As writers, we have come across our fair share of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s.’ Show, don’t tell. Be concise. Watch out for adjectives. Don’t eff up the English language. Make sure you name your characters. You know, the basics.
And, of course, as writers, we know sometimes the difference between writing something good and something great requires us to break those rules. But when is this called for? When does it add to our art instead of taking away? And at what point does ‘creative license’ boldly enter into the ridiculous?
I’m currently reading House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. As ideas tend to do, the topic of this post spawned from the mingling thoughts as I made my way through Danielewski’s bizarre piece of fiction. If you are at all familiar with this gem, no explanation is needed. If not, imagine a regular horror novel and an honors thesis…bound together and then thrown into a meat grinder. Footnotes within footnotes, words upside down on the page, and a shit-load of stream of consciousness.
When reading House of Leaves, it’s hard to tell the difference between genius and a good ‘ole mistake/bad writing. This is because the ‘novel’ is presented as random writings from a regular person: it doesn’t pretend to be the best lines of prose you’ve ever seen. There are literally sentences that take up a whole page. It’s honestly hard to sift through at times, but it creates a sense of the narrator’s garbled mind. I found myself wondering if the author even intends for such passages to be read carefully, or if they are there just for that character effect. It adds a new layer to the story, because now the way the person writes contributes to their personality, whereas with a lot of books, the style of writing is solely credited to the author.
For example, I ran into a typo earlier and had to stop and think about whether it was intentional or not. If so, then it was undoubtedly meant to be another cog in this complex machine of character development. Possibilities began to arise. The narrator appears quite competent, so maybe it is a sign of hastiness? Intoxication? Or maybe it’s just a freakin’ mistake. It makes one wonder how closely those endless lines were edited, or if the author’s intention of providing a sense of raw, unadulterated writing caused it to be left untouched.
It reminds me of when I wrote a short story in the form of journal entries from a man marooned on a desert island. As hysteria settled, his spelling weakened, sentence structure became flimsy, and any sign of good writing flew out the window. It was tough to keep track of what was intentionally bad writing and what wasn’t. I had to balance between creating something authentic and not going so far as to alienate the reader.
But surely there are certain proponents of good story-telling we must adhere to. Right? Or do I hear dissent? Are there any unbreakables? Experience pushes me to say no, but I am also a firm believer that you must have a strong grasp on and understanding of rules before you break them. And when you defy one element, it should be for the purpose of enhancing another. For example, House of Leaves shits on the notion of what makes a good sentence, or even a good thought, but I’m so much more in-tuned with the main character’s internal conflicts because of it.
Now here’s what I want you to do: write something that throws away the rules. How you do it is up to you, but I really want you to experiment with putting pre-conceived notions out the window–yet do them in a smart, meaningful way. Pick an element (or two, or three) that you usually depend on for great writing and turn it upside down. The goal is to carry out your task in a way that ultimately adds to the experience of both the reader and the writer.
However, there are two rules you must not break: 1) have fun 2) let me know how it goes.