Monday, July 4, 2011

Writing Craft vs. Writing Science

If you've spent any time hanging out with writers you've heard about The Rules. Over on Rachelle Gardner's blog she has a good post on Writing Rules written by guest-blogger Rachel Hauck. Unlike many pieces about The Rules, this post doesn't go over the top in either direction and lays out some basic arguments in a clear way.

I liked the post so much, I started writing a comment. Three paragraphs later, I felt my response would be better served as a full blog post.

If you haven't read the post, you should. It's not very long. Go ahead. I'll wait. (And if you don't make it back here, I'll understand. There's some good stuff over there.)

I like the architecture analogy, and I want to take it a step further. For most of history, designing buildings was a craft. Not until recently has it become a science. What's the difference?

In a craft, the knowledge of practitioners is passed down as tenets, maxims, and guidelines: "The ratio of a column to its supported beam must be x." This knowledge is gained by trial and error. This allowed building designers to build strong structures that looked pleasant. The apprentice's buildings looked very similar to the master's, but you didn't have buildings collapsing all over the place.

With the advent of advanced mathematics, physics, material science, and other disciplines, building design moved from a craft to a science. We now know the underlying LAWS that govern the building. We can model new ideas and test them without building the whole thing. We discovered that some of the previous RULES end up being hogwash, some were unnecessarily strict, some were good rules but based on faulty reasoning, but most were good advice and are still followed today.

I propose that fiction writing is a craft. This is why people can ignore the rules and still make it. This is why some advice conflicts with other advice. And since a broken story isn't as dangerous as a broken building, we have many people trying new things and discovering new rules.

I still hold that the rules are important. Not because they are the end-all-be-all of story. But simply because following them will maximize the chance for telling a successful story. After all, they have been handed to us by some of the best masters in the field.

Question: What rules do you think are most important? What rules are hogwash?

* Cathedral picture by Steve Parker can be found on Flickr.


Donna K. Weaver said...

Excellent post, John. Gee, brilliant minds and all that. =D

I wish there was a magic ball to tell me when it's okay to tell rather than show. When it really is okay to use three adverbs on a page because I've jumped through so many hoops NOT to use the dang things but the sentences flow better with them. I've learned so much already. I hope this starts getting easier.

Danyelle Ferguson said...

I love The Rules because they are the foundation of telling a great story. Or at least, that's my humble opinion. Yes, you can break some rules . . . but it seems to me that the people who do and actually get published are those who are already successful authors.

Does following The Rules mean your story has to be predictable? Heck no! It better not be or you'll never get published. =) I loved how in the architecture analogy, she said that once she understood the rules of math and science, it opened up her opportunities to be creative. I think its the same with writing as well.

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

I wrote a post on this very topic yesterday (but have it scheduled for later)
Great post and I agree with you...
and now it looks like I'm going to have to adjust my post to acknowledge yours.

Great stuff John

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

What kills me is that I used the architecture analogy, completely off the top of my it doesn't seem so unique.
That's OK, I also used Ballroom Dancing. I probably won't run into another one of those analogies anytime soon.

John Waverly said...

In case anyone wants to read Shelly's post. I just read it and she makes several good points.

By the way, what is the statute of limitations on movie spoilers? Is 19 years enough time? If not, be warned her post has major movie spoilers. :)

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