character going dumpster diving, the five senses rule is one you can’t ignore.

      I’m pretty minimal too. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I’ve heard it said that you need to find that one description that really nails it, and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. That’s what I like to read, anyways, and so that’s what I try to write. But once again, that depends on what you’re going for in some particular work.

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      • “My group was getting a bit stuck in their ways and they know the rules like the back of their hand, which was why I wanted to shake things up for them. ”
        I think that was an awesome idea. And I’m envious of the group relationship you guys have.

        “I’ve always loved omniscient for the reason you mention: You can have your cake and eat it too. I’ve managed to stay away from it, though. I’ll tackle it when I feel I am capable.”
        It’s probably more useful in SF&F or historical fiction. You saw where I used it in my Nanowrimo novel, although as you noted, I could have easily avoided it. In one of the stories I’m currently thinking about, there’s a sequence where large scale events are going on that none of the POV characters can know about while they’re happening. They’ll know about them later, but holding that back from the reader until they do learn it would rob much of the dramatic impact. I could invent another POV character, along with a whole new thread, just so I have a POV at that point, or I can just go omniscient for a short stretch.

        “Or you could bring it out in dialogue. Or both, depending on how important that aspect is.”
        I think the last point is the main criteria. How important is it to the later story that the reader be aware of that aspect of that character? If it’s crucial, then a scene dedicated to demonstrating it might be well called for. If it’s just seasoning for the story, then dialog might be the way to go.

        Totally agree that playing with unreliable dialog can be fun.

        “On the other hand, if we have a character going dumpster diving, the five senses rule is one you can’t ignore.”
        Good point. The main thing may be remembering that there are five senses, but not feeling obligated to evoke them unless it adds something to the scene. Of course, a character that frequently goes dumpster diving may not notice the stench anymore.

        “In fact, I’ve heard it said that you need to find that one description that really nails it, and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.”
        I think one good way to look at it is as a collaboration between you and the reader. You’re giving them the scaffolding for their imagination to build the picture, not building the entire picture for them. The problem is that readers seem to differ in their thirst for descriptive detail. I glaze over if there’s too much, which I do in a lamentably large number of books. But I’ve seen some of my favorite authors be criticized for settings that are too bare, too “white room”. I guess we just have to remember that there will always be those who dislike our style.

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        • “I could invent another POV character, along with a whole new thread, just so I have a POV at that point, or I can just go omniscient for a short stretch.”

          Going omni for a stretch is a possibility. I’ve seen that done in quite a few novels, especially to achieve what you’re trying to do. Basically, you’re writing in 3rd for most of the novel, but at crucial moments omni steps in. With a light touch, it can be really effective.

          “The problem is that readers seem to differ in their thirst for descriptive detail.”

          Very true. I figure I’ll just write what I’d want to read, unless people start telling me they’re confused. If they have a good reason for wanting more senses/description, then I’ll add it. If they just want it, no go. (But I will look at what I’ve written to see if I could be more precise in my description.)

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          • “Basically, you’re writing in 3rd for most of the novel, but at crucial moments omni steps in. ”
            Exactly. Third person limited is too powerful not to use as much as possible. We just don’t have to be rigid about it.

            “I figure I’ll just write what I’d want to read, unless people start telling me they’re confused.”
            Ultimately, that’s my guide as well. And since it’s unlikely I’ll ever be dependent on my writing for a living, it’ll probably always be the final arbiter.

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        • My general rule with description is basically “does this have a kick?” If the answer is no, then I cut it short. If the answer is yes, the description might go on for paragraphs. I don’t know if my rule is any good, but it is mine. 😀

          I’d like to recommend a short story that I think does description very, very well. I’d love your opinions on how and why it works.
          http://granta.com/a-beheading/

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          • I’m a descriptive minimalist myself. I usually only describe what the reader needs to know to understand events. I personally find that most books give way too much description, and it usually makes me glaze over (and consequently often miss the point that the author is attempting to convey with the long description). Some of my favorite authors are John Scalzi, Isaac Asimov, and Jack Vance, largely for their imagination, but also because they keep description to a minimum.

