Monday, April 2, 2012

Story Rules, Not Rules

I'm knee deep in contest judging at the moment. It's a scary thing - having someone else's baby on your screen and knowing how your comments (and scores!) have the power to encourage, uplift or crush.

I'm judging across three genres and have had a number of excellent entries and there's one thing they all have in common. They make you forget about the rules.

As writers we hear all about the rules. No head-hopping. Little backstory in first 50 pages. Show don't tell. Keep the pace moving. Make your characters real, sympathetic and relatable. Ground the story in the setting.

And don't get me wrong - the rules matter. They exist for a reason and often if you break them the story suffers. My low scoring entries have one thing in common - they've all broken at least one rule so badly that it doesn't matter how great the story may be, I couldn't get past trying to work out whose character's point of view we're meant to be in, or the three pages of backstory that didn't seem to have any point or the never-ending internal monologue to lose myself.

However, when you start reading a really great story you forget about the rules. The story picks you up and sweeps you along and everything else falls away. When you go back and analyze it later you often find a head-hop here or some backstory there but it's irrelevant because there's something about the style, the voice that gives it the X-factor that another story, while technically perfect, doesn't have.

They are the entries that make you pray that they make it to the final round so that you can find out who the writer is so you can contact them and beg for the rest of the manuscript because a week after sending that scoresheet in the story is still resonating.

My two favorite boys are off to visit the Grandparents in a couple of weeks, leaving me with some reading time. So tell me, what was the last book that picked you up and carried you away?


  1. The last one that really worked for me Kara, was a contest entry and I only got to read the first ten pages. Like you, I hope that book makes it onto the shelves, because it's going to be great. The author was a chapter mate of mine, Anna Markland. Watch for her. You won't be sorry.

  2. I agree one hundred per cent. In fact it's rather fun to pick out rules broken here and there yet find it doesn't really bother you because you're hooked. But if they can't reel me in by the first chapter,(I'm patient)then I'll set the book aside.

  3. I'm with Rita in that I'll soon set the book aside if I'm not convinced. Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks was one recently that hooked me from the word go.

  4. The Keeper by Suzanne Woods Fisher. I felt so involved with the story, the family, that I couldn't put the book down.

  5. When I was an English teacher I always told my students, "You have to know the rules before you can break them." I allowed my students to break rules, but they had to explain to me why they had done it.

  6. Amen, Donna. You have to use the rules, but sticking to them mindlessly can result in a story that is too predictable and doesn't engage.

    However, judiciously broken rules can lift a manuscript out of the ordinary.

  7. I think I'd have to say 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' by Khaled Hosseini, Kara, was the one I found hardest to put down in recent years. Really sad, like 'The Kite Runner', but spellbinding.