            But, of course, there are lots of people who love lavish scene descriptions. They find the authors I reference above too bare, and have a hard time visualizing what is happening in their stories. They like having the details that make them actually feel like they’re in the setting, that allow them to smell and taste the place. I can see the appeal, but it often makes the story feel really slow to me.

            We won’t be able to please everyone.

            On the story you linked, I think the description in it is just right. It tells me what I need to know, and nothing else. The use of first person present tense (used for obvious reasons) seems like it raises the intensity to 11.

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          • Funny you are a minimalist and yet liked Hamid’s story. I found that story to be incredibly descriptive.

            And yeah, Hamid’s awesome with POV. His book “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is all in the form of a dramatic monologue. “Moth Smoke” is in the form of a trial, with “you” as the judge. “How to Get Rich In Rising Asia” is written in the second person in the form of a self-help book. A lot of this sounds dreadful, but it works incredibly well. He uses these weird POVs to pack in so much detail and nuance.

            I’m not familiar with Vance or Scalzi, but I enjoyed Asimov. I enjoyed the foundation, but it was a very cerebral experience for me. I’ve read a lot of philosophy and history more personally affecting, which is the kind of description I was really hoping to see.

            Like with the mule, I really wanted to know what it felt like to get mind-effed by the mule.

            That said, the cerebral part of the stories was enjoyable enough I read the entire thing, so perhaps I’m being pickier here than I am in real life. 😉

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          • The story didn’t spend a lot of time describing the bedroom or house, or the car trunk, or the room the victim eventually ends in. Many authors would take twice as many words to tell the same story. You’d likely come away with very vivid images, but with what I think would be a substantial loss in story momentum.

            Asimov was the one in particular I recall getting the “white room” criticism for his settings. But you’re right, a lot of the times in his stories, it’s all about the conversations.

            Vance actually introduced all kinds of things with only an exotic name, with zero description. He often left it completely to the reader’s imagination to fill in, which, at least in my mind, left some surreal and sometimes goofy images. Vance wasn’t a very good plotter, but his worlds are often described as very imaginative. It’s ironic that much of the imaginative landscape is created by the reader.

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          • Hmm, interesting. It seems like a lot of the things you’re calling “not much” I’d just call “very efficient.”

            The car, for example, has a blown shock and there’s something hard in the trunk and it’s an E70 chassis Corolla with high miles.

            I can tell you with a high degree of certainty that it looks like this:

            I can taste the dust in the trunk and hear the suspension clunking and hitting the bump stops. I can imagine the upholstry stained with grease and sweat and feel the peeled up trunk carpeting against my skin. For me, at least, the entire scene short story was very vivid.

            I completely agree the story would lose a ton of power if the author bogged it down in unnecessary detail. I don’t know if you’ve read him, but a guy named Paul Harding won the Pulitzer a couple years back for his novel “Tinkers.” I’d describe the entire book as pointless description. A Beheading by Paul Harding would probably be unbearable and 200 pages long.

            Perhaps the way Hamid pulls this off is simply to only talk about the things the POV character is immediately experiencing. Sort of the stuff that you or I would be experiencing if we were kidnapped in the night, shoved in a car and ritually beheaded.

            I agree about Asimov’s white rooms. I thought the conversations were cool and I liked the ideas he played with but, yeah, nothing ever kicked me in the gut. Everything always stayed on an abstract level.

            A creative level. A wildly imaginative level. A cool and thoughtful level but always two or three steps removed from immediate experience.

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          • I think in Hamid’s story the description of setting is pretty sparse, actually. I never feel like I’m there, nor do I visualize any sort of room or the trunk in a clear way. I sense the awfulness of peeing on myself, and I briefly wondered whether the character was conscious when that happened. I get a sense of intermittent consciousness, and the lack of complete description (sense of place mostly) works overall for the story. I don’t think it would make sense to have the scene come alive in a full lucidly descriptive way since the character is not lucid himself.

            On the other hand, I stopped at the ’81. Really? He could tell the year of the car? The next sentence explains that a bit, but I still thought it was a bit far-fetched. I don’t think I’d even notice the color of the car in that situation. Then again, maybe it’s a guy thing.

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          • Hmm, I wonder if there’s a meaningful distinction between describing things and imparting sensation. Because I agree, I don’t feel like there’s a huge amount about what the rooms looked like, but I felt very much like I was there on a sensation level.

            Of course this could be different readers reading differently. 😛

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          • I tend to think of “description” as being all of the above. And yes, as far as sensory description, the story had that for sure. I could imagine more, but I think such a story needs to be short and to the point. Beheadings aren’t something one wants to vicariously live through…haha.

            I did want more specificity in certain areas. “I hope they didn’t rape my wife…I don’t want to be tortured.” Cut that stuff, leave the sentences like, “I hope whatever they do to me they don’t use acid on me.” (Maybe cut “whatever they do to me.”) And with the wife, what exactly can he imagine them doing to her? Is he really thinking about another man “sleeping with” her? One quick sentence similar to “crush my balls with a pair of pliers” and that’s it. I know, I’m grotesque. 🙂

            I really liked the thing with the goat. That worked on so many levels. Psychically it felt true as a strange mix of fond memories of the past, impending doom, submission to that doom by divorcing oneself from the present, and all of this perfectly timed. That last sentence was great. “I watch as I end before I am empty.” Perfect.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. I have enjoyed books and stories that broke virtually all of these rules at one time or another. The only one I’m not sure of is sense of place. Maybe Finnegans Wake? LOL. Talk about a rule-breaker.

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    • You know, I still haven’t read Joyce. Weird. I know. Back in the day I was told that I write like him (I don’t think that was meant to be a compliment.) To this day I struggle with “sense of place.” If I could get away with it, my writing would end up being very close to a Platonic dialogue.

      I need to read Joyce for sure. I love reading rule-breakers! Especially when the succeed in doing it…what a powerful learning experience.

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  5. One of my early posts was about how art, at least great art, often depends on breaking the rules. A big question involves the kind of writing you’re doing…

    An English teacher I had used to talk about transparency. The main goal for a writer, he said, was to step aside, to be as transparent as possible. You didn’t want to distract the reader from being immersed in the story. The Yin to that Yang, I always thought, was the idea of artistic style. Sometimes part of the art is the style, not the content.

    (As a side note, fellow Minnesotan, Prince had both style and content. His imitators got the style part, which is easy to copy, but not the content, which is where the real skill is. This, to me, says something about exercises in style.)

    And there are authors whose writing style is both noticeable and engaging, so there really are no rules except one: What works, works.

    One consideration might be whether one is trying to be a master chef creating memorable culinary delights (in which case, it’s probably necessary to find some rules to break creatively… and also to have a second job) or whether one wants to make a living as a cook turning out meals people will buy and eat (in which case transparency and following established rules is probably a good idea — people aren’t looking for experimental style in an airplane or beach book).

    I’m reminded of the 1970s, when post-modernism badly infected science fiction and writers were turning out a variety of deconstructive and experimental efforts. Most of which were… interesting, but not very engaging. Ultimately, like most fads, it got old, and people returned to what worked.

    What has worked for 2000 years! Storytelling (and music) have converged on modes that people find engaging. We get experimental to see if our tastes have changed (and sometimes they have), but we often find ourselves going, “Yeah, that was really interesting. But I think I’ll put on some good old three-chord rock-and-roll now, if you don’t mind.”).

    Not in anyway to take this as criticism of experimenting! Experimenting is good! 😀

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    • So funny that you should compare writing to the culinary arts. My brother actually is a master chef and he called me the other day to talk about his work. He seemed to have some big dilemma, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. He talked about his “exit strategy” and then using the extra money to “invest with.” This whole conversation took forever. I couldn’t understand that last part…he kept talking about retiring, but then “investing” the amount he didn’t need to live on. I kept telling him to stick all his money into an tax-protected index fund, live off the interest, and go play golf. I couldn’t figure out why he’d suddenly become interested in investing in individual stocks. Finally he said, “I want to invest in a new restaurant.”

      “You mean, like, you’re own restaurant?”

      “Yes.”

      “Like, the one you’ll work at?”

      “Yes.”

      “I thought you said you wanted to retire?”

      “Look, Tina, if I had to sit down and stare at a computer all day and write an essay, I’d die. But you love it. And that’s the way I feel about my work. I need to do it. I can’t just sit around, I’d go crazy. I have to be doing this.”

      OOOOOHHHHH. There’s a difference between creating Chipotle and creating another restaurant. (He called it something else, I don’t remember. Something with the word “concept” in it.)

      So the whole point is this: Creating a Chipotle is boring as hell for him. I love Chipotle and I always order the same thing. I’m the one picking up beach reads and he’s the one wanting to write literary fiction…and make a ton of money.

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      • Yep. There’s creating art — literary or culinary (or cinematic or musical or whatever) “fine” art — or there is selling acceptable books or adequate meals, and those two rarely are the same thing. (Chipotle maybe comes close. 😀 )

        I read a magazine article by an author the other day who wrote about why the Great Ones became regarded and revered. (A useful yardstick here is a work sustaining that regard for at least 100 years to earn the title “classic.”)

        Her conclusion was that skill (both in technique and in authenticity or heart) was important, yes, but that luck and circumstance had a great deal to do with it. Which is both disheartening and heartening.

        I’ve always thought luck was a huge component in success. All those self-help books by successful people telling you about their “successful techniques” just relate a thing that worked for them at that time. Many others would have done just the same and not been touched by success luck.

        You still have to put in the work (although success sometimes does come to those who don’t) or at least get in the line of fire, but it’s a truth in life that you can do all the right things and fail. Or do a lot of wrong things and succeed.

        To quote a favorite SF author, Larry Niven: TANJ! (There Ain’t No Justice!) You pays your 25 cents and you takes yer chances.

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        • “Both disheartening and heartening”…I know what you mean.

          I’ve decided I can’t expect commercial success from writing since so much of that is outside my control (yay Stoicism!) but I can write to the best of my ability and give it my all. It’s hard enough not disappointing yourself. To worry about what others think is beyond my capacity.

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          • I think that may be the actual first step to success: creating (writing) for yourself from the heart.

            Success is like sticking your finger in a glass of milk and chasing that bit of floating oatmeal around; the bit evades your best efforts. Sometimes if you just hold your finger still, the bit sticks to it.

            I’m not sure it’s useful or productive to directly chase success (in the fame and accolades sense). It either happens or doesn’t.

            You do have to stick your finger in the glass, though. 😀

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  6. What a cool exercise! I haven’t been doing much in the way of creative writing these days (sad!), but this seems like a great way to get back into it (someday, when I have time again!). I’ll be bookmarking this to come back to.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “Another writer noted that the reader fills in the gaps, that the lack of plot encourages a more active participation on the part of the reader to make sense of the story.”

    I haven’t thought of that before, but it makes so much sense. I wonder if a lack of plot also means a lack of telling due to a lack of a more ‘directed’ narrative. Since the reader is not being spoon-fed existing plot threads, they are allowed to imagine and interpret what they will.

    Interestingly enough, I find that my imagery and visual descriptions also get much stronger when I write freely. I don’t know why or how, but maybe it comes from the fact that, like your writing group, I wrote dark stuff. For example, my poetry, most of which is free verse and comes out fluidly off the top of my head, is pretty dark. But it’s also instinctual and natural, and maybe reveals more of who I am.

    So, yeah. The key takeaway I got from your very insightful post is that it’s good to break some of these writing rules. Like you said, the best method seems to be “whatever works”. Sometimes you’ll learn the rules, sometimes you learn the rules in order to break them. Just do what works best for you.

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    • There definitely was a lot less telling in the exercise, although these writers don’t do much telling anyways (I’m the big teller of the group, I think.)

      The rules are fun to break because they produce new rules, which turn out to be a bit more difficult than the original rules that we’ve all grown accustomed to. Sometimes you get really terrible results, but I figured we’d learn from this too. Some of us might pull off a rule-break while others don’t, and then we get to discuss why it worked for some and didn’t for others. Everyone learns. (The weird thing is that we’re pretty much all agreed on what works and doesn’t. It’s kind of spooky.)

      And yes, do what works for you. That’s an unhelpful thing to say to someone who’s new to writing, but it ends up becoming true the more you see people breaking the rules successfully. And it’s especially revealing when you see that you can break the rules successfully, or when you see that you not only CAN do it, but also it fits your style better.

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  8. Very cool ideas.

    I like what you did playing around with POV. Actually, I think there are a lot of unexplored styles you or I or whoever could unlock by experimenting.

    I’m currently trying to do this with POV. The last book I tried first person omniscient. This was really fun since it basically required my narrator to be God and because it allowed me to play with filtering things through multiple characters. Bob’s thought, according to the narrator’s subjective opinion, brought to you. I’m working on one right now that takes this to extremes. The story is all in second person, with various “empathetic” characters who can read the thoughts of a single main character, all talking to you. This is fun because I get to make “you” a character in the story. “You” are a very lazy, somewhat cowardly woman whose son addresses you as “Dear Madam” and closes his letters with the phrase “with all duty and submission to your station.” Yeah, fun stuff.

    I can also tell the story through several sets of “empathetic” characters to show interpretation biases. Depending on which empathetic characters you believe, for example, the main protagonist can be either a tough and resourceful survivor, a pustule of corruption or a misguided but good hearted tragedy.

    About the plotless exercises, did you feel like any of them would be viable in a longer format? I ask because evocative sentences with no story is something I tend to run screaming from. 😛

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    • Oddly, I wasn’t thinking all that much about POV when I wrote this. I basically just slammed it out in a few minutes to have something to submit (which is sort of the idea…I didn’t want the exercises to interfere with our novel critiques.)

      On using first person omni…I can’t imagine how that would work. I’d be curious to see it in action. I can see it more for a short story, but who knows. People are writing entire novels in strange POVs. I guess it’s possible to pull it off depending on the story you’re telling.

      I don’t think I could go plotless for long. Eventually there’s got to be a point when the plot is either intended or the reader will make one up OR—the worst—the reader will put down the story and conclude it’s a waste of time. On the other hand, theme can carry the story along and perhaps some authors are capable of pulling it off on a grand scale. I’d want to see a reason for the missing plot, though. The meaning of the story would have to make sense of that incoherence in some way, at least for me.

      I’ve noticed that a great number of the short stories in the New Yorker tend to be what I’d call plotless. Some of them are engaging, but at the end I’m left wondering what the point was. Maybe I just missed something. There were a few fantastic stories as well, but by and large the ones I’ve read this past year have been far to ‘literary’ for literal old me.

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      • “On using first person omni…I can’t imagine how that would work. I’d be curious to see it in action.”

        In Ann Leckie’s Ancillary novels, she pulls off something like it by having a character whose consciousness is distributed among numerous bodies in various physical locations, and later by a starship captain having access to all her crew’s sensory inputs. (Obviously privacy is not a right in the portrayed society, at least not in the military.)

        But I’d also be interested to know about other examples.

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        • Yeah, I can see it working in stories like that. I can’t imagine it so much in realism, but just because I can’t imagine it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I can definitely see it with an unreliable narrator…someone who’s deluded and thinks he’s God? Maybe a surgeon? 🙂 …or if the story is actually being told from God’s point of view. Or if the author simply wants to be present, which is unusual but definitely possible.

          I read a novel (can’t remember the title or author, believe it or not) that was told from the POV of a dead person and in retrospect. I don’t remember whether the story was in first person, though. In that case, the first person omni could work, I would imagine. It could get tricky though. There’d be moments of “I didn’t know this at the time, but…” And that’s really awkward. Perhaps there could be some way of establishing the now-omni-knowledge vs. the then-not-knowing at the beginning?

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          • Awkward, and it seems like it would constantly kick the reader out of the immediacy of the story, even if the narrator announced at the beginning that they would talk about other’s thoughts based on later revelations.

            I think if I wanted omniscient but the closeness of first person with the protagonist (or one of the protagonists), I would probably just switch as needed between first person and third person omni as at scene breaks. There are lots of novels that do it and it seems to work fairly well.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Hahaha, yeah, I call what you see in the New Yorker mfa syndrome. I tend to find it pretentious.

        As for first person omniscient- my narrator is a divinity. He looks into whoever’s head whenever he wants, though I do limit him to one head or place per chapter. It’s pretty fun. It kind of allows me to be 3rd limited when I’m inside a character’s head, 3rd omniscient when I’m describing a giant plant eating conspiracy theorists and first person whenever the narrator wants to hreak the forth wall or get directly involved in the story.

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